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Terry Cowgill
Three young women enjoy swimming from the town beach to the boat launch on Lake Mansfield in Great Barrington.

In a nod to reality, Great Barrington selectmen vote to close Lake Mansfield Road

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By Tuesday, Jun 25, 2019 News 27

Great Barrington — In deciding once and for all what to do about Lake Mansfield Road, one word surfaced repeatedly: constraints.

“Property line constraints, wetland constraints, realistic constraints and restraints about costs and timelines,” town planner Chris Rembold told the selectboard at its Monday night meeting.

Town planner Chris Rembold explains the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force’s recommendation at a June 24 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

With those limitations in mind, along with the acknowledgement that doing nothing wasn’t an option, the board voted 4–1 to close Lake Mansfield Road to vehicular traffic, with limited exceptions for emergency vehicles, those needing entrance to a private residence off the road, and members coming and going from a pool club. The section of the road to be closed runs from the beach to the boat launch.

It is not yet clear when the closure will take effect. There is signage to manufacture and the operation will need to be coordinated with the town’s public works department and its head, Sean Van Deusen.

“There were constraints about what was possible in that space,” said Rembold, who had worked with the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force for years leading up to last night’s decision.

See video below of town planner Chris Rembold explaining the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force’s recommendation, with comments from the selectboard and members of the audience:

Lake Mansfield road connects Christian Hill Road to the north and the upscale “The Hill” neighborhood to the south. About 1,000 feet of the road between the town beach and boat launch at Knob Hill Road is in dreadful shape. Portions of that rough patch near Whale Rock are in danger of falling into the lake, with only a few feet of buffer between the road and the water—in some cases, even less.

Lake Mansfield Road is in such bad shape that a permanent sign is in place warning drivers of the sorry state of the road. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Rembold did not cite cost estimates but has said in the past that much of it can be covered by grants, though any town funds would have to be approved by taxpayers at town meeting. A plan presented in 2016 to keep the road open for one-way traffic was pegged at $2.18 million.

The report the task force presented Monday night said that the preliminary cost estimate for an 18-foot-wide paved road “including subsurface reconstruction, proper drainage and stabilization of the lake edge is at least $1 million.”

“The more provisions that are made for recreational and environmental benefits (a wide vegetated buffer to filter run-off, a dedicated bike lane, for example), the more likely the town could secure grant funding to defray these costs,” the report reads. “In other words, the less the road is designed purely for cars, the more grant funds would be available.”

Rembold also emphasized that closing the road and making relatively minor repairs to keep it available for very light traffic and the occasional emergency vehicle was the least expensive option, even though the lakeshore would still need to be stabilized.

Keeping it open as a two-way road or as a one-way road—the task force named the latter as its second choice—would require more extensive work because of the added wear and tear of regular vehicular traffic.

The task force started its research roughly 10 years ago. Two years ago, members of the task force approached the selectboard and said keeping the road open for two-way traffic was unsustainable. The board asked them to go back to the drawing board.

Fisherman often share the narrow and pockmarked Lake Mansfield Road with motorists. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We did detailed engineering to see how much room there was to work with,” Rembold said. “There’s only about 18 feet you can work with.”

One resident who did not identify himself said his neighborhood has started a petition for preserving two-way traffic that contained more than 1,000 signatures. Others, including Christian Hill Road resident David Ryel, objected to the increased traffic the closure would cause in the affected neighborhoods.

Ryel also said the closure would hinder access to health care and add 500 cars to Main Street in order to access Christian Hill Road and the lake. Rembold later said Main Street carries 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles a day and that 500 more would “not be a significant amount of traffic.”

“I get it. Nobody wants traffic in their neighborhood,” Ryel said, evidently referring to the task force members who live in The Hill. “[The closure] infringes on the rights of others and it violates town bylaws by restricting access to health care.”

Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force member Dale Abrams insisted that emergency services personnel had no objections to the closure of Lake Mansfield Road at a June 24 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

It was a reference to nearby Fairview Hospital, which is to the south of the lake and which also houses the Southern Berkshire Volunteer Ambulance Squad. However, task force member Dale Abrams threw cold water on that charge.

“At more than one point in the 10-year process, the emergency services were engaged in the process of evaluating whether a change to Lake Mansfield Road would negatively impact their ability to access people in a crisis,” Abrams explained. “Their answer was no, it would not.”

Even though it was the least expensive option available, Ryel questioned the need to spend the money. He suggested widening the road instead.

“Three hundred feet needs to be stabilized but are we really going to spend at least $1 million that the task force plan requires—and probably a whole lot more—to stabilize the length of a football field, especially considering the rest of road is in pretty decent shape and would only cost $50,000 to repave?”

Others, including Steve Farina, suggested a so-called “covered-bridge” solution, in which two-way traffic could be preserved by installing traffic lights at both ends and allowing vehicles to proceed each way, essentially by taking turns. Rembold, however, said the task force considered that option but did not embrace it because the waiting time for a 1,000-foot crossing would be excessive.

Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis, right, said the Lake Mansfield Road closure presents ‘an opportunity to create a shining centerpiece of Great Barrington.’ At left is fellow board member Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Newly elected selectboard member Leigh Davis said she liked the fact that closure was the least expensive option and that emergency services personnel feel it would not affect their ability to do their jobs.

“This is an opportunity to create a shining centerpiece of Great Barrington and it will give people a space to connect with nature,” Davis said. “It gives us a real opportunity to create a sanctuary and a refuge and a place that Great Barrington can feel proud of and that we can market as our place.”

“The selectboard asked the task force to come to a recommendation,” selectman Ed Abrahams added. “I feel like they’re the ones who did the hard work and research and unless we have a reason not to trust them, I’m inclined to trust them and go with the recommendation.”

On Davis’ motion, the board voted 4-1 to close the road. Chairman Steve Bannon said he preferred preserving one-way traffic.

Great Barrington selectmen Steve Bannon, Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke listen to residents who object to the closure of Lake Mansfield Road at a June 24 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Lake Mansfield is regarded as a gem in the heart of Great Barrington, and one of the few lakes in the state surrounded by neighborhoods and is relatively close to a downtown. The battered road carries an average of 500 vehicles a day. It serves not only the recreation area with a beach, parking lot and hiking trail, but is also used as a shortcut between one part of town and another. It can be treacherous to drive, as is walking and biking along it, particularly in the summer, when the population increases and the lake is used for swimming, picnicking and fishing.

At only 29 acres, Lake Mansfield is one of two in Great Barrington classified by the state as a “great pond,” which, in Massachusetts, is defined by statute as a pond or lake that is, in its natural state, at least 10 acres in size. The other great pond in town is Long Pond, which functions as a reservoir for the Housatonic section of Great Barrington.

According to Massachusetts General Law, all great ponds must be open for fishing and boating, including providing reasonable access to the pond, except for reservoirs. Rembold said, until the 1980s, Lake Mansfield was Great Barrington’s emergency water supply.


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27 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Allison Nash says:

    Although I understand the problems that exist on Lake Mansfield Road, it concerns me that families with young children and the handicapped will no longer be able to access the beach area of the lake. My kids spent many a summer day swimming, fishing and digging on the beach. It seems that the lake will now be exclusively available to those able bodied residents who live in the hill neighborhood. The town should find a way to keep the lake accessible to all its residents.

    1. Ed Abrahams says:

      This solution isn’t perfect, there is no perfect solution. But when it comes to access, while there will be greater inconvenience for car drivers , there will be much more, and safer access for all other modes of transportation.

      There will still be access to the lake. The road from north will remain two-way. Plans call for a new, accessible parking lot with paths that are also more accessible. The beach will be easier to access.

      The rest of the current road will also include accessible, and now, car-free paths which will be safer for people on bikes, in wheelchairs, and in strollers.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    The presentation of the material was given an unnecessary urgency, essentially demanding the SB to make a decision on the spot. It may have been, and still may be, prudent to mull over the options before issuing a final decree on the ultimate decision.
    We have several multi-million dollar, truly urgent, bridge repairs in front of us. We will soon be faced with an expensive “school” scenario, and our ongoing battle with ever increasing property taxes.
    “Grant money” is a nice way to mask the expense of something, though unless it is from a private source we are still talking about TAXPAYER money.
    The option glossed over was the ACTUAL least expensive – putting down a thick layer of pavement would solve the problem for years. The cost? About $50K. Fifty thousand dollars for another 5 yeas of service, or maybe more.
    I appreciate the time to be allowed to speak at these meetings. I am sure other citizens do as well. It is, however, frustrating when we are only allowed to speak once and whoever is presenting on the topic can continue to drive their talking points multiple times in response to every citizen with no counter rebuttal allowed.

    Finally, it sounded like the repair work approved is adequate for automobile traffic – they are simply choosing to close the road. So, the cost of closing the road is going to be about the same as the cost of doing the same repair work and maintaining an open road (as I stated earlier, the barely discussed cost to simply repave is SIGNIFICANTLY the least expensive, and possibly the least disruptive, solution $50K vs more than $1M).

    It is my opinion that the SB made the wrong decision on this, and still has time to change it.

    If you think the road should be kept open, please email the selectboard members and let them know:

    Sbannon@townofgb.org
    Eabrahams@townofgb.org
    Bcooke@townofgb.org
    Kburke@townofgb.org
    Ldavis@townoffb.org

    They truly do want to hear from you.

    1. Dan Bailly says:

      I agree with Steve. Too often decisions are made without consideration of the financial impacts. There is no question the health of the lake is very important. But there are two options on the table regarding the road. Both will improve the health of the lake, but neither have real financial numbers associated with this. These are the short sighted decisions that continue to increase the tax burden and drive young families away. A little fiscal responsibility goes a long way.

      1. Helen says:

        Rushed decision? It’s been 15 years of discussion, 4 years of engineering studies, and two years to re-evaluate what was recommended the first time. Nothing about this process has been rushed. Mr. Bailly, younwere there for 6 years of the drawn out process. If anything, the SB should be faulted for taking so long, not for rushing.

        As for the cost, I’m sure you know that the decision about whether or not the project is worth the cost hasn’t been made yet. At this point the “costs” are all estimates. When they are real numbers a decision will be made, by all voters at Town Meeting, not by the Selectboard.

        I would love to see a two-way road with a bike path. But I was at every public hearing on this so I know that isn’t possible. We’re you paying attention?

      2. Dan Bailly says:

        I am certainly paying attention to the rising tax rate. Every time this came before the board I asked about cost. My point was, if you were paying attention, one of the options is more costly than the other. Yet no one from the board made any mention of that. Great if grants come through. What is they don’t. THAT needs to be thought about well before the project starts.

      3. Helen says:

        The board chose the least expensive option. What are you missing?

      4. Steve Farina says:

        Helen,

        The Lake Mansfield improvement task force apparently has been working on their view for more than a decade. On Monday night they presented their findings, and basically told the Selectboard to make a decision on the spot.
        There were no definitive financials given, only vague statements of approximate costs – with no mention of the cost of the simplest solution, repaving.
        The urgency was unnecessary, especially given that it took a decade to come up with their suggestion.
        As for a two way road with a bike path that you would like, I would suggest it could be done. Technoposts(r) could be utilized to construct a parallel boardwalk/pier in a manner which would be essentially non-impacting to the environment (similar to how many boat docks are installed in lakes around here in recent years).

        In any case, the SB would have been fine to await making a decision on the direction until their July meeting – which would also allow residents the opportunity to comment and provide feedback based upon the suggestions being made by the task force. This would also allow each member to personally contemplate (for more than 10 minutes in the midst of discussion) the decision and its impact.

      5. Steve Farina says:

        Helen, the least expensive option. Was to put down a thick layer of pavement and it would hold up for years to come, as is – a 2 way street . It was mentioned as an aside, and NOT what the task force wanted.

  3. Steve Farina says:

    Additionally, as I think about what was presented, the presentation kept mentioning a 12 foot wide travel lane for one-way traffic and a 6 foot bike/walk path. Stating time and Gain that there is only 18 feet of roadway at points.
    The presenter should have noted that a travel lane is 108″, or 9 feet. Therefore, the road is suitable for two-way traffic by all roadway standards. I understand the potential impact to the lake at points being a concern. However, even as a one way road using the standard 108″ lane width would leave a 9′ walk path.

  4. W.C. says:

    “Reality”, Great Barrington Select Board ? Since when do these two go together?

    1. Steve White says:

      When making a provocative comment like that, the honorable thing to do would be to state your full name.

  5. Tom Blauvelt says:

    Hi Steve,
    Good morning. The Lake Mansfield task force did examine the possibility of just resurfacing the road. In a report date February 20, 2019 they stated: “Simple periodic repaving of the existing road or eve closing the existing road in winter, will not result in a long lasting safe surface, will continue to contribute asphalt and storm water runoff pollution into the lake, and will not increase recreational safety. The Town would waste money with regular patching and repaving.”
    I believe the Selectboard made the correct decision on voting to close the road. After 10 years of research and planning, this option prevailed as the best solution to maintain the health of Lake Mansfield.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Hi Tom,
      That regular patching and repaving was also mentioned briefly in the meeting. The paving I am referring to was described as “a thick coat of paving” which would last longer and sounded as if it would have less negative effect than the former.
      Allowing for one way traffic was also an option given, and downplayed. This included a 12 foot wide auto lane. That could be reduced to the current 9 feet, as is a common practice on rural roads. This would have an added benefit of speed reduction for traffic. Also, by utilizing controlled signals at either end, it could be open to two way traffic which would also allow for emergency vehicles to override the signal and have immediate access to the road in either direction. The wait time was mentioned as a negative – however it is still a shorter wait than the closed road.
      The task force made their recommendation, and there should be time for public feedback prior to deciding on a course of action. There was not urgency for a decision to be made that night, on the spot.

      1. Tom Blauvelt says:

        Hi Steve,
        I have to disagree with you a little bit. The Taskforce worked on this for close to a decade. After working with consultants, engineers and environmentalists this was their recommended solution. Throughout the process there was ongoing community outreach and numerous opportunities for concerned residents to get involved. The Selectboard needed to finally decide on a course of action and I believe they selected the correct option.

      2. Steve Farina says:

        Good morning Tom. As seems to be common, I guess we just disagree. I have been a resident for only the last three years. As such, I really don’t have any clue what the task force did or did not do for a decade. Even if I was a concerned citizen during all that time, I certainly would not attend ten years worth of meetings on just this issue.
        The fact that the task force made a recommendation after all this time does not mean it is the best option for the town, the lake, the adjacent neighborhoods, or anyone who ever wants to utilize the lake via the boat launch or Lake Mansfield Park. It means they have given their opinion that their top recommendation is best.
        For the past couple of months I have heard talk of the impending recommendation that was forthcoming. When it finally arrived, the SB was told they must make a decision “now”, as in, tonight.
        Several residents werre given the opportunity to speak. One even said he had a petition with over 1000 signatures against closng the road. Holy crap – that is more than show up for our town elections, and he was all but dismissed (I couldn’t help but feel it was because of his soft-spoken foreign accent that was difficult to hear/understand).
        Personally, I had concerns that no extensive traffic study was completed to determine the immpact on side roads with the closure. There was a response to that: “we did a traffic study – 500 cars use the road, and Main St can handle that”. Once I had spoken, I was not allowed follow up questions. Questions (aamong otherrs) that I believe the SB should have asked prior to determining to close the road:
        1) How many of theose 500 cars come from the north and how many from the south?
        2) of each of those, how many are thru-traffic, and how many are utilizing the boat launch or town park?
        3) Of the 2nd potential option given (one-way traffic), what would the expected impact be on the number of vehicles, and the impact on feeder/side roads?
        4) There was a constituent suggestion at the meeting to make a “covered bridge” type one lane road – utilizing signals at either end to allow traffic to flow in both directions, thus allowing access for emergency vehicles. What would be the impact of that on thru-traffic, the overall number of vehicles utilizing the roadway from the north and the number utilizing from the south? subsequently what impact would that have on the feeder/side roads?
        5) With the road closure, it was made to appear that all the traffic would suddenly be routed to Main St. How many of the vehicles would actually utilize Christian Hill Road in the northerly direction and ultimately end up at the very dangerous intersection with Division St?

        These and other issues should have been discussed before making a decision. if after a decade of planning, studying, and looking at options this is the best they could come up with…then I’m sorry, this task force missed a lot. This is just one reason why it is important to allow time for public discussion. Instead, we are made to feel like asking questions is annoying…it’s like shut up, we did our study, made our recommendation, now live with it and get on with your life – and yet we wonder why civic engagement is so low.
        So, Tom, disagree with me if you want, but you are wrong.

  6. Carl Stewart says:

    Lake Mansfield is a “great pond” as defined both by common law and a specific provision of the General Laws of Massachusetts. Both by definition and long-established law, the Commonwealth holds a great pond in trust for its citizens. (Note: All of its citizens including those from Pittsfield, Chicopee, and Quincy.). One of the requirements is that the trustee, I.e., the Commonwealth, maintain reasonable access to the body of water for fishing and boating. A citizen aggrieved by a reduction in access could have a cause of action to restore access that was reduced by governmental action. I assume that the Task Force or the Selectboard (or both) sought the opinion of the Attorney General to ascertain whether the closing of the road as contemplated would not be violative of the statute before they decided to take this action

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Thank you for sharing that Carl.

    2. Tom Blauvelt says:

      Hello Carl,
      Reasonable access will be maintained as cars can enter from Christian Hill Rd and drive to the beach .

      1. Carl Stewart says:

        Tom—-

        Two questions:

        1. Other than a sense of community responsibility, what will prevent people who enter from Christian Hill Road leaving the lake at the other end?

        2. I asked if the Attorney General’s office was presented with the road closing proposal. Was this done and, if so, what was the response?

      2. Steve Farina says:

        And on the south end, the boat launch is proposed to be used for parking – at least that is what it sounded like at the SB meeting. It was presented something like: there are about 6 spots to park at the boat launch, and people can walk to the beach.
        In that space, people will also be expected to turn around and navigate the roadway. Other than signage saying “No thru-fare” there will be nothing from people utilizing Knob Hill (a partially private road) as a loop around.

    3. Tom Blauvelt says:

      Hi Carl,
      I do not know if anyone checked with the Attorney General. And I believe there will be some type of barrier to prevent through traffic but I am not certain. I think that question will be answered during the design and planning phase.

      1. Michael Wise says:

        Whether access is reasonable is a matter of fact, not law. The Attorney General is not likely to weigh in on that question in the abstract, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for not asking for the AG’s opinion about it. FWIW: the access to the boat launch spot at the south end is in fact excellent, with clearly marked paved parking places, and I don’t see any suggestion to change that.

  7. Mary Ellen Foster says:

    If it is decided to allow emergency vehicles or pool club members to traverse Lake Mansfield Road, then two vehicles passing each other on the road is a probability. Health and safety issues are paramount when making choices. Maintaining the road would be mandatory. If that is the case, what difference does it make if it is kept open to two way traffic?
    The closing of a town road must be voted on at the Annual Town Meeting.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      I was thinking the closure had to be determined at a Town Meeting, and was planning on looking that up. The funding for the plan also has to be approved there.
      If everyone stays engaged on this, including the 1000 people who signed the petition to keep the road open then the results could prove very interesting.
      If I am not mistaken, 1000 people represents more than the votes any of our currently elected officials, including the SB.
      This is one VERY good reason to engage in the civic matters of our community.

  8. Carl Stewart says:

    Michael Wise is only partly correct in saying that access is a question of fact and not of law. If access were completely shut off, then the issue would now longer be one solely of law. In any event, the Attorney General does not only concern herself with questions of law. In many instances, fact and law intersect and any lawyer who has tried a case or two knows about that intersection. Mr. Wise suggests that I faulted someone for not seeking an opinion from the AG. He should read my comments more carefully; I criticized no one but simply asked the question. However, I do believe that it would have been a prudent thing to do and there certainly could have been no harm in asking Ms. Healey, might have responded that her office doesn’t answer hypothetical questions but then again she might have not been so circumspect. You don’t know if you don’t ask

  9. Carl Stewart says:

    That should have been “no” not “now” in the 2nd sentence of my immediately preceding comment

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