The proposed Minuteman Bikeway Extension is on life support, after town meeting Monday failed to authorize acquisition of easements needed to complete the project.
Although 60 percent of nearly 600 voters approved Article 11, that proposal included acquisition by eminent domain, which requires a two-thirds vote. That caught a lot of people by surprise, as it was only acknowledged after the vote.
Moderator Mark Siegenthaler paired the article with a proposed $1.5 million expenditure for the easements, a component of the community preservation fund allocations. The intent was to discuss them together and vote separately.
When after an hour of debate the spending was approved 350 to 258, there was little reaction, as Siegenthaler moved on to Article 11. But the handwriting was on the wall for those who knew about the two-thirds requirement.
The vote to authorize acquisition was 363-235, i.e., 60 percent. Siegenthaler announced that the article was defeated. There was a murmur; some people who were leaving stopped in their tracks. A voter asked Siegenthaler to clarify what just happened.
“Town meeting has authorized the funding but did not authorize the Select Board to actually acquire the easements,” the moderator said, because of the two-thirds requirement. “The Select Board cannot move forward with the easements at this time.”
For many voters, this was like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, or vice versa. None of the advance material for Article 11 had mentioned the two-thirds requirement.
“We have to regroup,” Select Board Chair Emily Mitchell said after the meeting when asked about whether there will be any next steps. (The first step may come at tonight’s town meeting session, as the capital budget includes an undesignated amount for the bikeway.)
The vote appears to abruptly end a process that began more than 15 years ago and has been approved in varying phases three times by past town meetings. The outcome is a dramatic case of grass-roots activism, mainly–but not exclusively–from the neighborhoods closest to the trail prevailing over recommendations of every relevant town board and committee.
The proposed 12-foot accessible paved path with three-foot shoulders on each side would extend 1.7 miles from Railroad Avenue to the Concord line, following the long-abandoned B&M Railroad bed. Margot Fleischman of the Select Board said the town pedestrian and bicycle master plan designates the improved extension as “the major east-west spine of Bedford’s bike-pedestrian network, accessible to residents “of all ages and abilities.”
Fleischman began the discussion with an explanation of the need to acquire temporary and permanent easements, and how assessment of the land had to be based on current values. She also pointed out that the project includes correcting drainage problems on Railroad Avenue, as a shared-use path would link the existing bikeway and the paved extension.
But no one talked about money. The issues that went back and forth, with more than 20 voters speaking pro and con, were about safety, tranquility, environmental preservation, accessibility, even cross-country teams.
Representatives of three town committees delivered recommendations from the floor microphones, interspersed with other voters.
Scot Shaw, speaking for the Transportation Advisory Committee, cited the importance of connection without using a car and access for “the greatest number of users possible. Extending it as a paved trail would provide an amazing resource for the town.” Bob Dorer of the Energy and Sustainability Committee said the betterment is consistent with the town’s net zero plan and adds to non-fossil options.
Mark Bailey, speaking for the Bicycle Advisory Committee, highlighted the paved path’s impact on traffic reduction, access to woodland trails and playing fields, in-town and inter-town connectivity.
But David Radlo, an abutter, said improvements will mean more cyclists from other towns, “and guess what – not all of them are good because they are the general public.”
Like Bailey, Scott Counsell felt that the trail is a great local resource. But he predicted widening and paving will encourage excessively fast cycling and undermine “a very calming and pleasant woodland experience.” Julie Brill, who said she opposed the original bikeway extension article, noted there is strong resistance in Concord to paving its portion of the trail.
Environmental concerns seemed like a wash. Some speakers cited reduced use of cars; opponents responded that the paving process itself involves use of fossil fuels. Angela Winter, an opponent who lives in the Center, asked if there had been any kind of environmental offset study.
Opponents like Laura Keating and Lori Eggert pointed out the likely presence of endangered species. Fleischman said the project has passed state and federal environmental reviews. There were concerns about wetlands impact, tree removal, and resulting wildlife disruption. Linda Ugelow said that on days when the trail is too muddy for safe and easy use, it’s called ‘learning to live with nature.’
There were also comments on the disruption paving would cause to school cross-country teams, though Fleischman said the school’s Athletic Department has assured that there are other options.
Several speakers lauded the advantages of a year-round paved bikeway for commuters, including a West Bedford resident, Andrew Henderson. He also emphasized the connectivity with the middle and high school for neighborhood children, and a safe Concord Road crossing that would be ensured by the planned trail box culvert underpass. Gerald Skurla cited the relative safety of a bikeway compared to public streets for cyclists.
Leah Devereaux told town meeting that her partner has ALS, and an accessible paved trail would provide her children opportunities “to be safe in nature with their father by their side.” She noted that there are miles of trails already available to able-bodied people.
Amy Lloyd, a member of the Planning Board, prefers walking her dog on a paved surface because of minor balance issues. Along the Minuteman Bikeway she often sees small children, meanderers, recreational cyclists, and occasionally someone riding at an inappropriate speed.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763