Conservation Commission OKs first phase of Lenox mountaintop repairs

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LENOX — The town's Conservation Commission has signed off on an interim restoration plan for a portion of the Lenox Mountain ridge line damaged last summer during a project to re-illuminate an airport safety beacon.

The preliminary remedy would reverse about 75 percent of the damage, which uprooted 85 trees, destroyed vegetation and underbrush, and exposed fragile soils on steep slopes to severe erosion and stormwater spillover, according to commission member David Lane.

"I'm definitely open to the whole plan you have for starting this, stabilizing it, grading it, planting seed," said commission Chairman Neal Carpenter.

By veering off a narrow access trail during construction last August, a contractor disturbed more than an acre of MassAudubon property atop Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. The Conservation Commission has met 11 times to discuss solutions to avoid a formal Scenic Mountain Act violation notice.

The airport beacon project was required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Work on restoring vegetation and seeding the fragile soil at Yokun Seat, 2,133 feet above sea level, would begin in June, according to Randy Christiansen, senior environmental scientist for Stantec Consulting Services. Stantec hired the contractor for the Pittsfield Airport Commission.

"I have real high hopes for it," Christiansen said. "I want to get it stabilized, and the sooner we get this going, the sooner it will end as well."

"I feel like we're working in the right direction, we've made a lot of progress on this," said commission member Tim Flanagan, professor of environmental and life sciences at Berkshire Community College. "But we have some more details to flesh out."

A more extensive plan drafted by Christiansen early this month encountered some opposition "from various parties," he told the commission.

Christiansen pointed to concerns by MassAudubon, which seeks to block vehicular intrusion to its property near the summit of Yokun Seat.

However, Berkshire Sanctuaries Director Becky Cushing commented that although MassAudubon does not want a trail there, "our priority is safety, and if the airport states that there is no other way they can maintain the safety of the beacon other than having an access path, then we're not going to stand in the way."

"There are a lot of loose strings out there, let's face it," Christiansen conceded. "We're six months into this and over 14 public meetings and site visits [including several in Richmond] and I feel like we're possibly right back near square one at this point."

But he asked the commission to approve the proposal's first phase, a "time-critical" stabilization plan that includes seeding, grading and management of "woody debris."

"To date we have been unable to obtain a reasonable consensus on an appropriate level of restoration to address the interests of the Scenic Mountain Act," Christiansen said.

With the approach of the growing season, he said, grading and reseeding affected segments of the access path to the beacon — which starts at Swamp Road in Richmond on property owned by Joseph Cardillo and crosses into Lenox on its narrow, steep route up the mountain — would proceed this spring and summer.

"All other efforts are to be suspended to allow for further discussions to occur," Christiansen said.

The first priority, the Stantec engineer said, is agreement on a "reasonable re-vegetation plan" preceding the potential planting of more than 2,000 small, bare-root nursery stock trees and provision for a "maintenance path" similar to the access trail that existed prior to the beacon restoration project last August.

The preliminary work would require one to two weeks. Two growing seasons would yield seed regeneration and development of a "protective turf mat and vegetative cover," he said. "I'm trying to limit the number of trips up and down this mountain with the machinery."

"The planting scheme seems to be a hot potato," he told commission members. "I hope we'll be able to move forward."

Christiansen cited his own reservations about potential erosion impacts and invasive species that could interfere with the re-vegetation plan. "I strongly believe in natural vegetation," he pointed out. "I've seen roads repair themselves in such situations."

Flanagan restated his concern over the beacon replacement last summer, reminding other members that the original plan approved by the commission did not mention a 25- to 30-foot roadway with landings that was put in by the contractor, KOBO Utility Construction Co. based in Sandwich on Cape Cod.

The previous existence of a narrow Airport Commission easement and trail network "doesn't in my mind justify putting in a roadway without a permit under the jurisdiction of the Scenic Mountain Act," he said. "At what point did the Airport Commission decide that a trail was necessary here? And why?"

Christiansen responded that the contractor had been told "to investigate ways of getting to the top without serious damage, things he clearly violated. He would have to snake his way up, as the easement language allowed. What wasn't anticipated and never proposed was improving that trail network to the degree it was improved. That is the violation."

But during discussions with the Airport Commission and other parties to the dispute, he added, the need for a maintenance trail to service the beacon installation emerged.

"We were as snakebit by this as you were," Christiansen told the commission. "Obviously it was one guy on a 'dozer; we were very surprised and definitely backtracking, so we're very sensitive to the process we're in, the penalties involved, so we were treading very lightly."

After the commission approved the interim restoration plan on a 4-1 vote, with Flanagan dissenting, Christiansen said he expects the Richmond Conservation Commission to consider it at the next meeting on March 8.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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