Less than two weeks before Special Town Meeting convenes to decide the issue, an abutter to the Reformatory Branch Trail has introduced a new wrinkle to the proposed extension of the Minuteman Bikeway.
Jim Eggert of Bonnievale Drive, speaking during the “public comment” section of Wednesday’s virtual Conservation Commission meeting, asserted that the construction infringes on conservation land at four locations.
“I think the Conservation Commission needs to make sure this is resolved before the project is allowed to go forward,” Eggert said.
However, the issue wasn’t on the commission’s agenda, and Chair Steve Hagan said it will be added to the next meeting’s agenda – on Nov. 16.
By then, it is expected that voters will have decided whether to authorize the Select Board to acquire easements needed to complete construction of the extension. That authorization did not reach the required two-thirds minimum support at Annual Town Meeting last March, essentially killing the long-planned bikeway project.
For decades it was understood that the Reformatory Branch trail, which is an abandoned railroad bed, was owned by the town. But as the bikeway extension plans neared completion, a final title search revealed that portions are actually on private property.
The town negotiated with the owners for purchase, based on appraised valuations, and Annual Town Meeting approved allocating $1.5 million in community preservation funds to cover the cost. The authorization article covers not only these transactions but also acquisition by eminent domain if necessary. That’s the reason for the two-thirds requirement.
The Select Board subsequently included the identical authorization proposal on the Special Town Meeting warrant. It is the final of 10 articles, and discussion could continue from the opening session on Nov. 14 into the following night before a vote.
Eggert is the spouse of Lori Eggert, a member of the Conservation Commission, who said at Wednesday’s meeting she recused herself from the issue. Lori Eggert vacated the Zoom screen and could be seen leaving the room as Jim Eggert appeared and made his point during the three-minute comment period allowed.
Eggert pointed out that the conservation lands, which are between Concord and Hartwell Roads adjacent to the trail, are in a similar situation as the privately-owned parcels, and he projected on the screen a section of the construction plans that he said shows a segment of conservation land extending almost halfway across the paved area.
“You have multiple violations of conservation law,” he alleged.
Conservation Administrator Jeffrey Summers commented that “we need something in writing as to what exactly we are going to be reviewing.” Hagan added, “I know there is a lot of conservation land on the far side donated to the town as well as purchased. If this is in writing, it will make it crisper when we go over this.”
Jim Eggert also said he was the one who discovered about a month ago that construction plans at the western extremity of the trail in Bedford impacted “priority habitat.” According to the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, “Priority Habitat is based on the known geographical extent of habitat for all state-listed rare species, both plants and animals, and is codified under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.”
“The town, to its credit, had the engineering firm change the plans,” Eggert said, adding, “These plans have not been received by the Conservation Commission.”
Eggert’s Bonnievale Drive neighbor, Gabriel Miano, used the public comment segment to read a statement charging that by declining to reopen a notice-of-intent hearing to consider this change, “the town is attempting to subvert the democratic process.”
The original notice of intent was approved in error by the Conservation Commission last January, he said. Proposed changes, “purportedly to reduce the limits of work and resolve the issue,” were determined by “the town” to be minor. “This is wrong,” Miano said.
Miano quoted from the original orders of condition: “Any change made or intended to be made in the plans or documents shall require submission to the commission for review.” He added, “Even if the new proposal is beneficial, the commission’s review is still mandated and must by regulation occur at public meetings.”
“The issue must be put on the public agenda before Special Town Meeting,” the statement declared. (The statement has been published as a letter to the editor of The Citizen.)
Hagan as chair could see the names of attendees at the virtual meeting, and he said he was surprised there were no other requests to speak.
“There are people for and against the project who are dialed in tonight,” he noted. “The next key vote is Town Meeting. It’s going to end up being more important than what we’re doing.”