RICHMOND — The town has put on hold an enforcement action against the state after officials pledged to address damage left behind by contractors on Lenox Mountain.
After approving an order that would slap daily fines of $100 on the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and contractors who did the work on the western slope of the mountain, the Richmond Conservation Commission agreed to hold off on enforcement after the agency said it soon would outline plans to restore environmental damage.
“Since they are responding to our request for a plan that we would be asking for in the order, we decided to set a date at the end of the month for the restoration plan and schedule to be provided by DCR to us,” commission Chairman Ron Veillette told The Eagle on Thursday night.
The DCR project was designed to replace outdated utility poles and bury new power lines to a communications tower at the summit. But, the commission alleged that the state agency violated the Scenic Mountain Act adopted by Richmond.
The Conservation Commission on Tuesday accused the state agency of violating town regulations under the Berkshire Scenic Mountain Act by constructing a gravel road to a communications tower at the summit. The agency replaced some of the above-ground lines with buried cables in a conduit, but it left debris, including poles, throughout the area from View Drive to the summit, according to Veillette and several neighbors.
The commission voted unanimously to begin the enforcement action based on a new bylaw approved by annual town meeting voters June 17. But, the order and fines are on hold for the next two weeks as the commission awaits the restoration plan promised by the DCR.
DCR press secretary Olivia Dorrance told The Eagle on Wednesday night that “the emergency maintenance project to restore critical utility poles and power lines was completed anticipating a potential emergency such as storm events, and forest fire. By completing the work, the electric line and utility poles are in better condition, reducing the risk of falling high voltage lines sparking a forest fire.”
In an emailed statement, she also commented that “DCR has a longstanding familiarity with the Berkshire Scenic Mountains Act.” The agency reviewed a Sept. 15 violation notice from the Conservation Commission but “does not consider the emergency maintenance project to be subject to the statute” because it involved the maintenance, repair, reconstruction and replacement of a “lawfully located and constructed structure.”
“At this time, DCR is working to review the Richmond Conservation Commission’s order and expects to contact the municipality in the coming days,” Dorrance wrote.
At Tuesday’s meeting, two neighbors bordering a former woodland trail along a 1950s state-owned easement, some of it cutting through forestland owned by Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, described the work as “a disaster.”
Tony Abate, whose View Drive property adjoins the destroyed woodland trail, told the commission he had been informed by the state agency that the power line replacement would cause only “minimal disruption,” and that workers “would return everything, as best they could, to the way they had found it.”
Abate stated that there was severe disruption at higher elevations, including to longtime resident, author and Eagle columnist Ruth Bass’ property and to land along the ridgeline she had donated several years ago to Mass Audubon for conservation.
“They certainly destroyed the property all the way up from the beginning of the ridge to the top of the mountain, and destroyed the trail as well” by making 6- to 7-foot-deep cuts into the mountain, Abate contended. He also said that the forest canopy along part of the route was opened up and is visible from some town roads.
The result is a gravel road accessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles, he said. The state has installed a gate and no-trespassing signs at the entrance.
“It will never go back to the way it was,” Abate said, because it would require regrading the mountainside and adding plantings.
“It’s a disaster, and very disappointing,” he said. He had chaired a neighborhood meeting July 9 to review the aftermath of the project. At the meeting, DCR engineer Martin Menke stated that the project was “in response to an emergency” after a tree fell on an electrical line along the trail, taking down several utility poles.
Rather than declaring an emergency, the state agency should have consulted with the town, the neighborhood and the commission “instead of ripping up the mountain,” Abate said. “We need to take every means at our disposal to get them to act.”
He urged the Conservation Commission to “turn the heat up, because they’re just hoping we go away and forget about it.”
Another neighbor, Harley Keisch, described widespread debris and discarded poles tossed into woods along the access road.
Keisch, who is a Conservation Commission member, described the work project as “perplexing, crazy and ironic” because it also destroyed part of Mass Audubon’s woodlands. He urged “maximum pressure” on the state agency.
“It was just an excuse to go up there and do what they wanted,” Keisch said. “They didn’t do any engineering to try to figure out what might be appropriate in a Scenic Mountain area. They just bulldozed a road, did whatever they had to do to get it done as quickly as possible with as little notification as possible and, unfortunately, we’re left picking up the pieces.
“It’s very easy to destroy something; it’s very hard to put it back together,” he added, calling on the commission to try to hold the state “accountable for their actions. Everyone is subject to the law; no one is above the law.”