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Conservation dream realized; preservation deal emerges from 7-year bureaucratic battle  

WORCESTER– They hiked along a stone wall beside the East Side Trail on Belmont Hill and talked about its history. Colin Novick pulled a document out of his backpack that he and others had been waiting to get for seven years. It even had a silver bow on it.

“It’s recorded,” said Mr. Novick, executive director of the Greater Worcester Land Trust. “National Trail Day is the first day of June, and we’re going to do this trail.”

Indeed, Deborah D. Cary said, “and we’re going to make it a big deal.”

It is a big deal, they said. The document that Mr. Novick and Ms. Cary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society had before them on their Friday afternoon hike was the product of a seven-year battle with bureaucracy, new agendas and even a recent threat of massive windmills along beloved parkland.

In the last two weeks, Mr. Novick, Ms. Cary and other park and city officials have been scrambling to meet with state officials in order to dismiss the idea of windmills, which would have spoiled the old agreement. The two weeks were filled with drama and emotion over the windmill plans and other proposals for alternative energy.

But now, seven years after it was struck, the deal is finally complete, with the final document in Mr. Novick’s hand – a deed completing a land transaction that will assure the preservation of some 30 acres of wooded land near Green Hill Park as parkland or conservation area. It is a victory for local environmentalists and city officials.

“There aren’t too many cities where you can say there’s 500 acres of park in the middle of the city,” Mr. Novick said.

At issue is the final component of the 7-year-old deal that allowed for the construction of the new Vocational High School on Belmont Hill, an agreement that was looked at as a win for city officials and environmentalists.

The state-of-the-art school is seen as an economic boom for Worcester, showing the city is dedicated to its infrastructure and education, but its construction came with much controversy when it was proposed seven years ago.

The school was built on 16 acres of city land, where the former Belmont Home was once located. Parts of the area were once wetlands. Plus, the city needed to use five acres of Green Hill Park for access to the school.

The use of the parkland infuriated groups who protect open space and parks. They argued that the city had done too much already to the once beloved land that the Green family donated to Worcester for preservation, making it the largest park in the city.

There is a farm there, a memorial and open fields, but decades of development in the area saw the city and state eat away chunks of the preserved land. In the 1960’s, the city used 16 acres of the park as a waste dump site. A Massachusetts Air National Guard armory was built at the entrance. In 1967, the state even used parkland where a swimming pool was located to help with construction of Interstate 290.

Indeed, park advocates had seen too many cases where the park was eaten by modern development, and they were prepared to fight any new use of parkland for anything other than parkland.

“Many times they are limited resources we can’t replace,” Mr. Novick said. “We can’t whittle away at them.”

A deal was struck between the city, the state and environmental groups that would allow for five acres of the parkland to be used for the school. But seven years later, the slow progress of bureaucracy and a new threat of windmills left a cloud of controversy over the school site, even as students were already sitting in classrooms.

Under the original deal, the city would use the five acres of parkland for the school site in exchange for preserving other pieces of land in the area. Seven acres of former Worcester Technical Institute land at the entrance to the park, off Belmont Street, was declared the property of Green Hill Park, giving it park protection. Only state legislation could change any uses of the land. Another part of the deal included the capping of the dump site for use as ball fields.

Also, 15 acres of the Belmont Home land, all wooded land, was preserved as open space, also giving it state protection. Although the land is not part of the park, it adds to the open space and habitat. Other city-owned space, known as the Coalmine Brook area near Lake Quinsigamond, was also preserved as parkland.

And the state agreed to declare more than nine acres of land on the former Worcester State Hospital site adjacent to the park as conserved space, giving it state protection against any development.

The area provides a scenic view of steep rocks and quarries. Turkey vultures have been seen there, and there’s a rare species of black Savannah Oak. There are blueberries and vernal pools. And, the historic stone wall, which was built by Department of Mental Health patients, sits at its border, providing for a marvel of history in the center of a forest.

The best part of it all, Mr. Novick said as he stood at the border of the state land, “is if you look in here, this is Green Hill Park.”

Indeed, it is another 30-some acres of contiguous habitat which stretches from Green Hill Park to the conserved land behind the vocational school and to the new conserved space at the state hospital. There’s open land at the entrance to Green Hill Park. And, with the Coalmine Brook site near Lake Quinsigamond, Worcester has a 3-mile hiking trail from Shrewsbury Street to Lake Quinsigamond, cutting through the park and state hospital site, through wooded land and forest, along vernal pools and a historic stone wall.

“One thing that’s nice is just to remind people of all the land, thanks to this settlement,” said Ms. Cary, director of central sanctuaries for Massachusetts Audubon. “It’s a reflection of all the decades of using Green Hill Park for other uses.”

Since the deal was settled, no one thought too much about it. But within the last two months, just before the restriction was to be signed, a new idea for windmills on the site – part of the state’s plans for alternative energy – became part of the deal, to the dismay of those who worked on it seven years ago.

“The conservation restriction was written to preserve land as it sits right now, and that’s its natural site,” said Brian McCarthy, a past president and member of the Green Hill Park Coalition. “Natural state means you can’t put a 185-foot (windmill) tower on it, with a massive footprint.”

Robert W. Golledge Jr., outgoing state secretary of environmental affairs, said two weeks ago that he understands there was a deal, but the site could be a prime spot for wind energy. He noted that the state has been trying to find sources for wind energy, and considered the DMH land as a resource, in spite of the agreement. “I don’t think energy was part of those discussions (seven years ago) and it’s at least worth having those discussions before closing the chapter,” he said.

The state’s new idea for the site sent city officials and environmental groups scrambling. In the last two weeks, Mr. Novick has worked with City Manager Michael V. O’Brien, who was head of the Parks Department at the time of the deal, to convince the state to sign the conservation restriction without any mention of windmills for the site. They have even traveled to the doorstep of the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, waiting for the signing of the long-delayed agreement.

Environmental groups who worked on the initial land swap deal said they support alternative energy, but not without proper debate about where it should be sited. In addition, there was the integrity of keeping the initial deal preserved.

“It’s time to bring it to closure,” said Mr. O’Brien, who was able to get a meeting on the proposed windmills canceled two weeks ago.

“My best advice to my colleagues at the state,” Mr. O’Brien said, “is that the conservation restriction agreed to by all parties be executed by all parties, to live up to that commitment, and continue to build up good faith.”

Mr. O’Brien made promises to the state that the city will be a pioneer in developing wind energy. He noted that an energy task force he commissioned is set to release a report later this month and Holy Name School is considering windmill energy. There are also other possible sites in the city.

“Worcester will be a leader in the Commonwealth in clean energies,” Mr. O’Brien said. But he added that a more proper way than holding out on the conservation restriction would be “to find the best place and doing it once and doing it right.”

Mr. Novick and Ms. Cary said they also support alternative energy, but in proper places – and not in an area where there was an agreement made seven years ago.

“It wasn’t just to have land, but to have it with the park,” Ms. Cary said. “They just didn’t realize, didn’t fully appreciate, the importance and depth of honoring the settlement agreement.”

On Thursday, Mr. Golledge finally signed the conservation restriction as it was originally drafted. It was his last hour in office. Mr. He was not available to comment Friday about why he had decided to sign the agreement, but it was a victory for park and city officials.

Mr. Novick, who had driven to Boston Thursday to pick up the signed agreement, continued on his walk along the DMH portion of the three-mile East Side Trail Friday, showing off the terrain, the blueberry bushes and vernal pool.

“It’s a nice place,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Milton J. Valencia
Telegram & Gazette Staff


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