Photo: Parking lot, Rock Meadow
3:15 p.m., Sunday, April 12: Rock Meadow.
On a warm afternoon under a dull sky, the gravel parking lot is packed to the gills with sedans and SUVs. Mill Street and the lot for Lone Tree Hill have their share of cars. In fact, a Belmont Police patrol car sitting along the roadway was surrounded by a line of vehicles.
With nearly everything under lockdown due to COVID-19, an open space with no restrictions has become the destination of choice.
On the trails – marked with neon green signs imploring patrons to “beware of ticks” – people (largely couples or families, most without masks) are stretching the legs with their four-legged pets nearly all abiding by the leash bylaw with an outlier playing catch far from where the police could see the offense.
While far from being standing room only, Rock Meadow has been attracting a crowd.
“We’re finding that as the weather is getting nicer that more people are out at Rock Meadow using the trails,” said Town Administrator Patrice Garvin speaking to the Select Board via Zoom video conference on April 13.
But the increased popularity of the 70 acres of meadow, wetlands, streams, and woods has residents and the Conservation Commission which manages the land asking if this newfound destination location has been overrun by people who believe the open spaces gives them the freedom to flaunt the town’s bylaws and the need for personal space.
“Drove by [Rock Meadow] the other day and there were so many cars parked every which way that cars couldn’t ride on both sides of Mill Street without crossing the yellow line,” said Gioia Rizzo commenting in the Belmontonian Facebook page.
“I am sick and tired of being trapped in MY house because people don’t have the decency to abide by the rules and stay home,” she said.
The increase in foot traffic on Rock Meadow’s narrow trails has created a greater chance of contact with other strollers, noted Garin. Some people are abiding with social distancing and wearing masks, others are not.
And it’s not just the people that are causing concern. Pet dogs are being let off their leash to run on conservation land which is a no-no in Belmont. The Conservation Commission is finding it frustrating that dogs are relieving themselves without any pickup from owners.
The town has discovered that an increasing number of people driving to the open space are non-residents “coming from other communities we believe don’t have walking areas because everything is closed,” said Garvin.
As of now, the town is simply monitoring the area “to make sure [activity] doesn’t get out of hand,” she said.
If the crowds not following distancing guidelines and dogs sans leashes continue, “we’re gonna have to have a conversation about closing the parking lot. But we haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Garvin said. “It’s not something we want to do,” she said, pointing out that it will likely push people onto other open spaces such as Lone Tree Hill and Beaver Brook.
In an attempt to raise awareness of the town’s bylaw, Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman has sent the town’s 1,600 dog owners an email reminding them of their responsibility to keep their pets under control.