Viewpoints: Norma Sims Roche describes how Broad Brook Coalition’s mission has evolved over 25 years
One of the largest duties of the Broad Brook Coalition, now 25 years old, is to serve as a conservation steward of Fitzgerald Lake in Northampton.
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Volunteers with the Broad Brook Coalition look for frog egg masses at the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area in Northampton in 2011. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Twenty-five years ago, a large-lot, high-end housing development was pitched for a 161-acre plot known to neighbors as Cooke’s Pasture. Many neighbors had walked there, and they knew the land was bisected by Broad Brook.
They knew that much of it was wet and that most of it was excellent wildlife habitat. Eight of those neighbors got together and decided to do something. They brought their concerns to the Northampton Planning Board.
You’ve probably heard this story lots of times. This time, the story didn’t end there.
The Planning Board sent the Hidden Oaks Estates development plan back to the drawing board. And the neighborhood group, which named itself Broad Brook Coalition, decided to do more than keep development out of its backyard.
Members understood that taking land off the market could drive up home prices, so they committed to the principle that conservation and affordable housing are not incompatible goals and they lobbied in favor of a nearby condo development that was denser and more affordable than Hidden Oaks. They also understood that conservation land needed to be maintained, so they organized to help care for the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area, which abutted Cooke’s Pasture.
A weakening economy put the Hidden Oaks plan on hold, and in 1994, Cooke’s Pasture was offered for sale. The city negotiated an agreement with the owners, and the coalition rallied to raise $31,000 in donations and grants. Cooke’s Pasture is now part of the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area and open for everyone to enjoy.
Still, the Broad Brook Coalition’s story continued. It signed a formal agreement with the Conservation Commission in 1990 to maintain the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area and organized volunteer stewardship days each year.
It also organized to keep the conservation area growing. With the support of the city’s Office of Planning and Development, it reached out to the owners of the surrounding undeveloped parcels and let them know of the city’s interest in conserving even more land. Piece by puzzle piece, the conservation area grew from the Fitzgerald family’s original 154 acres to 740 acres today — adding over 100 acres this year alone.
All of it came from willing sellers, and some donated their land or sold it at bargain prices. The conservation area is now part of a vision for a greater Northampton wildlife corridor that will allow wildlife to move freely from the vast undeveloped lands to our north to Arcadia Sanctuary and Mount Tom to our south. Broad Brook has raised and contributed over $118,000 toward those purchases.
Many things have changed since that first gathering of neighbors. We now have members citywide, although our roots remain firmly in the neighborhood where we began. Our stewardship efforts have a greater focus on invasive species, as awareness of the problems they cause has grown. By passing the Community Preservation Act, the citizens of Northampton pitched in to provide a much-needed source of funding for land purchases and stewardship, and many of them have given generously as individuals as well. The coalition has gained broad support among the mayors and city councilors who have served throughout our history. The constants have been not only our own vision of conservation, but the support of our efforts by Wayne Feiden and the staff of what is today the Office of Planning and Sustainability.
All of this is worth celebrating. On Saturday, Sept. 21, at 9:30 a.m. we’ll host what we’re calling a “grande promenade” through the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area from the North Farms Road entrance to Coles Meadow Road, via the dam, the wildlife blind and the newest large acquisition, the Broad Brook Gap Parcel.
The following weekend, on Sunday, Sept. 29, at 4 p.m., we’ll offer a talk on “The Social Black Bear” by Benjamin Kilham at the Florence Civic Center, followed by a reception with refreshments and celebratory beverages — that is, a party! All of these events are free and open to the public. Come and join us — after all, it was you who made it all possible.
Norma Sims Roche is a former board member of the Broad Brook Coalition and serves on its land preservation and anniversary committees.