Ayer Road in Harvard is, by rural standards, a rather large and busy thoroughfare.
With an average width of 32 feet, it’s designed to handle modern two-way) traffic. It even has a Dunkin’ Donuts.
In those respects, Ayer Road is different from most roads in Harvard, a fact quickly discovered by anyone venturing off the busy road.
More likely than not, intrepid travelers would find themselves on a 20-foot-wide scenic byway, where life moves a little slower in anticipation of oncoming traffic on these narrow roads.
Such an excursion is also likely to encounter some of Harvard’s many stonewalls, which past selectman and current Planning Board member William Ashe terms both as relics of the town’s past and as measuring sticks to a protecting bylaw.
Ashe said the walls stemmed from agricultural necessity. They typically mark farmland boundaries from hundreds of years ago, when farmers removed rocks from their fields by hand and deposited them onto their property lines.
While Harvard has gone from forest to farmland and back to forest in the past 300 years, Ashe said the walls snaking through local wooded areas remain as vestiges of that journey.
“When you get into stonewalls, you’re really getting into history,” he said. “It’s a characteristic of virtually all New England states.”
It’s a heritage the commonwealth has acted to save in the past 30 years, beginning with passage of the Scenic Road Act in the early 70s. The act was adopted by Harvard in 1974, along with 49 roads that were designated as “scenic.”
Under its provisions, any alterations in the right-of-way of a scenic byroad that involve removing stonewalls or mature trees cannot be performed without a public hearing and written consent from the Planning Board.
Ashe explained that the stonewalls near a scenic byroad typically define the limits of a right-of-way.
Among the criteria at the board’s disposal during such review is consideration of scenic views, preservation of historic characteristics and enhancement of an area’s aesthetic values
With Littleton Road added to the “scenic” registry in 1977, the bylaw covers 50 roads in Harvard, which Planning Board Chairman Mary Essary estimated is about 90 percent of the nonstate roads.
In practice, Essary said the bylaw is most often invoked when someone wants to displace part of a wall by adding a driveway.
Since the landowner is legally allowed access to a buildable lot, Essary said the focus during these reviews is on minimizing the curb cut’s impact.
“It’s not a question of denying access,” she said. “It’s a review to make sure the driveway cut has as little impact as possible.”
The bylaw also covers illegal removals, though Essary said enforcement hasn’t been an issue in recent years. She said the town does not have specific penalties for violators who would be referred to the zoning enforcement officer in the event of a violation.
That’s not to suggest the law hasn’t been tested in the past 30 years.
Former selectman and Conservation Commission member Laurence Finnegan remembers several times when the town stepped in to ensure that walls were replaced after being removed illegally.
Finnegan said the bylaw only protects walls near the road. Outside that, the fate of a stonewall is subject to the property owner’s will.
In some cases, that can mean protection: Finnegan said stealing stones from walls was a cottage industry of sorts in the 70s and 80s.
He told the story of a friend 20 years ago who interrupted a group of vandals who were dismantling a countryside stonewall.
The friend was told by the individuals that the wall was on private property and that he should leave, at which point he informed them that it was his property they were on. In that case, the wall was saved.
In other circumstances, ownership is not always an open-and-shut case. Like many property owners in Harvard, Finnegan’s land is bounded by a stonewall. While he has no plans to remove it, it would likely require an agreement with his neighbor to do so.
Speaking about the stonewalls within the public realm, Ashe said that the bylaw could really begin to show its worth in coming years. Stonewalls have largely disappeared in the past 30 years from the Route 128-beltway, he said, and are in rapid retreat in the Route 495 corridor as well. He termed that progression part of a lengthy trend.
“Boston used to be rural,” he said. “It had a lot of stonewalls.”
Of course, a future town meeting could reverse some or all of the scenic designations, widening the roads and removing the walls, but neither Ashe said it’s not unreasonable to think some stonewalls could still be around 200 years from now.
“It’s hard to predict the future,” said Ashe. “But I think for some time to come, they’ll be safe.”
“If people want to turn the roads into boulevards, they can do that,” he said. “The point is, people in the future will have the option to preserve these walls or not.”