The Town Council learned Tuesday at the area known as Whitney Hill is actually made up of two parcels, one of which is protected recreation land and the other is designated as part of the Department of Public Works.
The area tucked in the middle of town is the last standing natural forest area in an urban suburb. A number of Town Councilors said they want to make sure both sections are protected for Watertown residents to enjoy as a natural area.
Town Councilor Susan Falkoff, who has been pushing to place the area under the protection of the Conservation Commission since she served on that board 10 years ago, said she wants to make sure the natural features of the wooded hillside is not disturbed.
"When discussion started about turning Whitney Hill into a park there was a lot of anxiety and worry about the hill changing," Falkoff said. "People worry we ill do something to change it or use it for a cell tower."
She suggested naming it Whitney Hill Preserve, rather than a park, to make the use more clear.
Conservation Agent Chris Hayward said the area, a total of 10 acres, is made up of a 6-acre parcel (above Victory Field with entrances off Oliver Street and Marion Road) and one of almost 4 acres above the DPW facility, with an entrance on Marlboro Terrace.
Town Council Vice President Steve Corbett said he was surprised to hear that the town had an unused parcel of nearly 4 acres. The town just finished a multi-decade search for location to move the recycling center, Corbett noted, and he did not know that the DPW had an unused parcel of 3 acres. Corbett did not indicate whether he would have wanted to use the land for that purpose, and in July the Council approved building the new center on Stanley Avenue in the West End.
The parcels are owned by the town, but no one is in charge of it, Hayward said, so little upkeep has been done.
"These are areas where no department or commission is in charge of the land," Hayward said. "It is one of the few pieces of open spaces in town and it is appreciated by the people."
In additions, there is a small parcel in the southern corner, at the top of the hill, which is reserved for a water tower, Hayward said. He wants that to be included in the new parcel, as well.
Whitney Hill features many native trees and plants, but is also under threat from invasive species, said Patrick Fairbairn, a member of the Conservation Commission and an ecologist.
Fairbairn sees an opportunity to make Whitney Hill into a nature walk and education area.
"Once you catalog the fauna and major vertebrates, you can create a nature trail with signage and maybe pamphlets," Fairbairn said. "You can describe the hill with a number of stations."
A few years ago, Fairbairn explored the area and found trees such as white oaks, black oaks, American beech trees and black walnut. Because the area has been left largely untouched, the it provides a good habitat for animals because the dead and dying trees give places for the critters to live and hide.
Invasive species such as Norway maple trees and ground cover such as Japanese knotweed, English ivy, bittersweet and trumpet creeper have been found on Whitney Hill, too, Fairbairn said. He hopes these could be removed if the land is transferred to the care of the Conservation Commission.
The town bought the land in 1895 from the Watertown Land Co., a group of developers who built homes on the hill around the preserve. It was first called Whiting Place, then was called White's Hill and in 1897 was changed to Whitney Hill Park after John Whitney, one of the earliest settlers of the area, according to a report by the Historical Society of Watertown.
For the town to transfer the land to the Conservation Commission, it must be approved by both the Town Council and the State Legislature, said Town Attorney Mark Reich. Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli disputed the need to get legislative approval.
Residents said they would like to see the paths in Whitney Hill maintained, cleaned and have things like poison ivy removed, Piccirilli said. In addition, they want to be able to continue to walk their dogs there.
If the Conservation Commission took over control of the land, it would then be responsible for finding funds to pay for the care in its budget. A revolving fund fed by fees and other payments could be established to pay for the care, Reich said.
Town Councilors Angeline Kounelis said that the original request from the Conservation Commission called for a neighborhood meeting about Whitney Hill before any decision was made by the Town Council.
The whole issue needs more study, said Town Councilor Cecilia Lenk, and she asked that the council's Public Works Committee discuss it.
The council voted to refer the Whitney Hill issue to the Public Works Committee. Members did not approve a timeline of returning with a report by the end of the year that was requested by Falkoff and moved by Town Councilor Tony Palomba.