New Undermountain Farm conservation deal unveiled by Berkshire Natural Resources Council

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LENOX — The third time may be the charm for a prolonged drive to preserve the scenic Undermountain Farm from residential and commercial development.

The Berkshire Natural Resources Council has unveiled version 3.0 of its yearlong conservation-restriction effort, and this time there's no plan to seek taxpayer funding for a phased purchase of the farmland from the Sprague Family Trust.

To seal the deal for purchase of the 83-acre northern parcel of the farmland by Dec. 31, the BNRC needs to raise $115,000 from private donors, according to the council's president Tad Ames. The organization had raised $335,000 during previous efforts to work out a complex agreement that also involved the town.

The phase one proposal is a "reboot," Ames explained. A proposal that involved a proposed $250,000 town funding through the Community Preservation Act was removed at the 11th hour from an early-September special town meeting warrant after the agreement fell apart.

The BNRC's option to purchase most of the 153-acre Undermountain property expired on Oct. 31, although month-by-month extensions were available.

"The Spragues are very committed to seeing this go through," Ames commented. "They also have pressure so they can't just say, 'take however long you want.' "

"We were trying to simplify it and get something nailed down," said Tjasa Sprague. "This gives the BNRC more time to raise funds."

She described her ideal goal as not selling the farm, but "hanging on to it, trying to make it more self-sustaining, which is a challenge."

Sprague said the Undermountain Stables would continue to operate.

A restructured deal worked out by the family and the BNRC's land conservation director, Narain Schroeder, breaks the project into more manageable pieces.

Preservation of the prime 83-acre farm parcel through a conservation restriction "in perpetuity" is the first priority, Ames said.

Under the restriction, the public would have the right to walk, cross-country ski or snowshoe along a designated trail, Schroeder pointed out. But the current or future owners could restrict bicycles or dogs, Ames noted, at their discretion.

The public access trail incorporated into the proposed agreement adjoins Undermountain Road.

"We want to move as quickly as we can," said Ames. Closing the funding gap is "a big challenge, but reachable," he added. The strategy involves getting the word out to the immediate neighborhood, the rest of town "and our broadest base of supporters," he said.

The previous agreement to seek town support for a broader acquisition of 146 acres, costing $700,000, dissolved in September when the family raised last-minute concerns about the extent of public access on trail easements within the 83-acre parcel.

"The exercise we've been through with the town has helped," Ames declared.

"It's been frustrating, but the public access element which has been brought in and is still there is really tremendous, a very wonderful gesture from the family that will also lead to great public benefits down the road for the town," he said. "So this hasn't been a fruitless exercise but definitely a learning experience for all of us."

If the necessary funds are raised to protect the 83 acres, approval of the conservation restriction by the Lenox Select Board is required. The Conservation Commission has already signed off on it.

The parcel would remain on the town tax rolls as agricultural land, according to a provision of state law.

Approval by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs is also needed, as required for all conservation restrictions.

Speaking personally, Selectman Channing Gibson said that he "can't imagine the Lenox Selectmen not approving the protection of a large portion of such a unique and magnificent piece of land — something all five of us have wanted from the start."

He commended the BNRC and the Sprague family for including a plan for trails, "which will give the public some degree of access through the northern parcel when they are built. I wish BNRC and the Sprague family all the best in their efforts to secure a conservation restriction for Undermountain Farm that will meet their needs."

Phase two of the BNRC restructuring involves an extension through April 2017 of the organization's option to purchase a 63-acre southern "marsh parcel" adjacent to the town-owned Parsons Marsh.

"We're open to all possibilities, including trying to work with the town and the CPA," said Ames. "But there's no firm plan on that yet. The price of the "marsh parcel" acquisition has been cut to $180,000 — a $70,000 reduction from the Spragues' previous asking price.

Eventually, a second trail for public access would be cleared by the BNRC within the "marsh parcel," Schroeder emphasized.

Despite some skeptics' assertions that the parcel is just a swamp, Ames described it as "an open expanse of sparkling water. It's a pond, with ducks, otters and wildlife, a pretty great place. It's not a dismal place at all; it's really an enchanting spot, but no one will know that unless they get out to see it for themselves."

As in previous versions of the agreement, the Spragues would continue to own 9.7 acres of road frontage, including the Undermountain Stables and nearby farm buildings.

The total conservation restriction, now priced at $630,000, has been appraised at $1.2 million, Schroeder pointed out.

"I think there's a lot of great sentiment in town that this spot is a special place," Ames stressed. "It's recognized in Lenox and around the Berkshires as a very distinctive setting. So I'm pretty optimistic that with some hard work, we're going to cross the finish line."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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