Political passions, simmering beneath the surface in this town for many months, have erupted full-steam ahead of the May 2 annual Town Meeting.
A proposal requiring two-thirds approval would keep a town-owned 948-acre chunk of Yokun Ridge, aka Lenox Mountain, forever protected by a conservation restriction to be enforced jointly by the Lenox Conservation Commission and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC). A CR, as it's known, requires an independent third party such as the BNRC to monitor activities on the land.
The scenic ridge line and nearby land includes the Upper and Lower Root Reservoirs, all of it carefully maintained by the town since it purchased the tract from the old Lenox Water Company in 1947.
On Nov. 13, 2007, polarized Lenoxians voted down, 337-225, a conservation restriction that would have been held jointly with MassWildlife, then known as the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. At the time, opponents voiced distrust of state and local government, expressing the belief that since the town had effectively managed the area for six decades, another layer of protection was unnecessary, undesirable and amounted to a surrender of local control.
Similar opposition has surfaced. At a dress rehearsal for Town Meeting, the Selectmen opened the plan for public discussion on Wednesday night, a sneak preview of what voters are likely to hear next Thursday.
The proposal preserves for future generations the scenic and natural-resources values of the land while allowing for expansion of the waterworks at the reservoirs. The town's Department of Public Works, including the Water Department, opposes the conservation restriction, arguing that multiple bureaucratic layers already exist at the state level to protect the land and expressing concern that needed reservoir-related projects might be delayed or thwarted.
"This is not giving away the land," Selectman John McNinch pointed out. "The land is owned by Lenox. The conservation restriction is just a protection."
McNinch, initially an opponent, chaired the town's Watershed Study Committee to render a verdict on the proposal. McNinch changed his mind and a unanimous endorsement resulted; the Select Board has also voted 4-0 to support the CR.
Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler, anticipating a volatile discussion among the 40 residents attending the meeting, said: "I want to take it calmly, civilly, and ask each person to speak without others joining in. Please, this is important stuff."
BNRC President Tad Ames called the Yokun Ridge land "a wonderful gem" not only for conservation but also for its water supply, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. He noted that the town's study committee determined that a CR was "the strongest, most permanent" level of protection, but that it must not be punitive, difficult or cumbersome.
He emphasized that the goal is to prohibit residential, industrial and commercial development while permitting streamlined operation, expansion and improvement of the waterworks by the town on its own. Non-motorized recreation on trails would continue unless the town identifies a public safety or health issue. The town controls whether to allow hunting, fishing or horseback riding on the land.
"The CR co-holders cannot tell the town what to do, we have no jurisdiction," Ames explained, unless something like a parking garage is proposed. "That would be a case where we could say noŠsorry to be absurd," he said.
Ames candidly acknowledged that it would be difficult to undo or alter the conservation restriction, but it is possible "under very compelling circumstances to allow for some unforeseen but benign use." If the BNRC were to fold, control of the land could pass on to the Trustees of Reservations -- the statewide, non-profit land conservation group -- or some other qualified organization identified by the town.
If there were irreconcilable differences over use of the land, he said, negotiations between the town's Conservation Commission and his organization could produce a compromise agreement or, if not, "the BNRC's decision would have to be final and binding." In other words, last-resort veto power.
In opposition, resident Richard Piretti cited the town's "great job up there for 60-plus years" and questioned the need for third-party oversight.
"If we have learned anything, it's that you don't give up town-owned property," he declared. "We're going to do away with future generations having any say on this piece of property. You don't know what 20 years down the road is going to look like and what that piece of property could mean to the town of Lenox.
"It should stay totally under our control, no extra layer of overseer or rules and regulations. As times change, opinions and needs change, and our town can take care of it. I don't need some other group to come in and say, ‘yeah you can, or no, you can't.'"
"The town would be surrendering the right to do residential, industrial or commercial development up there," Ames affirmed.
That's the philosophical issue to be played out at Town Meeting. Although the warrant article is No. 22 out of 24, it would behoove as many residents as possible to hang in there to resolve this crucial proposal that, indeed, will affect all future generations.
Clarence Fanto, a regular Eagle contributor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.