LENOX — Two leading local nonprofits have reached a joint conservation restriction and management agreement to protect woodlands surrounding The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration.
The plan is to enhance a restored, 6-mile network of trails for public access and recreation, including hiking, dog-walking, bird-watching, cross-county skiing and snowshoeing.
The agreement, pending state approval, was unveiled at Wednesday's Select Board meeting by Susan Wissler, the Mount's executive director; Becky Cushing, director of Mass Audubon's six Berkshire Sanctuaries, including Pleasant Valley; and David Carver, owner of the forested parcel and a developer who leads Scarafoni Associates.
Wissler said the agreement would allow Mass Audubon to protect, in perpetuity, 70 acres of woodlands along The Mount's southern border leading to Laurel Lake, part of the Foxhollow property owned by Scarafoni Associates Nominee Trust. The parcel has extensive frontage along Route 7, she added, protecting seven-tenths of a mile along the state highway from development.
"David and I have been working on this for two years since the handshake, and before that three years of what I would call courtship," Wissler said. "We were delighted to bring Mass Audubon into the mix as the holder of the conservation restriction."
Scarafoni Associates would continue to own the woodland property.
She said the restriction satisfies the town's open space preservation priorities while protecting "the historic integrity and natural beauty of The Mount" and providing protection from development of the 70-acre parcel.
"We look forward to this being a very, very long-term relationship, improving that land for access for many years," Carver said. "Normal tax benefits for donating property in this manner apply to this transaction."
During the 1980s, the section of the 220-acre Foxhollow property had been targeted for 35 estate homes and 138 multi-family units by New York City developer Donald Altschuler. After consecutive, decade-long ownerships by Kripalu and by the spiritual nonprofit Enlighten Next, Scarafoni Associates acquired the property in 2012.
"We're mostly downtown developers, for many years buying old, historic buildings, owning them, renovating them and investing in them long term," Carver told The Eagle. "One of our growth industries is culture, and outdoor recreation is being talked about more and more, so that's one more reason to renovate our downtowns and leave our countryside alone."
He described Foxhollow as "a beautiful parcel, with a lot of history."
Development has occurred there since it was Foxhollow School for Girls, which closed in 1976.
"Our philosophy is to not increase the developed footprint, but develop it within what's already there," Carver said.
"We reformatted the property into a condominium structure to allow the existing buildings to be renovated and sold as a combination of single-family and multi-family units and to provide for limited additional development," he explained.
The property includes the 44-unit Lakeside Condos at Foxhollow and The Ponds at Foxhollow, 40 time-share units, both developed by Altschuler as ground leases and maintained since 2012 by Scarafoni's CT Management Group.
An original trail network from the 1980s, which had deteriorated over the years, would be restored and improved, Carver noted.
Wissler stated that a second phase of the conservation restriction, expected early next year, would protect an additional 50 acres of forested land, also owned by Scarafoni Associates, on the eastern fringe of The Mount. After a green light from the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the phase-one agreement would come before the Lenox Select Board for formal approval, expected next month.
"Our intention is to improve the trails, expand the trail network and reactivate wonderful old carriage roads that connected old estates," Wissler said. "It's a marvelous opportunity, given The Mount's interest in protecting its borders and protecting Lenox's interest in having open space and natural beauty preserved. This is a huge move on David's part, and through Becky, Mass Audubon is proving to be an excellent partner."
Wissler also cited the Berkshire Natural Resources Council for its advice and assistance. The closing date for the agreement is Dec. 2, Wissler said.
Extolling the "integration of culture and nature," Cushing enthused over the opportunity to preserve both, as well as the history of the property.
"The land is wonderful for wildlife connectivity, botanically, and wetlands protection, there's so much here that Mass Audubon wants to preserve," she said. "It presents a tremendous opportunity for us to be part of something bigger, and a really exciting opportunity for the town."
Initial programming on the woodlands property over the past two years has "exceeded expectations and has been so well received," attracting 45 bird walk participants early on Tuesday mornings, Cushing said.
"Many of them have never been to The Mount or held binoculars. Getting them out on the land, experiencing the nature we have here in the Berkshires, has been tremendous to watch," she said. "We're excited to see what the future holds."
Carver described the agreement as "a win for the residents we represent at Foxhollow, for The Mount and for the town of Lenox and the wider Berkshire County. We hope for many years to be working with The Mount to embellish and improve the trails for more visitation in the area."
Selectman Neal Maxymillian praised "the generosity of the landowners; it's a wonderful thing for the town." He suggested that the Community Preservation Committee would be a resource for potential grants to help restore the trail network.
"The value of the town can be measured by the land that's preserved," Selectman David Roche added.
Although the town is not a part of the conservation restriction, Select Board Chairman Edward Lane noted, "it's pretty exciting news."
Selectwoman Marybeth Mitts thanked Carver for "this incredible generous donation for these two worthy organizations."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.