BELCHERTOWN — It wasn’t hard to see that Bernie Kubiak was ready to take a vacation from local politics. He had yet to announce that he would not run for another term as selectman when I visited in late February, but it was a safe bet he would get out soon. “It’s been 15 years,” he said. “And I’m tired.”
We were riding around town in his desert-sand-colored Volkswagen Jetta and he was pointing out the bridges and railroad crossings and neighborhoods that were important in the biggest political tussle people had seen around here in years. Mr. Kubiak, 50, was a partisan, but his commentary was calm and analytical — even a little detached, as if we were touring a battlefield and he was commenting on the long-ago skirmishes that helped determine the unfortunate outcome.
As a selectman, Mr. Kubiak had championed the idea of converting the old Boston & Maine Railroad bed into a paved bike path. At first, he recalled, “no one could imagine there would be opposition to this.” After all, rail-to-trail conversions had been successful in several Massachusetts towns, including neighboring Amherst and Hadley. But as Belchertown began to study the possibilities, word got out, concern grew, and before long a full-scale opposition rose up against the trail. By the time the question came to a vote last November, the rail-trail issue had set off not only strong emotions on both sides, but an unusual challenge to the very mechanics of local decision-making.
In the annals of Belchertown politics, the rail-trail controversy ranks even bigger than the 1987 fight over whether to allow General Motors to build a distribution center in town. More than 1,900 people turned out that summer for a town meeting — a crowd so large the meeting had to be held outdoors under a circus tent.
When the night came to argue about the rail trail on Nov. 3, between 2,000 and 3,000 people showed up at Belchertown High School, according to Town Clerk Bill Barnett. (The high school gym holds about 1,000.) Since Belchertown has no public building that can accommodate a gathering of that size, the meeting was postponed. The town looked into the tent option, but to put up a tent and heat it — this being November — would have cost $18,000, Mr. Barnet said. The meeting had been rescheduled for Nov. 17, and because of several pressing financial matters unrelated to the bike trail, it was imperative that it take place.
Belchertown had a problem. Residents had never voted to accept state law allowing town meetings to be held out of town. And putting the rail-trail question on the ballot didn’t seem to be an option — the law only allows ballot questions at the regular municipal election, usually in the spring (overrides of the Proposition 2½ property tax limitation are the exception).
So Belchertown selectmen approved an unusual resolution: A “straw poll” would be conducted and they pledged to abide by the outcome. Since town voting machines could not be used — it would not have been legal to hold an official election — selectmen printed ballots and organized volunteers to collect and tabulate them. Those who wished to be heard on the rail-trail matter were invited to mark a paper ballot at the Chestnut Hill Community School during the hours of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 17.
When the 2,564 votes were counted at the end of the day, there were 1,309 who urged Selectmen not to continue to study the rail trail and 1,255 who were in favor of further study — a 54-vote margin. That evening, after town officials urged those who were only interested in the trail issue to stay home, a manageable crowd of 367 people turned out to finish the rest of the town meeting’s business.
Turning off Route 9, Mr. Kubiak steered his car around potholes and wended his way toward Lake Arcadia. This was one of the parts of town where opposition was strongest. Mr. Kubiak had no trouble seeing why: The Vermont Central Railroad, which runs alongside the abandoned B&M line, passes within fishing-rod lengths of the backyards of a number of cottages that look out on the lake. Few neighbors welcomed the prospect of adding a bike trail nearby — and bringing a steady stream of bicyclists, roller-bladers, and out-of-towners coming through the otherwise secluded Lakes Area.
But Mr. Kubiak maintained that the threat wasn’t real. The trail could have been diverted up toward Route 9 to protect the Lakes Area, he said, and then linked back up with the rail bed further down the line. Proponents of the rail trail were pushing for a contract with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to develop a specific route that could have shown ways to protect private interests. “We wanted the engineers to tell us that, but unfortunately, we never got the chance,” he said.
“What really hurt us was that we couldn’t show anyone where the trail would have gone,” he said. “People got to use their imaginations, so people imagined the worst.”
What Mr. Kubiak said he found most discouraging was the lack of trust between the two sides. Belchertown has had controversies before, he said, “but this one got more personal.” Arguments about property rights seemed to be at loggerheads with appeals for the community good. Mr. Kubiak said he knows that “when you do local politics, it’s full-contact democracy.” But always before, there seemed to be ways of “finding that point that everybody shares,” which he said is “the essence of local politics.”
Bicycle trails in Massachusetts
The construction of bikeways is not always a matter for town meeting approval. If a town can fund such projects with state and federal grants — as planners hoped to do in Belchertown — town meeting approval would not be legally required. (Town meetings have authority over appropriation of local funds.) But in places where the issue becomes controversial, local officials will sometimes ask for a town meeting vote before proceeding.
As of the beginning of this year, Massachusetts had 12 open trails converted from abandoned railroad right-of-ways, stretching for a total of 120 miles, according to Patrick Kraich, of the Rails to Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kraich said there are an additional 56 rail-trail projects being considered in the state, which would add 479 miles.
The Conservancy tally includes only trails that make use of railroad right-of-way. In addition, there are numerous bicycle “greenways” in use — such as the Paul Dudley White Bike Path, 17 miles of path along both sides of the Charles River in Boston, Newton, Watertown, and Cambridge. That path is owned and operated by the Metropolitian District Commission. Other trails, such as the popular Cape Cod Rail Trail are owned and operated by the state Department of Environmental Management.
The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism publishes a map of 12 bike paths, including rail trails, greenways, and on-road bike routes.
As Mr. Kubiak stood on a bridge overlooking the Vermont Central Railroad, he pointed to the old Boston & Maine rail bed that runs parallel about 40 feet away. There was underbrush that had grown up and bits of trash strewn about. How could it not be an improvement to have a well-used linear park here instead of a hideout for beer-drinking teens and drifters? Mr. Kubiak recalled how some town residents asked him after the straw poll, “Well aren’t you going to bring it up again?” He told them Selectmen had promised to respect the decision of the majority. The matter was out of their hands.
“This really came down to a story of ‘Do you trust your government?’ ” The result seemed to him to suggest a sizeable group in town answered “No.” For town officials to go ahead with the planning, he felt, would confirm their fears.
When I asked him if the outcome of the rail-trail debate was what caused him to think about taking a rest from politics, he said he had promised himself he would take a break when he turned 50. He insisted that the discouraging vote made the decision harder rather than easier because it seemed to him town politics had taken a turn in the wrong direction. He was not ruling out another run as soon as next year.
Weston Opts Out
Residents of Weston were aware before, during, and after their town meeting vote to block a proposed bicycle trail project that the result would not look good in the media. Here was an exclusive community — the wealthiest town in Massachusetts — voting not to join with six neighboring burgs in creating a 23-mile ribbon of recreational pavement from Belmont to Berlin.
“They beat up on Weston pretty bad,” said opposition leader Doug Gillespie, referring to press accounts that portrayed Westonites as unwelcoming to outsiders. Mr. Gillespie said such hostility was a sentiment that “if you were there and heard the debate was never part of it.”
“We already have a lot of trails,” said Mr. Gillespie, who grew up in Weston. Even the abandoned rail line in question is currently used by hikers and equestrians. Preserving the tranquility of the existing trails and nearby conservation land “was the key issue,” he said.
Whatever the motivations, Weston’s December town meeting on the rail-to-trail conversion attracted a turnout that Mr. Gillespie said was the largest he had seen in the last 20 years. By a vote of 698 to 410, residents declined to authorize the Board of Selectmen to enter into an agreement with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, owner of the railroad right-of-way.
Kate Detwiler, a landscape designer who advocated for Weston’s approval of its section of the Central Massachusetts Rail Trail, was one of the disappointed. She maintains that a “close the gates” attitude was part of the vote. “It got rather silly,” she said, when some residents voiced concerns about crime — as if people were going to come into town “and cart color TVs off on their bicycles.”
In the months after the debate, all parties seemed to agree on one thing: The question is not likely to come back before the town meeting anytime soon. “This was a very well-attended town meeting, and it was very openly debated and it was debated at great length,” said Town Moderator Bob Buchanan. Mr. Gillespie and Ms. Detwiler agreed that the issue now is to find ways to manage the expected increase in bicycle traffic on local roads if the trail gets built in Wayland to the west and Waltham and Belmont to the east. Mr. Gillespie (a candidate for Selectman this spring) suggested the possibility of creating room along the shoulder of Route 20, the main thoroughfare through Weston. Ms. Detwiler saw likely opposition to that plan. “Nobody wants that road to be wider,” she said.
Planning for the Central Massachusetts Trail, also known as the “Wayside Trail,” will continue in Berlin, Hudson, Sudbury, Wayland, and Waltham, according to Cathy Buckley Lewis, who wrote a feasibility study for the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization. The railroad right-of-way is part of the old Boston & Maine Railroad, which once ran from Northampton to Boston. The western end of the line, from Northampton through Hadley and Amherst to the Belchertown line, is now the 8.5-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail.
Challenges face the Central Mass. trail on the eastern end. Some of the MBTA right-of-way in Belmont is now in private ownership. State Rep. Anne Paulsen, who represents Belmont and is an avid bicyclist, is pushing for ways to link the trail to the Alewife MBTA station, and thus to the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway, one of the most popular rail trails in the nation.
Rep. Paulsen said the opposition in Weston reminded her of concerns she heard many years ago in East Arlington before the 11-mile-long Minuteman trail was constructed. (It runs through Arlington and Lexington and into Bedford.) “They were afraid there would be vandalism on the path, especially those whose backyards bordered on the path,” she said. “But of course it didn’t happen at all.”
Cathy Buckley Lewis said the town of Lexington had similar fears about the Minuteman trail. She said Weston’s vote need not be final. If the rest of the trail is built and the town later wants to be connected, it could be done. But “given the energy that went into this vote, that doesn’t seem to be likely any time soon,” she said.