LENOX -- With a debate looming at town meeting on Thursday, the Select Board has voted unanimously to support a conservation restriction that would protect 948 scenic acres of Lenox Mountain land from residential, commercial or industrial development.
The Yokun Ridge parcel includes the town’s waterworks. The Department of Public Works, including the Water Department, and some residents oppose the conservation restriction because they believe it would add unnecessary red tape for reservoir-area work projects and would bar future generations from alternative uses of the town-owned land.
At the most recent Select Board meeting, the proposal to assign the town’s Conservation Commission and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council as stewards of the conservation restriction met with enthusiastic endorsement. Passage requires a two-thirds majority by voters during the 7 p.m. annual meeting at Lenox High School.
Selectman Edward Lane, citing initial skepticism, explained that he has attended meetings, studied the proposal and ended up supporting the conservation restriction.
"I recognize that this land has been well taken care of, up to this point," said Selectman Channing Gibson. But, citing the municipal wind-turbine plan considered but abandoned by Town Hall last year, Gibson recalled his great alarm at how the town "had been misled by an engineering firm into thinking that mountain was a gold mine for us. That looked like a very good deal for the town, but it would have entailed massive destruction."
He contended that the turbines would have "affected the water supply and certainly would have impacted, potentially, the health of residents and the recreational, scenic value of the place."
"Being a newcomer," he added, "I want to be careful about the kinds of agreements we enter into and that my own knee-jerk reactions are supported by careful study."
Acknowledging the concerns raised by some residents, Gibson stated that the proposed restriction "gives us protection and also gives us an opportunity to amend in the case of extraordinary circumstances." He listed the Conservation Commission’s support of the plan as crucial.
"I think this is a really smart decision for the town," Gibson said. "I’m proud to support it."
As chairman of the Watershed Study Committee that prepared the plan, Selectman John McNinch explained that he had not been in favor at first.
"I wanted to make sure everything was vetted out," he said.
McNinch said he had two past and present town counsels examine to what extent current state law already protects the land. They came up with opposing views.
"There are loopholes and several different ways of interpreting" the state law, he added, "whatever is convenient for the person."
"My mind was changed," McNinch said, "and I strongly encourage the town to support this" conservation restriction.
Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler said he has become increasingly aware of how much the land means to the town’s future.
"I thought long and hard," Fowler said. "What do we have that’s Lenox? And the thing I think of and have been told over and over again is that we have the most beautiful place among many places. This [conservation restriction] actually makes sure that that beauty continues on."
Referring to the strong passions aroused by the proposal, Fowler said that "I see good friends on both sides of this."
Noting the previous conservation-restriction plan for Yokun Ridge that went down to a stinging defeat at a November 2007 special town meeting, Fowler voiced concern that the vote "caused some rifts that have never really healed. I just ask that no matter how you weigh in on this one, that we all end up the next day being able to go forward in this town."
The text of the proposal and a list of frequently asked questions about it can be found online at www.townoflenox.com.