RICHMOND — More than two years after a botched trail project damaged woodlands, including Mass Audubon property, on Lenox Mountain, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has submitted a restoration plan.
Conservation Commission Chairman Ronald Veillette said the proposal will be reviewed by an independent engineering firm before the commission signals a green light for the renovation, which could begin before winter sets in.
The June 2020 DCR project was designed to take down outdated utility poles and bury new power lines to a communications antenna at the summit of Lenox Mountain.
The agency contended that exemptions written into the Scenic Mountain Act covered the maintenance work. But the Conservation Commission argued that DCR violated that law by constructing a gravel road to the summit and that subcontractors working for the state damaged woodlands along the trail.
In a September 2020 letter to the DCR, the commission complained that the contractors assigned to clear the way for repair of the telecommunications facility caused "severe impact" on the forested hillside, "causing serious risk of stormwater erosion and damage to water quality downstream in the watershed.”
Now, two years later, a resolution is in sight, Veillette told The Eagle this week.
DCR has agreed to pay for the commission’s engineering consultant and for the restoration work that includes erosion repair and vegetation replanting, he said, though the cost of the project is not known yet.
“DCR definitely has been working with us, we’re happy with that, but things never go quickly enough,” he said. He attributed the delay to the impact of the COVID pandemic.
Veillette said that he hopes that the restoration proposal wins approval from the engineering firm. “Things looks good,” he said.
In March 2021, the state agency had signaled willingness to repair the damage and remove discarded above-ground utility poles and debris caused by the ill-fated project the previous summer.
Portions of Mass Audubon’s forested land had been disturbed during the state project. Two residential properties were affected, and a wide gravel road constructed by the state along its half-mile right of way eliminated a popular hiking trail.
After strong complaints by neighbors on View Drive, the Conservation Commission issued an enforcement order in November 2020 calling for a restoration project and imposing weekly ticketed fines on the state agency and its two contractors. But collection of the fines was suspended pending successful negotiations for a land restoration.
A seeding and replanting program with all-native species was planned in collaboration with Mass Audubon, as well as any grading needed for the right of way to avoid "any long-term degradation of the forest," DCR senior ecologist Nancy Putnam has said. "We're open to doing whatever grading is necessary out there to restore the site," she emphasized during a March 2021 Conservation Commission meeting.
The standoff between the commission and DCR over the trail project up the western slope of Lenox Mountain involved the town’s contention that the state agency violated the Berkshire Scenic Mountain Act, adopted by Richmond, protecting slopes above 1,400 feet.
The state agency contended that the replacement of the wooded trail with a gravel roadway to access the summit was an emergency project to replace deteriorated power lines and relocate some of them underground.
The state’s easement dating back to the 1950s allows it to access and upgrade emergency communications equipment atop the mountain.
The DCR and its contractors — Dagle Electrical Construction of Wilmington and Colonial Contracting and Excavating of Ashburnham — argued that their work on the trail was exempt from the Scenic Mountain Act because the project was needed to upgrade the utility lines leading to the communications tower.
But the Richmond commission asserted that the project was not exempt, since it has the sole authority to grant an exemption, specifically because a new gravel road was constructed to access the summit. The commission also stated that the Scenic Mountain Act does not include provisions authorizing emergency repairs.