I met Bill Ames where we usually see each other, biding our time at our Health Center, waiting to be seen. He and I served two terms together in the City Council many moons ago. Today he told me about the nature trip he took last Friday out to Rainbow Beach, on the Connecticut.
"Yeah," he said, "It was really something. We were out there looking at all the different kind of beetles that were out there with this naturalist, Chris Davis. We almost got busted, though, and thrown into jail." He laughed. "No kidding, We parked near the river, walked down to the beach, and a little while later this guy comes out and told us we had to leave, that we were all trespassing. And here poor Laurie Sanders, who had organized the trip, thought she had permission. We had to walk back up to where we had parked our cars, there was a policeman there, and he started to get all our names and information and for awhile it was looking bad."
There were no arrests, although Charlie Jasinski, the farmer who owned the field where the people parked their cars was really angry and was yelling at Chris Davis, the naturalist. He had given him permission to use part of his fields for his beetle research, but didn't like him bringing all these people and their cars onto his fields, which had just been sprayed. It's a delicate time out there. The corn is just sprouting, and the puddles on the roads are deep and chancy to navigate. More than 30 people went on the walk, and I would have gone myself if I hadn't had a conflict. Negotiations on the scene resulted in the participants being notified that they were on private property and had to leave. The nature walk, cut short, disbanded.
Angela Plassman, former Ward three city councilor and newly elected President of the Northampton Meadows Agricultural Association (NMAA) had called the police to complain of the trespass, and she and Charlie Jasinski, who owned the field where many of the cars were parked, were on the scene. Angela lives in the heart of the meadows area, on Fair Street extension.
The trespass order brought to a boil what has been a tense and distant relationship between the farmers and the sponsor of the walk, the Meadows City Conservation Coalition. (MCCC) The farmers were invited to the initial meeting of the MCCC back in November 29 of 2010 , but didn't show, sending then city councilor Angela Plassman to the meeting to explain their point of view. There seems to be a deep rift between the people that live around the flood plain, and the people who earn their living farming the flood plain. Many of the people in the MCCC share common interest with the farmers in constraining the ambitions of the three county fair, policing the meadows and keeping off-road ATVs out, but their interest in developing conservation areas and more recreational use of the meadows spooks farmers. To them it seems to mean to them more people around, more dogs being walked, more interference, no matter how well meant, and more liability issues for the farmers. To deal with trespassers, farmers have banded together and developed this legal instrument that makes it easier to trespass people. Sometimes roads that people have used for years have been declared private property.
The issue of public use of the meadows spilled over into politics, when former City Councilor Angela Plassman, angrily resigned from the city council following a preemptive assault on her mother's trailer by the combined forces of the building inspector and the city planner. The subsequent special election pitted Arnie Levinson against winning candidate Owen Freeman-Daniels..
During the election, Matt Nowak, who was then President of the NMAA, criticized candidate Owen Freeman-Daniels for his position on the meadows.
"It's really the fact that he talks about opening up the Meadows for recreational use and more public access," Nowak said. "The thing people fail to realize is that business operations are going on down there. . any dialogue about the Meadows (should) include a discussion of off-road vehicle use, dogs defecating on crops, vandalism, illegal dumping, and the destruction and theft of crops. These are some serious issues and if you're talking about long-term sustainable farming, these are some of the activities that have to stop."
The Ward Three Civic Association did not sponsor the outing, but carried a notice about it on its 200 plus listserv. It seems to have been first announced by a talk given by Laurie Sanders at her talk at Forbes Library. Laurie is a naturalist and hosts National Public Radio’s “Field Notes”, and is the author of “Rediscovering Northampton: the natural history of city-owned conservation land." She had a key to the gate that the Willards have put up to bar traffic on Old Ferry Road near the riverbank. She opened up the gate and the cars went about a half mile further, cutting off the road on this track that goes down to the riverbank. Old Ferry road is a very old road dating from the 18th century, when it ran to Goodman's Ferry.
When the DPW charted its course to see if it is a public road, they realized that much of the road is now under the river. The terminus wasn't far from the Willard gate. The river course today is more of a 90 degree turn, and is about ½ mile further west; the Hadley terminus of the old ferry was at the foot of Middle Street, which now is well inland. As the Connecticut River cut into its western bank, a new ad-hoc road bearing the old name was created paralleling the new shore. Is the Willard gate legal? Resolving this would take a fair amount of research.
There was a call made by Matt Nowak to Sanders, a call made by Laurie Sanders to Nowak that she told me was not returned. She admitted that she never actually reached Nowak before the walk. Angela Plassman said it was a case of telephone tag in the days immediately preceding the walk. A letter was evidently sent by Nowak denying permission to Sanders and Davis to conduct the walk, but Sanders said she never got it.
Angela Plassman told me if there had been face-to-face contact before the walk, ground rules could have been worked out and the confrontation avoided. Laurie Sanders called me from Idaho and said how it turned out was truly awful, and ruined what she thought would be a chance for people to see one of the Northampton's hidden jewels, Rainbow Beach, the forest behind it, and the old Shepards island, which is now part of the peninsula.
It's kind of weird, that Northampton has two beautiful wild conservation areas owned by the city, Elwell Island and Rainbow Beach, and they both are inaccessible to anyone who doesn't have a boat. Most of Rainbow Beach was originally acquired by the Connecticut Rivershed Council and deeded to Northampton in the 70s. Maybe everyone involved should take a deep breath and make a plan for another nature walk this fall that everyone will be happy with. It's either that or I’m going to have to rent an outboard.
map courtesy Google World