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December 23, 2004
Wrubel: State threatens Western Greenway
By Roger Wrubel
The Western Greenway consists of more than 1,000 acres of undeveloped land in Waltham, Lexington and Belmont. The individual land parcels in the greenway have remained interconnected, even with the recent increase in development pressure in eastern Massachusetts, because local advocates have been largely successful in limiting new development to already-built parcels. Large developments have been approved at the former Metropolitan State Hospital (Met State), McLean Hospital, and the former Middlesex County Hospital (MCH) and are mostly restricted to the entirely or partially abandoned hospital campuses.
This good record of “smart development” – redeveloping built parcels while preserving the few remaining green spaces – may be about to change. A high-quality and historic 54-acre open space in Lexington (47.5 acres) and Waltham (6.5 acres), which is an essential part of the Western Greenway, is now threatened with sale and development.
The parcel, known as “Lot 1,” was created in 1996 when the land of Middlesex County Hospital was divided between private interests, the state and the city of Waltham. Lot 1 is a state-owned parcel that is an integral part of the Western Greenway, joining the northern ring of the greenway, from Habitat to Met State, with the Chester Brook corridor running south to the Paine and Lyman estates in Waltham. The connection between Met State and Middlesex County Hospital is tenuous because of development along Woburn/Walnut Street. But Lot 1 still connects to the western edge of the Met State property and maintains this link in the greenway. The open space at Met State is protected and under the control of the state Department of Conservation Resources.
Lot 1 is prime conservation land. There is no degradation from industrial or municipal activity, but its long history of agricultural use is evident. There are ruins of former farmsteads beside an old colonial road, Bow Street, which was the main east-west byway before the wetlands along what is now Trapelo Road were filled. The stone walls that lined part of the roadway are in surprisingly good condition. Beside Bow Street, almost hidden in the woods is an old granite town boundary marker with a “W” on one side and an “L” on the other. Stone walls indicating former property and pasture boundaries run through the parcel.
Lot 1 has two meadows that are becoming overgrown and some very healthy pine and oak/hickory stands similar in quality to the woods at Habitat, McLean or Met State. Along the western edge of the property near the Brookhaven retirement complex is an unusual series of wetlands pools, some of which are definitely vernal pools.
Recently, the Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM), the state agency that holds unassigned state property, informed officials in Lexington that they intend to auction Lot 1 to the highest bidder. In 2003 DCAM was given almost unlimited power to declare state properties surplus and sell them without other state agencies or local communities having any right to acquire them for public use. Since then, DCAM has been hard at work auctioning state lands at a rapid rate. Its goal is to raise as much money as possible and the agency appears to have no regard for the long-term value of some of the properties to the citizens of Massachusetts.
Last August, DCAM was chastised in a Boston Globe editorial [“Rushing land sale,” Aug. 31] for selling a 28-acre parcel, with high conservation value, in Williamsburg in Hampshire County, to a developer rather than allowing Mass. Audubon and the town time to raise money to buy the property. The Boston Globe commented: “the state lost a chance to work with the town and Audubon on an alternative that would have kept the parcel completely preserved. It is bad enough that the state has cut back drastically on its use of the environmental bond bill to protect open land. It should not be hurrying to sell open land it already owns.”
A few weeks ago, at the height of fall season, I bushwhacked through the woods to a spot just below Scott Road in Lexington, and perched myself on a glacial erratic (a big rock). Before me was an open, mature, oak/hickory forest, and a stone wall running west, then turning 90 degrees to the south. It is a very neat, secluded and calming spot. Birds were abundant. I just sat quietly and watched their activity as they flittered through the filtered light, tree branches and around the tree trunks. Within a short time, flickers, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and a whole host of others happened by. This is a very peaceful place, not exactly what I think of as “surplus land.”
I believe Lot 1 must be preserved intact because it is an essential link in the regional Western Greenway and because it is a high quality natural habitat that is rare and getting rarer in our region. Opposition to the sale of Lot 1 is not a case of “no development in my backyard.” The local communities have accepted and approved several large new developments in the greenway, but on already built land, including but not limited to: 378 units at Met State; 260 units at Middlesex County Hospital; and 578 units at McLean. More are being planned.
It is smart to allow dense development on previously developed sites and to preserve neighboring high-quality open spaces for all to enjoy. It is not smart to promote shortsighted actions that have one-time gains with long-term irreversible consequences.
From what I have been able to learn, officials of all the local greenway communities support preservation of Lot 1 and the state should be listening to them. In November the Waltham City Council passed a resolution asking the mayor to take action to acquire the part of Lot 1 in Waltham. Lexington citizens are putting a question on their spring Town Meeting warrant, asking their selectmen to take action to prevent the sale of the Lot 1. Officials at the Department of Conservation Resources have expressed to me their desire that Lot 1 be transferred to them as conservation land. So far DCAM is unmoved.
What can you do? Write or call Donald Perini, Commissioner, DCAM, 100 Ashburton Place, Boston, MA 02108, 617-727-4050, [email protected]; and Doug Foy, Secretary, Office of Commonwealth Development, 100 Cambridge St., Suite 1010, Boston, MA, 02114, 617-573-1380, [email protected], to express your support for preservation of all of Lot 1 at Middlesex County Hospital.
Roger Wrubel is a Belmont resident and the director of the Mass. Audubon Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont.