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Turning ‘Jungle’ Into Gem in Woodstock

  • Members of the East End Action Group hope to turn this overgrown space along the Ottauquechee River into a recreational park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Members of the East End Action Group hope to turn this overgrown space along the Ottauquechee River into a recreational park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, East End Action Group members Joby Thompson, Chris Bartlett, and Sally Miller stand along the Ottauquechee River location in Woodstock where they hope to create a park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    From left, East End Action Group members Joby Thompson, Chris Bartlett, and Sally Miller stand along the Ottauquechee River location in Woodstock where they hope to create a park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Members of the East End Action Group hope to turn this overgrown space along the Ottauquechee River into a recreational park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • From left, East End Action Group members Joby Thompson, Chris Bartlett, and Sally Miller stand along the Ottauquechee River location in Woodstock where they hope to create a park. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Woodstock — The area known as “the jungle” may soon be more like a playground for Woodstock residents.

The non-profit Sustainable Woodstock and its East End Action Group (EEAG) recently gained village approval for a seasonal recreational park on the Ottauquechee River near the junction of Pleasant Street and Woodstock Road.

Tucked away from U.S. Route 4 just west of the sharp corner by the gas stations, the area has long been referred to as “the jungle” among residents because, as activist Joby Thompson put it, “It’s a mess.”

Comprised of both public and private land, the village-owned parcel along the river has been used as a snow dump and storage area for scrap metal while abandoned commercial buildings make up the private lots. EEAG hopes to relocate the snow dump and metal heap to help make room for a park area with picnic tables and river access.

The group recently staged an informational meeting at Williams Public Library and planted a series of trees along the bank where the proposed park will be. Preliminary approval for the park was granted by the Woodstock Village Board of Trustees during a meeting on Nov. 13.

“We have a lot of community support,” said Sustainable Woodstock director Sally Miller. “We’re not the first group that’s tried to clean this area up; it’s probably been about 30 years in the making.

“We want to make an attractive, community park that would provide the only public access to the river in the village. It’ll be a place for kayakers and fishermen, etc., to get into the water and a place where people can gather and have a picnic and walk around.”

The group is hoping increased public presence in the area will help stimulate improvement of the private properties, once home to the western terminus of the Woodstock Railway (1875-1933). There are four unused, dilapidated buildings on the lot, including a large wooden shed on village property. Sustainable Woodstock is in the process of applying for a state watershed grant to demolish the shed, Miller said.

“That would allow us to relocate the snow dump to where the building is now, which would move it back at least 30-40 feet from the river,” said EEAG member Chris Bartlett. “The dirt under the building is unpacked, so it would help filter the road salt, chemicals and everything else that comes with the snow. Where the snow gets dumped now, the soil is so heavily compacted that when the snow melts, it just runs over the surface. We’d eventually like to see the snow dump in a new location altogether, but we think it can co-exist with a seasonal park for the time being.”

Sustainable Woodstock’s hopes for the area a couple of years ago included extensive development, with features such as an amphitheater, a river walkway and community garden space. More ambitious ideas included renovating the shed into a community building with art exhibits and a natural area fit for environmental education.

Tropical Storm Irene curtailed those plans, the storm having washed away at least 20 feet from the bank as part of the heavy damages wrought on Woodstock in August 2011.

“We had a lot drawn up; then Irene happened,” said Thompson. “That changed the world for the town. All of a sudden, it didn’t make much sense to be asking for funding for an amphitheater when, all over the state, people needed funding just to get back on their feet. Plus, we have less physical land to work with now. So we scaled back our view, and we’re trying to keep it simple.”

The group feels picnic tables and marked river access will be a good start, if only to help promote community awareness of the property. Not visible from Route 4, the historic land is currently an afterthought — or no thought at all — for some residents.

“(During the tree planting), we brought a lot of community members here who had never been here or who didn’t know it was here,” Miller said. “The public awareness aspect is important, because it’s a precious piece of land.”

Aside from the cascading Ottauquechee itself, aesthetic highlights of the area include views across the river to the open fields of Billings Farm and the distant, rolling hills of South Pomfret. Revitalizing the area has been the subject of many efforts over decades, Miller said.

“We’re probably the sixth or seventh community organization that’s tried to make a push to clean it up,” she said.

“We’re in a good spot now, because people are reinvigorated. It’s taken a long time for people to get Irene off their minds, but there’s a lot of good energy going into this.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.