About nine months ago, Elizabeth Bagdonas retired after 30 years as Bedford’s conservation administrator.
Since that transition, even with the limitations of Covid-19, she hasn’t been rearranging the living room furniture.
“I’m a little disoriented because I’m not a very-good goal-setter,” she chuckled. “What I really want to be doing is I want to be outside more.” She knows she will need a knee replacement to maximize that goal.
Still, she is working on developing a trail system in Bolton, where she lives. “There are so many more people bringing their dogs and bikes and wrecking the trails. There were 25 cars there this weekend. Each with a dog or two or a bike.” She has three and a half acres of land, “surrounded by horse people. Bolton does not have water or sewer so lots gave to be large to accommodate septic and wells.”
Bagdonas has two sons and four grandchildren in the area. “They can come by the deck but my rule is they can’t come inside. I don’t know where my grandchildren have been – they don’t even know where they’ve been.”
Reflecting on her long Bedford career, Bagdonas observed, “It is very distinctive of Bedford that there are so many people so pro-conservation. People in Bedford are interested in land preservation; I think that’s pretty clear.”
Bagdonas grew up in Gardner and met her late husband in high school. He graduated from West Point and “we were on the road for the next 20 years.” They returned to Massachusetts; she has lived in Bolton for many years, and actually began her career there as an assistant town clerk there. “I never worked until we came back because I was always moving,” she explained.
Her next stop was in the private section working on wetlands delineation, before accepting the position as Bedford conservation administrator in 1990. Bagdonas said her predecessor was “primarily a ranger, but when I first came, I had no time for that.”
Over the year, she observed, “The most dramatic changes were the demands in the application and permitting process, not only on the applicant but on the staff and the office in general. It used to be a simple permitting process, and the regulations changed a little, and you had to account for that. Filings from way back then are only about an inch thick. Now you see huge drainage reports, all kinds of studies, and calculations. It became an enormous challenge to get through all of that. The drainage report alone is sheets and sheets of plans.”
As a result, Bagdonas said, “the applicants became much more knowledgeable.” They are turning more to consultants and other outside professionals. Drainage is the most difficult aspect, she said. “Once the state put in stormwater design standards, that led to all the engineering.” She praised the work of the two engineers in the Department of Public Works, Adrienne St. John and Kristin Dowdy.
“We have had commissions over the year that reviewed applications in great detail,” Bagdonas related. “Civil engineers who would grab a drainage report and chew it up. The commission is very diverse but usually includes someone with expertise in one field or another. Their role has changed with more applications to review so there is more pressure on them. Each one brings something to the table.”
Bagdonas acknowledged that “I’m a bit of a regulations wonk. I really like looking at regulations. If everyone has to meet the same standards you can point that out.”
“You have to be constantly looking at those regulations and figuring out what to do about people who insist that they differ. And that happens a lot. People in authority get up in public and say, ‘This is the way it is,’ and they’re wrong. That a big challenge – to give confidence in yourself or to go to town counsel and say, ‘I need help with this.’”
Bagdonas reflected that “all the open space was really exciting, really terrific improvements to the town. I think it is more appreciated now than it was.” She recalled that the late Robert Folweiler was chair when she arrived, “and his big dream was to dredge Fawn Lake and bring it back where it was. It was an impossible dream in the ’90s.”
Eventually, a study committee “did a really great job. They acknowledged that Fawn Lake is really a jewel that everybody values.” She particularly mentioned Select Board member Margot Fleischman and St. John as “the ones that really took the ball and ran with it.”
Bagdonas recounted some of the highlights of her tenure, including the acquisition of the Altmann conservation area near the Concord River and the acreage off Concord Road that was earmarked for more than 200 housing units before it was purchased by the town for $5 million.
She also cited the development of Wilson Mill Park and the Boardwalk along White Cedar Swamp. “Adrienne was integral to all of those,” she said, citing the collegiality between her office and the DPW. “Kristin set a new standard for the quality of applications. It’s easy to review them and permit them. Adrienne and I have been running in parallel tracks for so long. She is genuinely interested.”
Bagdonas reflected on some early acquisitions in the town’s western quadrant. “When I first came, the Dellovo area was being purchased, continuous to Vanderhoof, and Webber. An Eagle Scout candidate wanted to do a guided trail. We did some research and we realized that was a huge glacial lake. If you dig in Webber soil there are no rocks, it’s all sand.” Land acquisition in those days was part of the commission’s responsibility, she noted.
“The two areas where we were most successful in open space were the west Bedford corridor, including Minnie Reid and a bunch of small acquisitions, and the O’Connor and Bedford Woods conservation restrictions, one of the most important of our wildlife areas.”
She also pointed to the Minuteman Bikeway extension and its tributary trails, including those that were made accessible by the Massachusetts Port Authority. Ultimately they could provide access to Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, she observed.
“In later years, as things got more complicated in the office, I didn’t spend as much time outside. When I first came, I found out how much conservation land they had — and I didn’t know any of it. I was always kind of a woods girl. I did it myself. One beautiful day in September I spent the whole day outside walking two conservation areas. I did many trail guides without GIS – I used old maps,” she said. In the early years, we didn’t have stewards so I was the monitor.” Now there are not only stewards but also the Trails Committee.
Commenting on her Bedford longevity, Bagdonas said, “If you stay long enough you know a lot of the history and that can build institutional memory looking forward and back. I’ve told people, go to our electronic archives and find out if there were any other applications, and then go look at them. The history is very useful.”
She said former Town Manager Richard Reed was “consistent and rational with everything he said. I asked him how do you know when to say something at a selectmen’s meeting. He said try to say as little as possible.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763
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