LENOX -- The protection of 949 acres of the town’s watershed on Lenox Mountain has won the Select Board’s approval, the first step in the process to conserve the land and keep it from being developed.
"Protecting that land is deemed to be something that’s worth the permanent, long-term interest of the town," Tad Ames, the president of Berkshire Natural Resources Council, told Selectmen on Wednesday night. Ames was a member and technical consultant to the town’s Watershed Protection Committee formed last spring.
Another guiding principle driving the plan is that "the town does not want to surrender control of that important asset," he said.
Ames noted that any political drive to change the use of the land would be blocked by the conservation restriction on it.
"This presents a gain, a bulwark against that sort of tide of change that may ebb and flow," Ames said. "This is designed to last forever."
The proposal would give the Lenox Conservation Commission and the BNRC joint custody of the conservation restriction, though for legal reasons, the BNRC would be the primary decision-maker. But the land and its management would remain under control of the town, according to the document.
The Conservation Commission has unanimously approved the proposed conservation restriction.
Selectman Edward Lane asked if the agreement would cause the town to lose anything.
Ames replied, "What you’re losing is the right to develop. The decision, if it were made by the town, would commit this land to its natural condition for all time, so you’re losing a measure of flexibility."
After extensive study by a town-appointed research panel, the Select Board was unanimous in voting in February against a proposed municipal wind-turbine installation atop Lenox Mountain.
Selectman John McNinch, who chaired the Wetlands Protection Committee, said in an interview on Thursday that the study by the wind-energy research panel raised concerns about the protection of the watershed area, which led to the formation of his group.
"This committee was by no means put together to stop turbines on the mountain," he said. "We need to protect our water more than anything, it’s a hot commodity."
The draft document outlining the permanent, legal conservation restriction requires final approval by the state and the Selectmen, and then by a two-thirds super-majority of Lenox Town Meeting.
The goal, as outlined by McNinch, would be to permanently protect and maintain Lenox Mountain as natural open space, with continued public access to hiking trails, whether or not the area is used as a water supply in the distant future.
According to the document, residential, commercial and industrial development would be banned on the mountain, while allowing continued operation, improvement and expansion of the town’s public water supply.
Forestry, timber harvestry, and "limited, non-motorized public recreation" would be permitted. The town would continue its control of activities such as hunting, fishing, swimming and horseback riding.
Following the preliminary approval by the Select Board, the final version of the document goes to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for review and comment. Once the state approves, it would go to town voters for a decision.
A special act approved by two-thirds of the state Legislature would be the final step.
Lenox owns a few acres of watershed land that actually lie in Richmond, Ames explained. Thus, the Rich mond Board of Selectmen also would have to approve the conservation restriction.
Richmond resident Deborah Caine, a member of the Lenox Wetlands Protection Committee, said, "We are vitally interested in keeping this beautiful land as free from industrial development as we possibly can."
According to Ames, barring any unforeseen hurdles, the entire conservation restriction could be in place within one year. The project would cost $40,000 to $50,000, he said.
Key Provision: "Berkshire County in general and the town of Lenox, in particular, have in recent years come under increasing development pressure and such development destroys or otherwise severely impacts the natural resources, scenic beauty and open character of the area."
The land to be protected if the conservation restriction is approved includes the town’s public drinking-water supply, the Upper and Lower Root Reservoirs, as well as upland forest and wetlands along a two-mile ridge of Lenox Mountain.
Additional Protection: The proposed conservation restriction notes that the land to be protected is part of a 4,100-acre area that has been targeted for land-protection efforts for 50 years. The 949-acre conservation area is close to 770 acres of protected conservation land already owned by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, nearly 1,300 acres owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the 565-acre, town-owned Kennedy Park.
Restrictions: Prohibitions on placing or constructing any temporary or permanent building, communication tower, wind turbine, mobile home, sign, billboard or other advertising display. Also barred: Mining, excavating, dredging or removing soil, loam, peat, gravel, sand, rock or other mineral resource or natural deposit. Cutting, removing, or otherwise destroying trees, grass or other vegetation would be prohibited.
Any form of dumping, storing or filling would be off-limits, as well as parking of vehicles or use of cars, trucks, motorcycles, motorized trail bikes, snowmobiles or any other motorized vehicles except those needed for maintenance.
Source: Berkshire Natural Resources-Lenox Conservation Commission draft document.