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RUSSELL — Local boating and fishing enthusiasts say the town now has the opportunity to have a Westfield River boating and fishing access area constructed on town property and paid for by the state. It has met with some opposition on the Board of Selectmen, however.

Several spokesmen for the group, including Illtyd Fernandes-Sierra, Bill Hardie and Derrick Mason, are now advocating for the town of Russell to accept the offer from the state Office of Boating and Fishing Access to construct an access ramp on the river for these recreational activities.

According to their statement, the OBFA, part of the state Department of Fish and Game, first responded last summer to a request initiated by local boaters and fishermen to construct an accessible public access to the Westfield River for non-motorized carry-in boats.

State officials subsequently visited Russell, scouted several potential sites, and identified the town property on Frog Hollow Road, adjacent to the bridge on Main Street, to be best for engineering of the project, which would include a parking lot, path to the bank, path down a modified bank to the water, railings, low lighting, and regulation signage. All engineering, project design, permitting and construction of the site would be done by the state at no cost to the town.

“[This] is a place people use frequently, where Frog Hollow Road and Main Street come together; a washout on the west side of the bridge. If you stumble, you’re going to take a bad fall,” said Fernandes-Sierra, who is also chair of the town’s Recreation Committee.

The group gave several reasons to support developing the boating and fishing access site.

“The Frog Hollow location is presently in poor physical condition, steep and unsafe for human access along the riverbank. There is no other improved public boating [and] fishing access in Russell or on the Westfield River, which is considered a prime fishing destination. All of the pull-off parking areas within the borders of Russell along Route 20 are posted with ‘Live Parking Only’ and subject to towing if ‘unattended after 30 minutes.’ These restrictions alone diminish reasonable access for fishermen and paddlers,” they said.

“We’d like to have the state come in. The state will do this,” Fernandes-Sierra said. He said the OBFA has drawn up four different solutions for a carry-on access, which were presented to the town selectmen.

“[The state] will take care of the permitting, construction and then turn it over to the town. The town’s responsibility would be to maintain it — cut the grass, pick up the trash — and let the state know if there’s any substantial damage,” Fernandes-Sierra said.

Mason said the group initially had a meeting with representatives of state Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield), after which the Department of Fish and Game staff visited town and took a survey. He said they did a walk through at Russell Pond, another area that they are seeking for improved boating access, as well as several sites along the river. Mason said the OBFA fixated on the one location by the bridge which was already a parking area for a boat ramp.

“It’s just a matter of the town making sure it stays clean after it’s built,” he said.

However, town officials have not been wholly supportive of the project in their discussions, according to the statement from the group of enthusiasts advocating for the project.

“Some individuals of the administration and other town departments are not accepting of the requirements mandated by the commonwealth OBFA. The mandate states that the area is to be open to the public around the clock, at least initially, without overnight parking. And the site would be added to the OBFA website. If an issue arises at the site once opened, an appeal can be made by the town to the OBFA, to tailor the hours to the town needs,” according to the statement by the group of advocates.

Russell Selectman Wayne Precanico said he’s in favor of the project — “It’s a great idea” — but detailed in an email some of the other objections town officials have raised, which include the cost of maintenance and the need to provide police and emergency medical service to a more active boat ramp.

“For example, the ramp is available 24 hours a day and the parking area is lit 24/7,” he said. “Once the ramp is in place, the town, at its cost, has to maintain it. Some of these could possibly be mitigated through an appeals process, but it’s just that, an appeals process.”

He also mentioned town officials are worried about losing local control of a large parcel of land.

The boat ramp advocates responded: “This Frog Hollow location has always been open to the public for access without concentrated concern for policing or emergency response. And the grounds have always been maintained by the [town] Highway Department. It has never been posted ‘for Russell resident use only,’ always open to the general public,” they said, adding, ”The objections to accepting the commonwealth’s offer has prompted some town officials to do a preliminary search to build an access with town funds, so as not to be held by the regulations of the commonwealth.”

Precanico noted that what the state is proposing is more restrictive than “carry-on access,” and, contrary to the statement from local advocates, it won’t be open to most fishing boats.

“That’s important because when you think ‘boat ramp,’ you think power boats and all that that entails. It is also strictly a canoe and kayak ramp, not for fishing,” Precanico said.

He said at this time, there aren’t any public hearings planned for the project.

“We’ve had a couple of site visits — open to the public, of course — and talked about it at our Select Board meetings,” Precanico said. “The Select Board is looking at this closely, as well as other possible solutions, including putting in some sort of stair system, replacing the wood ‘stairs’ that are in place now. No decision has been made as of yet.”

The Russell Board of Selectmen meets every other Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Town Hall at 65 Main St., Russell. The local advocates of the access ramp encouraged people to call the Board of Selectmen office at 413-862-4747 and leave a message expressing their support for the project.

amyporter@thewestfieldnews.com | + posts