February 14, 2013 – Daily News of Newburyport

WEST NEWBURY — A plan to build a boardwalk and bridge along the 129-acre Riverbend Trail network behind Page Elementary School is one step closer to becoming a reality.

The project, proposed by the Open Space Committee, cleared an all-important hurdle when it received support last week from the Community Preservation Act Committee, the panel that oversees use of the town’s CPA account. The application seeks $40,100 in CPA funds for the project with an additional $3,720 to install crushed stone on portions of the Myopia and Riverbend Trails to be funded privately.

That’s particularly good news for Page School sixth-graders who tapped the site near the Indian River as a backyard resource this year in order to participate in a place-based learning program sponsored by the National Parks Service [ed. and Essex Heritage]. The sixth-grade teaching team reports that the program was so successful they plan to expand it next year.

As part of the funding process for use of CPA money, the CPC must first deem a project qualified, and then approve an application for use of the money before the request can be brought to a final vote at Town Meeting. Selectmen had OK’d inclusion of the OSC request on a warrant for a Special Town Meeting that is typically held in conjunction with the Annual Town Meeting each April, but their approval was contingent upon CPC approval.

Communities that adopt the CPA are able to raise funds through a tax surcharge dedicated for open space preservation, preservation of historic resources, development of affordable housing and the acquisition and development of outdoor recreational facilities. In this case, the OSC request was deemed eligible for use of open space and recreation funds or historical preservation money, since the site on which the school is located was deemed to have unique historical significance to the town by the Historical Commission. An application for $14,500 to repair the Mill Pond Recreation Building’s roof was approved by the CPC for the same reasons.

The OSC intends to partner with the Essex County Trails Association and local volunteers to construct the 50-foot boardwalk and 40-foot bridge. The boardwalk, which connects to a network of trails completed in 2012 known as “the Riverbend West” area, will be located on a trail easement off Coffin Street.

The wooden structure will sit 18 inches above ground. Similar to a structure built last summer that connects the Ocean Meadow housing development to a new network of trails off Chase Street, this boardwalk will be strong enough to accommodate horseback riders, the application states. Riverbend is also one of the more popular spots in town for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.

The proposed bridge will cross the Indian River near the former Pike’s Dam, which separates Riverbend West from the rest of the Riverbend Conservation Area. Originally built for a sawmill in 1706, the scenic site is a popular destination with visitors to the conservation area. The bridge will span 4 to 5 feet above the falls and includes handrails for safety.

Page School sixth-graders have used the trails five times so far, and they plan to return to the area a few more times before the end of the school year, said teacher Brenda Dresser.

“The essence of the project is to get children reconnected with their natural resources in their area,” she explained. Students did data analysis, quadrant set-up, GPS and graphing for math class. For science class they collected and tested water samples, learned to identify flora and fauna, and developed their mapping skills. An old cellar hole on the land became the inspiration for an historical fiction assignment in English class. The kids also tapped their non-fiction writing skills by keep field journals, and for social studies they researched the history of the trails in town.

Dresser said the support of the Open Space Committee and the Public Works Department were integral to the success of the outdoor classroom experience. Members of the land use committee cut tree limbs to clear paths and led history lessons for students, while DPW employees mowed paths to keep the area safe for exploration. “The community involvement with this project has been overwhelming,” said Dresser.

In a letter submitted with the CPA application, the sixth-grade teaching team wholeheartedly supported the proposed improvements, saying the upgrades would give their students better access to the water and allow for further expansion of this cross-curriculum unit.

“There are many opportunities for other classrooms to use these trails, and our hope is that they become more popular with the Page School students, their families and the community,” the team wrote.

The Open Space Committee has been working for years to connect town-owned parcels to create an “emerald necklace” of trails. Its efforts include upgrades to trails at Brake Hill, Mill Pond, Dunn Field, Ocean Meadow and Riverbend West.

Learn more about Essex Heritage Education Programming.

Read the story on the Daily News website.