City eyes land for Greenway near swimming hole on Mill River in Leeds

  • Deb Jacobs, who lives on Grove Avenue, talks about the no parking signs by the Mill River Greenway. “I just don’t think it’s fair to create public resources and then make it so difficult to access them,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Mias, who lives in the area and often rides and walks on the bike trail and along the Mill River, walks over the bridge where Beaver Brook and the Mill River converge. Northampton is in the process of purchasing nearby land north of the Orange Dam and south of the existing Greenway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Proposed parking restrictions in Leeds. SUBMITTED/DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS

  • Proposed parking restrictions in Leeds. SUBMITTED/DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS

  • Proposed parking restrictions in Leeds. SUBMITTED/DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS

  • Proposed parking restrictions in Leeds. SUBMITTED/DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2021 7:21:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Complaints about noise and trash and concerns about equity increased last summer at a popular swimming area near the Orange Dam on the Mill River in Leeds.

Chartpak, an art and office supply company, owns the dam and nearby land, while the land north of the dam has no known owner. But that could soon change, as the city is working on buying the land.

Earlier this month, the City Council Finance Committee voted to approve $60,000 in Community Preservation Act money to purchase a 3.3-acre property to add to the Mill River Greenway.

“We want to make sure that it is available to the public to swim, picnic and recreate, but we also want the tools to ensure it is not loved to death and we can address any problems that come up,” said Wayne Feiden, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Sustainability.

“More of the swimming is on Chartpak’s property, but a significant part of the swimming is for this property,” he said.

Rachel Maiore, city councilor for Ward 7 — the area the swimming spots are in — said the plans are a positive development. Currently, “it’s unclear what the rules are,” she said. “There’s no trash facilities, and there’s no posted guidelines.”

She added, “I think this opportunity to regulate the land ... I think will actually encourage equitable use of the land because it will be clear that people are welcome and that they can use the land and there will also be signage and trash receptacles.”

The city is in discussion with the Leeds Civic Association to work out an agreement on how the city and the group would share responsibilities of taking care of the land, Feiden said. The group already stewards land in areas like Robert’s Hill, according to association vice president Jason Johnson.

Purchasing the land is a good idea, Johnson said.

“I think it’s a beautiful piece of 3 acres of land,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t have an owner, and it’s been sort of an unmanaged piece of property for a long time. And it’s right next to the river — it’s got beautiful access.”

Currently, there is no active owner of the land and the city has traced the land’s most recent owner back to the early 1900s, according to Feiden. For the city to own the land, it would need to be taken by eminent domain, and then the money to buy the land would go into an escrow account in case the last owner’s heirs step forward, Feiden explained. The heirs of August R. Tyrrell are the owners, according to the project application Feiden submitted to the Community Preservation Committee.

Still, the land needs to be appraised, an agreement with the Leeds Civic Association needs to be struck, and the City Council would need to take two votes on an eminent domain taking, Feiden said. “We would like to do that all by the middle of June, in time for swimming season,” he said, adding that it could take longer.

At the same time, there are several proposed ordinances that would restrict parking near the area.

“Grove Avenue and Main Street in particular become dangerously narrowed and congested by parked cars in the summer months, and we are obligated to ensure safe passage for emergency and other vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians,” Northampton DPW Director Donna Lascaleia wrote in an email. “So these new ordinances seek to allow for the safe flow of all traffic and accommodate parking to the extent possible.”

The ordinances, recommended by the city’s Transportation and Parking Commission, were introduced to City Council earlier this month, and they come after some temporary parking bans were put in place last summer. If passed, parts of Main Street and Grove Avenue — both roads nearby the bike path where many access the swimming areas — would have parking restrictions year-round while a section of the roads would prohibit parking between May 1 and Sept. 30. Florence Street, also near the bike path, would have some restrictions, and parking would be banned on all of Front Street.

The only way for the public to access the property the city is looking to buy is through the bike path, and there is no plan for a parking lot, Feiden said.

“We’re not hoping for an increase in visitors. It’s already been heavily used,” he said. “Even with new restrictions, there’s a lot of on-street parking nearby.”

Maiore said new parking restrictions “will not help with the equitable access to the river.”  

“The parking restrictions, they definitely have pros and cons,” she said, adding that they also impact residents who do not have a driveway and park on the street.

A ValleyBike Share station is slated to be added to the area soon, which Maiore said she hopes would help with access.

Greta Jochem can be reached at
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