Lenox Conservation Commission orders Pittsfield to pay for Lenox Mountain ridge restoration

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LENOX — The Conservation Commission has ordered the city of Pittsfield to restore forest land owned by Mass Audubon at Yokun Seat atop the Lenox Mountain ridge line disrupted in 2015 by work to replace a failed Pittsfield Airport warning beacon for pilots required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The commissioners ruled that the work by an airport subcontractor violated the Scenic Mountain Act, a state law adopted by the town in 1975 and modified 10 years later.

The damage was caused when a bulldozer driven by a subcontractor hired by the airport's contractor Stantec Consulting Services veered off a narrow access road, damaging 1.3 acres of Mass Audubon property atop Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, as well as an adjacent half-acre in Richmond.

More than 85 trees were uprooted, vegetation and underbrush were destroyed and fragile soils on steep slopes were exposed to severe erosion and stormwater spillover. The damage was caused when the subcontractor's bulldozer veered off a narrow access trail during construction work for replacement of the airport warning beacon and its 80-foot pole.

The restoration order issued last week followed two dozen scheduled meetings and public hearings since May 2014, when the airport filed its original request to the commission to review a work plan to replace the out-of-service beacon structure. The violation was discovered in August 2015 and resulted in the prolonged series of meetings with contractors, scientists and leaders of Mass Audubon to create a suitable restoration project.

Several Conservation Commission members described the environmental damage as the worst they had seen in Lenox in the past 20 years.

The commission's restoration order addressed to Pittsfield Municipal Airport, now managed by Gloria Bouillon, states that the plan filed by airport consultant Stantec fails to comply with requirements of the Scenic Mountain Act and its associated state regulations.

It calls on the airport to submit a new work plan for the disturbed Mass Audubon land that complies with special restoration conditions as approved by six members of the Conservation Commission at its recent meeting.

But the city of Pittsfield will seek a review of the commission's order by a state environmental agency.

"The city's Airport Commission and the Lenox Conservation Commission have been in conversations for 18 months," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer in a phone interview. "At various points, we've been at the table willing to come to a compromise that would satisfy both sides. We've been there, and not there."

Tyer said the order from the Lenox commission came as "somewhat of a surprise to the Airport Commission, but they're within their right. Asking for a routine review from the state is certainly within our right."

The next step, the mayor pointed out, "is to bring the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs into the process to assess the order and give us their perspective."

"We have questions about the Lenox commission's determination and written notice," said Pittsfield Airport Commission Chairman Chris Pedersen. "It's not clear, there are some questions about what needs to be done."

Pedersen met on Wednesday evening with Tyer, Bouillon and Airport Commissioner David Keator.

"We believe that the Conservation Commission's order is an over-reach in some areas," Pedersen explained. "It seemed that some areas where we had agreed with the commission earlier have been totally ignored."

"It's been difficult given the wishy-washy direction that we've have been given over the past year from the Conservation Commission," he added. "We've tried to incorporate some of their suggestions and details, and now they're not there."

Pedersen noted that the city had hammered out a restoration agreement previously with Mass Audubon scientists, "but now the Conservation Commission has turned everything around. It has been an interesting process."

"If we're not satisfied with the state review, the city could file an appeal to the Berkshire Superior Court," said City Solicitor Rich Dohoney. "But we're a long way from that."

The Conservation Commission document reaffirmed that the airport beacon project on Yokun Seat is subject to the Scenic Mountain Act, which governs projects at elevations above 1,400 feet.

According to the commission's order, the Lenox Mountain area contains "a highly diverse assemblage of landscape elements supporting watershed resources together with natural scenic qualities of the environment including hydrology and soil structure, along with a critical habitat for plants and animals which collectively provide water supply, protection from erosion, prevention of pollution, scenic landscape appeal, economic value and ecological services to Lenox, surrounding towns and the general public."

The commission ruled that the work as performed by the Stantec consultant from Scarborough, Maine, and subcontractor, Kobo Utility Construction Corp. of Sandwich on Cape Cod was not permitted by state law and created significant adverse effects.

It cited removal, filling, excavation and other alteration of land likely to have a significant adverse affect on watershed resources because of pollution or other impacts on ground or surface water supply, erosion, flooding and substantial destruction of vegetation.

In order to restore the disturbed area and eliminate the violations, the Conservation Commission ruled that the land be restored to its condition before the work on the airport beacon project began.

Among the requirements:

- A barricade must be installed and maintained to keep out unauthorized vehicles during the restoration work and recovery period in the disturbed area.

- The city of Pittsfield must reshape the affected land and "recreate, to the greatest extent practicable," the land contours as they previously existed. The commission explained that the work is necessary "to re-establish soil and water conditions that can remain physically stable and support a healthy ecosystem similar to what existed prior to disturbance."

- The reshaping work must improve the natural functions of the landscape to the satisfaction of the Conservation Commission by stabilizing slopes, restoring erosion resistance, preventing pollution of groundwater supply caused by disruption and restoring the soil's ability to absorb rainfall and snowmelt.

- The city must re-establish a native plant community likely to grow and mature to an ecosystem similar to the surrounding undisturbed forest. The commission's order includes the planting of 750 "drought-tolerant" trees similar to the adjacent woodlands such as red maple and red oak, and up to 2,500 fast-growing raspberry and blackberry bushes.

- Following the restoration, the city is required to maintain, monitor and sample the plantings after the Conservation Commission "is convinced that a growing plant community has been established."

The commission ordered that reports and photographs with dates and GPS coordinates be submitted for inspection by the members.

"Without scientifically valid monitoring, there can be no objective evaluation of the progress and success of the restoration effort," the commission's order declared.

The city will be required to measure and document changes at the site in response to the restoration treatments and report the findings to the commission following each growing season and-or sampling period.

In addition, any invasive species should be removed for the first five years after replanting.

The commission reserved the right to order further corrective measures to promote the success of its land-restoration goals.

It also specified that before restoration work can begin, a pre-construction conference must be held at the site at least two days in advance, attended by representatives of the city, Mass Audubon and at least one Conservation Commission member.

When substantial progress toward restoration has been documented without the need for further intervention, the commission may issue a certificate stating that the city and its contractors have complied with the Scenic Mountain Act.

"We are eager to see the next phase of restoration on Yokun Seat continue this growing season," stated Gail Yeo, Mass Audubon's vice-president of wildlife sanctuaries and programs. "We hope that the Order of Conditions issued by the Lenox Conservation Commission is a step in that direction."

Contact correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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