Northampton begins initiative to determine public access in Meadows

Last modified: Sunday, December 22, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — The Meadows, a vast expanse of property hugging the Connecticut River in Ward 3, is often ground zero in a conflict between farmers and neighbors — and nowhere is the debate more divisive than when it comes to roads.

That’s why city officials have launched an initiative to resolve a long-simmering disagreement over what roads in this section of the city are public, and which are private.

“There’s been an ongoing dispute as to what public access there is,” Planning Director Wayne Feiden said. “Frankly, people come to the table with what they would like it to be. Planning is great, but let’s figure out what the facts are first.”

To that end, the Agricultural Commission recently sent out a map to about 70 Meadows property owners who own land east of Interstate 91 seeking help in defining private and public land and roads in the area. The map is based on current city information but is a rough draft, which is why the commission is asking property owners to review it for accuracy and make suggested fixes, Feiden said.

The Meadows includes a total of about 3,000 acres, including some of the city’s most valuable farmland, on both sides of the interstate stretching from the Oxbow to the Calvin Coolidge Bridge. The commission is focusing on a section of the Meadows east of I-91 because that area contains the biggest bones of contention.

Neighbors of the Meadows maintain that most of the roads in that area are public. They contend the city should do more to ensure public access to them for recreational activities such as walking and birding. Many farmers, however, argue that the roads — many dirt, and cutting through vast areas of cropland — are private and should only be used with permission by owners. They believe greater public use could harm their livelihood.

John Omasta, a farmer and chairman of the Agricultural Commission, said the issue has been a hot topic for years. He said farmers worry that declaring all of the roads in the Meadows as public ways could lead to safety issues, as farmers operate heavy machinery and use the roads to move from field to field.

“The farmers need these roads to access their fields,” Omasta said.

Plus, he added, vandalism and illegal activity remain a concern for farmers, including off-road vehicle use, dogs defecating on crops and illegal dumping, to name a few.

“It’s sporadic, but it’s still a concern,” Omasta said.

But that doesn’t mean all of the roads are private, argues Robert Reckman, Ward 3 Neighborhood Association president. The longtime Ward 3 resident, believes there are many more public roads in the Meadows than the farmers want to acknowledge. He suggests that making the roads public may reduce illegal activity simply because more people will be moving through the area.

Research by neighbors suggest there are roads in the Meadows 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, according to a *report written independently by some association members and given to the mayor’s office. These roads were dedicated for use by all.

“These roads, by their origins as public ways, their layout in the officially authorized Town Plan and Map of 1831, their continuous public use throughout the entire history of Northampton, and their status as having never been discontinued, should continue to be recognized as public ways now,” the report states.

Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels said the debate over who owns what has festered for some time with little progress toward a resolution. He welcomes the discussions that will follow the commission’s data-gathering.

“The way I see it, we need to have this conversation because the neighbors believe that there are more public roads than the city and the farmers claim,” Freeman-Daniels said. “It seems to me there are legal issues and matters that need negotiation.”

A nature walk interrupted

The issue came to a head in the summer of 2012 when a group of environmentalists on a nature walk in the area tried to venture to Rainbow Beach, a city-owned beach accessible either by boat or on foot by crossing private property. The walkers unknowingly started to cross the private property on their way to the beach, at which point a property owner called police. The outing, said Gerald Budgar, a member of the Ward 3 association, “became a rather unpleasant incident.”

Budgar and other association members began to research the question of public versus private roads in an effort to resolve the dispute. He said police initially offered to mediate a solution between the Ward 3 association, the Northampton Meadows Agricultural Association, a group that represents the interests of farmers and landowners in the Meadows, and the Meadow City Conservation Coalition, a neighborhood group formed two years ago to manage conservation land including the Montview Farm. But that attempt failed. Since then, Feiden and the Agricultural Commission have taken the lead.

“We are trying to straighten out the status of the roads and trying to make sure there are no more ugly incidents or confrontations,” Budgar said. “We want to come up with a resolution everyone is OK with.”

Feiden said there is no debate about public access to private farmland in the Meadows: it’s not allowed and all involved have worked with the police for years to prevent illegal activity and trespassing. What is murkier is the question public versus private.

Many roads are deemed public because they are maintained by the city and historically have been used by the public. These include Hockanum Road, Old Ferry Road, Cross Path Road and Fair Street Extension. Other roads are private, are not maintained by the city and cannot be accessed without owner permission. Many of these roads are close to the river, including Young Rainbow Road and Old Rainbow Road closest to Rainbow Beach.

Then there are roads that officials say fall in a gray area whose status is unclear. When it sent out the survey to landowners, the city explained that many of these roads have been used by multiple property owners and the public for many years — and could arguably be public ways.

Freeman-Daniels notes that the roads that fall between the privately owned parcels are in effect public property even if the city hasn’t accepted or maintained them.

“Everyone’s deed acknowledges that there’s a way that nobody owns,” he said.

Freeman-Daniels said a main source of contention revolves around Young Rainbow Road, the rainbow-shaped road close to the river that ends about a mile from Rainbow Beach. Some farmers believe this road is private, while many ward neighbors claim it’s public, especially those who want access on foot to Rainbow Beach, Freeman-Daniels said.

Feiden said a simple solution to meet the needs of many residents who want to have public access to the beach might be to buy a small sliver of land for public use, but he and others acknowledge the farmers’ concerns about problems that have plagued their operations for years.

Once the information from the survey is complete, Feiden said city officials can engage in a discussion with all involved in an attempt to hammer out a compromise.

It remains to be seen whether an amicable solution can be reached out as a result of the Agricultural Commission’s effort.

“My hope is we can find one big package that everybody would be OK with,” Budgar said.

*CORRECTION: The Ward 3 Neighborhood Association did not write the report as previously indicated.


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