Public hearings to open aqueduct trails next Wednesday

Bike riders may soon be officially allowed on 40 miles of trails atop old MWRA aqueducts in several area communities.
Bike riders may soon be officially allowed on 40 miles of trails atop old MWRA aqueducts in several area communities.
Wiqan Ang for the Boston Globe/File 2005

The first public hearing on plans to officially allow the use of 40 miles of hiking, biking, and walking trails atop old aqueducts in Boston and 13 western suburbs is planned for next Wednesday in Framingham.

In addition, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has dedicated $25,000 of staff time over the next year for regional planning and to help communities implement the plan, according to Joel Barrera, the council’s deputy director and a member of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s board of directors. The money is from a federal Community Transformation Grants program.

State officials announced plans in May to begin the process of opening to the public the land atop the closed aqueducts in communities that formally enter an agreement to share the property with the MWRA.

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 The agreement would require the host municipalities to keep the trails clean, and provide animal-control, security, and emergency-response services, but the MWRA would continue to mow and maintain the properties, according to officials.

Because the land would be open to the public free of charge, it would fall under the state’s recreational use statute, making the communities immune from liability should someone get hurt on the trails, according to Barrera.

The area communities in which the former aqueducts are located are Berlin, Framingham, Marlborough, Natick, Needham, Newton, Northborough, Sherborn, Southborough, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston. The trails also extend into Clinton and Boston.

For years people have been using the paths, which are mostly grass or dirt and are no more than 100 yards wide, but they are on private property with gates and no-trespassing signs.

“It’s really just decriminalizing the walking on the trails,’’ said state Representative Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat. “Is it better to let people use the paths, or to let them sneak on? This is such a win/win for everyone.”

In Framingham, which is taking the lead on tackling the proposed MWRA agreement, the Board of Selectmen has taken a preliminary vote to move forward, with the town’s Parks and Recreation Department director, Robert L. Merusi, serving as the point person.

The public discussion on the proposal Wednesday is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Cameron Middle School, 215 Elm St.

Merusi said the town has identified an approximately 1-mile section of an aqueduct, by Potter Road and stretching between Elm and Water streets, as the place to start.

The owners of nearby properties will be notified of another required public hearing, which is being lined up for late this month, although Merusi said he does not yet have a firm date.

“We’re taking this one step at a time,” Merusi said. “We’re going to see what we can learn at this hearing and go from there.”

Officials are looking at this first hearing as a sort of pilot program that, if successful, could be used by other communities as a model for moving through the process.

“The hearings are very, very important, those can’t be sidestepped,” said Walsh. “We’re going to let abutters get used to the idea and hear what residents have to say.”

He is optimistic the process in many communities can be completed within a few months, however.

“I fully believe that by fall we’re going to be stomping along those trails,” he said.

With plans for the no-trespassing signs and barriers to be taken down along the aqueducts, all 14 cities and towns have expressed interest in entering an agreement with MWRA, according to Krista Selmi, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The Conservation Commission in Natick unanimously agreed to move forward with the process, a meeting with Newton city officials is scheduled for the coming weeks, and officials in Weston have agreed to start the process, according to the regional planning council’s Barrera.

In Marlborough, conservation officer Priscilla Ryder said that the aqueducts only touch “tiny corners” of her city, “but from a linear, long-range planning perspective, we’re ecstatic.”

Officials hope the first public hearing will move things forward.

But, as Southborough Planning Board member Kathleen Bartolini said, “it’s summer in New England and things slow down.

“We’re so close to the finish line,” she said. “But from my experience once you get to the local level, people are going to have a lot of questions, and that takes time.”