GROTON -- Members of the Greenway Committee met with a friendly reception among their counterparts on the Conservation Commission when the two groups met on Dec. 11 to discuss the potential replacement of the historic Fitch's Bridge.
The immediate reason for the meeting was to inform the Conservation Commission of engineering plans for the bridge replacement that is in turn dependent on a decision by residents at a Special Town Meeting to be held Jan. 26 whether or not to authorize the appropriation of funds to cover the cost of the project.
The idea of replacing Fitch's Bridge has been a dream of local planners for many years, especially those interested in creating an interconnected trail system through town.
Built and installed in the late 19th century by the Berlin Iron Bridge Co. of Connecticut, Fitch's Bridge has been closed to auto traffic since the 1960s and in recent times has been used mostly by teenagers looking for a good spot from which to jump into the Nashua River.
An earlier effort to find money for replacement of the bridge with the Community Preservation Committee went nowhere when it became apparent that it would be more expensive for the town overall to take that route than in raising the funding needed independently.
An article at fall Town Meeting seeking to raise funds to pay for a plan to remove the existing bridge and a design for a new one passed muster with residents and the firm of Fay, Spofford & Thorndike was hired to do the work.
Engineers, in fact, were present at the Dec. 11 meeting of the Conservation Commission to give details about the plan to replace the bridge, including the use of one or even two cranes positioned on either side of the river which would be used to remove the bridge in a single piece or in halves.
In addition, engineer Richard Kirby confirmed that a floating platform or barge would also be used on the river itself. The new bridge, intended for foot traffic and equestrian use only, would likely be installed in a single piece with the original stone abutments strengthened and cleaned.
The actual bridge replacement would take about a week, said Kirby, with the remaining seven weeks or so used for erosion control and repair of the embankments where the span meets the shore.
Trees along the path leading to the bridge would be pruned to make way for the cranes but not cut down.
Among concerns raised by commissioners at the Dec. 11 meeting were the grade at which the bridge would be positioned, ramping leading up to the bridge, the amount of fill to be used on the embankments, clearances with land owners abutting the project, the integrity of the existing abutments, access for the cranes, and permitting requirements.
"This is just a great project," declared Conservation Commission member Marshall Giguere.
But despite the commission's friendliness toward the project, there was a dissenting note at the meeting.
That was provided by Pepperell resident Gary Wilson, whose 237-acre farm abuts one end of the bridge.
"There's no reason why you couldn't plank that thing and use it for another 20 to 30 years," insisted Wilson, who said that already the bridge was a magnet for foot and motorized traffic that over the years had caused thousands of dollars in damage to his property and crops. "That bridge isn't going anywhere. It will stay there for another 100 years."
Wilson feared that a new bridge would increase activity in his neighborhood and further threaten his property.
Proponents of the bridge replacement, however, said after looking into simply renovating the existing bridge, the cost would come in at $1 million to $2 million after meeting federal and state requirements such as lead paint removal.
The cheaper and easiest way to go therefore, was replacement of the bridge with a whole new span.
Nevertheless, Wilson said it was still a waste of money that could better be spent on "a fire station that you don't need."
With a review from the state's Natural Heritage watchdog group still pending, the commission continued the public hearing until its meeting of Jan. 8.