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Hearing to detail plans for new trail in Natick

Cochituate aqueduct would be reclaimed

An artist’s rendering shows what the Cochituate aqueduct trail would look like, with a boardwalk over wetlands.

An artist’s rendering shows what the Cochituate aqueduct trail would look like, with a boardwalk over wetlands.

Sixty-five years after it was abandoned, new life could soon flow along the Cochituate aqueduct in Natick.

The town’s Conservation Commission will hold a meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Community-Senior Center to present preliminary designs for an approximately 2-mile nature trail along the aqueduct, which runs parallel to Oak Street between Route 9 and Pine Street in the north part of town.

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“This gives us an opportunity to really enhance connectivity because it connects directly into Wellesley’s Crosstown Trail, which is a beautiful trail in itself,” Matthew Gardner, chairman of the Conservation Commission, said of the path that is partially overgrown and features white pines more than 100 years old.

The meeting comes almost five months after a new recreation path was opened along the Sudbury aqueduct in south Natick for hiking, biking, and jogging.

The proposed trail along the Cochituate aqueduct was the first to be permitted under the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s program that began in 2012 to repurpose 40 miles of trails along the century-old aqueduct system. While the system has been reserved for emergencies since the 1960s, many residents have ignored “no trespassing” signs over the years to traverse the paths.

Fifteen miles of aqueduct trail have been permitted in five communities (Natick, Framingham, Wellesley, Northborough, and Southborough) in the past two years, and Weston, Newton, and Sherborn have filed applications to open trails.

The Cochituate aqueduct, however, is seen as a much more challenging project, since not even trespassers have used it in the last 65 years.

Gardner said while the Sudbury aqueduct trail had a clearly defined surface for a path before it was officially opened, part of the Cochituate aqueduct’s path is overgrown and some of it runs behind residential areas. Gardner said his board will listen to concerns from residents, especially those whose homes back up against the proposed path, but its members will have the ultimate say over the project’s future.

The estimated $500,000 cost of the path would come out of the Conservation Commission’s budget, Gardner said.

The point of Thursday’s meeting is basically “to present our plan, to say ‘Here’s what we’re thinking’ and give people the opportunity to provide feedback,” Gardner said. “There’s going to be people that love it and people that don’t like it. That’s always the case. Our job is to take all this information into consideration and decide to move forward or not.”

The project would involve laying stonedust along the path, which would be open from dawn to dusk for foot and bicycle traffic; motorized vehicles would be prohibited. Some asphalt surfacing would potentially be needed at trailheads as well. Parts of the path need to be leveled and some slopes need to be stabilized. There is also a need for a few street crossings, including at Oak Street.

A boardwalk would help preserve some of the path’s most sensitive areas, said Gene Bolinger, vice president of an engineering firm, Weston & Sampson, hired by the town for the project.

“The boardwalks will have minimum impacts to wetlands and allow users to pass through the area in a way that allows them to keep their feet dry,” Bolinger, whose firm also conducted a feasibility study for the path in 2012, said via e-mail.

Once approved, the project would take about four months to complete, he said.

Natick resident and MWRA board member Joel Barrera was one of the driving forces behind officially opening the aqueduct system to the public in the first place.

“This would be very satisfying since it was the first one permitted,” Barrera said of the Cochituate aqueduct.

Barrera, who is also the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s deputy director, said plans to open the rest of Natick’s Sudbury aqueduct are in the works as well.

“We hope to make more progress this year and we will make progress this year,” he said. “My goal is to make as much as possible open before the end of this year.”

In 2010 — the same year Natick formed the Cochituate Aqueduct Study Committee — Barrera contacted state Representative Chris Walsh of Framingham when he learned that one of the biggest planks on Walsh’s campaign platform was making the aqueducts accessible to the public. Walsh eventually filed a bill that would have forced the MWRA to allow public access.

“Next thing I knew I had six lawyers in my office, in my little cubical, who said, ‘No way will this happen, forget about it,’ ” Walsh recalled, before noting that it didn’t take much convincing to get the MWRA to reverse course on allowing the public on the land, and negate the need for his bill.

“In all fairness they did a 180. They said, ‘You know, we think you are right. We don’t want to pen up everything. We can start the process.’ That was good enough for me.”

Berrera confirmed Wash’s account of the aqueduct program’s origins, but also said the secretary of energy and environmental affairs at the time, Rick Sullivan, who was also chairman of the MWRA, embraced the policy shift.

Walsh recently pushed for $2 million to be included in an environmental bond bill to pay for planning, design, technical assistance, construction and improvements for the entire aqueduct trail system.

A nearly identical clause is in the state Senate’s version of the bond bill, Barrera said.

The proposal was approved by the Legislature, and sent to Governor Deval Patrick last week.

Justin Rice can be reached at rice.ju@gmail.com
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