Ashby Open Space & Recreation Plan
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Community Setting

Ashby is located in the extreme northwestern part of Middlesex County, 60 miles west of Boston and 32 miles north of Worcester. Ashby covers 23.66 square miles of land along the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Our immediate neighbors in Massachusetts are the towns of Townsend, Ashburnham, Lunenburg, and the city of Fitchburg. Ashby is bounded on the north by the towns of New Ipswich and Mason, New Hampshire.

The topography is hilly with rock outcroppings on some of the steeper slopes and relatively little flat land. The soils are primarily glacial tills. Mount Watatic rises to a height of 1600 feet along the western border of town; its summit of 1832 feet is in Ashburnham. Most of the land in the town is flourishing with second growth forest of mixed deciduous and coniferous species. A number of hay fields and miles of stone walls provide a pastoral landscape and remind us of our agricultural past.

Most of Ashby is in the Nashua River watershed. A small portion of the northwest corner is in the Souhegan River watershed. A number of brooks and streams originate in Ashby. There are two bodies of water classified as Great Ponds, Upper Wright’s Pond and Lower Wright’s Ponds. A third large body of water, Watatic Pond, is shared with Ashburnham.

Townspeople in Ashby rely on private wells for their water needs. The forests on our undeveloped land maintain our clean water. The Nashua River Watershed Association produced a guide in December 1995 called the 2020 Vision for the Nashua River Watershed. The authors describe it this way. "Runoff and infiltration from forested land produce the best quality water. A watershed whose open spaces become less than its developed lands can no longer supply itself with drinking water."

We also provide water for two neighboring towns, Fitchburg and Townsend. Fitchburg controls two reservoirs on the southern side of Ashby, one of which provides potable water to the city. Townsend’s municipal water wells in West Townsend are supplied in part by the aquifer under eastern Ashby. To date, no research has been done to locate other potential aquifers in town.

Two state highways carrying commuter and commercial traffic traverse the town. Route 31 runs north-south providing access to Route 2, thirty minutes to the south. Route 119 runs east-west giving access to Route 495, 40 minutes to the east. The heaviest growth in Ashby is near the intersection of these two routes in the southeast part of town. There is no public transportation. Rail service to metro-Boston is accessible in Fitchburg about ten miles away. Ashby is a member of the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (MRTA).

Ashby saw a large increase in population in the late 1940’s and 1950’s as the automobile provided access to employment outside of town. Most new residents at that time were employed in the mills of Fitchburg or the plastic industry of Leominster. In the 1970s, industry declined in the region and the population growth began to slow. The town is now primarily a residential community with a very small commercial base of approximately 156 home based businesses. Several family farms still operate but only two provide a substantial income for the farmer. At this time, Ashby has one of the lowest population densities in Massachusetts at 125 residents per square mile.


History of Ashby

Prior to European contact, Ashby was an upland hunting and gathering area for Native Americans. It is believed that there were no permanent native settlements in the town. However, at least one location, Indian caves, is believed to have been a seasonal hunting camp. Indian Caves is a natural rock shelter overlooking the surrounding forest in the area of Caton Hill and Jones Hill. Pre-contact occupation of the site is indicated by soot deposits on the roof of the shelter and by an occasional arrowhead found in the area. Fort Hill and Rattlesnake Hill have also produced native artifacts but no shelters are known. Native American inhabited this area until they were pushed out in the late-eighteenth century.

Once part of Lunenburg, Ashby was incorporated on March 5, 1767. In 1768, forty-three families were listed on the town’s roster. The first place of worship was started in 1769 and was ready to occupy in 1774. Moneys were set aside for four district schools in the 1780’s. Ashby’s first town moderator, John Fitch, occupied one of three garrisons in town. He and his family were captured by Indians taken on foot to Canada, and later ransomed by friends.

Ashby was originally agrarian like most New England towns. By the mid-eighteenth century the town began to harness its fast flowing streams for water-powered manufacturing. There were twenty-three water powered mill sites here in Ashby. The first gristmill was built in 1750. Other manufacturing included sawmills, a wood turning mill, wool carding, and several food-processing mills. In 1831 the Lawrence brothers and Martin Allen made the first wooden tubs and pails in Massachusetts which were turned on a lathe driven by a water wheel. In the early 20th century, waterpower brought electricity to parts of town. Three noted clock makers, Abraham Edwards and the Willard brothers, Alexander and Philander, worked in Ashby. They made the large-standing, eight-day clocks that were the type of timepiece "that dudes and people of mawkish sentimentality are so anxious to possess." Jonas Prescott Whitney, a former carpenter, became very adept at fashioning church organs. He made every part from the bellows to the keys with power from a windmill mounted on the roof of his house. A unique cottage industry was the braided palm-leaf hats made by women in Ashby. Approximately 60,000 of these hats were made in 1837 and sold south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Milk and butter were first retailed in Fitchburg and later in Boston. Apples were a cash crop. Fruit not fit for market was turned into cider. But by the turn of the twentieth century, most of the mills were gone. Ashby discouraged industrialization by voting against having a railroad in town. Although agriculture has declined over the years, Ashby maintained two large dairy farms until the federal dairy herd buy-out of the last decade ended full-time farming in the town. The residents of Ashby see farming as part of the definition of the town. Suburbanization is encroaching on this definition

An historic district was voted by Town Meeting in 1997. The district, centered around Ashby’s Town Common, includes the Wyman Tavern built in 1780 (now under reconstruction), the First Parish Church, built on the site of the first meeting house, the Grange Hall, the Congregational Church, the Ashby Free Public Library, Engine House #1 (currently home to the Ashby Historical Society), Ashby Market, and several private residences. Much of the turn-of-the-century look remains today in the Ashby Historic District.

Another area of historical significance is South Village. The ruins of the water-powered mills are still to be found along the banks of Willard Brook. South Village has no historic protection at this time but is somewhat isolated and in a zoning district that does not allow commercial use. The mills themselves receive their protection from acts designed to protect waterways, specifically, the Wetlands Protection Act and the Rivers Protection Act. South Village may be an area for a future extension of the Ashby Historic District.

Population Characteristics

Ashby’s population was 2311 in 1980, 2717 in 1990 and 2964 by 1998. The population grew at a rate of 8% between 1970 and 1980, and 18% from 1980 to 1990. Projections by Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research (MISER) indicate a growth rate of 10% through 2010. The Montachusett Regional Planning Commission noted that between 1980 and 1995 Ashby was the fifth fastest growing town in the fifteen towns covered in the Montachusett area.

The last 25 years have seen a reduction in the number of children per household. This reflects national figures showing a reduced birth rate. In 1970, 31% of Ashby’s population was under 15 years of age while 43% was between the ages of 20 and 64. By 1994 22% of the population was under age 15 and 60% was between the ages of 20 and 64. During the same period the number of people age 65 and over increased from 8% to 11% of the population.

From 1970 to 1980 housing units grew at a rate of 22% and between 1980 and 1990 housing units grew at a rate of 20%. This rate was substantially higher than the rate of population growth. During the previous 30 years housing and population grew at nearly the same rate. The trend of housing growth outstripping population growth is continuing. Ashby’s population increased by 9% between 1990 and the end of 1998 while the number of housing units grew at a rate of 15%. A major cause of this disparity between housing growth and population growth appears to be the reduction in the number of persons per household. In 1970, Ashby averaged 3.5 persons per household. In 1990 the average was 2.8 persons per household. The average is now 2.7 persons per household. This information indicates that population growth may not be the best indicator of the impact of development on open space particularly in a town with large lot zoning and few multifamily dwellings.

The 1987 Future Growth Study Committee’s report noted that there were about 7600 acres of developable land in the town. Current assessor’s data indicates this number is correct. This amounts to about one half the land in the Town. If all this acreage were completely developed under current zoning regulations, an additional 4,700 dwellings would be constructed. This would be more than four times the number of houses that exist today. Such a build-out would result in population of 15,400 if the number of persons per household remains the same. Increased commercial development can be expected to accompany such a build-out. The majority of respondents to the Future Growth Committee survey considered below 4,000 to be the "ideal" population for Ashby.


Economic Overview

There are about 156 businesses in Ashby. All the businesses are small and most are based in homes. Only 50 of them have one or more employees With the closing of the only large manufacturing facility in town in 1998, the town became the largest employer. The town of Ashby employs about 30 persons; the largest private employer has six employees. The top categories of employment are government, trade, and service. The 1997 Department of Employment Training (DET) figures show that, out of a total labor force of 1,622, only 232 people are employed within the town itself. Most people travel to jobs out of town. The 1990 census showed that all commuting is done via automobile. Ashby is one of the 34 communities in the state that has no resident using public transportation.

Economic development has taken place at the same rate as population growth. DET data show an increase in employment in Ashby of 24% between 1987 and 1997. Most of this growth was in the public sector. Private employment grew at a rate of 7% during the same period. This reflects the lack of public transportation, limited availability of commercial sites as well as the limited consumer traffic through town. The lack of a public water supply or wastewater treatment adds to the disincentive for businesses to locate in Ashby. Fitchburg, Leominster, and Gardner will probably continue to be the main commercial centers while businesses in Ashby cater to local or niche markets. A major component of the business community is the home based business that constitutes 69% of the businesses in the town. At this time there are no known plans to improve the transportation system in the area except for a long-range plan to provide better access to Route 2 from downtown Fitchburg. That access may affect southern Ashby, but it is not expected to have a major impact on the rest of town or the business community. One area of commercial activity that could be increased without additional building development is tourism. For this to be successful some forms of passive public recreation would have to be promoted. To date neither the town nor the business community has chosen to do so.

An area of economic activity that could impact Ashby is telecommunications. At this time the major telecommunications improvement has been the installation of cable TV. It is possible that the cable provider will furnish Internet access within the next five years. Telephone companies are surely going to keep pace with their own high-speed lines. The prospect is that "telecommuting" will become a reality in Ashby. If this is the case, there will be no transportation barrier to residential and commercial development. There is some evidence that a telecommunications base is being established. In 1993, the E911 coordinators located the address of every telephone in Ashby. They found two telephone numbers dedicated to computer networks. Five years later, it is estimated that 33% to 50% of the households in Ashby have access to the Internet. Some of this Internet use is related to employment. Although no hard numbers are available, this trend bears watching as both business and residents make increasing use of advances in communications technology.

  1995 Median




1996 Median

Home Value



1996 Median




Ashby $52,991 73 $159,000 196 13 193
Townsend $52,557 76 $158,386 198 13.7 127
Lunenburg $45,567 137 $160,367 189 13 193
Ashburnham $45,451 140 $140,272 256 13.6 143
Fitchburg $26,953 339 $127,613 291 12.5 329

Source; Boston Globe 1996, Rural Massachusetts

Ashby has traditionally been considered the poorest of the towns in this area. However, the figures shown in the chart above show the opposite. The reduction in persons per household and the relatively high income for the area indicate a community in transition. The change from a relatively low income, self-sufficient community to a bedroom community has brought changes in the desires and expectations of its residents.

With increasing resources, residents are asking for betterments beyond basic municipal services such as better roads and police protection. Increasing emphasis is being placed on recreation with group sports for children and individual recreation among adults on the increase. Anecdotal information indicates that there are more walkers, joggers and bicyclists on the roads. Equestrian trail riding, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are becoming more popular off-road activities.


Growth and Development Patterns

All of Ashby, with the exception of one small industrial zone, is zoned for residential use. Most of the town is zoned for two-acre lots. However, two small residential/commercial zones, one in the town center and one on Route 31 leading to Fitchburg, allow one-acre lots. The only provision for multi-family housing is to allow one accessory apartment per dwelling. Since accessory apartments have been approved there have been only two permits granted for them. Single family, two-acrelot development is the way the town has developed. For the foreseeable future it will continue that way.

Most development in Ashby has taken place along existing roads through the Approval Not Required (ANR) process because this is the least expensive and quickest approach for developers. Since 1988, when the first subdivision was approved, there have been five subdivisions developed. Only one is larger than ten units. With recent increases in the real estate market, developers have been inquiring about land to build more subdivisions. Recently, the first of the inquiries became a reality with an application to the Planning Board to create a subdivision. Whether through subdivision control or ANR, developers are limited by frontage, not acreage. This usually means that dwellings are spaced 200 feet apart along the road. Eventually, houses will use up frontage until Ashby has a suburban look. The existing zoning by-laws give both the town and developers little choice in the matter. A review of zoning bylaws would give the residents an opportunity to impact that future look.

Until now Ashby’s active, more visible agricultural lands have avoided development. Development has taken place on farms that have ceased operation. However, with one of the largest farms in town up for sale and the owners of several other farms getting along in years, it will not be too much longer before existing farms begin to be developed. Ashby’s primary crop is hay. The hay fields add to the scenic beauty as well as to the bio-diversity of the town. Hay does not require large amounts of fertilizer or pesticides and does not have the adverse impact on the environment that more intensive farming does. The increasing resources of some of the residents has brought more horse back riding to the town. Horses plus Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requirements for silt barriers at construction sites have created a ready market for the hay crop. Farmers indicate that hay would not support a farm if the land had to be purchased at today’s prices. The decline in farming in the area indicates that this is in fact the case. Developers are the only other parties in the market for large pieces of land. Developers will look to farms more and more as a source of buildable land as existing road frontage becomes increasingly scarce. With some forethought and support for farming, Ashby might be able to allow some development on land owned by farmers while encouraging continued agricultural use of the prime farmland.

Household size is declining. This trend, along with steady development, has taken more land from open space than has been suggested by looking at population figures alone. The reliance on large lot zoning has exacerbated the development of open space. As the following chart shows, property classified as residential is the largest available use. To this can be added Chapter 61 lands that can be converted to residential use. This totals 10,807 acres for residential use. Subtracting three acres for each existing dwelling leaves 7,519 acres available.

This results in 50% of the land area available for residential use. Residential development will have the largest impact on the town and available open space. If, as predicted, the population grows by 10% between 1998 and 2010 and household size remains the same, 111 dwelling units will be added during the period. This number probably understates the number of housing units. During the last nine years Ashby has added 136 new dwelling units with a population growth of 9% during the period. As of May 15, 1999, 23 building permits for new houses have been issued. This indicates that the total new dwellings for the decade will be about 160. We anticipate that this trend will continue into the coming decade. This takes into account Ashby’s relatively poor soils, steep terrain and that most new construction takes place on lots larger than two acres. If we assume an average lot size of three acres then the town can expect to lose about 500 acres of open space over the next ten years.



There appears to be a 30-year shrinking window of opportunity for Ashby to address open space needs. A two-part approach in the coming years must be taken to preserve the quality of life and the character of the town for the next generation.

First, Ashby must commit itself to encouraging local economic uses of open space. For the foreseeable future, most available open space will remain in private hands. Encouraging and supporting activities such as farming, forestry, and open space recreation will reduce the amount of land released for development while providing income or tax relief for landowners. This approach requires a long-term commitment and does not produce quantifiable results. However, it can produce the strongest cooperation between the community and the private landowners.

Second, Ashby must strengthen its public and private commitment to preserving open space through purchase, donation, conservation easements, agricultural protection restrictions, deed restrictions and the like. Commitments like these have the advantage of insuring open space protection in perpetuity. Results are measurable. But it costs money. The financial burden can be shared by having town agencies work with state organizations and land trusts. Joint efforts have the benefit of allowing large projects to be considered as well as increasing coordination and cooperation between various groups.

Encouraging local economic use while pursuing the public acquisition of land or rights thereto will produce the greatest results. In the process, residents will become more aware of and educated about open space issues. A combined approach is the most likely to succeed as the basis for an open space plan that can work well into the future.

Ashby Open Space & Recreation Plan
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