Great Barrington — Lake Mansfield Road is crumbling. The very sub-structure of the road is weak and deteriorating. And like all New England roads the freeze and thaw cycle does a number on it every year. Drainage inadequacies have put pressure on the road, which runs along one of several glacial lakes in Berkshire County, and runoff sends unfiltered sediment onto the road and into the lake, among other problems.
Five Great Barrington boards and committees met in a joint session last Monday (September 29) to begin a conversation about fixing the road and improving the area. The Selectboard, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Parks and Recreation Commission and the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force were all represented.
“This is the beginning of the process,” said Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips. The goal, she added, was to get all the boards to agree, get public input, and take a proposal to Town Meeting, most likely in 2016. “It probably won’t make it to the next Town Meeting,” she said.
Given the complexity of the situation, Phillips is likely right. The various options for repairing the road trigger elaborate and expensive environmental permitting, according to Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force Chair Christine Ward; the possible solutions create other potential problems.
The road runs between Christian Hill Road and the intersection of Knob Hill and Hollenbeck Avenue near one of two non-engine boat launches. Lake Mansfield is owned by the town, overseen by the Conservation Commission and protected by the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act. The Great Barrington Master Plan and Open Space Plan calls for continued stormwater and other improvements. A $30,000 grant for water quality monitoring will bring together the Town, Lake Mansfield Alliance and the nonprofit Berkshire Environmental Resource Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Simon’s Rock students will help monitor the water.
It is a recreation gem — and delicate habitat — smack in the middle of Great Barrington. The other end of the 29-acre lake features a popular swimming, play and picnic area, now fenced from the road. A trail system created by the Lake Mansfield Alliance winds thorough the adjacent 29-acre forest.
But safety has long been a concern; the road is a shortcut for through traffic going both ways. Fencing and a speed bump near the swimming beach were installed several years ago, but the two-way road is narrow, not only for the roughly 560 cars and trucks travelling it per day, but for all who use it by foot or bike.
One side of the road runs right up against lake — no guardrail — and is crumbling.
“There have been cars in the lake over the years, and plenty of near misses,” said Town Planner Chris Rembold.
The other side of the road has no real shoulder, and in one section, a boulder known as Whale Rock creates a choke point. During winter, a large sheet of ice forms there.
The lake’s only discharge point is a small pipe at its north end, raising a number of concerns, said Ward, one of which is downstream flooding, should the road give way and the lake empty out. Ice pressure and new snow in the outlet area causes flooding and ice on the road, she added.
There is basic agreement that something must be done, but many questions as to what and for what price. The road runs through a vital watershed and ecosystem. Any significant structural work to the road — beyond a simple paving job — will require the extensive environmental permitting, said Rembold.
The town called in consultant Tighe & Bond to study the road and environment. They came up with three options, each with its own puzzle:
- A full road rehabilitation including a guardrail to support current use — $1.2 million;
- Reducing the road to one-way use while still attending to drainage systems and bank stabilization. This would increase space for pedestrians, bikers and fishermen. No guardrail –$1.1 million;
- Reclassify it as a park access road, essentially closing it to all but emergency vehicles and residents who live on the road — $600,000.
Or the town could simply repave to the tune of $60,000 for a 5- to 7-year lifespan, no environmental permits required, but significant deterioration and impact on the lake remaining. Rembold said he didn’t believe Tighe & Bond’s 5- to 7-year figure here. He said he thought the road, done this way, might last several years.
“What will bring more benefit to this community?” said Phillips of the proposed solutions.
“Closing the road will cause some hardships for people who avoid traffic on Main Street,” said Selectboard member Stephen Bannon, a Great Barrington native who remembers when the road was a minimally maintained park access road.
In addition to regular traffic, two private driveways use the road for access. One of those leads to the Eastview Pool, a private, members-only association.
“If we let [the road] go completely, will our large fire trucks have access?” asked Bannon.
Fire Chief Charles Burger said that while the department could work around the closed road, it was preferable the road should be kept open for ambulances that frequently run nursing home patients from Fairview Commons on Christian Hill Road to Fairview Hospital. “It will created a huge detour for them,” he said, noting that it might increase ambulance response time. “It would have effects beyond just people who live on Lake Mansfield Road.”
“Anything besides routine paving will require permitting under DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and Army Corps of Engineers,” said Rembold. “We have to be very careful.”
“The road condition is deteriorating,” said Phillips. “How much do we invest in what exists?”
“Every road in town deteriorates every year,” said Planning Board Chair Jonathan Hankin. “It’s not all that special.”
Hankin was skeptical about the option to drop one lane. “One lane roads are always done in pairs,” he said. “We have to look at the big picture. And no one has talked about Barrington Brook.”
The once controversial cluster of condos and single-family homes slated for construction off Christian Hill Road could increase traffic.
Both Phillips and Ward made it very clear that the boards were in exploration mode. “It’s not our job to decide what’s going to happen in that space,” said Ward.
“What do we want the Lake Mansfield recreation area to be?” said Phillips. “A philosophical decision has to be made.”
Those are never simple, particularly in places where the environment and tax dollars meet.
“Are all the things we love about [the lake] now worth the $1.5 million?” said Planning Board member and engineer Brandee Nelson.
“Expensive is relative,” said Parks and Recreation commissioner Karen Smith. “But that’s what it costs to do it. It’s not like we can throw fairy dust on it.”
“With time and money you could engineer a solution,” said Rembold.
But one thing is clear: something has to be done. “There’s no do-nothing option,” said Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin.