By Elizabeth Rose
---- — MERRIMAC — On a recent muggy Saturday afternoon, a family of four on an outing, three lazy kayakers, two bicyclists, one youthful jogger and a cormorant on a fishing expedition could all be seen enjoying a damaged one-half mile stretch of River Road that is now at the center of a controversy over its permanent closure.
The stretch of River Road that begins at the Skunk Road and River Road intersection and extends one-half mile west was washed out in the Mother’s Day storm of 2006. Since then it has sustained repeated battering from both Mother Nature and current federal fiscal policies.
The road continues to draw the public to its banks for pleasure and recreation, amid a controversy defined by at least two strongly held viewpoints: selectmen who recently petitioned for road closure and a group of residents who want to search more for resources to repair the road.
In recent years, a change in the frequency and severity of storms that further compromised the road as the drying up of federal funds to repair it has created a frustration for town officials and interested citizens who want to see it fixed.
Since 2006, the Board of Selectmen has been monitoring the road for safety, as well as researching engineering solutions and funding sources to satisfy both safety issues and the public who want to use the area.
Selectman Laura Mailman recently recounted the process.
“This has been a seven-year process during which [all] selectmen continued to meet with people to see if it could be fixed. [Selectman] Rick [Pinciaro] has worked hard to pinpoint reasonable expectations. He even took time from his vacation to meet with the director of the National Park Service to see if funding could be available,” she said.
In September 2012, selectmen voted unanimously to petition the Merrimack Valley Planning Board to allow them to permanently close the road to all traffic including vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. This would cancel the town’s lease on the road and return the land to the abutting residents. This move would permanently remove all town liability and would protect the public from what selectmen view as a hazardous situation.
“The [storm] damage will continue to erode this area. What responsibility do the selectmen have to the community and taxpayers if a horrible accident and possible loss of life occur? I have to remove myself from the emotional part and say what we need to do to protect people,” Mailman said.
A group of residents that includes Rob Atwood, Jim House and Ron Barnes has created a Facebook page named “Merrimac Informational Support—MIS.” The purpose of the page is to communicate about efforts to stop the road closure. The group is asking for time to initiate further funding options to repair the road.
Their page has drawn at least 92 likes since it was launched in July. In addition to following the road’s meeting schedule, the page offers a viewpoint of the road as a historical byway worth preserving because of its place in regional history. Posted are MIS views of the road and copies of documents that date the road as a byway laid out in 1784.
This group was successful in gathering enough signatures to place the road closure question on the Special Town Meeting warrant on Oct. 21. The petition needed 100 signatures and garnered 250.
Voters will be asked to “rescind the vote by selectmen for the petition issued to the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission for the discontinuance of the road.”
According to the group, a favorable vote by the town would be followed by an application for a further study of the road by the National Park Service. The first study would position the road for a further “reconnaissance study” by the National Park Service that, if conducted, would take four to five years. If the road were qualified by the reconnaissance study, it would become eligible for designation as a scenic byway of historical significance.
But Pinciaro isn’t sure that even then the results would pay for road repairs.
“If we do all these pieces and make all these things happen, if we do all these things, am I going to get $3 million to repair a road?,” he said. “It could go for historical structures but not a road.”
In the meantime, Merrimac residents can expect to see a new structure the next time they try to enter this stretch of River Road. Approved at the last selectmen’s meeting was the erection of two 10-foot, locked gates at both the eastern and western entrances to the road.
According to Bob Sinibaldi, building commissioner and DPW director, $4,900 will be spent from Highway Department operating funds. No trespassing signs will be posted.