By Elizabeth Rose
---- — MERRIMAC — A stretch of River Road that was damaged in the Mother’s Day storm of 2006 is at the center of a town-wide controversy to be presented to voters on Monday night at the Special Fall Town Meeting.
The meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Sweetsir School on Church Street.
Voters will decide whether to move forward with gaining permission from the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission for the permanent closure of the portion of the road that begins at the intersection of Skunk Road and River Road and extends one-half mile west.
The language asks the town to vote whether to “rescind the vote by selectmen for the petition issued to the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission for the discontinuance of the (River) Road.”
Selectmen Rick Pinciaro invites the input of town voters on the issue, but is quick to remind that an affirmative vote by a town majority at the Special Fall Town Meeting is not a binding resolution.
“Town Meeting cannot overturn the decision of the Board of Selectmen. This is what the town elects [us] to do. It is important for people to be heard and this is why we have gone forward. My colleagues and I will take it under advisement,” he said.
Pinciaro stresses that the selectmen have reached out to administrative, fiscal and legal partners to discuss the issue. He cites the cautionary advice of Merrimac’s insurance carrier that the town would be taking undue risk in keeping the road accessible. This could compromise or eliminate the insurance benefits that the town can enjoy, he said.
“The ‘Save River Road’ initiative is enacted by a group of individuals who want to use that particular roadway as their private park. We have an obligation to the property owners and to the entire town,” he said.
In an opinion piece published by the Daily News recently, resident Harry Bowen addressed the issue of cost to the residents for returning the easement to the abutters. Bowen wrote that “one professional estimate of the cost to the town for completing all of the abutters’ requests is between $400,000 and $500,000.”
In an email Pinciaro stated that the cost to the town would be minimal. The property owners have decided to leave the asphalt, and the DPW will remove the guard rails and cleaning up the area, he wrote.
The sale of the metal will offset in-house costs, Pinciaro said, and there are no hazardous wastes on site.
“The drainage swales will be left alone; no work is anticipated,” he wrote. “Any walls or fence/gate the property owner want, outside of the fencing the town is constructing for safety and liability reasons (estimated at $4,000-plus) is at their expense.”
Property owners will not get tax abatements, he added.
“Property owners originally wanted to have it returned to a roadway but they have come to agree that this is not realistic. Over the past few months they have worked with the selectmen,” Pinciaro said.
The Save River Road initiative is calling for a return of the road to a “pristine and beautiful roadway” that has a historic value endemic to the identity of Merrimac. A Facebook page was launched in July and named Merrimac Informational Support-MIS has acquired 115 “likes.”
In a posting on the page on Oct. 7, one resident described the roadway “as an asset to the town [that is] invaluable, historically, economically, recreationally but even more so as a source of identity, reflecting how e choose to treat the things we own.”
“It speaks volumes about us as a town, our nature, culture and resolve. How we envision opportunity, our commitment to doing our part to maintain the continuity of the regions scenic trails and showing how we care about the quality of life of surrounding communities as well by being an active partner in the thriving revitalization of natural resources throughout the region.”
Pinciaro said that the Save River Road organizers are acting out of “concern with their own personal interests rather than what the Board of Selectmen is concerned with, the welfare of the whole town. “
He also believes that the organizers have not revealed to the general public that the ballot question is non-binding.
“The organizers are aware of this but are not revealing this to those they are recruiting,” he said.
Pinciaro also stresses that to qualify for state or federal funding, should it become available in the future, is a very long shot. The competition for such funds would be enormous and the fact that the road neither impacts the traffic flow or the economy of Merrimac would make it a hard sell to grantors.
“We would need a wealthy benefactor or state or federal funds. The price of the engineering would be $150,000 to $200,000 and the cost to repair would be $3 to $5 million,” he said.