EDITORIAL: Discontinuing Powder House Rd No ‘Slam-Dunk’
Lawrence Academy has requested a Public Hearing on August 29 before the Board of Selectmen, asking them to place an article on Fall Town Meeting warrant to discontinue Powder House Road as a Public Way. By discontinuing Powder House Road, the town would transfer its rights to this historic roadway to private hands.
Powder House Road is not a single, small road, but a system of roadways winding through Lawrence’s campus. [See image below] Although officially a public way, most of Powder House Road is used primarily to move in and around the extensive school campus. In reality, it is used as much a pedestrian pathway and parking lot as a true passage for vehicular traffic.
Over the years, as their campus has grown, the school has gradually encroached on Powder House Road, using it more and more like private than public property. In fact, few people are even aware that the road running through Lawrence Academy is public, in part because of a lack of appropriate road signs. We understand how this came to pass for reasonable historic reasons and why Lawrence Academy would want to control this road for security, pedestrian safety and future development. Their request is not unreasonable and deserves careful consideration.
But, there are important issues the town needs to consider too. Once the road is discontinued, it can’t be taken back. It’s hard to anticipate and easy to overlook the need for future public access. But, certainly a few come to mind.
A lot of lip-service is given to ‘open streets’ and making Groton a ‘walking town,’ especially the Center. Would shutting down access to the system of roads running through and around Lawrence’s buildings lead to a more open ‘walking town? We don’t think so.
Now Lawrence, its campus and Powder House Road are an integral part of the Center. If this roadway is discontinued , the school becomes less open, more like a ‘gated’ institution. Is that what is best for Groton, best for the Center?
Also, town sewer and water services were added along this pubic way for the benefit of the school. Certainly, easements will be required to maintain these utilities.
Another issue is the possible need to cross Lawrence property to access land that could become available to the town in the future including the possibility of needing to access roadways or land to manage future traffic flows in the center. Once these public roads are transferred to Lawrence, all leverage is lost. Such questions may seem far-fetched today, but need to be considered.
In a related issue, we were surprised that Lawrence removed a section of Powder House Road connecting with Route 119, replacing it with a pedestrian path, all without a public hearing before Selectmen. Certainly, Lawrence Academy has been in town long enough to know basic procedure for disposition of town roads.
Maintaining a healthy and mutual civility between the town and wealthy private institutions requires careful effort and restraint from both sides. In this case, we hope that Lawrence approaches the town with an awareness that relinquishing this public right of way needs careful thought and will not be a ‘slam-dunk’ decision.
We hope Selectmen will take time to carefully consider the pros and cons of such a transfer, including whether it makes sense to relinquish rights to just a part of Powder House Road, rather than all of it. Such a transfer is so consequential that Selectmen might consider appointing a committee to study the issue before rendering a decision.
Furthermore, we hope both Selectmen and Lawrence Academy have given thought to a substantial, fair and reasonable compensation for transferring all or part of this valuable and historic road system to private ownership, should the town decide to relinquish its rights to all or part of this historic public asset.