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As an avid cycling enthusiast, Brian Pearson loved riding the new $8 million hike-and-bike trail in his town of Fall River, Mass. (8% Latino).
Then he learned a new road project could damage the trail.
The 2.4-mile Alfred J. Lima Quequechan River Rail Trail—which fully opened in May 2017 after nine years of work and an $8 million investment by the state to improve mobility and access to safe places to play—was jeopardized when city officials tried to enable a develop to build a road that would have crossed and re-routed the trail.
Pearson and others were outraged.
They gathered information, attended city meetings, and held a rally. They even hired a lawyer to fight for trail perseveration.
Would it be enough to save the trail?
Trail Stunted by Recession
The Quequechan River Rail Trail was born out of an abandoned railroad line.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) wanted to repurpose railroad lines like this. Local and state groups wanted more walking and biking routes.
In Fall River, the railroad line was within 1-mile radius from half the city’s residents, more than one-third of which don’t own a vehicle.
This means turning the rail into a trail could greatly benefit residents’ mobility.
That is of utmost importance in a city that has worse obesity, diabetes, and physical activity rates than the state overall.
MassDOT, recognizing this in 2008, built the first 0.6-mile section of the Quequechan River Rail Trail in Fall River to boost walking and biking.
But the country fell into a recession. This and other rails-to-trails projects stalled.
Trail Re-Started and Finished
A resurrection didn’t occur until 2011. Several groups, led by the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD), began discussing plans for a 50-mile regional bike network across southeastern Massachusetts, including Fall River.
Watch the 2012 Fall River Bicycle Committee PSA narrated by Pearson.
So the the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and MassDOT’s Mass in Motion campaign did a health impact assessment in 2012 to explore a second phase the Quequechan River Rail Trail.
The assessment made recommendations for engineering, design, and maintenance of a full 2.4-mile trail with trail lights, visible signage, and improving overall city and regional connectivity.
MassDOT, Mass in Motion, SRPEDD, the City of Fall River, local bike groups, and many others, like Pearson who is the chairman of the Fall River Bike Path Committee, got involved in public meetings about the design of the proposed trail.
MassDOT agreed to pay to acquire land for the project and build the trail through the Commonwealth’s 2008 Environmental Bond Bill. All property purchased for open space and recreational use from this source must be permanently conserved for that purpose under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution.
The second phase of the Quequechan River Rail Trail began in 2015.
Another trail section opened in June 2016. A final section opened in May 2017.
The trail was a win.
About 62% of trail users reported walking more since the trail opened, and 15% of users said they used the trail for functional purposes, such as grocery shopping or getting to and from work, according to a 2016 survey.
Trail in Jeopardy
Recently, trail users spotted surveyors flagging the trail.
Was a road coming?
Pearson said he never heard about a new road when he attended all of MassDOT’s public hearings on the rail trail design, according to one source.
Pearson, a previous city council member, called city staff immediately.
He found that Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia sent an easement order to the City Council for Clover Leaf Developers in February 2017.
An easement is a legal right to a limited use of another’s property, such as running sewer or water under ground or a driveway across.
In this case, the rail-trail is the city’s property.
The City Council unanimously approved the easement order.
The easement would enable a two-lane road that would not only cross over and squeeze against the newly constructed rail trail but also reconfigure it, creating 90-degree angles on the path that are dangerous for bikers and walkers.
“The state gave us an $8 million gift of the Alfred J. Lima Quequechan River Trail, a bike and pedestrian linear park, and this is how the city shows its gratitude,” said Julieann Kelly, Mass in Motion coordinator, according to the Herald News.
Cycling enthusiasts expressed disappointment in the city’s lack of transparency. City Council members said the easement order didn’t mention a road that would affect the trail, only water or sewer that would go underneath the trail. The mayor said he thought the Council would seek clarification if confused, according to news reports.
“Democracy was basically undermined by this whole thing,” Alfred Lima, the trail’s namesake and local historian and former city planner, told a Herald News staffer.
Nearly 75 people, including Pearson and Lima, showed up to a city meeting in September 2017 to request that the mayor and city council stop plans to build the new road. Pearson and others also urge city officials to address all future discussions in a public forum.
The mayor said he would suspend road plans, according to news reports.
“Like everything else in the city of Fall River, everyone needs to stay vigilant, super, super vigilant,” Joseph Carvalho, a rail trail advocate and retired history teacher, told the Herald News.
Trail Still Under Threat
Pearson and others worried the mayor didn’t immediately nullify the easement order.
Pearson wanted to find out more, so he contacted many city departments, MassDOT, the Attorney General, a state senator, and filed a freedom of information act..
His efforts uncovered some interesting documents from years earlier.
In October 2013, on separate occasions, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), and the engineering firm Fay, Spofford, & Throndike (FST) said the roadway was not feasible. FST cited the 5,000 square feet of wetlands that would be permanently impacted and that crossing the path is considered hazardous to trail users.
In December 2013, the EEA and the City of Fall River sent a joint letter to Clover Leaf Mills in response to their letter requesting driveway access over and reconfiguring of the rail trail. They gave numerous reasons why they were against the easement and proposed trail rerouting:
- MassDOT cannot expend state or federal funds to signalize a private driveway.
- Property interested purchased for open space and recreational use from [the Commonwealth’s 2008 Environmental Bond Bill] must be permanently conserved for that purpose under the terms of Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution.
- A revised design routing the trail to the north onto private property would require the construction of boardwalk trail in a wetland area and would have other detrimental impacts on wetland resources.
- Simply put, adding a road crossing, even with a relatively low traffic volume diminished the experience of the [trail] user.
Pearson doesn’t understand how the mayor could send an ambiguous easement letter to city council, when multiple agencies said the roadway was not feasible.
“I’m worried the city is looking to put funds into this private roadway” Pearson said.
The rail trail is registered as a linear park, thus any major changes costing more than $10,000 must go through the city park board. This road could cost more than $400,000, Pearson said.
Additionally, when the city entered into the agreement with state prior to construction of the rail trail, they agreed to protect, preserve and enhance all open spaces under Article 97 of Articles of Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution. Agencies shall not sell, transfer, lease, relinquish, release, alienate, or change the control or use to this land.
Correia violated Article 97 by approving the private road, which is a change in use, without sending it to the state legislature, Pearson said.
Pearson contacted the Attorney General’s office about this issue, but has not gotten a definitive answer.
In October 2017, the Friends of the Quequechan River Rail Trail held a rally and bike ride to raise awareness about this issue and share this information.
Pearson and others spoke passionately at this event about saving the trail and asked attendees to show up at the next City Council meeting for support.
In November 2017, the City Council petitioned the court to reverse the easement. The mayor vetoed it.
Hiring a Lawyer to Help Save the Trail
In late November 2017, Pearson, Green Futures, Friends of the Quequechan River Rail Trail, two neighborhood associations, and other trail advocates started the Alliance to Save the Trail.
Their first order of business was to raise funds to hire a lawyer.
If the Attorney General wasn’t going to rule that the city disobeyed Article 97 and nullify the easement, the residents will take legal action, Pearson said.
The lawyer is expected to advise Pearson’s group in December 2017.
If you live in Fall River, stay connected on the latest rail trail developments at the Fall River Bike Committee on Facebook!
Rail trail advocates were even nominated for the Herald News Newsmaker of the Year.
If you don’t live in Fall River, join a walking or biking group in your city. Speak up to elected leaders and urge them to protect safe places to walk and bike for mobility and health!
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.