Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2008
By Matt Ryan
Free Press Staff Writer
WESTFORD -- A half-mile stretch of dirt in Westford has long been the crux of a debate between conservation and landowners' rights within the town. The Selectboard may soon decide the trail's fate, and some residents say they fear the decision could set a precedent that would endanger all the town's trails.
The dispute has narrowed to 450 feet of the Covey Trail, which a landowner wants to convert into a driveway to connect his property to Stoney Ridge. The trail, a town right of way, connects Stoney Ridge and Covey Road through undeveloped land of trees and rock.
Larry Packard of Milton bought the 30 acres adjacent to the trail in 2000, and plans to sell the property to a developer after installing the driveway. The prospective developer, Richard Bouffard, says he plans to build a private residence on the property.
Two years ago, the Selectboard agreed to terms to have the driveway installed. The current Selectboard, however, decided to revisit the issue.
"There are a lot of people who are very interested in it," Selectboard Chairman Dave Tilton said. "They fall into two camps -- people interested in recreational trails, and they want to see the town protect those trails; and then the other group is concerned about the private property rights of the landowner that wants to develop that property."
The core group of residents working to prevent Packard from building a driveway live at either end of the trail. Lynn Zinger, who sits on the town's Planning Commission, owns a home on land adjacent to that of Packard at the end of Stoney Ridge and the trail's southern entrance.
"They shouldn't give up something that's worth this much to the town for one individual," Zinger said.
Residents use the path for recreational activities such as biking, hiking and snowshoeing, said Joan Farmer, who lives at the opposite end of the trail from Zinger.
"In a nutshell, it's crucial to what this town is all about," Farmer said.
The driveway project, according to the agreement reached between Packard and the Selectboard two years ago, would include a new section of trail to wrap around the driveway and connect the rest of Covey Trail with Stoney Ridge. At a Selectboard meeting last month, Westford Road Foreman Gary Estus estimated the proposed plan would cost $22,563.
Estus also estimated Zinger's well, which she says could be destroyed by blasting on Packard's property, costs $16,000.
Zinger and Farmer say they are not "elitists" or "not in my backyard" people. Cars or trucks driving on the path would threaten people using it for recreational use, they said.
They said they fear Bouffard would subdivide the lot, which would invite more traffic. Also, it could invite other developers to try to build off the town's other trails.
The Selectboard will meet in executive session Thursday with the town attorney to discuss whether to grant Packard permission to upgrade the trail to driveway standards.
"Once that access is granted, they can't take it back," Zinger said. "He would have to go to the Planning Commission, but he would easily be able to subdivide. Our concern is that once access is granted, that's the precedence."
Packard said he just wants to sell a piece of land for which he has no use.
"When I bought the land, I wanted to build up there," Packard said. "And we ended up with some decent land in Milton, and we ended up building there."
Packard's land, being adjacent to the trail -- a town right of way, is not considered landlocked. However, to develop the property, the owner would need to connect to the nearby road, Zinger said.
"You're supposed to have road frontage," Zinger said. "Our local road ordinance says in order to develop property, you need to have 450 feet of road frontage, and you can't use a trail. But that's all interpretable, because it used to be a road."
Covey Trail was used for logging and considered a road until 1975, when it was renamed a trail, Zinger said.
Packard's land is valued at $1,664 per acre. Comparatively, a 13-acre landlocked property on Brookside Road is valued at $569 per acre; a 15-acre property on Osgood Hill Road with road frontage is valued at $3,203 an acre; and a 42-acre property with a right of way is valued at $1,917 per acre, Town Clerk Nanette Rogers said.
"I have a piece of land, and I can't use it," Packard said. "It's not going to serve any purpose if it just sits there."
Zinger offered to buy the land -- valued at $50,100 -- for $15,000.
"They have offered me some money for it, but it's a joke," Packard said. "If they had made me a reasonable offer, I would have sold it."
Contact Matt Ryan at 651-4849 or firstname.lastname@example.org