Wired for power, Pittsfield airport safety beacon soon to be lit
LENOX — Work on reactivating the long out-of-service Pittsfield Municipal Airport safety beacon atop Yokun Seat on the Lenox Mountain ridge is expected to be completed this month.
In a presentation to the Lenox Conservation Commission on Thursday night, airport contractor Randy Christiansen, the senior environmental scientist for Stantec Consulting Services, reported that underground and ground-level power lines have been installed to the remote beacon pole site along the city of Pittsfield's 20-foot wide right-of-way from Swamp Road in Richmond to the summit.
It could be lit in a week, he said, after it is approved by Lenox electrical inspector Robert Pensivy and the power line is hooked up to an Eversource pole near 365 Swamp Road, where the access road begins.
The 80-foot beacon pole was installed in August but since it lacked illumination, the incomplete project prompted a safety warning to pilots from the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. The reactivation is part of a $1.24 million FAA-funded safety upgrade that includes re-installing beacons on South Mountain in Pittsfield and on Shaker Mountain in Hancock, northwest of the airport.
Meanwhile, the Conservation Commission has held five meetings since mid-August, voicing deep concern over environmental damage to Mass Audubon land in Lenox and adjacent property in Richmond during the Yokun Seat project. When the project was first presented to the commission in May 2014, it was approved based on an understanding that work would be confined to the Pittsfield-owned right-of-way and a 25-foot radius around the beacon.
During the installation of the beacon pole, a bulldozer carved into land outside the easement, encroached on Mass Audubon and adjoining property, uprooted at least 85 trees, destroyed vegetation and underbrush, and exposed fragile soils on steep slopes to severe erosion and stormwater spillover.
Several commission members described the environmental damage as the worst they had seen in Lenox in the past 20 years and cited potential violations of the state's Scenic Mountain Act as well as federal regulations.
The subcontractor was KOBO Utility Construction Corp., based in Sandwich on Cape Cod. KOBO owner Kevin O'Neil has been unavailable for comment.
On Thursday night, a tentative blueprint to stabilize and restore the 1.8 acres of disturbed soil and scarred ridge line was outlined to commission members by Christiansen, the Stantec scientist.
"We have been taking baby steps with the project," he said, which he described as an "emergency action." He noted that changes to minimize further environmental impacts involved substituting underground and ground-level electrical conduits to the beacon along the access road, rather than overhead poles and lines.
Once the pole is lit, he said, the restoration plan will be fine-tuned, subject to "team approach" approval by Mass Audubon scientists. So far, fiber rolls have been placed along the access road, using ATVs. Fiber rolls are temporary erosion control and sediment control devices used on construction sites to protect water quality in nearby streams.
Since the season for seed planting to restore vegetation has passed, that phase of the restoration is expected to resume next spring, probably by June 1, said Christiansen, focusing on substantial replacement of soils to ensure proper drainage of rainwater and snowmelt in order to avert erosion.
"We continue to work with landowners on securing what we're going to need for access during the next growing season," he pointed out.
Specifically, property owner Joseph Cardillo of Swamp Road, where the Pittsfield-owned easement crosses a portion of his property, has resisted access for environmental restoration, though he did not seek to block the recent electrical work to power up the beacon pole, which had been out of commission since 1960.
Cardillo, who attended Thursday night's Conservation Commission, has declined comment.
Negotiations with Mass Audubon on the scope of the restoration project are continuing, Christiansen said. "Once we can be on the same page with those landowners, we want to then bring the plan to the [Conservation] Commission," he said, for "final tweaking and approval."
Christiansen said he has scoped out the restoration requirements by walking up and down the hilly access road seven times. "That's allowed me to get a real good feel of drainage patterns and what the soil is capable of, and what it's not capable of," he said.
The restoration includes an EPA-required Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan to protect against rainfalls of a half-inch or more.
Soil and trail stability and progress of new vegetation, vines, shrubs and saplings along the access route, as measured by the U.S. Interior Department, are the major factors involved in twice-a-year monitoring the success of the restoration, said Christiansen.
"Obviously, soil stabilization is first," he stressed, followed by steps to avoid growth of invasive plant species and, over 5 to 10 years, to spur growth of native plantings — birch and maple seedlings as well as raspberry bushes.
The Conservation Commission approved Christiansen's request to resume the discussion at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 for a review of a "solidified restoration plan" that includes some basic agreements with landowners, including the access concerns raised by Cardillo.
"There's equal points to be made on either side of the argument, so I wish I was closer to a solution that was going to please anyone," Christiansen said. "I have a feeling I'm not going to be able to please everyone, so let's just keep trying until we hit a wall and see what happens. There are a lot of interests involved here, and I just don't want to hide any of them."
He plans to seek approval from the Richmond Conservation Commission next Tuesday for an alternate access route involving the installation of timber mats along wetlands so restoration equipment can be ferried up the mountain.
Lenox Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller welcomed the update from Christiansen on behalf of Stantec Consulting.
"It will be great to have the beacon safely illuminated," she said. "The town wants to see a successful restoration and conservation effort for a unique area. I'm hopeful that the different interests at play can achieve consensus and get the restoration plan and work rolling."