Lack of access to Mass Hort lots at Elm Bank frustrates visitors

Recently we got a reader question about parking restrictions put in place at Elm Bank Reservation in the three lots maintained there by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. A sign at the entrance to the big lot near the gated entrance to the gardens informs visitors that no public parking is allowed. Barriers to entry at each of the lots have been put into place.

Mass Hort, Wellesley
Entrance to the large lot near the Elm Bank gardens entrance. Photo credit: BJ

Signage notes that parking is allowed for vehicles associated with The Boston Outdoor Preschool Network (BOPN), which operates Mon. – Fri.-, 9am – noon, and for Mass Hort employees.  “I see no reason why the lot can’t be open in the afternoons and on weekends/holidays. Also, after the big December snowstorm the parking spaces next to the main entrance to the woods were not plowed although the main roadway near had been,” the reader said in an email. Leaving the lot unplowed appeared to him “an obvious message to those who wanted to go for a winter walk” in the adjacent network of woodland trails that runs along the scenic Charles River.

Is perception of such a snub to trail walkers a reality? According to Mass Hort’s 99-year lease agreement covering its 36-acre use of the 175-acre state-owned property, plowing the loop and five of eight lots on the property is the Department of Conservation and Recreation‘s (DCR) responsibility. When it snows, DCR keeps that roadway and those five lots clear. I know they do. I can hear them at it all night long from my house.

The other three lots are maintained by Mass Hort, and those three parking areas happen to offer the easiest proximity to the trails. At this time the 150+ year-old organization chooses to clears its three lots of snow on an as-needed basis as it perceives need. So when Festival of Trees was in full swing in November and December, all three lots were fully plowed when a big storm hit during that timeframe. For the rest of the year, Mass Hort currently clears only enough spaces needed to accommodate garden programming, renters such as BOPN, and staff.

Nordic skiing, Wellesley

We checked in with Mass Hort head James Hearsum to learn more about parking onsite. He said the question about parking really turns on a wider lack of public clarity regarding Mass Hort’s lease of its 36-acres portion of the site. “It is perhaps not widely understood that the lease encompasses all areas inside the loop road, except the marked sports pitches and DCR lots. We invest approximately $700,000 directly into the leased site annually and take pride in that this large investment relieves a significant financial burden from the state. This was explicitly part of the reason for the long lease agreed to in 1996, and was seen as a much better solution than the housing previously proposed. We also keep open to the public all areas not in active and developed garden use.”

As for keeping open to the public its three parking lots, Hearsum says, “Due to the growth of the organization and the programs we offer, we now need the full capacity on a regular basis for our staff and garden visitors.”

We wonder if the organization is saving pots of money by leaving several dozen spaces under snow and inaccessible to the public for the season. Hearsum concedes that the DCR lots aren’t as immediate to the woodland entrances as the Mass Hort lots, but says getting to the entrances of the best hiking on the property merely involves “a short but pleasant walk over the open fields.”

We admire open fields as much as the next person, still, why make winter even more inconvenient than it already is? The tundra is frozen. The snow across those wind-whipped expanses deepens with each passing storm.

There’s hope. Mass Hort’s stated focus is on the development of the garden and growth in its programming. However, Hearsum has expressed an interest in friendly relationships with all stakeholders. “I will in the spring seek to meet members of the immediate community around Elm Bank, something that has not been possible since my arrival in early 2020. I would like to learn about the many interests and ambitions for Elm Bank and how I can facilitate rather than frustrate these. We are committed to doing so in a participatory way.”


Nordic skiing on the trails at Elm Bank Reservation

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