Your government at work: keeping you away from nature

Citing statutory “interests,” the Newton Conservation Commission has closed the hiking trail along the Charles River just downstream from Hemlock Gorge in Waban. Near the river with views of aquatic wildlife, the narrow trail had been enjoyed by residents for many decades. The Commission has replaced it with a newly blazed trail four feet wide that features views of Quinobequin Road. It is not yet clear what what perils have been averted, what has been protected, or what benefits will accrue to society as a result of this action.

The Newton Conservation Commission should not be confused with the volunteer Newton Conservators, who have a lovely page of photos of Hemlock Gorge. Click here to see them.

The following are reprints of relevant news articles on the issue, as well as a relevant letter to the editor. Links to the original are provided where they exist.

Reworked Quinobequin Road walking trails raises concerns

Newton Upper Falls resident Jerry Reilly has shared with us a letter he says he sent to Newton Conservation Commission last Thursday. “[I] haven’t heard a thing, not even a we-received-your-note-and-we’ll-look-into-it response.”

Dear Conservators,

I’m a resident of Upper Falls and quite often (at least a few times a week in good weather) walk the trails in the strip of woods between Quinnobequin Rd and the river. It’s a beautiful walk.

I was out there today and was bewildered to find the trail completely blocked with piles of freshly cut brush. After climbing around and through the blocked trail I came upon a very pleasant work crew who were doing trail work. I asked them what they were doing and they described in detail the trail work.

In a nutshell, they told me that they were moving the trail back from the water per instructions of the Newton Conservation Commission. They said that they had just finished cutting one portion of the new trail (starting about a 1/2 mil from Rt 9 heading N) and I could try it out. They also said they were going to be putting in a new trail from there up to Rt 9 that would be right inside the guardrail on Qunnobequin Rd.

I took them up on the offer and walked the new trail. The main difference between the two trails is that the old trail was a pleasant walk along the river. The new trail is a walk with no visibility of the river and never gets out of site of the busy Quinnobequin Rd. At points it veers a bit away from the road but never far enough to either give you a sense of being away from roads and never close enough to know that there’s a river near by.

Much worse is the apparent plan to replace one of the loveliest walks in Quinnobequin (the first 1/2 mile from Rt9) with a trail that sounds suspiciously like an unpaved side walk on a busy road.

Every aspect of this initiative had me completely mystified and appalled.

  • It’s DCR park land intended for the enjoyment of the public. The essence of its appeal to the public is that it is alongside the river. With the new trail configuration the river might as well not exist.
  • The other essential goal of parks is to give the public a respite from the busy world around us. With the new trails you’re never out of site of speeding traffic.
  • In the name of “protecting the river” lots of tree’s are being cut, undergrowth disturbed, etc to build inferior trails to replace much better existing trails.
  • With a fraction of the work from your hard working crew, the old trails could (and should) have been substantially improved with far less disruption to the park.
  • “Protecting the river” – The only justification I’ve heard so far for this project is ridiculous on the face of it. The single best way to protect the river and the park is to encourage the citizenry to responsibly use the park. As soon as people begin using the park, they begin valuing and protecting it. This dynamic can be see over and over again in place after place. I was speaking to someone a few months ago who leads the annual clean up of Cutler Park. In the last 10 years or so, the DCR opened up a lot of that previously inaccessible wetlands on the river flood plain land with a few carefully placed foot bridges and some modest trail work. When they first opened it up they were hauling huge amounts of trash, everything from bottles and cups to refrigerators and abandoned cars. Now, with regular public use there’s no comparison, the situation has infinitely improved.

I can personally attest to this same dynamic. When I walk in Quinnobequin I bring a plastic bag with me and bring home any trash I find along the way.

Even more mystifying about the “protecting the river” rationale is that we are talking only about hiking on foot. What possible significant damage to the river do relatively small number of hikers on a river side trail pose? When you juxtapose those hikers with the thousands and thousands of cars that cross back and forth over the river a mile or two down stream, the idea of hiker damage to the river is laughable.

Please be clear that I both understand and support the general mission of the Conservation Commission. Probably more than the average person, I support and am involved with efforts to protect our ever dwindling and endangered natural resources. Probably the single biggest factor in my personal support of these efforts is due to my getting out into nature whenever I can. By blocking off the local neighbors access to the river rather than encouraging that access, I believe the Conservators are unwittingly undermining their own mission.

If they haven’t already, I would strongly urge all of the commissioners to walk the length of both the old and new Quinnobequin trails and then re-open and improve the old existing trails. I’d be happy to give you a guided tour if you like.

Jerry Reilly
Newton Upper Falls

Residents upset over new walking trail in Waban

By Chloe Gotsis/Staff Writer Wicked Local Newton
Posted Jun 28, 2011 @ 04:08 PM Last update Jun 28, 2011 @ 05:59 PM


PHOTO BY ALEX JONES Ward 5 Alderman Deb Crossley and state Rep. Kay Khan, D-Newton, look at a walking trail off of Quinobequin Road in Upper Falls Friday afternoon.

Newton —

Local nature lovers were upset to discover this month that one of their favorite wooded strolling spots has been moved away from the Charles River and closer to the busy Quinobequin Road in Waban.

“What they’ve done is turn a walk in the woods into an unpaved sidewalk,” said Jerry Reilly, an Upper Falls resident, after discovering his favorite trail had been blocked off by brush.

“What a grotesque joke,” Marjorie Arons-Barron, who has been walking on the old trail for 30 years, said after discovering the trail was moved by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, under the approval of the Conservation Commission, to one farther up that is less in the woods and with little view of the Charles River.

 “The new trail is just a stone’s throw from Quinobequin Road traffic and has [a] decidedly urban feel to it as the cars whiz by,” Arons-Barron wrote on the Newton TAB blog. “The exit from the new trail onto the road occurs at a blind curve in the road, belching walkers into the oncoming traffic, with no advance warning to either.”

But while residents like Reilly and Arons-Barron are hoping the old trail can be restored, DCR says it is done working on the new trail and it has achieved its goal of making a clear designated path near the road and not in violation of flood plains.

“We have nothing else planned for the summer on that trail,” said SJ Port, spokeswoman for the DCR. “We wanted to make a clear and designated path that was not on the road but near the road and wasn’t on any flood plains and met the needs of that area and we think we’ve done that.”

Port said DCR started working on the trail late last April after Newton’s Conservation Commission approved its plan.

Anne Phelps, the city’s senior environmental planner, said DCR approved the commission with a plan to widen the existing trail in April. But Phelps said the commission asked DCR to come up with an alternative because the proposal encroached on wetlands and vegetative land.

DCR returned to the commission on April 29 with a revised plan to move the path farther up the slope to an area that didn’t border on any wetlands. The plan also cut down the walking path from the proposed 3-miles to 1.5 miles, Phelps said.

The commission’s job, Phelps said, is to protect the wetlands and abide by the Wetlands Protection Act, not to preserve walking trails used for recreation.

“The Wetlands Protection Act doesn’t actually have a provision for recreation,” she said. “The goal for the act is to protect these areas for a variety of resources but recreation isn’t one of them. There’s just nothing in the law that says if people want to build a trail that says that’s necessarily going to meet the goals of the act.”

Deb Crossley, a Ward 5 alderman, told the Newton TAB on a walking tour of the old and new trails, which are located near Hemlock Gorge, that she wants to see what the best “pathway that people can enjoy that won’t destroy the wetlands” is.

Reilly told the TAB that he took 15 residents on a walking tour of both trails last weekend, including Crossley and Alderman Brian Yates, and the majority of people said they preferred the old path over the new.

“The original path was along the river and as far [from the] road as possible in most places and you have the feeling you are walking in the woods in nature and you see the river,” Reilly said. “The new trails are mostly alongside the road and you can always see the road and the river might as well not exist.”

Staff writer Chloe Gotsis can be reached at 781-433-8333 or at [email protected]

Copyright 2011 Newton TAB. Some rights reserved

Hepburn: Wetlands protection and the Quinobequin Road walking trail

By Judith Hepburn/Guest Column
Wicked Local Newton
Posted Jun 29, 2011 @ 06:00 AM

Original: unavailable

Newton —

In a recent op-ed article, the writer suggested his preference for a different outcome and a better process for the Conservation Commission’s approval of the walking trail along Quinobequin Road. We welcome this interest as well as the writer’s words of support for the work of the commission, which is sometimes misunderstood. We appreciate this opportunity to explain our decision as well as the process we are required to use.

First, a bit of history. Wetlands used to be called ‘swamps’ back when they were viewed as worthless land—they were only good if ‘reclaimed’ and developed. As their value became better understood, a variety of laws have been passed to protect wetlands and to regulate what can and cannot occur in their vicinity.

The city of Newton passed a Floodplain Ordinance in the 1960s. Massachusetts adopted its Wetlands Protection Act in 1972, adding the Rivers Protection Act in 1996. These laws, and the regulations that support them, give first-level responsibility for enforcement to Conservation Commissions. They also spell out the “interests” that must guide our decisions. These interests include protection of public and private water supplies, groundwater, wildlife habitat, and prevention of flooding and storm damage.

In this respect, the Conservation Commission is somewhat different from other city commissions.  We are appointed by the city and manage Newton’s conservation land. But we also have responsibilities to the commonwealth and must follow a process the state defines and make our decisions within a narrow set of defined “interests.”

Recently, the commission was approached by the state Department of Recreation and Conservation (DCR) for approval to widen the trail along Quinobequin Road and to link it to segments of the Charles River Pathway south of Rt. 9 and north of Rt. 16. Because some of the proposed work was in riverfront areas protected by law and included wetlands and floodplain, the Conservation Commission had specific “interests” to enforce.

DCR’s interest, of course, is in maintaining and improving state parklands. As we worked with their representative, we sought ways to balance their interests with ours. This resulted in modifications of their original plan to divide it into phases, reduce the amount of vegetation to be cut and shift the work away from the wetlands where it traversed sensitive areas.

With these changes, the project was approved at our April 28 meeting. DCR seemed satisfied with the path they were getting, since it would be everywhere four feet wide, would now continue right up to Rt. 9, and would be much less steep in that section.

Because the process is not familiar to most people and the regulations are complex, it is typical for applicants to meet with city staff to seek counsel in the early stages of a project. This is done to assist applicants so their interests can be served as much as possible while, at the same time, meeting the requirements of wetlands laws. This can lead to compromises on both sides.

But whatever our personal preferences, what we cannot compromise is the integrity of the wetlands we are charged with protecting under the state laws. And we cannot set different standards for private and public projects. Protecting our wetlands, wherever they are, requires consistent rules and enforcement. And the Newton Conservation Commission does its best to make that happen.

Judith Hepburn serves on the Newton Conservation Commission. She lives in Waban.

A letter from Friends member Lee Fisher in response to Ms. Hepburn

Dear Ms. Gotsis [author of the Tab article above],

The irony of Judith Hepburn’s column on the Newton Conservation Commission’s decision on the Quinobequin Road walking trail is that she never explains the rationale for moving an old existing trail away from the riverside. She explains in detail the history of wetlands protection, her legal authority to make the decision, and the process used to deny the landowner’s first proposal and force a modification. But nowhere does she explain why the first DCR proposal caused damage to her statutory “interests.”

The reader is left wondering if true risks to groundwater, wildlife habitat, and/or flood damage were avoided, or if in fact this ruling demonstrates the pendulum of floodplain protection swinging far from what informed common sense would conclude.

For example, on a fast moving river with high mud banks I believe the roots of riverside vegetation form an important role in erosion control and hence deserve to be protected from the soil compaction of trails. But along this nearly flat stretch of the Charles, overgrown on the south end with thorny scrub brush and trees choked by massive poison ivy vines, no such impact can be imagined. It is a jungle of competing vegetation with no riverbank erosion.

I hear that the trailblazers were volunteers from the Student Conservation Association, a laudable group that helps organizations like the DCR improve parklands nation wide. What is the lesson for them in building a roadside trail that few will want to use?

The public deserves an explanation from NCC of the reasoning behind this decision and reconsideration to allow DCR to keep the old trail open too.  After walking this area today to see the situation first hand, it appears that connecting the new higher trail with the old riverside trail could form a nice loop.  Completed in this manner, something good could come out of Jerry Reilly’s advocacy for this area – more people may come to enjoy this long-neglected asset and appreciate the success of our parkland and floodplain protection programs.