Like the majority of his constituents in Franklin and Medway, state Representative Jeffrey Roy is a frequent traveler on Interstate 495, the heavily traveled highway that bisects his district.
But it wasn’t until two years ago, when Roy and another lawmaker met with Franklin resident Alan Earls, that he came to appreciate a stretch of woods and waterways between Exit 17 in Franklin and Exit 18 in Bellingham that spans both towns and a section of Medway.
“I never knew some of the richness of the land, the history, how the trolleys traveled between Franklin and Bellingham 100 years ago,” said Roy, a Democrat who has lived in Franklin for 31 years.
A year after their tour, Earls launched the Charles River Meadowlands Initiative, a grass-roots group formed to draw attention to the tracts of land — more than 400 acres in Franklin, about 350 acres in Bellingham, and another 50 in Medway — that are protected by the Army Corps of Engineers and open to the public.
The group wants to raise awareness, encourage conservation and public access, and eventually create a network of trails. So far, it has brought together lawmakers, planners, abutters, and others to begin the process. Its next step is an Earth Day celebration that will include trail walks and paddling, and after that more outreach to local officials and community groups.
“I think having a unified vision across the towns could help set the tone for what kind of access is eventually developed, so that the natural features are protected but public access is enhanced,” Earls said.
When Earls, an independent writer, moved to Franklin in the early 1990s, the town was just the kind of place he was looking for to raise a family. But he worried that the rapid pace of development could erode the town’s rural character — and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Farms and woods were rapidly disappearing, and even the entry points onto the federally protected flood plain seemed to be in jeopardy.
The hundreds of acres of federally protected land on either side of the highway, known as the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area, safeguarded the area from flooding and could not be tampered with. But without oversight, developers could build homes and commercial buildings that would make it impossible for outdoor enthusiasts to enter the woods or put their canoes and kayaks into the waterways.
So in September of 2015, while the Town of Franklin was considering selling a parcel on Pond Street, Earls invited Roy, a Democrat, and state Representative Kevin Kuros, a Republican from Bellingham, to join him on a field trip to view the parcel and two others in Franklin with access to the meadowlands — one on Oak Street Extension, the other on Pine Street.
“There were several hundred acres and few access points. The Town Council was not taking the long view,” said Earls, describing what he saw as the “last chance to pull together to help preserve the town’s dwindling rural character.”
Later, when the town sold the property, conditions of the sale included an easement to the meadowlands, assuring access for outdoors enthusiasts.
On a bitterly cold morning last month, a group of town and state officials, initiative members, and curious residents gathered around Earls at a construction site on Pearl Street in Bellingham.
A hundred years ago, a textile mill overlooking the Charles River hummed on the riverbank and obstructed the view. It was recently demolished at town expense, and local officials are considering the site for veterans or senior housing, and a park.
Earls held up an Army Corps of Engineers map, pointed to the dark green patches that represent protected land, and talked about securing entry points into the woods. Afterward, he invited the group to follow him in their cars to Oak Street extension, where an overgrown path that was once a trolley line leads over roots and through brush to a causeway.
At the water’s edge, the remains of a broken canoe sat beached. Layers of glassy ice obscured what was left of a metal bridge, disassembled and sold for scrap during World War II.
Their last stop was White Avenue, which is also residential and offers another entry point into the meadowlands.
Last year, Roy and Kuros sponsored a bill to support the Charles River Meadowlands Initiative with $25,000, a request that was a casualty of the governor’s budget cuts. But the colleagues say they will try again this year.
“Money into the mix helps it go faster,” Roy said. “But they’re off to a fantastic start, drawing attention to these parcels . . . talking about easements to access.”
Earls, who used to edit a real estate development magazine, said he isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel — or start a revolution. Instead, he’s envisioning “small steps” to accomplish “something very significant.”
Development is necessary. People need places live. Businesses need spaces to make and distribute products. But none of this should turn the great outdoors into an unreachable diorama.
“I’m a happier person when I get outdoors,” said Marjorie Turner Hollman, a writer who has published guidebooks to local hikes and attended the recent field trip. “People need places to live . . . access to beautiful places. . . . We are a voice at the table, for smart development.”
Earls says that by ensuring access to the woods and trails, communities also boost their bottom lines: Open spaces bring visitors who not only hike, boat, bike, and fish, but also shop in local stores and patronize restaurants.
“This land is going to be protected, no matter what,” said Larry Rettman Jr., a member of the Board of Directors of the Metacomet Land Trust, and a regular at meetings of the Charles River Meadowlands Inititiatve. “But they’re bringing this up so people can use it.”