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Editorial: After years of debate over public access to roads in the Meadows, compromise may be in the offing

After years of simmering tensions, Northampton officials are stepping up to address a long-running disagreement about who owns the roads in the Meadows. By launching an ambitious effort to resolve a dispute that pits farmers who operate vital enterprises in the Meadows against neighbors who want access to enjoy the natural beauty that abounds there, including a public beach inaccessible by foot, the Agricultural Commission is tackling an issue full of bad feelings.

Kudos to commissioners for being willing to address this vexing problem, to bring the discussion into the public arena where compromise is possible and, if all goes well, a solution can be found that releases pent-up frustration.

For years, these discussions have taken place informally, over coffee, at small meetings of fledgling community organizations and within the halls of city government.

The talk is nearly always based on conjecture — until now. The commission’s recent effort to better define private and public roads in the area by mapping them out and seeking feedback from landowners was an important first step in sorting out the confusion. Though the Meadows includes a total of 3,000 acres on both sides of Interstate 91 stretching from the Oxbow to the Calvin Coolidge Bridge, land east of the interstate is where most of the disputed land is.

Questions about ownership of roadways in the Meadows are complicated indeed. We believe a compromise is possible, but that won’t happen unless both sides come to the table with open minds.

It’s not reasonable to expect farmers, whose livelihoods depend on protecting valuable farmland, to tacitly agree that all of the roads are public. Farmers are right to worry about safety given the heavy equipment they operate and the importance the roads play in moving from field to field. They have legitimate worries that greater public access to the roads will mean continuation of longtime troubles such as people taking joyrides on farmland that is undeniably private, careless dog-walkers frequenting the area without stopping their pets from defecating on crops, or increased illegal dumping.

These are all forbidden activities that led farmers to work with police over the years to keep people out. It’s understandable that they would now fear what might happen should the public have unfettered access.

It’s also not reasonable to expect the public to cede its right to access lands in a beautiful part of the city to allay the fears of farmers. Just like in many other parts of the city, people have the right to go for a walk, to go bird-watching or to otherwise take a drive. Perhaps most importantly, the public should be allowed to visit Rainbow Beach, a hidden jewel that has been in the city’s hands for at least four decades but can only be legally reached by boat on the Connecticut River.

Greater access could actually work in the farmers’ favor simply because illegal activity is harder to hide with more eyes watching. Agreeing that some of the roads are public ways also may be one way farmers can negotiate help from the city in terms of road maintenance. Many of the roads in the area now are filled with potholes and otherwise in terrible shape.

This discussion may not even be on the table had it not been for an incident in the summer of 2012 when a nature walk to Rainbow Beach led to calls of trespassing, police involvement and bruised feelings.

That thwarted nature walk spurred a small group of neighbors to research the issue of road ownership. In a report submitted to the city, the neighbors suggest there are roads that have been public ways for centuries. Many of the roads in question were laid out in the 1650s before home lots were granted to settlers. As the names of some of the roads suggest, they also at one time served as an important access to a ferry that shuttled people across the river and back.

The report suggests that the continuous public use of roadways throughout the city’s history, among other points, is enough to recognize them as public ways now. Whether that view holds sway may be a matter for legal experts to hash out, and courts to decide. A land-use attorney claims the neighbors’ research does not sufficiently prove that the roads are public. Another lawyer representing farmers is also expected to weigh in on the issue.

But we wonder if there might a middle ground here that could avoid the expense and time consuming nature of a court battle.

There’s no doubt the roads in the Meadows have a complicated history, which is why bringing all the stakeholders to the table to hammer out a solution is a wise move.

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