Last Thursday night, the Conservation Commission discussed The Trustees of Reservation’s decision to close Chestnut Hill Farm trails. The commission decided that unless the Board of Health disagreed, they should ask TTOR to consider reopening the public parking lot near the trails entrance.
As of today, TTOR rejected the request. The Trustees’ have decided to keep all of their properties closed with no exceptions. The response to Southborough’s Conservation Agent also noted specific concerns about the Southborough property:
Of note, the property/lot was overflowing the past few weekends and our farm staff commented on how close people were walking to each other, at least near the parking lot and entrance trails. They also commented how several dogs were brought to the farm (something not permitted in the CR nor by our farm’s food safety protocol). Other open spaces and conservation land have also taken this safety measure including Mass Audubon and certain state parks. Due to this concentrated volume, there’s no certainty that we can provide a safe place for visitors to enjoy while maintaining a safe distance from each other at these locations.
As pointed out by one Commission member last week, that closure only seems to apply to those who don’t live close enough to walk there.
Commission member Judith Watson said that the closing announcement from TTOR was confusing. Despite stating that properties are closed, the message appears to give permission to use them to those who live close by. Watson was referring to this section:
We recognize that many of our properties are without gates and are within safe walking distance from others and could be safely visited within the parameters of the Governor’s directive. We ask that those who choose to visit those properties be respectful, follow guidelines about litter, safety, and dog behavior.
Commission member Benjamin Smith introduced the CHF trails topic last week. He was dismayed by what he saw as mistakes made by TTOR.
Smith noted that Public Health officials have recommended outdoor recreation like trail use. Both parking lots at Breakneck Hill had been full on weekdays and cars lined the streets the prior weekend. With lack of sidewalks in town, he opined that TTOR’s decision caused more of a hazard by pushed residents onto narrow roads.
Smith also questioned the property owner’s unilateral authority to close trails on the land. Smith said residents payed millions of dollars for a Conservation Restriction to protect their right to use the land.* He read the CR as requiring permission from ConCom to close the trail.
Conservation Aging Melissa Danza disagreed about the authority. She pointed to a CR clause that gives TTOR the right to close trails temporarily “to ensure public safety”.** After Smith looked at that clause, he noted that it states that right is “in consultation with Grantee”. He took that as meaning that they should have been consulted before the decision was made, not notified after.
Danza explained that the decision was made by TTOR across their properties. As soon as the farm was notified, a representative reached out to her. According to Danza, the specific concerns at the farm trails were based on narrow sections that don’t allow for walkers crossing paths to maintain enough distance. They were also concerned about protecting farm workers, including those living on the farm.
Commission member Russell Gregory questioned how trail users would endanger them. He didn’t believe that the groups would interact.
Watson reinforced that MassDCR had only closed indoor facilities or those that required staffing. The state kept open state parks and trails like Hopkinton State Park.
Chair Mark Possemato said TTOR’s decision to allow nearby residents to use the trails was problematic. He opined that if the trail is closed, it should be closed to everyone, not based on where they live in Town.
Smith asked for the commission to urge TTOR to reopen parking near the trail entrance and keep it open unless Departments of Public Health issue new guidelines.
Commission member Carl Guyer said he didn’t want to dismiss TTOR’s concerns about safety on their properties.
Possemato advised that they reach out to the Southborough Board of Health for input on the safety issue. He didn’t want to be responsible for keeping things open that pose a safety risk. If the Board of Health opined that the trails weren’t safe, then they may want to consider also closing Breakneck Hill and Beals Preserve.
Danza promised to follow up. If Board of Health wasn’t against trail use, she would reach out to TTOR to ask them to reconsider.
I followed up with Danza to find out what came of her outreach. Danza said that she didn’t get specific feedback from Board of Health on trails less than 6 feet wide. Instead, she got general guidance that using trails is a good way for the public to stay healthy.
Following that, she contacted TTOR. As I noted above, the request was denied. You can click here to read the full text of TTOR’s response that Danza shared.
*In 2006, Southborough Town meeting approved funding $4.5 million for a Conservation Restriction on the 109 acre property. 33% was through a $1.65M bond and the remainder was through Community Preservation Act funds. Another $575,000 was contributed by Sudbury Valley Trustees and the Southborough Open Land Foundation. The vote predates the blog, but was covered by Metrowest Daily News in their January 22, 2006 issue. That May, they covered the CR being closed.
**You can click here to read the Conservation Restriction from the Town’s website. The passage on page 13 gives TTOR “the Grantors” the right to close the trails is under VIII. c) 4. (I copied and highlighted that to the right. You can click the thumbnail to enlarge.)
Updated (3/31/20 8:53 am): In the 5th paragraph, I initially referred to “the message from TTOR”. Since a more recent message was quoted directly above, that could be confusing to readers. So, I replaced that with “the closing announcement from TTOR”.