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Boards, public share visions for Conway’s controversial Rose property

Recorder file/Paul Franz
The “Rose Property” on Shelburne Falls Road next to the South River near Conway Center.

Recorder file/Paul Franz The “Rose Property” on Shelburne Falls Road next to the South River near Conway Center.

CONWAY — Off Shelburne Falls Road, on the Rose property in the center of town, residents could potentially see a farm, affordable housing, a municipal multi-use complex, central village water wells, gardens or even a drive-in movie theater.

With a map of the Rose property, a pen and large poster board, along with cookies and cider, the Planning Board asked residents in the crowded Town Hall on Thursday how it would like to use the 11-acre farm field. It was the first of what is expected to be a series of public all-committee meetings run by the town planners to determine the use of the riverside land in the town’s central village.

The town has owned the property since 2006, when it swapped it for a colonial house near the Conway Grammar School. Several ideas have been proposed and researched for the site over the years by different town boards and committees, including elderly housing, soccer fields or a town highway garage. The use of the property, however, has gained a renewed focus after the Board of Selectmen were discovered to have been quietly planning a municipal complex combining town offices, public safety offices and a highway garage.

With the feeling of cooperation and joviality prevailing in the Town Hall, the Planning Board conducted a straw poll and found the most popular ideas for the Rose property are affordable housing, farming, and simply doing nothing.

Of those ideas, the proposal that is furthest along in planning and has the majority of support is riverbank restoration on the South River championed by Friends of the South River, which has a grant to help with the work intended to mitigate damage from raging flood water caused by storms like Tropical Storm Irene.

Wetland restrictions

However, before the town makes any decision, it has to learn of the restrictions on the land.

Without giving any specific advice, town Conservation Commission Chairman John Gates warned, “there are really significant limitations of what can be done, if anything, on the land.”

Restrictions on the land include the 200-foot buffer zone from the South River. It is also within a floodplain. The Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program has also identified a part of the site as habitat for an endangered species of turtle, which limits the change of use of the 11 acres to one change only. The property is zoned for agricultural use, which the town would have to change to accommodate a project.

The town will find out those restrictions on Jan. 29 when a representative from the state Department of Environmental Protection comes to the Town Hall.

With the help of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, the town received a $212,500 fluvial geomorphology grant to address flooding and erosion along the South River after Tropical Storm Irene inundated the town center last year. The total cost is $354,166. The town is required to match $100,000. The town has until April to accept the grant money.

The grant is an outgrowth of biological and geographical studies on the river conducted by Field Geology Services of Maine last year.

The main problem with the river is sediment.

According to Nic Miller, a scientist for Field Geology Services and Shelburne Falls native, there are several issues along the South River, including a lack of pools for the flooding water to go, sediment buildup and a straight river flow. A straight flowing river gains strength and speed, resulting in erosion and threatened natural habitats.

The grant would be used to build underwater structures — boulder deflectors and V-shaped boulder weirs— in the South River to relieve the power of the river’s flow and allow the river to spill onto the floodplain on the Rose property after a powerful storm. The boulder deflectors would stabilize the bank by turning the water away from the bank, while the weirs would move the water from both sides of the river.

The town discovered that using the Rose property as a floodplain for water to flow would not take away the town’s ability to use the land for other projects. The flood mitigation project would lower the existing floodplain, which is 0.8 acres, by 2 feet. Floodplain lowering does not extend the existing 200-foot floodplain buffer zone farther into the property — one of the concerns of the Board of Selectmen and other town residents.

Excluding the 200-foot buffer area, there remains four acres.

“If the mean high water mark is still below that 2 feet, it’d be OK,” Miller said.

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