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No easy fix for land use fight in Northampton meadows



Thursday, February 13, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — At an Agricultural Commission meeting Wednesday on the issue of whether outsiders should be allowed to use roads winding through the Northampton Meadows farmland, commission members and people who like to walk, bird-watch and otherwise use the area called for compromise.

But, according to Meadows resident Angela Plassmann, who spoke on behalf of the Northampton Meadows Agricultural Association, “There will be no compromise. These are our property rights.”

The debate over road use in the Meadows, a 3,000-acre expanse in Ward 3 near the Connecticut River farmed by numerous farmers, has gone on for years. Farmers say the roads that criss-cross the farmland, many of them dirt, are private property and were created for farm machinery.

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But Ward 3 residents who said they have been respectfully using the roads to enjoy nature and reach conservation land such as Rainbow Beach, say some of the roads are open to the public because they have been used by the public for years and are not included on landowners’ deeds.

The battle was between the two parties until December, when the commission and Planning Director Wayne Feiden got involved in the issue, attempting to clarify which roads were public or private.

Agricultural Commission Vice Chairman Richard Jaescke told the 21 people at the meeting Wednesday that he hoped a compromise could be reached between the two sides, but acknowledged that the issue may be destined to end up in court.

“I don’t think there’s any clear answer to this. It’s a legal issue as far as I can see,” he said. “We’re not lawyers.”

When he brought up forming a subcommittee or getting a mediator to work out a deal, Plassmann, a former Ward 3 city councilor, made it clear farmers in the Meadows are not willing to budge.

“If the public wants to use the Meadows, they can use the public ways, not the private ways,” she said. So far, both sides have agreed that Hockanum and Cross Path roads, Fair Street Extension and part of Old Ferry Road are public roads because the city has maintained them for years.

At the meeting, Carl Szawlowski of Szawlowski Potato Farms explained that farmers cannot allow people to use the private roads because of the liability, the possibility for destruction or contamination of crops, and because some people — out-of-towners, by most accounts — have been vandalizing equipment, illegally riding ATVs and even shooting target practice there.

Szawlowski, who lives in Hadley, said he and other farmers have worked with police to address some of the illegal activity, but it still occurs.

“There was someone in his barn last night,” Plassmann chimed in.

Ward 3 residents said that they are respectful of the crops and property and that their presence in the area is a deterrent for people who are looking for a place to party or dump trash.

Plassmann said the groups who have driven the farmers to get tough are the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, bird-watchers groups and others who think they have a right to be there.

“We the property owners find it extremely intrusive when we get up on a Sunday morning and someone is looking at our house with binoculars because they’re looking for birds,” she said.

Szawlowski recalled seeing a woman get off her bicycle near his corn field and cut a wire to his sonic bird deterrent device, chiding him for scaring the birds away.

Joseph Cadette, who grew up in the Meadows and still owns land there, wondered if signs warning people to use the roads at their own risk would at least alleviate liability concerns.

“I’m all for policing the land, keeping dogs on leashes,” he said. “I think there’s a valid reason we can try to reach a compromise and keep it public.”

Photographer Stephen Petegorsky of Florence said he lived near the Meadows for 20 years and has taken many photographs there. “I hear a real ‘us and them’ mentality,” he said of the discussion.

“I think it’s fair to divide the people who use the Meadows into good and bad. If people like me are enjoying it in a way that’s not criminal, it’s a disincentive for them to do criminal things,” he said.

But Plassmann said farmers would “open up Pandora’s box” if they allowed some well-meaning people to use the private roads.

After the two-hour discussion, the commission decided to ask the city solicitor to review a letter from an attorney representing the farmers’ association and then revisit the issue in April.

The letter, sent Jan. 22 by Patrick J. Melnik Sr., addressed the vandalism farmers have suffered but also brought up the issue of people walking on the roads and allowing their dogs to defecate in the fields. The federal regulations coming soon as a result of the 2010 Food Safety Act are likely to require farmers to take steps to ensure there are no feces from either wild or domestic animals in fields of crops grown for human consumption.

Melnik argues that the city does not have a right to challenge the farmers about the public or private nature of the roads, as an individual legally could. “Each and every individual who believes they have established a right must bring suit,” he wrote.

He said the city could only ensure public access to the roads by accepting them as public ways, which would mean agreeing to maintain them and compensating farmers.

Feiden said the city solicitor would respond to the letter, but could not be expected to do “a huge amount of research” into case law regarding when private roads become public roads. The Agricultural Commission is an advisory board and the issue is ultimately between the two groups of residents.

Meanwhile, Plassmann said the association members have the legal right to issue trespass notices to people they do not want on their property. If someone has received a notice and is seen on the property again, that person can be arrested, but she said that has not happened yet.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.