Belchertown Land Trust donates trails and $12,000 in supporting funds to town Reply

The Belchertown Land Trust is donating approximately 2.75 miles of trails to the town of Belchertown, according to a recent press release from the organization. They are also donating $12,000 to the Belchertown Community Preservation Committee (CPC) to help with the maintenance of the trails that extend from Franklin Street (Route 181) to Bay Road.

The BLT’s donation extend the trails that Belchertown already owns, but according to the Hampshire County Registry of Deeds, the transfer has not occurred yet.

The Belchertown Land Trust (BLT) has been working over the years to help develop accessible trails that can be used by the people of the community for passive recreation. The donated trails have been surveyed and cleared with assistance from the town through the Community Preservation Act, providing a trail for hikers, runners, bicyclists, horseback riders, cross-country skiers, and snow mobilers.

“The BLT has appreciated the support that the CPA has provided to us over the years,” said BLT President Ed Comeau in a press release, “We are so glad to be able to, in turn, provide this support back to CPA and the people of Belchertown.”

Community Preservation Committee Chairman James Natle expressed his appreciation for the BLT’s donation.

“At a time when budgets are tight, having such a generous donation of not only the land, but the funds that will help ensure its use over the years, will help tremendously,”  said Natle. “We appreciate the efforts of the BLT in helping to preserve open space and develop trails that the people of Belchertown can enjoy for years to come.”

The BLT announced that they would be exploring the transfer of their trails to the town last July after the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation sent BLT a letter stating that they would be assessing fines of $500/day because of the unsafe condition of the Upper Bondsville Dam, which they own.  BLT received 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 the risk it poses 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 or if the fines were assessed.  Since that time, however, it was reported that $350,000 was slated for the Upper Bondsville Dam as part of the commonwealth’s capital improvement plan.

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.

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. The BLT has surveyed and cleared sections so that they can be used for hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders and snowmobiles through all four seasons with the help of CPA funding. 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 said of the donation to the town in a press release last summer, “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 http://www.BelchertownLandTrust.org.

If you are planning on buying or selling a home in the Pioneer Valley, make your first call to Michael Seward at 413-531-7129 or email michael.seward@comcast.net

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