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Issues raised on aqueduct trail proposal

By Ellen Ishkanian
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2012
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The first public hearing on a proposal to open up trails atop aqueducts in several area communities elicited concerns from Framingham residents who said they already are dealing with trash and other assaults on their privacy from people using the trails even though they are not formally open to the public.

June Joyce, whose house on Potter Road abuts the aqueduct demonstrated the problem by wheeling into the hearing last week a wheelbarrow overflowing with cans, bottles, paper and other trash she said she had collected in two hours that afternoon.

“If they are going to put this into place I have a lot of questions,” she said.

About 60 people showed up at the hearing last Wednesday on the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s plan to open 40 miles of old aqueducts to the public for hiking, biking and walking;

The trails are in several sections in Boston and 13 area communities: Berlin, Clinton, Framingham, Marlborough, Natick, Needham, Newton, Northborough, Sherborn, Southborough, Wayland, Wellesley and Weston.

The MWRA plans to open the trails after local public hearings and approval from the host communities.

State and local officials said last week’s hearing is being used as a “test case” for other municipalities.

“There is no next step set yet,” said Robert L. Merusi, director of Framingham’s Parks and Recreation Department, who is leading the trail-opening effort in the town. “We are going to go back and huddle and see how what we heard fits in with our plans for opening the paths.”

“This was an extraordinarily thoughtful conversation,” said Joel Barrera, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and a member of board of directors of the MWRA who attended the hearing.

The MWRA will now wait for the process to play out in Framingham, according to Ria Convery, spokeswoman for the agency, who said there are no public hearings yet scheduled in any of the other communities.

“We’re looking at Framingham as a pilot so we’re anxious to get this portion up and running so we can see how it goes,” she said

At the hearing last week, several residents said they saw the new plan as an opportunity to get the aqueduct trails in better shape, and state Representative Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat who is a leading proponent of opening the trails, said the problems brought to the hearing can and will be addressed.

Neighbors focused on their concerns, however.

While the aqueducts are officially closed to the public, residents say they are already used by loud “kids” who start campfires and set off firecrackers, use airsoft guns and play paintball, and people on dirt bikes, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vehicles, all of whom leave their trash behind.

Among the questions raised by Joyce and her neighbors were issues of parking, animal control and waste, security, signage, hours of operation, access, enforcement, and cost.

“Are you assuming local people will be the only ones using this, or is there going to be parking?” Joyce asked. “And where will that parking be?”

Residents also questioned whether the trails would be closed at dusk and where access points would be, and expressed concern that their yards would be used by people cutting through to get onto the trails.

Uncontrolled dogs running unleashed and onto private property, professional dog walkers with several dogs, and dog waste left on the trails were also concerns.

Sharon Machlis Gartenberg, who lives along the aqueduct, said she supports the concept if it can be done “in a way that will be respectful of our neighborhood and we can continue to enjoy our yards with the same quiet and privacy that we have now.”

She said people should understand that most of the area being considered is a narrow strip of land with almost no buffer between homeowners’ property lines and public activity.

She asked that signs will be posted to require dogs be leashed and cleaned up after and that if fences now around the aqueduct are removed, they be replaced with ones that have openings wide enough for bikes and people, but not vehicles.

“If this moves forward, and I have any influence, it will all be done incrementally,” Merusi said. “We’ll put things into place and then sit back and watch and see what happens. If we have to make changes, we’ll make changes and then we’ll do a little more.”

Merusi said they may decide after a period of time that they need to designate parking spaces, for example.

Another neighbor, Diane Tehranian, said she is not necessarily opposed to the plan, but questions whether the town can afford any cost associated with it. While the MWRA would continue to mow and maintain the property under the proposal, local municipalities would take on responsibility for keeping the trails clean and providing animal control, security, and emergency response.

“Our taxes already went up. I’m opposed to spending any money on something that is already being used,” she said.

But others saw the town taking some control over the trails as a way to finally get them cleaned up and secured.

“It sounds like there will be opportunities to address the ongoing problems,” said Debbie McCarthy.

Walsh said he envisions the neighborhood and community “taking ownership” of the trails with volunteer groups picking up trash and watching for problems, calling police, and taking action when necessary.

“This was a really important step,” said Walsh. “I didn’t hear anything new, it’s the same concerns, but it’s our job to assure people that we are not going to make all the problems go away, but we are going to address them straight up.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at ishdell@aol.com.

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