“If you build it, he will come.” It’s the classic line from the Kevin Costner film “Field of Dreams.” Over time, the line has been changed to, “If you build it, they will come,” often used when referring to new development in a city or town. In Hopkinton, there’s no doubt that if the town completes the extension of the Upper Charles Trail, they certainly will come — walkers, cyclists, joggers and people pushing strollers and walking with their kids along an 8-mile path stretching from Milford to Ashland.
Just where they will be walking is the question that is dogging a project that started almost 10 years ago. One plan under consideration by the Upper Charles Trail Committee (UCTC) has a portion of the path going along busy Hayden Rowe Street (Route 85). That has some residents expressing safety concerns and questioning why some committee members appear steadfast in their support of that plan. Those opposed include one resident who has started a separate committee focused on ensuring the adoption of a safe trail plan.
A process that started in 2012 when the Select Board appointed the UCTC to plan, design, engineer and build the multi-use path is not done yet, the committee insists. Indeed, with a public hearing in December already in the books, another — in the form of a one-on-one workshop — is planned for Wednesday, April 13, from 5-8 p.m. at the Hopkinton Senior Center.
The town also has released a fact sheet addressing frequently asked questions, although at least one opponent of the Hayden Rowe segment claims there are “some substantial inaccuracies” in the document.
“It’s too bad it’s controversial, it really doesn’t have to be,” UCTC Chair Jane Moran said of the debate over trail options. “Our feeling is this town loves trails, and currently most of trails in town, you’re coming up over 40 different trails, are all single- or double-use paths. It’s not at all what our perception is.”
The committee’s perception, she said, is a Class 5 trail similar to the Milford Trail. To build that type of trail, she said, “you have to conform to all federal and state guidelines. It’s like building a road. If you want them to pay for it, you have to follow their guidelines.”
The state, she said, wants as many people as possible using the trail.
“People in wheelchairs, rollerbladers, kids on tricycles, plus runners, plus pedestrians,” Moran said. “They want everybody using these trails to cut down on traffic and get people outside.”
Whether that is best accomplished by having a segment of the trail — the project is broken up into a series of 11 segments — run along Route 85, however, has become the center of much debate and discussion.
Prominent voice rises in opposition
One of the most vocal opponents to the Route 85 plan also is one of the people who has had a huge hand in constructing some of the trails already used by many residents in town.
Peter LaGoy chairs the town’s Trail Coordination and Management Committee and also leads the Hopkinton Trails Cub, a private organization. It is in the latter capacity that LaGoy has become involved with the discussion about the Upper Charles Trail.
LaGoy opposes the Hayden Rowe segment and has championed an alternative location farther west, in a wooded area behind Charlesview Estates (the Teresa Road neighborhood). That would necessitate the town acquiring private land, something the committee has said it would like to avoid. Just last month, however, Town Engineer Dave Daltorio revealed that running the trail along Hayden Rowe might require a complete overhaul of the street layout in order to avoid having to take private property.
As LaGoy sees it, priorities and visions for the trail seemed aligned when the effort first started.
“Folks seemed to be moving the same direction that I thought the trail should be moving in,” said LaGoy, who has worked on a number of trails in town, including Center Trail. “We were looking at that point as going into open space as much as possible, and making some key purchases. For example, a trail that is now called Echo Trail, that was private land that [UCTC] ended up buying. … Some of those steps seemed to me to be reasonable.”
“Things kind of changed around 2016, when different management, someone else, the current chair, took over the committee,” LaGoy continued. “I think you got some slightly different direction as a result of that, which was fine. The committee then moved into, rather than looking at the whole path, they started looking at individual segments, and having the engineering firm do a more detailed analysis, something more consistent with the MassDOT [Massachusetts Department of Transportation] process.”
When the committee released a map showing the total route last November, the Trails Club looked at it and said, “We really have a problem with this,” LaGoy said. “Some of this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. That’s when the conflict really started.”
Working piecemeal is necessary, according to UCTC Vice Chair Eric Sonnett.
“We’ve been working on this for nine years. We don’t have a rail bed through town that can be used,” he said, referencing the original plan to incorporate the old railroad bed, as was done with the Center Trail. Much of that now is owned by private residents. “We have to do it the way we’re doing it in patches, and address which [option] to come up with the best situation we can. Everything we’ve done so far has been approved by our board unanimously, so we’re all in agreement on this.”
The news from Daltorio at the committee’s September meeting, however, sparked much discussion among the committee, with some members expressing that the Hayden Rowe option should be reconsidered.
“What was considered a ‘bombshell’ was really providing the facts,” Daltorio said, referring to the Hopkinton Independent’s characterization of the news. “The information the committee and the town has right now isn’t enough to determine what the impacts would be to private property. A line shown on the plan in December is just a line on the plan. That is where they were showing a possible trail could go. Further details are unknown at this point, if they’re going to impact private property or not. The feedback the committee heard at the meeting and after is there was significant concern with [the Route 85] segment of the plan.”
Moran and Daltorio insist the town is committed to transparency and involving the public throughout the process. The fact sheet released on March 17 seemed geared toward that, but LaGoy, for one, thinks much of the information is inaccurate.
Questions arise about fact sheet, committee
The FAQs touch on nine areas, addressing, among other things, concerns with the multiple crossings of Hayden Rowe, the proposed alignment along Hayden Rowe impacting private property, and using the Trails Club’s proposed alignment instead of the UCTC alignment. Another, longer fact sheet, addressing additional issues and concerns, is forthcoming, Daltorio said.
LaGoy was not impressed with the initial list. The Trails Club responded to each of the items. Regarding the crossings of Hayden Rowe, the Club notes the UCTC plan appears to propose three crossings of Hayden Rowe: one at EMC Park, one at Granite Street, and a third at either 147 or 192 Hayden Rowe. The Trails Club points out that two car accidents involving pedestrians already have occurred on this stretch of Hayden Rowe, one of them claiming the life of a middle school student.
“Good safety practice is to avoid risks whenever possible, and to mitigate risks only as a last resort,” the Trails Club states in its response. “The Trails Club alternative in the woods to the west of Charlesview avoids the three crossings of Hayden Rowe and, therefore, is much safer than the UCTC’s route.”
The fact sheet states, “The UCTC is aware of the history of pedestrian/vehicle accidents on Hayden Rowe. The police chief has summarized the findings of two specific accidents that have been raised by the public. For both incidents, the drivers were charged with negligent driving, among other charges.”
LaGoy called that statement “immaterial.”
“What’s material,” he said, “is the people hit were walking, which is exactly how the people using this crosswalk would be walking.”
Regarding the impact on private property, the FAQ fact sheet states, “The UCTC prefers not to impact private property and has gone to great lengths to evaluate other alignments when private property was found to be impacted. They will continue to evaluate other possible alignment alternatives to make trail connections from Center Trail to the Milford trailhead parking lot.”
In its rebuttal, the Trails Club notes existing boundary markers are 12 feet off the existing roadway. The Trails Club questions the UCTC’s plan for a 17-foot trail plus buffer, saying it “simply cannot fit in the right of way and will require property takings or extensive, costly, and extremely disruptive major realignment of Hayden Rowe.”
Apprised of LaGoy’s questions of the fact sheet’s accuracy, Daltorio said, “The town stands by the information in the FAQ. I don’t want to comment on what other people’s questions are.”
Sonnett, too, stood by the fact sheet, saying, “I thought it captured everything that’s going on. [LaGoy] can have any opinion he wants. My opinion is it was professional, factual and of the highest quality.”
Sonnett, himself, is taking some heat for his role on the UCTC, as he lives in the Charlesview neighborhood.
“I think the person who’s the vice chair got involved in the [UCTC] to avoid that trail going near his house,” LaGoy said. “I think he’s got the chair willing to essentially go along with that as one of his main desires.”
A Hayden Rowe Street resident, Scott Knous, who has started his own group, Hopkinton for a Safe Upper Charles Trail, said he believes Sonnett has opposed alternatives to the current trail plan that are safer and more conducive to the recreational purpose of the trail.
For his part, Sonnett said any suggestions of a personal interest in championing a plan that includes Hayden Rowe Street are off base. He said LaGoy’s initial plan had the trail going by 106 houses in the Charlesview subdivision.
“The neighbors went cuckoo,” he said. “The bottom line is that, in the opinion of our committee, any disruption like that should be avoided if at all possible. That’s where we are.”
While opponents raise safety issues concerning the crossing of Hayden Rowe Street, Sonnett raised his own safety concerns for the Charlesview neighborhood.
“Think about it this way,” he said. “If the trail went through a highly residential area, it would attract people to use the streets in that area as a parking lot. You would have a situation where people with small children would have people in parked cars literally in front of their house, especially at school time and whatever, that may abduct children. You’d have no way of knowing who’s there. … All you’d be doing is creating the most unsafe situation for children in a neighborhood.”
Time for Select Board to ‘take charge’
Knous said his new group, which he said formed after the Dec. 8 public hearing, simply wants to look at all the options.
“Once we became aware of what the plan was and I saw overwhelming community opposition and concerns about the safety of the trail, I thought it was important to try to do the right thing,” Knous said. “[We want to] make sure the [UCTC] follows the process, gathers the facts and that a decision is made that is the safest and in the best interests of the Town of Hopkinton.
“At the end of the day,” he continued, “if they follow the process, gather the facts, inform the town … and we end up with this exact same trail and the town wants it, and it’s safe, we’ll support it. But at the end of the day, it is not the safest option available to the town.”
Knous said it is time for the Select Board to “step in and take charge.”
“It’s not about slapping people on the wrist,” he said, “it’s about people trying to jam things through. Why not do your homework, gather the facts and make the best decision?”
That, said Moran and Daltorio, is precisely what the UCTC is doing, with efforts such as public hearings and fact sheets. In addition, Daltorio said, a town webpage soon will go live to allow people to access information about the project and receive email notifications. It is, he said, all about public outreach.
Said Moran: “We worked very hard to come up with these various segments, and within these segments there are various routes. At the end of the day, the Select Board will have the final say. That’s perfectly fine and obviously right.
“It doesn’t have to be controversial. My feeling is we can have it all. We can have this major trail and have all these other, lesser trails that aren’t established as well, shooting off, going into neighborhoods, going around. There’s no limit to the amount of trails we have in this town. I think we can have it all.”