Athol developing strategy for Rabbit Run Rail Trail

  • Athol Town Hall and Main Street. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For the Athol Daily News 
Published: 12/5/2022 12:57:00 AM
Modified: 12/5/2022 12:56:38 AM

ATHOL — Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith recently provided the town’s Open Space and Recreation Commission with a brief overview of steps that will need to be taken to secure the properties needed to develop a 6.2-mile-long trail from the New Salem town line to downtown Athol.

The trail would follow the right-of-way of the long-defunct Enfield & Athol Railroad, which ran from Springfield to Athol for 64 years before being shut down in 1935 to accommodate the flooding of the Swift River Valley to create Quabbin Reservoir. While the old rail bed runs through a portion of the South Athol Conservation Area, it also bisects several parcels of privately owned land.

To run the trail through private property, Smith told the Athol Daily News, the town could possibly obtain what is known as a trail easement, rather than purchasing the property outright. Trail easements would give the town the right to use the trail property for recreational purposes, such as biking or hiking, he said. The easement would give the town use of the property along the length of the trail only, not on an entire parcel.

Smith, in an interview several days after the Nov. 22 meeting, said, “(Clinton) Sykes owns a lot of property in that area and he has a lot of holdings. He is one person in particular we would have to work with to get either a trail easement or potential conservation project. Besides him, there is a handful of private properties heading south from the (town-owned) Bidwell property.”

If the town is unable to obtain an easement for a particular piece of property, said Smith, “We would have to find an alternative route. We’d probably have to something like a bike/sidewalk type of trail off South Athol Road. That would be another option we could look at, too, in those cases.”

At Athol’s fall Town Meeting, voters gave the town the go-ahead to seek easements on private properties in order to accommodate the reconstruction of what’s known as the Five Points neighborhood. Smith said it’s his understanding the same process would have to be followed for securing easement for the Rabbit Run trail.

“I believe, since the town would be taking on the ownership or rights of easement, in an easement case, you have to go to Town Meeting, I believe,” said Smith.

Smith said grant monies may also be available to help the town purchase properties needed to facilitate the project.

“The LAND (Local Acquisition for Natural Diversity) Grant, through the state Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, would be a way to purchase property,” Smith explained. “It would require a town match, but the grant would provide at least fifty percent of the cost of purchasing the land for conservation purposes.

“There’s a process,” he continued. “We’d have to have an appraisal done to see how much the property is going to be. However much we get grant funding for is based on the appraised value, and hopefully the property owners would be on board with that amount. And we’d have to go to Town Meeting to get the match before we could even apply for the grant; we have to have the match in hand.”

The goal, said Smith, is to get the appraisals completed during the winter with an eye toward asking voters at the annual Town Meeting in June to approve the match. The grant would then be applied for over the summer.”

Smith did say that some property owners had expressed interest in working with the town “on the easement concept at this point.”

“In order to get the trail between the South Athol Conservation Area and Route 2, in particular, we need to secure the rights to use the trail on those other private properties.”

During the Nov. 22 meeting of the OSRC, commission member David Small noted that any easement must last for a period of at least 10 years, adding, “Hopefully, we would get a permanent easement, which would be much better.”

Current plans call for development of the trail in four steps. The town’s consultants on the project, from the engineering firm of Howard Stein Hudson, said they hope to develop a final plan that follows the original Rabbit Run Railroad as closely as possible.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com. 


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