Belchertown Land Trust seeks to transfer ownership of trails in light of impending fines Reply

In order to help preserve its landholdings for future generations,  the Belchertown Land Trust (BLT) Board of Directors met with the Belchertown Conservation Commission on Monday, July 23, to discuss the possibility of transferring portions of the Trust’s property, primarily the sections of the recreation trail, to the town of Belchertown.

This was triggered by action being taken by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation in regards to the Swift River’s Upper Bondsville Dam, which is owned by the Trust.  In a letter to the BLT, DCR stated that, starting August 2, 2012, fines in the amount of $500 per day, per violation, are going to be levied against the BLT.  This is in response to a Certificate of Non-Compliance and Dam Safety Order issued by DCR’s Office of Dam Safety (ODS) on February 22, 2008 because of the dam’s poor condition and poses a significant hazard to life and property downriver.

The Office of Dam Safety lagged in its enforcement of their own regulation. In a 2009 letter to BLT extending their original deadline to bring the dam into compliance or have it removed, ODS stated , after area state legislators stepped in, that they were required to bring the Upper Bondsville Dam into compliance or remove it by November 2010.  It is unknown why ODS waited until 2012 to notify BLT that they will be levying fines given the threat that the dam poses to life and property downriver.

Perhaps the reason for the delay in action can be gleaned from a 2011 state auditor report that stated that the ODS was under-staffed and under-funded.

The Massachusetts FY 2013 budget for the Office of Dam Safety is only $354,153, which is slightly up from ODS’ previous year’s budget of $290,151. When ODS issued its order of non-compliance to the owners of Upper Bondsville Dam, the budget for ODS was about $1.4 million.

A series of engineering studies have affirmed that the dam is still a significant hazard and in poor condition.  If $500/day fines are imposed, the BLT says that they have limited funds, which will quickly be exhausted and the organization will be forced to go out of existence. For this reason, the BLT is taking action to ensure that the land that it owns, that are not associated with the dam, are protected in perpetuity for the citizens of Belchertown.

A couple of years ago, the BLT was awarded a grant to determine what funding sources exist for either repair or removal of the dam.  Cost estimates in engineering studies place the cost for repair at approximately $360,000, with an annual maintenance expense of approximately $5,000, or removal at $366,000.

In neither case does the BLT have the funds available to undertake these efforts and there are very limited funding opportunities available for dam repair, either through government or private funding sources, as identified in a study conducted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission for the BLT.  There were a number of funding sources that would help underwrite removing the dam and returning the river to its natural habitat.

In addition, a lawsuit was brought against the BLT on April 2, 2011, by the Swift River Preservation Association and landowners on the river asking the court to stop the BLT from removing the dam, which limited the BLT from taking action to resolve this issue. This lawsuit was withdrawn by the plaintiffs on June 5, 2012, following a conference by both parties with the judge presiding over the case.

Over the years, the BLT has worked closely with other organizations to develop and clear parts of the recreation trail that extends from Franklin Street in South Belchertown to Bay Road.  With CPA funding, the BLT has surveyed and cleared sections so that they can be used for hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders and snowmobiles through all four seasons.  The BLT also was able to coordinate a $1.5 million cleanup of hazardous materials along the Swift River that had been caused by years of manufacturing processes, returning the site to its original condition.

“We regret having to take this step,” said BLT President Ed Comeau, “but we feel obligated to protect the portions of the recreation trail that we have been entrusted with so that it can be enjoyed by citizens of Belchertown for years to come.  We realize that the DCR is fulfilling its obligation to ensure public safety, but as a small, volunteer organization, we simply do not have the resources to meet their requirements.  With over 3,000 dams in the state, our situation is not unique and this is certainly a pressing problem, statewide.  We have had state legislators working on our behalf to try and find a resolution, which we greatly appreciate, but we have reached a critical juncture.  Preserving recreation and conservation land is why the BLT was formed and this appears to be our best option at this point to fulfill our obligation.”

More information on the Upper Bondsville Dam, including the engineering studies, the order from the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety, a study conducted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, a timeline of events regarding the dam and a list of Frequently Asked Questions is available on the BLT’s web site at www.BelchertownLandTrust.org.

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