Meeting will be held for public comment on Bidwell site in Athol

The Bidwell Barn on the 100-acre Bidwell property.

The Bidwell Barn on the 100-acre Bidwell property. FILE PHOTO

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 01-23-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 01-29-2024 12:16 PM


ATHOL – When it comes to the future of the 100-acre Bidwell property, Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said it will be up to the voters whether it becomes housing, community space or a mix of uses.

Residents will get another chance to examine proposed uses for the town-owned, land located off South Athol Road at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 30, at 6 p.m. at Athol Public Library. This meeting will be facilitated by the BSC Group, the consulting firm hired by the town to develop strategies for the site.

At its meeting on Dec. 5, the Selectboard advocated for a mix of uses for the parcel, some of which could generate revenue, which could be used to pay for the development of recreational facilities.

“I think the consultants, the folks that responded to the surveys, the folks who showed up for the first planning session, and the board itself have a high level of interest in doing something that’s going to be great for the community long-term,” said Suhoski.

Suhoski said Tuesday’s forum will supplement the report BSC made to the Selectboard in December.

“In the online survey,” he continued, “there was a clear preference for preserving land, open space, and there was a good amount of support for recreation. There was really zero support for any commercial or industrial use. The response to housing was a bit tepid, kind of in the middle.

“But, we’ve also recently completed our housing production plan, which does recommend some level – a modest amount of housing – and that Bidwell site could be a likely location. We certainly have a demand for housing across the Commonwealth and here in Athol and North Quabbin as well.”

The town manager said the town has a chance to build community support for an option “which could fund itself, if a portion of the land were set aside for housing or some monetary recapture of funds.”

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Suhoski did point out that any proposal requiring an outlay of money or any ownership transfer of a portion of the land will ultimately need the approval of a town meeting.

“The voters,” he said, “will determine the ultimate fate of the property.”

Suhoski said the barn that sits on the parcel should be considered a separate issue from the property. He said he’s unsure if an engineering consultant will have the chance to complete an inspection of the barn prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“The barn is an issue in and of itself,” said Suhoski. “People say, ‘Let’s save the barn’ or ‘Maybe we can’t save it.’ But it should not get in the way of planning for the future use of the site. If it’s not the barn housing the farmers market, we’ll build a nice pavilion that will house the farmers market, or whatever goes there. It’s related to the site, it sits on the site, but that can be answered separately. That’s just my perspective.”

Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith said the development of the Rabbit Run Rail Trail through the Bidwell property is “definitely a piece of the puzzle” when it comes to the future of the site.

“The Rabbit Run rail bed that runs through the property is in really good shape today,” he said. “It’s walkable, for the most part. There are some areas as you go south that will have to be made wide enough for a rail trail pathway. And we’re not looking at a paved rail trail, it would be more of a gravel or packed stone type of surface. That’s part of the engineering process we’re going to be going through with the next grant I’m submitting within the next nine days.”

Smith pointed out the trail had the support of 91 percent of the more than 400 people who completed the online survey seeking input on the site.

A copy of the master plan compiled by BSC can be seen at www.athol-ma.gov/dept-of-planning-and-development.

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