Survey of Norwottuck Rail Trail Hadley Abutters

prepared by

Friends of the Rail Trail
P. O. Box 975
Belchertown, MA 01007

Belchertown, Massachusetts is currently seeking ISTEA funds to design and construct a 13.5 mile rail trail through town. The Town committee appointed to oversee the project has encountered resistance from some abutters, some property owners, and some individuals in town. The Friends of the Rail Trail, a citizen advocacy group for the rail trail, decided to contact a neighboring town with a rail trail. This town, too, faced strong opposition during the planning and design stages for their trail, the Norwottuck Rail Trail.

This trail is now built, successful, and very popular with users throughout the state and some neighboring states. Was the same true for the people who live next to it? In July 1997, the Communication Committee of the Friends of the Rail Trail mailed out a survey to all the abutters of the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Hadley, MA. There were 67 property owners of 88 parcels of land which abuts the four miles of the Norwottuck Rail Trail. (This is actually more abutters than is the case for the first 5.5 miles of the Belchertown Rail Trail. There are 49 property owners of 99 parcels of land in Belchertown along the first 5.5 miles. This does not include the property owners along Federal Street from Cheryl Circle to the east end of Federal Street. The total number of property owners along the entire 13.5 miles of the Belchertown Rail Trail is 77 owners of 143 parcels of land.)

The Communication Committee was hoping to find out several things. Had the perception of property owners changed once the trail was built and operating? Is vandalism a problem? Did the abutters get the privacy screenings they were promised? Is the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) responsive to their needs and concerns? We asked a total of twelve questions and encouraged people to add comments that would be helpful to the Belchertown Rail Trail Committee in designing an improved rail trail for Belchertown. (Why not take advantage of the insights gained by others who have been living with an active, heavily used, and initially controversial trail?)

Twenty-nine survey forms were returned. Three additional forms were returned as undeliverable. This gave a 43% response rate, very high for any mailing, where 10 15% is the normal return.

Our findings were that most abutters liked, used, and had no problems with the Norwottuck Rail Trail. There were a few individuals -- four -- who opposed the trail initially, oppose it now, do not use it, and feel the trail is responsible for their property being vandalized. In all cases but one, people's initial support for the trail either remained the same or increased. (The one person whose opinion changed negatively went from initially supporting the trail to being not sure about it now.) Most abutters now support the trail.

* * * * *

The following is the breakdown by question of how the respondents answered the questionnaire:

Question 1

How did you feel about the rail trail before it was built?

Strongly Supported Supported Not Sure Opposed Strongly Opposed
6 (21%) 10 (34%) 4 (14%) 3 (10%) 6 (21%)

Question 2

How do you feel about the rail trail now?

Strongly Support Support Not Sure Oppose Strongly Oppose
13 (45%) 8 (28%) 4 (14%) 1 (3%) 3 (10%)

The Friends of the Rail Trail were looking to see if there was a sizable percentage change of people who initially opposed or were not sure about the trail but once it was built changed their minds and came to accept or even became strong supporters of the rail trail.

There were initially nine people who said they either opposed or strongly opposed the project. Once the trail was built there were only four people who still did not favor it. That means five respondents changed their mind. There was one additional respondent who went from not sure about the trail to supporting it. This gave us six people who had changed their opinion, a 21% change overall and a 46% change in the opposed or not sure group.

No one went from initially liking the trail to opposing it.

The Friends were able to contact five out of the six people who went from opposed or neutral to the trail to supporting it. Indicative comments were:

The fear and anticipation of the trail were not realized for these abutters.

Question 3 Question 4

What do you like about the trail? What do you dislike about the trail?

everyone very courteous uninformed users -- no courtesy
a good place for our daily workout the crowd
a great addition to our town cost too much money
keeps the bikers off the road and makes bikers that do not stop for cars
it safer for drivers of vehicles
serenity, ease of use snowmobiles in winter
it connects our community too narrow
cleaned up an overgrown corridor people who litter
there is a presence near my house poor upkeep in areas
whether I'm there or not
great place to bring kids the controversy inspired by trail
very attractive rollerblades
safe to take children in strollers

The above comments all came from supporters of the trail. It is interesting to note that many of the comments cancel each other out. Even though they support the trail, they all tend to see it differently.

Those who loved the trail when asked what did they like said "everything;" those who did not like the trail responded with they liked "nothing." The opposite was true when asked what did they dislike. If they supported the trail the answer was "nothing;" if they disliked the trail the answer was "everything." People with strong opinions (supporters and opponents) were invariably on opposite sides, even years after the rail trail was open.

Question 5

Did DEM fulfill its promises to provide privacy screening (trees, plantings, fence) to you?

Yes No Not Applicable No Response
11 (44%) 7 (28%) 7 (28%) 4

The Department of Environmental Management is aware of only one person not receiving the plantings promised. That person has so far not given DEM a list of plantings that he would like. That person, when contacted, admitted that this was the case. Three respondents answered this question in the negative because they did not need any plantings. Another answer in the negative came from a couple who live on the other side of the street from the Norwottuck Rail Trail. They do not abut the trail and were never promised any plantings. Their complaint is that DEM removed brush near the trail across from their house. A gentleman claims that he was misquoted in the local paper as saying that he did get a fence. This is a claim he now denies. The other respondent in the negative did not give his name or address so we were not able to contact him. At best this means that according to our survey two people did not receive the promised plantings. This would change the negative response to 8% (2 people out of 25 responses).

Our caller was given a bit of advice on plantings. The plans for the Norwottuck Rail Trail like all plans were much more comprehensive than the final budget allowed. He told our caller that those people who filled out the individual application form and stayed on top of DEM got their planting. His advice, fill out the individual planting applications and stay in touch with DEM.

Question 6

Does DEM adequately maintain the trail?

Yes No (no response)
22 (92%) 2 (8%) 5

Question 7

When you call, is DEM responsive to your concerns?

Yes No No problems, never called Sometimes (no response)
6 (25%) 2 (8%) 15 (63%) 1 (4%) 5

Question 8

Has your property been vandalized by trail users?

Yes No

6 (21%) 23 (79%)

The Friends found that a troubling number of respondents claimed that they had been vandalized. Of the six who said they had been vandalized, four gave us their name and telephone number. The Friends tried repeatedly to contact all four. We were only successful with two. They returned our phone calls, the other two did not.

One person, a farmer, had a long conversation with our caller. While he is still upset with the rail trail, he finally admitted that his vandalism comes from the several large apartment complexes near his farm. It seems that the students who live there use his corn fields as a short cut to the nearby shopping mall. At one time there was a fence between his land and the active railroad. DEM has given him fencing material. The farmer just doesn't have the time or laborers to install it. This leaves his property open to the students as a shortcut.

In the second incident, it seems that some expensive T-shirts were stolen from a washline at a housing complex. The manager of the complex thinks that people from the rail trail took them. A visit by the DEM trail manager and some on-site walking around convinced the DEM manager that this was not likely. The clothesline was in the interior of the complex behind a wall and out of sight of anyone on the rail trail. This combined with the fact that the housing complex shows two well worn trails leading from it to the rail trail, raised the question, "could it have been kids from the complex riding through the parking lot, entering the trail at one end and riding down to the other end of the complex?" Riding a circle around the complex, they were more likely to see the T-shirts. There is no proof either way.

While it is troubling to have 21% of our respondents claim vandalism, it is comforting to hear that not all those claims of vandalism may have actually come from rail trail users. The rail trail is a change and so when things happen, it is natural to blame them on the change in people's lives. It does not always mean it is true.

Question 9

I feel the rail trail has

had a mainly negative impact: 7 (24%)
had a mainly positive impact: 16 (55%)
had no impact: 6 (21%)

on my privacy/or quality of life.

Question 10

I do do not use the rail trail.
18 (62%) 11 (38%)

Question 11

Members of my family do do not use the rail trail. (no response -- 3)
17 (65%) 9 (35%)

All those who opposed the trail from Question 2 responded that neither they nor members of the family use the trail.

Question 12

Any comments regarding the design of the trail, the construction of the trail, the maintenance of the trail, or any other comments.

One opponent said, "I'd prefer bikelanes."

Other comments of note are:

1) "I am a handicapped person, use a cane, and am elderly person over eighty. I do plant a garden. Have a nice view of the trail when I do the dishes or work at the sink. If you would like to visit or see the yard or place you may stop by and take a look."

2) "To whom it may concern,
I have never had any trouble or problems with people who use the Bike Trail (Rail Trail). They are very polite, always tell or call to your left when they are passing you so that you or the bikers do not get hurt.
When my granddaughter was alive we always used to put her in her wheel chair and walk from my house to the shopping mall which is about 5 miles. We could of driven, but it was great to walk.
I wish the Friends of the Rail Trail all the luck in the world so that they get the Rail Trail and have it completed real soon. Its great for long walks."

3) "I can see the Rail Trail from my sun porch. My cat sits by the window and watches the people go by. When I leave my home she has a lot of baby sitters so she's not lonesome she just sits there and has a ball."


For the opponents, the Rail Trail is not as bad as they believe and for the proponents, it is not as trouble free as they had hoped. The Rail Trail in Hadley is a community resource that like all other parks has people who totally love it and those who only see the trash and the crowds. The truth must be somewhere between these two viewpoints. It is the belief of the Friends of the Rail Trail that the truth lies closer to "rail trails are good for the community." Our survey indicates that two-thirds or more respondents in all cases were pleased with the trail, its maintenance, and used it as a community resource.

There are hard core opponents to the Norwottuck Rail Trail. It is probable that they will never change their mind. The encouraging thing about this survey for the Friends of the Rail Trail is that some of the initial opponents to the trail did come to value it, use it, and find the trail not an intrusion after it was built. Their initial fears were not confirmed; they were groundless. We have some hope that the same will be true for our trail.

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