NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 16, 2013

Saving Merrimac's River Road

Viewpoint
Harry Bowen

---- — On Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Sweetsir School in Merrimac, 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 (River) Road.” Voting in the affirmative is necessary in order to prevent our Board of Selectmen from abandoning the road and turning the land, upon which the road sits, over to the road’s abutters.

Merrimac residents who haven’t traveled the half-mile stretch of roadway that has been closed to automobile traffic for the past seven years should know that many of us who have traveled the road before its closing, and subsequently by foot and bicycle, view that stretch of highway as the most beautiful in the Merrimack Valley, and one of our town’s most important physical assets. River Road was probably the first road into the area, long before the Town of Merrimac existed, and has been used by horse-drawn and motorized vehicles for hundreds of years. With the exception of its 1930s guardrails, from its forested hillside, winding roadway and turkey-, beaver-, duck- and deer-populated riverbank along that section of River Road, one is hard-pressed to find any sign of human habitation for as far as the eye can see.

The decision by Merrimac’s Board of Selectman to abandon the road and turn it over to abutters is indeed baffling. In a letter to the Board of Selectmen, dated April 8, 2013, five of the road’s abutters state, “To fulfill the action item assigned to the abutters at the February 7, 2013 meeting (at which selectmen presumably agreed to turn the road over to abutters) we are requesting the following:” The list of items requested by the five abutters includes: “removal of asphalt paving … removal of all guardrails and posts … addition of stone wall/fencing with posts for 12-foot split (6-foot each panel) swinging gates …” and “property tax abatements to the current landowners … .” Reading through the list of abutter requests, it appears that abutters feel the town owes them for agreeing to take over the roadway. All told, one professional estimate of the cost to the town for completing all of the abutters’ requests is between $400,000 and $500,000 — a high price indeed when compared to the $1.4 to $1.8 million that another professional estimate has said fixing everything on the road and riverbank would cost.

Aside from the town’s failure to date to obtain state or federal funding for the road and riverbank repair, our selectmen’s main reason for abandoning the town’s right of way on River Road appears to be their publicly expressed concern, “if a horrible accident and possible LOSS OF LIFE occur.” Such rhetoric is indeed excessive in light of the fact that for the past seven years, since the riverbank collapses in 2006 and 2010, selectmen have failed to post a single sign on the road warning the public of anything. In addition, of the two eroded areas along the road, only the eastern area has seen additional erosion since those initial riverbank collapses, and that erosion has only been by inches a year, and has only occurred during severe rainstorms. The western-most eroded area has remained stable for years, with no observable additional bank erosion, since the initial collapses. And although selectmen had fencing installed to separate the public from the two eroded areas on the road and riverbank, some of the fence posts holding up that fencing have come loose and the fencing itself has collapsed in those areas, due to the fact that the posts were placed only 2-4 inches into the road’s asphalt. Because I have been walking that section of River Road almost every day for the past 10 years, before and since the riverbank collapses, I am very familiar with what has and what hasn’t happened there.

After our Town Meeting votes that the town retain control of River Road on Oct. 21, I would hope that our selectmen would first have longer and more substantial fence posts installed on the current fencing, with proper signage appropriately placed. Second, our Annual Town Meeting in the spring should vote an appropriation to place heavy rock into the two most severely eroded spots in the eastern eroded area, as a stop-gap measure to limit further erosion. And most importantly, as Dan Healey has recommended in a recent letter to our Board of Selectmen on the subject, selectmen should create a River Road Committee to assist them in locating funding resources to fix and return River Road to its former condition as a wonderful river highway.

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Harry Bowen of Merrimac is a former selectman.