ARLINGTON — Plans to purchase 400 acres on Red Mountain west of town for a town forest have been shelved.
The Arlington Select Board voted 4-1 to not pursue the purchase ending a fundraising effort and shutting down plans for hiking trails and scenic vistas on the property.
Only Select Board member Todd Wilkins opposed the motion saying that he was a proponent of the plan and would always support efforts to bolster recreation in the town.
The other four board members, including board chair Dan Harvey, Tim Williams, Matt Bykowski and Cynthia Browning said the opportunity had been pursued long enough and the obstacles were too great to overcome.
Many of those obstacles were detailed during the lengthy meeting that drew 30 participants. Although Harvey said many of those in attendance were members of the committee that had been working on the project, led by Hooper Pickering, the overwhelming tone of those who spoke was to oppose the plan.
Most of the opposition came from residents of Wilcox Road, which had been identified as being a key access to the property with plans for parking at the end of the road.
Leading the opposition was Wilcox Road resident Larry Poletti who submitted a written statement to the board that provided a laundry list of concerns that started when he read about the project in the newspaper
He expressed concern about a hiking trail having an impact on the area for hunting and ATV riding. There would be a loss of property tax revenue, and, Poletti said, the neighborhood would lose its peace and tranquility with more vehicles on the road and, eventually, a decrease in property values.
“Unfortunately, for us, the proponents of this project have been working for two years toward their goal, and we have been working for 30 days in opposition,” Poletti said. “None of us knew about this project.”
Poletti said he had delivered a petition with 57 signatures against the Red Mountain trails and said he thought he could get 100 signatures.
Poletti said the surprise came in the newspaper article in which Pickering spoke about the project as if it was a done deal.
Pickering apologized for that and said that was not the impression he intended to give.
“We never intended for it to seem like a done deal,” Pickering said. “We never assumed, as a committee, this was a done deal.”
He said the committee effort was focused on fundraising and working toward gaining access easements from surrounding landowners.
It was pointed out that the purchase price of the property was covered and there would be no cost to the town to buy the land. The only costs would be improvements to the land and upkeep.
But, that didn’t slow down the concern with the project.
Even Wilcox Road resident Sharon Rosenthal, who said she was an avid hiker, opposed the plan.
Rosenthal listed hiking feats such as summiting all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks, completing the Long Trail end-to-end and hiking the Appalachian Trail. But she said the hiking on Red Mountain was dangerous with crumbling footing from loose rock and tremendous erosion.
“I’ve been on Flag Rock and to me coming down Flag Rock is hazardous,” Rosenthal said. “It’s an accident waiting to happen. “I think there’s a liability issue for the town.”
Rosenthal added that the lookouts everybody would be seeking out are on private property and there were no easements in place.
One of those easements, however, is on property owned by Anthony Smith who said his family would gladly provide long-term access.
“I own the other side of Red Mountain,” Smith said. “We own about 800 acres including Flag Rock and the lookout in question. We deeply support this project. I think it’s a wonderful addition to the town of Arlington. I think it helps to build the community access to the outdoors, it’s something that’s greatly lacking. And I just want to put in my, my two cents to say I support it.”
But Smith was one of the only people who spoke in support of the idea.
Andy Nagle who lives nearby, said that the end of Wilcox Road was being referred to as a parking area, but he said that in reality it was a turnaround for buses, garbage trucks, plows and other large vehicles.
Nagle said if that area is full of cars belonging to hikers, there wouldn’t be room for vehicles to turn around.
Scott Seidel said he owned the property in question and didn’t want to be in the middle of the debate.
“We own the property at the end of Wilcox Road that has become quite controversial lately,” Seidel said, adding that his family wasn’t opposed to the idea but there were some concerns.
One was that when they were first approached the Wilcox Road access was going to be one of three or four access points and would be used more for maintenance than anything else.
“There was never any discussion about trying to have it be a primary access point,” Seidel said. “I’m not opposed to the project, however, I’m opposed to a few things that seem to be occurring. And one of the issues is making Wilcox a primary access.”
Seidel said they’ve owned their house for almost 30 years he didn’t want to do anything to annoy the neighbors.
“We like our neighbors and we like the neighborhood and we’re certainly not going to do anything that’s going to aggravate everybody in the neighborhood,” Seidel said. “We want the neighbors to be satisfied with what’s ever going on. We really didn’t want to be in the middle of this controversial project and had no idea it was going to become that when we first started talking.”
Denise Koller is one of those Wilcox Road neighbors and she said they moved to the area for tranquility.
“We love every single one of our neighbors we have become friends with all of them,” Koller said. “Whether there are four cars or 40 cars parked at the end of the road, the thought of more cars going up and down, is just going to make it more difficult for us.”
Koller also questioned who would benefit from the addition?
“Is anyone really going to benefit from it,” Koller said. “You know, we don’t have that many businesses in Arlington. I just think that you really want to look at cost-benefit, and how much is the town going to have to invest.”
Finally, she asked about dogs, pointing out a recent discussion about people not picking up after their dogs at the Rec Park.
“Everybody walks their dogs and you know hikers take their dogs,” Koller said. “So that means that the town is going to be responsible for cleaning up dog poop.”
Tom Williams had a wider range of concerns.
“I think we have a lot of needs in town that aren’t being addressed,” Williams said. “It appears to me we’re not taking care of our own infrastructure. These are needs, our infrastructure, our bridges, culverts, catch basins, we’re not taking care of what we’ve got. So, to take on additional responsibilities and liability and additional expenses in the form of hiking trails I don’t think we need.”
The Select Board members each offered their comments and the main theme was that there seems to be too many problems without answers to consider taking on 400 acres.
Board member Cynthia Browning said she had supported moving forward with investigating to see if it was a good idea.
“I have real concerns about the future of the project,” Browning said. “I honor the effort. But, I really question if the town can go forward with it.”
Board member Matthew Bykowski echoed Browning.
“In listening to the comments tonight, I’m worried we don’t have enough answers to all of our questions at this point.”
Board member Todd Wilkins was the one who wasn’t ready to vote to end the possibility of creating a town forest.
“I’m a proponent of this project and I’m a big fan of outdoor recreation space,” Wilkins said. “I hear concerns coming from the Wilcox Road residents.”
But he said he wasn’t prepared to vote to end it.
Board member Tim Williams spoke forcefully to end the process and said he was upset money had been spent on Red Mountain that could have been spent on the Rec Park.
“I have a very strong feeling we should make a decision tonight,” Williams said. “This has been on the table for two years. We’ve been kicking the can down the road.”
Board chair Dan Harvey also thought the process had gone on long enough and if the board didn’t vote on the issue at that time, it should be tackled at the next meeting at latest.
“I share many of the concerns that the various residents have expressed and some that I’ve heard tonight,” Harvey said.