The town's Conservation Commission plans to write a letter in support of the town's plan to transform a small, man-made excavation pit into a freshwater coastal wetlands habitat. The goal, according to town officials and a prominent local ecologist, is to create an area that would sustain a variety of plants, birds, amphibians, and other wildlife at the town's Newest Park.
The letter in support of the plan will be sent to the town's Inland Wetlands Agency, which is due to consider the town's plans at a meeting April 2. The Inland Wetlands Agency and the Conservation Commission have scheduled a site walk on Thursday, March 15, at 6 p.m. The site walk Thursday is part of the town's effort to gain a regulated activity permit for expansion and enhancement of an existing impacted inland wetland, and construction activities within 100 feet of an inland wetland.
Also on March 15, at 7:30 p.m., the town's Planning & Zoning Commission will take receipt of the town's application for a "special exception permit to develop a Municipal Park at the site of the former Griswold Airport to include 3 multi-purpose turf grass playing fields, conservation areas, constructed wetland, coastal grassland habitat areas, shared use path and trail system that includes overlooks, an elevated walkway and canoe and kayak launch, an existing hangar building to be adapted for re-use, proposed concession and restroom building, picnic area, natural amphitheater and access driveway and parking areas for 154 vehicle."
Public hearing scheduled for April 19
The town's Planning & Zoning Commission has scheduled a public hearing on the town's plans on April 19, according to Director of Public Works & Town Engineer Michael Ott, who is making the presentations to the boards and commissions on behalf of the town.
All of the meetings are open to the public.
The park, at 1362 Boston Post Road, right next to Hammonasset Beach State Park, but is often referred to as Griswold, after the old airport that used to be based on the property that was named after a prominent local family.
At a meeting of the Conservation Commission Monday night, Ott spoke with commission members about the town's efforts to juggle several priorities, some of which seem like they could potentially conflict with each other. One goal is to have playing fields at the park and paved areas that will support heavy traffic, busses and plowing in the winter. At the same time, the park contains a variety of delicate and important wildlife habitats that the town would like to improve and sustain, while making them available to birders, hikers, kayakers, and other nature lovers. And, the town must do all of this within a specific budget.
Development clustered in north end of park, to preserve environmental features closer to the water
The town plans to accomplish this by clustering development in the northern end of the park, close to the Boston Post Road and a nearby neighborhood that is already densely developed, and then maintaining a generous grassland buffer between the developed area and the area of the park that will support the wildlife habitats.
Conservation Commission members had many questions for Ott Monday night, and ended the evening with an endorsement of the plans as presented. The commission voted in favor of sending a letter in support of the wetlands expansion to the Inland Wetlands Agency.
The commission also discussed the relative merits of maintaining the park in a traditional manner with commercial pesticides and fertilizers, which is generally more budget friendly and less labor intense, versus maintaining it with organic materials, which is generally considered to be better for the environment but which sometimes reduces the quality of playing fields. Ott, when asked, said he has attended several sessions on the topic and has studied it, but he added he is not an expert on it and cautioned that, while it's a good topic for discussion, that final decisions on the matter are best left to experts. He also said any such decisions about maintaining the park would be up to the town's facilities department and Beach & Recreation Department.
"Do no harm"
After some addition discussion on the subject, Conservation Commission member L. Kealoha Freidenburg recommended that the commission express its preferences when it comes to maintaining the park, without recommending a specific approach at this time. "If it's that complicated, why don't we recommend that the town go the route of 'do no harm,'" she said. Commission members voted in favor of sending the town's Beach & Recreation Department a letter saying this, and sending a copy to the town's facilities department.
The town's efforts to take a small, man-made excavation pit and turn it into a habitat for birds, amphibians, and other wildlife was met with enthusiastic support from Madison resident David Skelly, a professor of ecology and associate dean for research at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Skelly also is one of several volunteers who are serving on the town's Park Development Committee, which is guided development of the town's Newest Park.
"The wetland is ... a way to leverage the investment which has been made at the park," he said via email. "As diverse as the environment is, there is very little freshwater there. Expanding by a modest amount the very small wetland at the edge of the forest is a great way to provide a critical resource for all of the species which will use the park. We are being careful to think about keeping the size compact while offering a variety of habitat types which will be useful to different kinds of species including the many bird species we expect to visit."
Expansion and enhancement of wetlands designed to support wildlife
The wetland under discussion appears to be man-made and the result of an excavation, Ott told Conservation Commission members. It is currently about 1/10th of an acre. "The idea is to enhance and expand it to make it 3/10ths of an acre, creating additional wetlands," Ott said. The expansion, he said, will lead to the creation of a varied habitat that potentially could support and encourage use by birds and amphibians. Part of it would be in the sun, and part of it would be shaded by nearby woodlands.
The kind of area that would be created, a freshwater coastal habitat, is rare in the state, Ott and commission members agreed. A nearby trail will be developed to allow people to see it without disturbing it, Ott said.
Ott said the current wetland appears to be entirely the result of an excavation that is fed by groundwater, rather than by a stream. Conservation Commission member Mary Jean "Zoe" Hale asked whether the groundwater has been tested to make sure that it's safe for wildlife. She said she was concerned about that, because the park was formerly used as an airport. Ott said that an environmental site assessment of the park property showed that there was no contamination of the groundwater.
Other town-owned wetlands will be used as nurseries
Ott said he is working with soil scientists and other experts to determine which portion of the expanded wetland should be low marsh, how it should be shaped, and what kinds of plantings to use. He said other town-owned wetlands, including those at the school bus depot and the town high school, will be used as nurseries to develop approved plantings for the expanded wetland at the new park. He said he and the experts he is consulting with will be careful not to create barriers to movement that will become important to the wildlife as the wetland changes over the course of the seasons.
Ott also discussed with commission members the three types of trails that will be included in the park. There will be woodland trails in the coastal forest that will be about five feet wide and created in harmony with the forest floor. No surface materials will be used on these trails. Ott said he is working with the existing design of the park and tweaking it to make sure that the trail contours are not too steep and to reduce the impact of seasonal flooding. A second type of trail, in the coastal grassland, will be a simple mowed trail about the width of the town's lawn mowers. A third trail will be a paved, shared-use path.
The shared-use path will be suitable for bicycles and pedestrians, and will be about eight feet wide, Ott said. It will run from the Boston Post Road, turn into the canoe and kayak launch area, run roughly around the perimeter of the park, providing maintenance and emergency access where required.
Concern about irresponsible bikers
Commission members asked whether biking will be allowed in the park, and Ott said that would be up to the town departments and boards responsible for setting policy for the park. "The Board of Selectmen, the facilities department, and Beach & Recreation will have to weigh in on that," he said. Ott did say that motorized recreational vehicles will not be allowed in the park, as part of the conservation easement in place.
Some commission members expressed concern that irresponsible mountain bikers or road bikers could tear up trails and leave muddy ruts, or that some bikers might take it upon themselves to build ramps and jumps on the trails. Ott encouraged commission members to let the Beach & Recreation Department know about their concerns.
Conservation Commission Chairman Heather M. Crawford said a mountain bike group is talking with the town's Rockland Preserve Advisory Committee, which helps to manage the woodlands park in North Madison. Crawford, in addition to volunteering as chairman of the Conservation Commission, also volunteers on the Rockland advisory committee. Minutes from the Rockland Preserve Advisory Committee meeting in October 2011 says the advisory committee is working with both the Daniel Hand Mountain Biking Club, which has volunteered time at Rocklands doing maintenance, and the New England Mountain Biking Club to do improvements and create more features for mountain bikers on the Rockland Loop Trail.
Town's Rockland Preserve seen as more suitable for bikers
Crawford said Rocklands--which has some rock-studded, single-track trails with interesting drops, climbs, and technical features--seems much more suitable for bikers than the town's Newest Park.
Ott and Conservation Commission members also spent time discussing areas that would be paved in the park, and the type of pavement being used. The town is exploring the idea of using pavement that was torn up from the old airport as a base material for the new paving material. When the old material was torn up, some of it was removed and sold to Tilcon, an area company, to be recycled into new pavement.
Some of the old airport paving material has been retained and is being stored off of Ridge Road, where the town also is storing some sand and gravel. The town hopes to mix the materials and transform it into pavement that will be hearty enough to stand up to bus traffic and snow ploughs, but also attractive enough to fit in with the waterfront ambiance of the new park.
Town's plan is to have pavement look like natural materials
"We are reusing the materials and hope to make something that will look different when it comes to both the color and texture," Ott said. "We want it, I want it, to look like the natural materials in the park. We want it to look like the kind of park you might drive into on the Cape. It has to be functional and it has to be aesthetically pleasing. It has to be impervious pavement ... "
He stopped here and smiled at commission member Joan O'Neill, who had been asking a series of questions to make sure that the paving in the park would not have an adverse impact on the natural features. "Don't frown, Joan," Ott said. O'Neill smiled back at Ott, and continued asking questions.
"It has to be functional. It has to stand up to bus traffic making tight turns. There are going to be 800 kids playing soccer here, and here's where the design comes in," Ott said. He directed them to an aerial photograph of the park on the table. "We are going to limit vehicular traffic to the northern part of the site. There will be no vehicular traffic anywhere else. You can't drive around in here," he said, motioning the the southern part of the park on the aerial photograph. "Play is limited to the northern part of the park. All of the improvements are pushed as far away as possible from the natural resources we are trying to protect."
Supporting a variety of uses while protecting natural resources
Ott said his goal, when he first viewed the parcel, was to do just that, to create areas supporting all of the different uses requested by town residents, while at the same time protecting the natural resources.
Ott said the driving lanes in the park slope towards the medians, and that the medians slope towards the center. Ott said there will be an area of depressed vegetation in the median that is designed to allow deal effectively with infiltration. In the event of an extreme weather event, storm-water discharge should flow out onto a large field. "It is flat and graded so that storm water will go into the landscaped islands and lawns," he said. From there it is about 400 feet to the tidal wetland boundary, he said. The coastal grasslands provide further protection for the sensitive areas of the park, he said.
The town also plans to dig wells to provide irrigation for the park, he said.
Commission members encouraged to weigh in early on matters of interest, including maintenance of park
The commission members and Ott then returned to the issue of organic versus traditional maintenance of the park's fields and plantings, and other management issues.
"Organically or not has not been decided," Ott said. "That will be up to Beach & Recreation and facilities. It's part of the management of the park, along with gates or no gates, horses or no horses, dogs or no dogs, organic or not organic, that's all management."
Ott recommended that commission members weigh in early on those issues, if they are of interest to them. "Do it early," he said. "When it comes to pesticides, I am not an expert on that. When it's raised, it's a hot button issue. The truth is, it needs to be left to the experts."
Town seeking permits for elevated walkway, canoe/kayak launch, and restoration of wetlands in southern part of park
Ott also told commission members about several other features planned for the park. The town is planning an elevated walkway that will be a viewing platform overlooking the Hammonasset Estuary.
The walkway will be handicapped accessible, along with the canoe and kayak launch. The town is currently reviewing a launch mechanism that would allow people in wheelchairs to easily enter and exit their canoes and kayaks.
"The idea is to make all of that accessible," he said. Some of those elements require state permits, which the town is seeking. The town also is seeking a permit to restore some wetlands below the high tide line in the southern end of the park.