Keeping Sterling Our Emerald Gem

Did you know … how much open space we have in Sterling?

If you took a helicopter ride at Sterling Fair this year, you surely noticed that Sterling’s 30 square miles (19,539 acres) is gloriously green: nearly two-thirds of Sterling‘s land is forest or farms. And blue: we have  808 acres of water.

Agriculture is still big in Sterling, with 2,500 acres of orchards, dairies, nurseries, and tree farms. This is unprotected open space, taxed differently from residential and business land, and referred to as “chapter” land (for Chapter 61 of Massachusetts General Laws).

By the accident of geology that made the Wachusett Reservoir possible, one quarter of our town is permanently protected through purchase by DCR (Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation). Other protected open space is held by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (Stuart Pond and Wekepeke), the Department of Agriculture (Allen properties off Tuttle Road and the Philbin Orchards of Chamberlain Road), the town, and Sterling Land Trust. In total, one third of Sterling is protected open space. 

That gray area you see on satellite images – that’s residential and commercial land, about 3,500 acres. 

If you’re trying to enjoy Sterling’s emerald beauty from the ground, it’s a bit more complicated than by fly-over. There are rules and restrictions for how you can use the lands controlled by these various groups. These strictest restrictions are DCR’s, designed to protect the quality of the water that finds its way to the Wachusett Reservoir. DCR’s water supply is of such high quality that it is one of the rare water supplies in the US that does not need to filter or chlorinate. This means that dogs, horses, goats and gas-powered machines are not allowed, and no one goes in or on the reservoir.

DCR allows some activity on its land, mostly walking, cross country skiing, fishing, and picnicking. Get the list of where you can and can’t do what on DCR watershed land, at the DCR/DWSP 2011 Public Access Policy Summary- Intake Protection Zone for Wachusett;

Most of the DCR Watershed Protection land is on the west side of Sterling. Do you live near conservation land? Most likely. Here’s a link to a map.

Other protected open space that doesn’t affect the Wachusett watershed can be a little more open than DCR’s, often allowing horses, bicycling, dogs, boating, and fishing. The Sterling Trails Association has developed and mapped 6 trails, with 3 more under development. Five brochures with maps that list the allowed activities and describe the hikes are currently posted on the Town website. Here’s the link.

All brochures have been placed for pick up at the library, senior center and on occasion at the Recreation Department office. Or visit the Sterling Trails booth at the Sterling Fair every year for copies. 

Several kiosks have been constructed and placed at the Butterick, Heywood Reservoir, Stillwater, Allenwood, and Lynde Basin trailheads with information about the property and hike. 

Volunteers groom the trails and lead hikes on Saturday mornings (usually Peder Pedersen, Jeff Keays, and Chuck Plaisted). You’ll find those hikes publicized in this newspaper. Check out past hiking groups on the Sterling Trails and Open Space Facebook page,.

How permanent is the conservation protection? 

Removing land from permanent open space protection status so that it may be developed requires a yes vote by two thirds of the State Legislature. According to the EEA Division of Conservation Services, land owned by the Town’s Conservation Commission, one of the State’s conservation agencies (MassWildlife or DCR- DWSP), or a nonprofit land trust (the Nature Conservancy or the Sterling Land Trust), is permanently protected, especially if the Town received State or Federal funds to purchase or improve the property. Private land is considered protected if it has a deed restriction in perpetuity, if an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) has been placed on the property, or if DEP has placed a conservation restriction on it as part of the Wetlands Conservancy Program.

Thanks to the Open Space Implementation Committee for material in this article.


Published by Sue Aldrich

I'm a talented writer who connects business goals with technology, to get your message across through readable and engaging content. I have expertise in personalization, customer experience, journey optimization, recommendations, and search. I also research and write articles on sustainability for my hometown newspaper, Sterling Meetinghouse News.

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