Residents Flock to Advocate Differing Visions of A Belmont Community Path

Supporters, opponents to an off-road path commented before Selectmen as time nears for a final recommendation.

Mary Watters from Channing Road came to the microphone in front of several hundred residents to make a single statement to the Belmont Board of Selectmen during the Community Path Advisory Committee's public forum at the Beech Street Center on Wednesday night, Jan. 22.

As an abutter to one of the most discussed proposed paths that would be located adjacent her backyard, the life-long Belmont native said since she first moved into the small Cape with the big front garden in 1965, the neighborhood has witnessed a new high school, playing fields and more trains along the commuter rail track running behind her house; bringing noise and light pollution to the homes.

A community path, contends Watters, is one too many impositions for the neighborhood to bear. 

"I know a lot of [Channing Road abutters] feel the way that I do; We have given up enough for this community," said Watters, voicing the opposition to the proposed path that a majority attending the meeting felt was the most advantageous and safest route from Belmont Center to an existing path to Cambridge's Alewife Station on Brighton Street.

Watters reiterated her and many of her neighbors long-standing complaints that have been part of the community path discussion since the 1990s; a loss of privacy, water draining into their properties and the worry of crime flowing from "a city environment" namely Cambridge.

"I feel like a stranger at these meetings," said Watters, wondering if anyone is truly listening to their complaints.

Despite frigid temperatures and the after-dinner timing, the Beech Street Center was filled to a standing room overflow after an appeal from a newly-created citizens group in support of a community trail brought attendance at the meeting to nearly 300, 10 times the usual number residents who have attended past CPAC meetings. 

The CPAC was created by the Selectmen in 2012 to conduct an extensive review of a proposed combined walking, running and bike path/trail running from near the commuter rail tracks in Waltham to the Cambridge line, being part of the planned Mass Central Rail Trail linking Northampton to Boston's North Station.

Following soon after Watters, Grant Monahon, president of the Belmont Citizens Forum which owns the land the path is situated – between the westbound MBTA commuter rail line and the abutter's properties – said while the majority of those in attendance were in favor of an off-road option, he believed Channing Road homeowners concerns could be addressed through careful planning and engineering, whether now or in the future.

"I would hope that it would be something that would allow for a balance between what would be an off-path solution and a very safe solution for the community down through the years while also listening to the real concerns of the Channing Road folks for what they believe will be the impacts on their specific neighborhood," said Monahon.

A focus on the future 

By the end of two hours of comments, critiques and statements from nearly three dozen residents, (the meeting was recorded by the Belmont Media Center)  the initial reaction from selectmen – who will receive a recommendation from the CPAC in less than two months – was one which questions still require answers. 

"I though it was very productive, very civil so I'm encouraged that we can come to a solution that meets the goals of the CPAC," Selectman Chair Mark Paolillo told Belmont Patch after the meeting. 

Paolillo said answering the concerns of those pushing an off-road solution using the rail/trail path and the Channing Road abutters which, as a group, is now promoting an alternative path running along Concord Avenue, will likely be resolved through a focus group after the CPAC concludes its mandate in delivering a recommended route to the Selectmen in early March.

"I believe the best solution for at least the section of the path from Belmont Center to Brighton Street will be more discussion between (the two groups)," said Paolillo, adding that his suggestion requires approval by the entire board.

Paolillo also suggested the project could be completed in two stages, with the section from the Waltham line to Belmont Center approved since it appeared to have more support and less criticism attached to it. 

"We should push forward on that end of the path," he said.

In a meeting promoted as focusing on abutters concerns became the public unveiling of a new group in support of an off-road path for all citizens in town.

"This is what happens when people get motivated," said Phil Lawrence, a longtime bike commuter who lives on Agassiz Avenue, who along with three other residents started the Friends of Belmont Community Path a month ago to help push for an path through Belmont that would not contend with traffic, cross streets and driveways.

"We didn't feel that the voice of the rest of the community was being heard and that has consequences," said Lawrence who began a Google Group and a Facebook page for the organization and quickly received 250 "likes" in a matter of days.

"All we were hearing was negative comments for an off-road option and we know there is a large constituency for that sort of path," said Lawrence.

The Friends and other community path supporters told Selectmen and the committee the an off-road path would be safer and the most popular of the three proposals suggested by the committee.

Safety paramount for community path

"I am strongly in favor of an off-road pathway … off a major road such as Concord (Avenue). I think it's dangerous to ride along a busy street and if this is to be a community path then we need to ensure that it's safe for families," said Janet Kruse from Grant Avenue.

While not an abutter to any of the proposed paths, Kathy Keohane from Rutledge Road told the audience that she had direct experience with a proposed community trail, what would become the Minuteman Bikeway, going by her house in Arlington.

"And I actually spoke against it when it was initially proposed … for some of the same reasons I've heard here," said Keohane including privacy, trash and crime "as we were just paving the road so that criminals to my house and then escape faster."

"And I'm happy to say that I was wrong on every account," said Keohane. "I would encourage people to think about it and support it." 

Accustomed to being the largest interest group at past meetings, several Channing Road residents told the Selectmen they felt "a bit intimidate" by the turnout from the Friends supporters, many wearing orange buttons proclaiming "Belmont CommUNITY Path." 

Rather then taking a dismissive view of the entire path process as they have in the past, most Channing Road residents voiced their support for a path, just not outside of their backyards.

"My main concern is privacy," said Scott Rossi of Channing Road, stating the most issues expressed by homeowners.

"[The path] is very evaluated, it's very high so people will be able to see in unless there is some substantial wall," he said noting that track work being done by the MBTA gives the issue more weight because "there are people there that I was not expecting to be behind my house. It's kind of strange."

And while the concept of a community path using rail beds work in other areas such as Cape Cod and the Minuteman Bikeway "all look beautiful … but just because it fits in one town doesn't mean you can force fit it into another," said Andrew Wall.

Inserting the path on Concord Avenue 

At the meeting, Channing Road residents sought to move the argument from their neighborhood across the commuter tracks to Concord Avenue where they are advocating to place the path. 

"I think that [using] Concord Avenue is a strong option. It does connects with [Belmont] High School, the post office, the library, the [athletic] fields and the pool," said Channing Road's Steven Marlin who questioned safety along an active  rail line.

A path using Concord Avenue as its main source appeared to intrigue both Paolillo and Selectman Ralph Jones, especially one similar to the dedicated elevated bike path along Concord Avenue in Cambridge that runs along the edge of Fresh Pond. 

"I never heard this plan before about changing the configuration of Concord Avenue for a path along the road," said Jones.

Under one scenario, Concord Avenue's tree-lined center island would be removed and on-street parking restricted from Belmont Center to the Cambridge line – a new 50-space municipal parking lot could be placed in the current location of the Thomas Clark House adjacent to the White Field House – with the elevated path being constructed adjacent to the sidewalk on either the north or south side of the street. 

"We need to look into this," said Paolillo. 

But such a path "would be incredibly expensive" admitted Jones and while separating vehicle traffic from bikes and walkers, off-road advocates said the number of intersections, driveways and entries to parking lots along either side of Concord Avenue would reduce safety significantly. 

The debate over using existing streets or an off-road option still have yet to resolve what has become the CPAC's "Kobayashi Maru scenario": Is there any possible way a community path can effectively negotiate Belmont Center?

In many plans, the difficulty for walkers and bikers navigating the notoriously chaotic traffic patterns in the vicinity of the commuter rail bridge where Concord Avenue and Common Street converge appears left up in the air for some future design team to ponder.  

In addition, the MBTA has actively opposed paths crossing at an active rail line such as a Concord Avenue path option when it connects with Brighton Avenue. 

But unlike past initiatives that have either failed to gain public support or were abandoned due to neighborhood opposition, Paolillo agreed with comments made during the discussion that the committee and the board must commit to making a final recommendation.

"Doing nothing is no longer an option. The CPAC was not created to be a waste of time. We must move on this project," said Paolillo. 

Viking January 31, 2014 at 07:47 AM
@Bonnie Friedman: what you have written illustrates the limited utility of a bike path as a means to getting to a destination. Most who use a bike path to get somewhere are going to have to ride a bike on streets to get to the path, and then ride on streets to get from path to destination. Sure, there are some areas directly adjacent to a bike path, but in every town or city, most points of origin and destinations are blocks and even miles away from the bike path. A bike path does not make it unnecessary to ride a bike on the streets and will likely make the route less direct. The current bike path to Brighton St. already adequately serves Belmont residents who want to go to the subway station and points east – and even that number would be sharply reduced during about half of the year by the prospect of returning home at night on a dark path. How many Belmont residents return to Belmont on the path, on foot or by bike, from Fresh Pond and points east, after 5 PM from October to April? Has the town done a count? If it is as low as 373 persons, or 2% of the Belmont population 18 and older (U.S. Census, 2010) , can the argument seriously be made that we need a longer bike path for commuters? That leaves a path that is mostly useful for recreational purposes. In the current fiscal situation in cities and towns, do we really want to spend limited resources on a path that is used for recreation by what is probably only a very small proportion of the population? Why must taxpayers be prevailed upon to finance something that most will never use? Of course, it is unthinkable to take a small child out for a bike ride on a busy main road, but that is a red herring. As was ever the case, there are quiet side streets where children may ride bikes safely, with supervision. And If it is not safe for your grandson to ride somewhere on his bike, it’s not a “shame”. It’s reality. We are not living in rural America. Do drive him until he is old enough to ride his bike, and be glad to spend the time with him. As an adult, I commuted by bike for seven years in Cambridge. No bike path would ever have gone from my apartment to my office, or encompassed my side trips to various other destinations. I rationally accepted that I must share the road with cars, driveways, joggers, etc. I rode carefully and enjoyed my ride. Later I moved to Belmont and stopped riding my bike because of the hills and because suburbia brings with it the welcome efficiency of being able to park a car right at my home (often impossible in Cambridge) and near stores, the houses of friends, and other destinations. Belmont bike path advocates should think about the fairness of imposing a bike path on the Channing Rd. residents. They are already dealing with living near rail road tracks. Does your wish for an occasional recreation ride or walk trump their wish for a relatively private backyard every day , something enjoyed by the rest of us? Would you want “hundreds of people”(Friedman’s figure; accuracy unknown) passing by your backyard on a nice Sunday? If Channing Rd. residents don’t want the additional burden of a bike path, other residents of Belmont , especially those who use the train, should support them.
Waverly Watchdog January 31, 2014 at 09:19 AM
The proposed bike path simply has not been thought through. - - - I had some friends in a nearby town and a bike path was constructed abutting their property. After about a year, they sold out (at a loss) and moved. The bike path was an intolerable burden. Virtually every day, people knocked at their back door, asking for water or if their kid could use their bathroom or some other thing. - - - Nooooo! That won't happen in Belmont, I hear the proponents wail. WHY NOT? - - - Think it through... There are two options: Either the path will have NO access to the neighborhood, or it will. In the case of no access, the path will be essentially a closed tube from The Center to Alewife. This makes it a good place for crime, because an attacker can easily eascpe leaving the victim far from help. If there is free access, it becomes a continual nuisance to the abutters. - - - Despite the co0nvenience for a State Senator advocate, this project is a Special Interest boondoggle and should be ditched.
Joel Cutler February 21, 2014 at 10:25 PM
All the NIMBYism is disgusting. This is a regional solution to an open space problem. Would you rather have the trains running through your back yard? It seems the more affluent towns like Belmont and Weston have a greater problem with NIMBYs. Let's grow up, we all live together on this small planet. Creating a linear path through Belmont is a great idea. Let's all get behind it!
Viking February 22, 2014 at 12:05 AM
@ Cutler: Wow, you sure have your planning school jargon down pat: NIMBYism, regional solution, open space, small planet, linear path . . . You only forgot “transportation hub”. But you did get in that requisite leftist dig at the “affluent”. Apparently you have not ridden your bike through the substantial portion of Belmont that could never be labeled “affluent”. You lay claim to lofty thoughts, but you are curiously devoid of empathy. The people who live on Channing Rd. DO have trains running through their backyards. You apparently want to add more to their burden so you will have your “linear path” to nowhere. To borrow some of your patronizing attitude, it is you who should “grow up”.
Waverly Watchdog February 22, 2014 at 12:18 PM
@ Cutler: "This is a regional solution to an open space problem. " You must be delusional. The USA is NEVER going to have an economy based on your greenbat vision of bicycles everywhere. In fact, the bicycle has virtually disappeared from Bejing. The bicycle is ONLY meaningful in societies that are TOO POOR to afford cars. China has become rich and bicycles are gone! This is Progressive ARROGANCE of the most blatent sort. - - - It is OBVIOUS that you have NO CLUE about the proposed bike path. One of the options is about 20 FEET from a operating Commuter Rail track. Your NIMBY accuration is UTTER NONSENSE! - - - If you don't know even such a BASIC fact, you likely also do not know that Belmont has a SERIOUS drug problem. A guy DIED of a Heroin OD a couple of weeks ago. There are OD transports on a regular basis. Much of this is coming from abutting Cambridge, often from precisely the area where the proposed bike path goes. The bike path would increase the communications. That is NOT a 'good thing', except in your deluded world. - - - Progressive philosopy CANNOT make everybody rich or happy, so, instead, it strives to make EVERYONE equally poor and miserable... except, of course, those who are 'more equal' than the general populace.


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