October 8, 2015: Requiem for a good friend of local parks

Belmont Citizen-Herald: October 8, 2015

It is with great sadness that I report last week’s passing away of a good friend to local parks. When Congress approved last-minute funding to keep the federal government open for another few months, it failed to include dollars for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  At midnight on September 30th, the LWCF expired.

The LWCF was created by a large bipartisan Congressional majority in 1964.  In the past 50 years, the Fund has invested nearly $17 billion in federal, state and local parks.  The LWCF repaired a broken sewer system to keep a local beach open; funded local walking trails; and purchased land for national parks and monuments.  The LWCF funded nearly 90% of the National Memorial in Storystown, Pennsylvania, where Flight 93 crashed on 9/11.  It funded nearly two-thirds of the Appalachian Trail.  Overall, in its 50 year history, the LWCF supported more than 42,000 projects in 98% of the counties throughout the nation.

All of this was accomplished while costing taxpayers not one thin dime.  The LWCF is. . .or rather was. . .funded entirely by royalties from the offshore oil and gas industry.

Until the very end, the LWCF remained a popular program.  Recently, 67 U.S. Senators signed a letter to their colleagues supporting the LWCF’s renewal.  In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution, sponsored by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (amongst others), supporting the program.  The Mayors properly noted that “parks support public health, workforce development, local economies, the environment, education, and community cohesion, which are critical to creating resilient, livable and vibrant cities.”

Much has been said in recent months about “green space” in Belmont.  The most obvious discussion has related to the relative merits of competing green space proposals for Belmont Center.  Other local issues, however, should not get lost in the shadow of that Belmont Center debate.  The Grove Street Park comprehensive planning process, which must balance the preservation of green space with the provision of space for active recreation, has been in play for some time.  A letter writer to the Citizen-Herald expressed concern this summer about the seeming lack of attention devoted to maintaining Clay Pit Pond.  Just a few years back, Town Meeting was asked to weigh two legitimate but competing interests, the preservation of the historic Clark House versus the preservation of the open space along the train tracks by the Lion’s Club.

Though perhaps smaller in magnitude than Belmont’s big ticket open space issues such as the preservation of the McLean open space and the effort to preserve the Belmont Uplands, the intensity of feeling generated by each of these issues only goes to show, right here in Belmont, that the Conference of Mayors was correct when it referenced the role of parks and open space in “creating resilient, livable and vibrant” communities.

The demise of the LWCF presents clear local lessons for Belmont.  What we may assume is permanent, indeed universally acclaimed, can be lost almost before you realize it.  Moreover, what is lost is generally lost for good.  With these thoughts in mind, perhaps it is time for Belmont to update its “five-year” open space and recreation plan (last updated seven years ago).  Perhaps it is time, also, to think more about where “open space” planning fits into the operation of Town government. It would seem to be outside the purview of the Planning Board, Conservation Commission, and Recreation Commission, each of which has its related, but more narrowly focused, job to do.

In the meantime, rest in peace, LWCF.  Let us learn what we can from your life and untimely passing.

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