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Columnist John Paradis: We can have our land, and protect it too

  • Gazette file photo Gazette file photo

Published: 10/10/2019 5:15:02 PM
Modified: 10/10/2019 5:14:52 PM

In a clearing by a trail on conservation land in Northampton last Friday, I heard a crashing sound and some tree branches snap in the nearby woods. I stopped, looked to my left, and 20 yards away was a buck, peeking out from the edge of the tree line.

Although I’ve seen plenty of does and yearlings in the nearby woods, I hadn’t seen a buck with antlers before this close to home. It was a jaw-dropping moment. I was stopped in my tracks and so was the buck.

For several seconds, we stared at one another. Then an acorn from an oak tree landed right on my forehead. “Ouch,” I blurted. The buck darted back into the woods.

Around my yard and in the fields along Route 66, coyotes, black bear, fox, possum, bobcat and porcupine have all appeared from time to time. There are few days when I don’t see wildlife.

I have the city of Northampton, and, in particular, Wayne Feiden, the director of planning and sustainability, to thank.

Since he landed in Northampton some 31 years ago, the city and its land trust, state and federal partners have protected 4,476 acres of land, up from 1,153 acres in 1988, and another 200 acres are being looked at for permanent preservation within the next year. It’s all part of a comprehensive plan that includes conservation, recreation and an incredible multi-use trail system.

On the list for future protected space is 105 acres of the Pine Grove Golf Course, less than a mile from my home.

Pine Grove, like many golf courses across the region, has suffered from fewer golfers and its owners are looking to sell. In some communities, that would prompt plans to replace fairways with condominiums or a subdivision or other development.

Wayne’s vision is for the property to become part of the city’s Rocky Hill Greenway, eventually restoring wetlands, forests and the natural patterns of the land. Some acres would even be set aside for recreation, farmland, perhaps some community gardens and an incubator farm.

It’s a big undertaking, but late last month, the city received a state grant to purchase the golf course, which Wayne tells me is great news and makes the project very possible.

The city now has a grant application pending before the city’s Community Preservation Committee for a required match and is hopeful for additional community contributions. Mass Audubon is a key partner on the restoration project.

Open space has been a prime focus here for decades, which hasn’t been true in other parts of the commonwealth. It’s certainly rare in many parts of our nation.

In the 1980s, I was a reporter in the Boston area covering planning boards and city council meetings involving the world of office park proposals along the Route 128 corridor. It entailed attending long and tedious discussions and public hearings where developers with fat wallets pitched their plans.

The suburbs then were hungry for tax revenue so despite community groups and neighborhood associations balking at large corporate complexes being built on former open space, guess who won out?

Now gridlock is pretty much everywhere inside I-495. Greater Boston is now suffering from what was sown 30 years before — a terrible quality of life after being titillated by the so-called progress of pavement, business offices, malls and McMansions.

People move here or stay in the Valley in large part because they care about the outdoors. Northampton is a great place to live because preservation has been an enduring goal.

Northampton is a model of how it should be done — a mix of neighborhoods, historical areas, retail and business corridors along with open areas spread from the center to the far corners of the city.

For Northampton and for most of the Pioneer Valley, it’s all been part of a delicate planning balance, keeping rural areas rural while making sure more densely populated areas near city and village centers stay vibrant — not an easy task, as we’ve seen with the recent series in the Gazette about Northampton’s downtown.

After seeing that buck last Friday, I ran over to Old Wilson Road in Northampton and jogged up the steep hill to the club house at Pine Grove. I paused for a moment and looked out on the sweeping vista of the Mount Tom Range framed by beautiful pines and a mix of maple and oak trees. It was now around dusk and some wild turkeys were clucking about before heading into the woods to roost for the evening. Another idyllic moment.

As I scanned the empty golf course, I thought how wonderful that such a property will be returned back to its original state with public access allowed and encouraged.

Once a piece of land is developed, the ability to bring it back is almost impossible. But in our region, we’ve proven we can have our land and can protect it, too.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He can be reached at

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