Athol residents push back on housing proposal for Bidwell

Residents packed the community room at the Athol Public Library for a meeting on three possible reuse options for the 100-acre Bidwell property on Tuesday, Jan. 30.

Residents packed the community room at the Athol Public Library for a meeting on three possible reuse options for the 100-acre Bidwell property on Tuesday, Jan. 30. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

Olivia Knightly (left) and Heather Gould of BCS Group go through three potential reuse options for the Bidwell site.

Olivia Knightly (left) and Heather Gould of BCS Group go through three potential reuse options for the Bidwell site. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

Planning and Development Director Eric Smith opens Tuesday's public meeting on the future of the 100-acre, town-owned Bidwell property.

Planning and Development Director Eric Smith opens Tuesday's public meeting on the future of the 100-acre, town-owned Bidwell property. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-01-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 02-01-2024 5:12 PM


ATHOL – The library’s community room was packed Tuesday night for a public meeting on the future of the town-owned Bidwell property off South Athol Road.

Those in attendance expressed determined opposition to the construction of any housing on the site, while seemingly open to some of the recreational opportunities.

Heather Gould and Olivia Knightly of BSC Group, the consultant hired by the town to develop potential uses for the property, facilitated the meeting, presenting three possible scenarios for the 100-acre site.

“The concepts that we present,” said Gould, “are just ideas to get the conversation to continue. We are not trying to push any one concept. This is to get an idea of what the residents really want with this site, which is such a large site.”

Gould noted that a survey conducted last year completed by more than 400 people, which indicated overwhelming support for conservation and recreational uses. At the same time, a large majority of respondents opposed any residential, commercial or industrial development.

Concept One, Gould explained, called solely for improvements to existing trails on the property. Any work would be limited to making trails more accessible to people of varying abilities, as well as the placement of some wayfinding signage.

“This would have the least impact,” she said.

Concept Two would include trail improvements and development of recreational facilities, such as a disc golf course, a rope course and playground for children, and opportunities for cross country skiing and snowshoeing in winter. Gould said this option would “leave most of the site untouched,” except for a small portion off South Athol Road set aside for the more active kinds of recreation, as well as construction of a pavilion similar to that at Silver Lake Park.

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Concept Three identified a small patch of land in the northwest corner of the parcel that could be suitable for housing. Gould said the site, just off South Athol Road, could accommodate “about 28 townhouses of about 1,000 square feet each.” She added the development could generate revenue for the town – nearly $73,000 annually – through property taxes. Some elements of the first two concepts, such as play space and hiking trails, were incorporated into this third option.

In addition, a study done for the Department of Public Works identified several areas in the southern portion of the property which would be suitable for the establishment of new wells for the municipal water system.

Resident response

Among the first to voice opposition to a housing component was Raenette Kramer, who also sits on the town’s Board of Health. Public safety departments, she argued, are already overtaxed. She also contended the average Athol family couldn’t afford the estimated $288,000 cost of each home, as detailed in BCS’ scenario.

“I think the town could benefit from something other than profit,” said Kramer.

She also pointed out that, at two previous public meetings, residents had expressed opposition to housing on the site.

“We’ve said it twice; we’re saying it for a third time,” Kramer said. “When is enough enough?”

When asked by Kramer who asked BCS to again include housing among the options for the Bidwell site, Gould replied “we were asked by the town, by the town administration.”

“With due respect,” Kramer replied, “there are two members on the Board of Selectmen that both have contractors’ licenses. I think they should abstain from anything to do with housing on town property.”

Former Selectboard member Mitch Grosky responded later, “These selectmen and women are doing the job we appointed them to do. It is prudent and responsible for them to examine and present to you all of the uses for this property. They’re doing what we elected them to do; there’s nothing nefarious about it. They’re working in our best interest, and I want you all to understand that.”

Several residents balked at the estimated $1 million cost of extending “utilities, access roads, water, drainage, hydrants, electrical, (and) septic” to a new housing development.

“Some of these costs could be pushed off to the developer, though,” said Gould. “This is just to give everybody an educated idea of impact.”

Concerns were also raised that the estimated cost of Concept One - $150,000 to improve and mark the 3.2 miles of trails on the property – is too high. One speaker said he personally has no problem stepping over logs or rocks along the trails.

“I think it’s worth mentioning that, although some of us are able to maneuver those trails, not everybody has that accessibility and mobility to enjoy the outdoors,” Knightly said, adding that state grants could be used to “maintain the trails essentially as they exist now, but in a way that more people could enjoy them.”

Mary Holtorf, chair of the Downtown Vitality Committee and a member of the Open Space & Recreation Committee, pointed out that a total of nearly 100 units of housing will be created through the redevelopment of the former Riverbend and Bigelow schools, along with construction of a new development on the site of the downtown parking deck. She added that town-owned property south of Canal Street in downtown Athol could also be used for housing.

The future of the barn that sits on the Bidwell property was not discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. Prior to the presentation by BCS, Planning and Development Director Eric Smith said a consultant will be in Athol sometime in the next two weeks to undertake an architectural assessment of the barn.

Gould said BCS would pursue additional public input regarding the options presented. Work will be done to refine proposals for the site, as well as trail concepts. She added that potential funding sources for development of recreational components of the plan would be explored, and that the feasibility of a “cluster-style residential component on the site” would continue to be assessed.

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