The proposed extension of the Minuteman Bikeway, which after 17 years of quiet planning erupted into a local issue of unprecedented intensity, was interred by a Special Town Meeting vote late Monday night – a vote that was not close.
The 537-537 tally was well short of the two-thirds minimum required to authorize the town to acquire easements needed to execute the extension from Loomis Street to a few hundred yards short of the Concord line.
Monday’s meeting closes the books on a transportation project that was first proposed in 2004. It also culminates an unprecedented grass-roots campaign opposing what was perceived to be the destruction of a natural resource.
The issue actually began with unexpected twists in what was a linear process expected to lead to the construction of the bikeway along what is now the Reformatory Branch Trail.
About a year ago, a title search revealed that – contrary to decades of assumptions – portions of the trail remained privately owned. Town officials and owners negotiated to exchange most of the segments, but some owners declined, leaving eminent domain as the sole option.
Last March, Annual Town Meeting approved $1.5 million to purchase the easements. But a companion article authorizing acquisition required a two-thirds minimum because of the inclusion of eminent domain. More than 60 percent approved, but that wasn’t enough.
That vote resulted in the withdrawal of $11 million in state funding for the extension, although the agency that allocates the transportation grants declared its receptivity to restore the money if Town Meeting reverses its decision.
The Select Board decided to retry and voted the identical proposal onto the fall Town Meeting warrant. Town officials launched a public information campaign that featured community meetings and exhibits, private conversations with abutters, and a wide-ranging website.
But the issue took on a life of its own with both sides claiming the environmental high road. Each side had a support group, active on social media. Lawn signs proliferated. The discussion penetrated other aspects of community life.
The climax came on Monday night when almost 1,200 voters signed in, filling folding chairs and bleachers in the Bedford High School gymnasium and the nearby cafeteria. The Select Board, anticipating the turnout, announced several weeks ago the unusual venue.
There were two companion articles about the fire station site included on the warrant by petitioners. Town Meeting dispatched them in about a half-hour; they were the undercard, not the main event.
Emily Mitchell, Select Board chair, opened that headliner a few minutes after 9 p.m. on Monday night with a presentation similar to the one she delivered at Annual Town Meeting. She said the proposed “safe, shared, car-free path” fulfills community goals of accessibility, and safe connections between neighborhoods and schools. The overall project features a segregated shared-use lane on Railroad Avenue, drainage improvements on Railroad and Commercial Street, and an underpass at Route 62.
“The project has always been Bedford-initiated and Bedford-led,” Mitchell asserted, recounting that town officials successfully applied for state funding in 2010, which was also the year that Town Meeting approved an asphalt surface on the extension.
Following Annual Town Meeting, Mitchell said, the Select Board “received many messages of support and concern” and decided to resurrect the article for the fall. She stressed that the easements are necessary not only to extend the bikeway but also to ensure access to underground utilities.
Color-coded aerial photographs of the route displayed on a giant screen at the west end of the gym indicated that easements are needed along almost the entire route from Winchester Drive to Hartwell Road and from Lavender Lane to Concord Road, as well as on the west side of Route 62. She acknowledged that the project would mean the loss of trees, but added that there will be replacement trees and the canopy eventually will return.
Representatives of other boards and committees voiced their support for the project: the Transportation Advisory, Bicycle Advisory, Trails, and Energy and Sustainability committees, and the Planning and Health boards. The article also was endorsed by Mothers Out Front and the League of Women Voters. The extension is “a significant regional transportation infrastructure improvement project,” said Transportation Chair Dawn Lafrance-Linden. “We should get it over the finish line.”
The town Arbor Resources Committee recommended disapproval. The project will “result in significant loss of mature trees and contribute to a significant backlog of replacement trees,” said member Deb Edinger. The plan also “highlights serious weaknesses in town tree policy,” she said.
For about an hour, speakers took turns addressing the issue from four microphones in different sections of the gym. The positions were almost evenly divided. Several of the strongest opponents were abutters to or neighbors near the route; several strong proponents were avid cyclists. But there were exceptions. Here are some of the comments:
- Cordula Buege of Winchester Drive said the current trail is “in excellent condition for walking and biking” as many as 300 days a year.
- James Szabo of Dunster Road said the proposal “turns a private wooded path into a paved roadway for high-speed commuter bicycles.” He added that only the Reformatory Branch and Narrow Gauge trails are suitable for runners “where you don’t have to worry about tripping over a root and getting hit in the head by a branch.”
- John Goding of Brooksbie Road said, “This jewel that we have – we need to save it for the future of Bedford.”
- Former Planning Board member Robert Fagan said the Minuteman Bikeway is “an unparalleled commuter path and we should leap at the chance to extend it.” It will facilitate safe travel for children, he said, stressing that the trail is a community, not a private, resource.
- Rich Daugherty of Elm Street asked voters to support the extension because it could benefit the town for the long term, the “commonwealth of Bedford.”
- Daisy Girifalco, proprietor of the Bedford Children’s Center, contiguous to the route at its junction with Concord Road, predicted disruption of her day-to-day business by construction.
- Leonard Goodman of Railroad Avenue pointed out that he would have to cross the shared-use path when using his driveway.
- Howard Rubenstein said he has ridden the Reformatory Branch trail hundreds of times on a mountain bike; paving it would “make it available to more people in the town.” Cyclist Dan Hurwitz of Liljegren Way agreed.
- Melinda Ballou of Caribou Street said that although she opposed the plan initially; “over time I have heard thoughtful comments from others. Let’s think outside of our current frame.”
- Lori Eggert, a Conservation Commission member and project abutter, asserted that “land-taking should be used for essential projects. A bicycle highway used mostly for recreation does not meet the criteria.” She projected photos of bucolic scenes along the route.
- Steven Horner of North Road stated, “This is only an extension of an already accessible path.”
- Ted Werth of Fern Way said the town should retain the trail as an alternative to the “very different experience” of the Minuteman Bikeway.
- Corinne Doud of Redcoat Road stated, “Equity of access is a crucial part of opportunities for others to enjoy natural spaces.” She added that it would be prudent to address Railroad Avenue drainage issues now as they will worsen as climate change continues.
- Leah Devereaux, noting her husband is a victim of ALS, said, “We all are one diagnosis or accident away from needing accommodations for accessibility.”
- Scot Shaw of South Road, a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee, described teaching his daughter to ride with training wheels and plenty of space on the Minuteman Bikeway.
- Chad Haering of Hayden Lane said, “You can ride to Concord right now. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing to do.”
At 10:50 p.m., Town Moderator Mark Siegenthaler asked voters who were lined up to speak to consider if they had something new to add, and encouraged brevity. Less than 15 minutes later, with calls of “vote” emanating from parts of the hall, the moderator said it is time to move to a vote.
A short time later, voters in the gym and cafeteria were led up section-by-section to cast their secret ballots. Many people left after voting, before the results were announced at around midnight. Siegenthaler announced the article was defeated on the 537-537 vote. He quickly brought this memorable Special Town Meeting to adjournment.