Leverett wrestles with future of Rattlesnake Gutter Road
|Published: 10-30-2023 11:23 AM
LEVERETT — During the pandemic, numerous cars parked daily along Rattlesnake Gutter Road up to the gates that have for more than 20 years kept a more than mile-long section of the narrow gravel road closed to through traffic, indicating that people were seeking refuge in the wooded, undeveloped area that features a deep, waterless gorge, along with cliffs, ledges and boulders.
Even as life has returned to some normalcy, Rattlesnake Gutter continues to be the second most popular recreational site in town, next to Leverett Pond, bringing people from throughout the region to hike and bike the scenic area that has interesting geological formations created 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.
“We get people coming in and hiking from all over the area,” says Eva Gibavic, a longtime resident who has made her home on a part of the road that remains open. “It really is the most popular place for hiking in Leverett.”
But this year’s wet summer caused significant washouts to the closed section of the road that was built in the 1830s as a shortcut from the center of town to Moore’s Corner, with floods damaging the road captured in photos and videos by Gibavic during a July walk. The changes include a 4-foot deep channel in the road that exposed the bedrock after the gravel surface washed away.
Though the damage has since been repaired by the Highway Department, it is causing town officials to begin wrestling with how Leverett can afford to continue to keep the road closed year round, as it has been since June 2001, when a 25-foot section began sliding down a steep embankment, while at the same time making sure there is money for upkeep of the stone retaining wall, which holds the backfill of the road in place, and was likely brought there by teams of oxen and horses.
Those who are advocating for the continued maintenance of the road include members of the Rattlesnake Gutter Trust, a conservation group formed out of effort to preserve the beauty of the area. Gibavic, a current trustee, said the preferred solution would have the Select Board formally appeal to discontinue what is still a county road, and then for advocates to begin pursuing new sources of money, likely associated with recreational programs, to cover costs.
“We need to get funding to restore the road so that it doesn’t sink,” Gibavic said. “Already, a couple more places have started to cave in a bit.”
Discontinuing the road would open road work to other pots of money, such as the Community Preservation Act account and state grants from the MassTrails program. The trust also may spearhead a fund drive for restoration of the road.
On Tuesday, the Select Board began discussing making the request of the Franklin Council of Governments to discontinue the portion of the road adjacent to town-owned land, though no decision was made. Town Administrator Marjorie McGinnis said the process, including notifications to abutters and advertisements, would cost about $1,000.
Steve Weiss, also a trustee of the Rattlesnake Gutter Trust, said that rebuilding the retaining walls, putting in more culverts and drainage ditches and regrading the road to funnel water are among the needs to preserve the road.
“We have begun working with various groups in town to find a way to stabilize and reconstruct the road,” Weiss said.
Even though the Highway Department redug ditches and took down some trees, there is quite a bit of work still to be done, he said.
There will be questions from some in town about whether the road has to be maintained. The trust is arguing doing so would preserve the history of the road and provide access for emergency vehicles. Some have pointed to the 2020 forest fire on Joshua Hill that was challenging to put out because there was no easy way to access the woods.
Weiss said the road is also a major asset to the town.
The permanent road closure would not be unlike the closure of Rat Hollow Road, a county road that was discontinued in 1888.
“This wouldn’t inconvenience anyone,” Weiss said. “There are no landowners that abut that area. We’re really just trying to formalize what is already happening.”
Though the road had once remained open to vehicles during the spring, summer and fall, it had already been closed during the winter following two incidents, Gibavic said. One of those occurred when a tractor trailer truck got stuck during a snowstorm, the other when a car college students were riding in hit glare ice and nearly ended up down the ravine.
“After those incidents the town started to keep people from going up there during the winter,” Gibavic said.
Since the gates were installed, parts of the road have been in disrepair. “It’s been in a closed-but-not-closed condition for some time,” Gibavic said.
Next week, a hydrologic survey will be done to examine erosion controls and a qualified tree crew may look at potential vegetation management. The trust is also involving the town’s Highway Advisory Committee and Highway Superintendent Matt Boucher, who has been supportive of efforts at maintaining the road.
Ultimately, the trust defers to those experienced in dealing with roads about what work should be done.
“Once we get to the point of looking at funding, we’ll be determining what the road needs to withstand ongoing maintenance alterations,” Gibavic said.