Nahanton Park: Green Meadows or Snow Dump?

The Nahanton Park meadow that was used for dumping in winter of 2010

Nahanton Park is one of Newton’s most beautiful open spaces. Bounded by the Charles River and Nahanton and Winchester Streets, its 55 acres contain a variety of habitats: the riverfront area, a meadow on a drumlin, early successional woods, and a woods of tall pines. It has playing fields, a canoe launch, and some of the best birding in Newton. Migratory birds stop on their way through in season. Bluebirds nest in bluebird boxes in the meadow. A walk along the riverfront path usually turns up waterfowl. In mating season, woodcocks breed on the high ground, with the males making a strange, showy dance. For decades, Nahanton Park has been everything Newton wants an open space to be.

Then came the DPW. Then came the snow.

The DPW began using Nahanton more than ten years ago as a place to dump the snow it clears from the streets and parking lots. Dumping was largely limited to a parking area at the Nahanton Street side of the park, but at times it spilled onto the adjacent meadow. Dumping of snow meant compaction of the soil and loss of soil health. A restoration effort became necessary ten years ago. Since restoration, the meadow began to return to a vibrant wildflower field. That is, it did, until this past winter. And the snow.

Open space is different things to different people. To some, it is a meadow of wildflowers, like a Monet painting. It is a peaceful place to watch birds or take a long, lonely walk. The playing field at Nahanton is a place to play soccer. The gardens are a place to plant. But if you have truckloads of snow and you need a place to dump it, that beautiful meadow begins to look more like a dump.

More snow fell this last January than has fallen in all the winter months in some recent years. The snow was piled high on the city streets. The DPW needed a place for it to go.

Truckloads of snow from DPW trucks began filling the Nahanton Street parking lot in December, and, when those were filled, the Winchester Street entrance became the way to a new dumping ground.

It isn’t only the snow that is a problem. It is everything that comes with it: the sand, the salt, the de-icing chemicals. These find their way directly into the Charles. What fell out of the snow dump (or was brought there by people who had decided that Nahanton was Newton’s new dump) was all that and more: a refrigerator, old TV sets, bottles, cans, and all the usual street trash. DPW trucks became a major presence at Nahanton, parked and idling along the trail at the Winchester Street entrance. The DPW truck tires are capable of some serious damage. Deep ruts now mark places that once were fields.

Then came the Christmas trees.

In March, as the snow mounds melted, the DPW began using Nahanton as a site to turn trees into chips. This is a heavy, noisy industrial operation. The City had handled this operation at DPW yards in other years. This year, with so much of Nahanton in its use, the DPW brought the Christmas trees and also the broken limbs that had collected on the streets to Nahanton. It made a stockpile at the Winchester Street entrance, where the DPW plans to use a massive “tub grinder” – not the standard small chipper used by landscapers to make chips but a far bigger piece of equipment – to do at Nahanton what had formerly been done at the DPW’s Rumford Avenue yard.

All this did not pass without protest. Early in March, a group that included members of the Friends of Nahanton Park and the Newton Conservators met with Chief Operating Officer Robert Rooney, Commissioner Bob Derubeis, and Acting DPW Commissioner, David Turocy. Nahanton Park is under the ownership of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. It was acquired as open space and, by statute, cannot be used for other purposes. But Parks and Recreation is a division of the Department of Public Works, and that in itself may be part of the problem. The group heard from the DPW how use of the park had been necessary this year as an emergency measure, given the amount of snowfall. The group came away with an acknowledgement that damage had been done to the park. DPW stopped bringing limbs to Nahanton Park and made a commitment that the park would be restored.

Mayor Setti Warren was contacted as well. The Mayor is committed to the protection of open space. He responded that “Nahanton Park is a vital natural resource here in Newton and its beauty must be preserved. Our COO Bob Rooney, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Bob DeRubeis and I are working closely with members of the Board of Alderman to clean up and restore the Park. In addition, we are working on a plan for snow removal that is environmentally responsible and ensures that our parks are not damaged even as we work to remove snow quickly and effectively from all our streets and byways.”

These commitments from City officials are important. A great deal of work and expense will be involved to restore the park, and, unless the DPW finds the way to handle snow at the yards that it already controls at Rumford Avenue, Elliot Street, and elsewhere, the next time the snowfall is heavy, there will be the same pressure to convert Nahanton Park to a DPW yard.

Christmas tree disposal in the park. Photo by Duane Hillis.

The damage done to Nahanton Park this past winter has prompted a search for ways to provide better protection. Representative Ruth Balser has led an effort to implement protection under Article 97. What we learn in these efforts will help us to better protect all of Newton’s open spaces and parks. I urge all of you, in all our parks, to be stalwart. When you see abuse and misuse, speak up, band together, and hold others accountable. Open space is priceless and irreplaceable.

Duane Hillis
Friends of Nahanton Park
Winter 2011