Environmental advocates look to protect Great Meadows

Town owns 183 acres of undeveloped land in Lexington

Arlington Advocate, December 9, 1999 by Staff Writer DAN SHOHL 

Two towns have an interest in Arlington's Great Meadows, a large piece of rolling, open land surrounded by Lexington and owned by Arlington.

Arlington and Lexington are still working to decide its best use.

The original plan for Great Meadows was much different in 1871, when Arlington bought a big chunk of what is now Lexington. In the days before Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Arlington was working to create its own large water reservoir on the western side of town.

Arlington Reservoir is a result of that effort. Great Meadows, to the west, is another. Neither were used to gather drinking water after Arlington hooked into the MWRA system at the turn of the century. The reservoir is now a wildlife sanctuary and recreational area, its dam used to meter the flow of water during major rainstorms.

Arlington's Great Meadows is a 183-acre tract, roughly 5 percent of the total area of the town and all of it "landlocked" within the borders of Lexington, less than a half-mile from the western edge of Arlington. The use of the land falls under the authority of Arlington's Board of Selectmen.

On Dec. 1, Arlington's Conservation Commission hosted a forum on Great Meadows at Arlington Senior Center, 27 Maple St.

Aside from a shared southern border with Minuteman Bikeway, Great Meadows is entirely undeveloped. Most of the people in attendance Wednesday wanted to keep it that way.

Frances Clark, a Lincoln-based land-use consultant, has been hired by the commission to examine the land and recommend a plan to better preserve and use its resources.

Clark said more than 100 species of birds find their way to Great Meadows, in addition to dozens of other varieties of wildlife. The land is a natural destination for local walkers, bikers and cross-country skiers.

She also said that Great Meadows helps mitigate the flow of rainwater into nearby brooks and rivers, a perennial concern for downstream Arlington.

"Not only is it important for open space, it is important for flood control," she said.

Great Meadows rather unique situation also makes it one of the largest open spaces in Lexington, and talks of how to manage the land have incorporated Lexington residents and that town's own Conservation Commission. That complex relationship has yielded unintended benefits for those who want to keep the parcel undeveloped.

"It's lasted as long as it has because it's owned by Arlington and located in Lexington [and therefore benefits] from a sort of benign neglect," said Eugene Benson, an Arlington resident.

Clark laid out a list of proposed projects for the land which met with general approval, including:

  • Preserve Great Meadows as a significant wildlife sanctuary
  • Enhance compatible, safe public use
  • Promote the educational values and uses of Great Meadows
  • Maintain and enhance cultural values of Great Meadows

Keeping the area undeveloped might require additional work; even doing nothing might mean having to do something. The land, though controlled by the Arlington selectmen, does not carry any formal designation as conservation land. Such a designation would legally limit development of the land, rather than leave its fate up to future boards of selectmen.

"There is a concern that the property could be sold by the town of Arlington," said Clark.

Placing the land into conservation protection, as most of the 20 or so attendees said they wanted, would require a vote by a two-thirds majority of Arlington Town Meeting, said Clark.

Great Meadows must also deal with "invasive exotics," plants such as swallow-wort, as well as the pesky purple loosestrife that are overcoming the less aggressive native species.

Great Meadows might also become a project for the newly formed Arlington Land Trust, a private organization dedicated to the preservation of open space. Several members of the trust attended the forum, noting the delicacy of the land at Great Meadows. Encouraging use of its resources had to be tempered, they said.

"[We] need to keep it from being loved to death," said Brian Rehrig, treasurer with Arlington Land Trust.

The ConCom study of Great Meadows in some ways repeated work done in Lexington a generation ago, said Angela Frick of Lexington's Conservation Commission. The Lexington commission produced a heavy tome on the land almost 30 years ago, arriving at many of the same recommendations Clark had outlined.

"The outcome of this ... was that the land should be protected," she said.

Clark will gather the comments she received at the forum as she finalized her plan for presentation to the Conservation Commission.

Arlington Advocate, December 9, 1999.

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