God’s Acre, 1987

While looking for information on the citizen complaints officer, I found this article from the front page of the October 18, 1987 Telegram.  Enjoy!

‘God’s Acre’ May Go Unbuilt

FAA Has Final Say, But Officials Are Optimistic

By Walter H. Crockett Jr.

The interests of conservation and aviation have combined to preserve one of the city’s last large areas of unspoiled woodland.

It took two city commissions and two city departments to turn the trick, and the final say on the matter still rests with the Federal Aviation Administration.  But city officials say it is almost certain that 150 acres of maple, oak, birch, glacial boulders and endangered salamanders on the eastern slope of Tatnuck Hill will be preserved in perpetuity for conservation and passive recreation.

The land is off Swan Avenue, a winding dirt road that climbs what used to be known as Rattlesnake Hill from Mill Street and gradually curves in the direction of Apricot Street.

Owned by the city and controlled by the Worcester Airport Commission, it includes the site of the former Hermitage estate and the huge granite boulder on which Solomon Parsons deeded 10 acres to God during the 19th century.

That particular parcel became known as God’s 10 Acres, or simply God’s Acre.  Earlier this year, the Conservation Commission included God’s Acre in a 17-acre tract and said it was one of 10 open-space areas that should get top priority for preservation.

On the verge

While several of the other top-10 areas already are slated for development by their owners, God’s Acre is on the verge of beating the reaper.

The city’s new master plan endorses the Conservation Commission’s top-10 list and the City Council has directed City Manager William J. Mulford to find ways to buy or otherwise protect the areas.

The Office of Planning and Community Development this year began approaching owners of parcels in the 10 areas to see if they were interested in selling them or granting conservation easements.

David M. Moore, a lawyer in the city Law Department who works with the Airport Commission, was asked by OPCD to see if the commission would give approval for conservation restrictions on the 17-acre God’s Acre parcel.

The commission liked the idea because keeping the land undeveloped would help avoid problems with neighbors, Moore said in a recent interview.

“The airport wants to be a good neighbor and they don’t want to have people build houses at the end of runways and have noise problems,” Moore said.

To reduce noise problems, the commission has asked the Planning Board to require aviation easements for new developments in the airport area.  The city’s proposed zoning ordinance includes an airport overlay area that would require strict review for building projects in the area and heavy soundproofing for houses that are built nearby.

When Moore researched the God’s Acre land for the Airport Commission, he found that it was one of eight adjoining parcels taken by eminent domain in 1977 for the airport and the industrial park.  None of the parcels was suitable for industrial use or airport expansion.

The commission decided to extend conservation restrictions to all eight parcels, enlarging God’s Acre to 130 acres and placing it under restricted covenants that include the phrase, “the property shall remain in its natural, scenic and open condition in perpetuity.”

Such words are music to the ears of conservationists, and Robert Burtin, a Conservation Commission member, who teaches ecology at Holy Cross College, said he was “very much pleased” by the Airport Commission’s action.

Burtin said the area is of considerable historical significance because of the granite boulder carved with 1 1/2- inch-high capital letters deeding the land to God.

The hillside includes a good stand of hardwoods and also may be home to an endangered amphibian, Burtin said.  He said he had been asked not to name the amphibian because some misguided scientist might try to collect it.

Deborah D. Cary, director of the Resources for Worcester office of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said that with the Airport Commission’s approval, the enlarged God’s Acre area could be used for hiking, nature study, and perhaps cross-country skiing.  An existing trail through part of the area could be maintained by groups such as the Boy Scouts, and new hiking trails could be developed, she said.

“The first step is to get the land under the conservation restrictions and the next step is to develop ways to use it for conservation purposes,” Moore said.

The protective covenants must be approved by the FAA and there is no telling how long that will take, he said.

Escape Clause

There is an escape clause among them that would allow the Airport Commission to use part of the land for sophisticated landing instruments if no other location is suitable, he said.  But such use would not reduce the conservation value of the land and there is no chance the commission would use the land to expand the airport, Moore said.

The Airport Commission also controls other parcels in the area that it may want to preserve, Moore said.  Engineering work would have to be done to determine their precise boundaries, but it is not impossible that the God’s Acre conservation area could eventually be greatly increased in size and extend to Airport Drive or to Logan Field on Mill Street, he said.

Burtin said extending the area to Logan Field would tie God’s Acre into city-owned conservation land that may someday extend from Coes Pond to Cascades Park.  That would allow city residents to take a healthy hike in the woods, and skip a few stones along the way, without ever leaving town.