The state Department of Environmental Protection could decide later this summer whether to add Sprague Pond at the Readville/Dedham line off Sprague Street to its official list of "Commonwealth great ponds."
The Hyde Park Historical Society, which proposed the designation, says this would correct a longstanding oversight - the pond has always met the sole criterion for designation, that of being at least ten acres of size, possibly on its own but definitely if you include any former parts of it that were filled in, which is OK under state rules for determining what makes a pond "great."
Beyond making the somewhat obscure pond sound better, designation would highlight the area's historic importance, the society's Sylvie Agudelo said - Camp Meigs, where the 54th Massachusetts trained, bordered the pond. It would also help protect a wetlands area in Hyde Park that stretches along the Neponset River, which is less than half a mile away, on the other side of the Northeast Corridor train tracks. Currently, Jamaica Pond is Boston's only official "great" pond.
At a DEP hearing yesterday, Agudelo said maps and records show the pond and what is now filled in areas, in particular on the other side of the train tracks, were always at least 10 acres - and started at 19 in 1696, before Hyde Park even existed and the pond was entirely in Dedham.
The pond in 1851, when it was larger than it is today, the train tracks ran right through it, and the whole area was part of Dedham (source):
Designation is "a huge priority for me," new 14th Suffolk State Rep. Rob Consalvo said at the DEP hearing, pointing to both the history and the work by Hyde Park residents to protect open space from Stony Brook Reservation to Fowl Meadow along the Neponset.
Although laws dating to colonial days would allow the public to potentially access the pond for boating, fishing and bird hunting, Daniel Padien of DEP says people could not cut across private property to get to the water - unless the property owners first said OK. The city of Boston does own a small, thin strip off Sprague Street that reaches to the pond, but it's not currently set up for public access.
However, Padien also said that designation would turn any filled land that was once part of the pond into "Commonwealth tidelands," on which any new construction would be barred or severely limited.
And that did not sit well with Darius Gregory and Garnet Brown, who have an agreement to purchase roughly an acre of vacant land on the Lakeside Avenue side of the pond to build three attached four-bedroom condos, for which they won Boston Conservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeal approval in 2019 and 2020.
Zoning hearing on the proposal:
Gregory said he's all for historic preservation, but said he and Brown have "hundreds of thousands invested in this acre parcel," both to acquire the land and for the engineering, surveying, title research and other work required to win city approval and get the condos built. Would their project be grandfathered, should part of it be determined to be filled in pond bottom, they asked.
"I just need to know if this gets designation, where does that leave us?" Brown asked. "Why now?" Gregory asked. "It's been here over 400 years."
Padien said he didn't have answers to their questions, but said he'd be willing to meet with them.
The two were supported by Helena Tonge, president of the Belnel Family Neighborhood Association - which covers a Mattapan area off River Street across from the other end of Hyde Park. She questioned who is really backing the great-pond proposal and whether there might be equity and even faith issues involved.
Another question Padien said he couldn't answer is why the pond was not already officially "great," even though, in 1889, the Supreme Judicial Court declared it "great" in a ruling on whether an ice company on the Hyde Park end of the pond could claim ownership of the ice it had marked off but not harvested - which was then carved out by an ice company on the Dedham end of the pond.
In the case, People's Ice Company vs. Charles E. Davenport, the court concluded the Hyde Park company had no rights to ice it had not already removed because the pond was great and because of the nature of Massachusetts great ponds:
It is too well settled to be disputed that the property in the great ponds is in the Commonwealth; that the public have the right to use them for fishing, fowling, boating, skating, cutting ice for use or sale, and other lawful purposes; and that the owners of the shores have not exclusive rights in them except by a grant of the Legislature. ... The right to cut ice is common to all the public. The plaintiff has this right in common with the rest of the public, but it cannot by its own act appropriate a part of the pond by scraping it, or setting up stakes, and exclude the public from it. The ice until it is cut remains a part of the realty, and no one has any exclusive title to it. There is no statute or other law which enables an owner of the shore, or any other person, thus to exclude the public.