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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: In Richmond and beyond, keep the 'open' in open space

Hollow Fields hikers (copy)

Hikers gather at the entrance to Hollow Fields Preserve in Richmond in July 2019.

Our landscape is our most abundant natural resource, and preserving it is an American tradition. So is fostering the public’s access to and enjoyment of these most pristine parcels. That is the beauty of preserving open space and public land, even as it requires considerable investment and conservation effort in lieu of further development. These preserved places, including the green jewels in Berkshire County’s crown, are all of ours to behold and relish.

But is it really “open” space if there are bureaucratic obstacles to accessing it and needless restrictions on landowners promoting its proper use? We think not. With that in mind, we urge Richmond voters at their Wednesday annual town meeting to keep their open space open. That means voting for a Planning Board bylaw amendment that would clarify all conserved and open spaces of five acres or more as open to public recreational, research and educational use by right, subject to landowner’s permission and, for sizable gatherings, a routine event permit from the Select Board.

It also means opposing an alternative amendment that would put needlessly onerous restraints on using this space for what it’s ideally intended. The latter amendment would require a landowner to seek a special permit from the town for open spaces uses. Triggering the onerous Zoning Board of Appeals permitting process just to allow passive activities like hiking, fishing, wildlife tours and nature photography imposes an unnecessary and unwise burden.

The six residents who proposed their more restrictive amendment live on Perry’s Peak Road, which abuts Richmond’s Hollow Fields Preserve. Like many outdoor destinations across the Berkshires, Hollow Fields saw an uptick in activity amid the pandemic. It ought to be considered a good thing that the public is making good use of a space designated for healthy recreational activity. That is the point of open space: While it is conservation-restricted to preserve its natural character, the great value of its allowable uses can and should be enjoyed by anyone.

To be sure, property-owners abutting these spaces are disproportionately affected by increased usage. Some might bristle at a bit more traffic in the neighborhood. These concerns should be heard and answered with far more reasonable measures: traffic restrictions, parking rules and/or time limits. In fact, public access to Hollow Fields is currently limited to between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., an order handed down by a Massachusetts Land Court judge as a lawsuit remains pending over access to the Berkshire Natural Resource Council-owned property.

How should Richmond’s open land be used and who can use it?

Richmond’s debate over a new amendment to the town’s open space bylaw is aimed at resolving that lawsuit. If either amendment is approved by the required two-thirds majority at town meeting, the lawsuit would become moot.

The Richmond Planning Board’s amendment echoes a position The Eagle has held for decades: We should strive to maintain and encourage healthy and appropriate public access to conservation land. The residents’ amendment, to the contrary, unduly seeks to limit access to those precious resources. That would not only affect Hollow Fields but all open space in Richmond, including several other BNRC properties such as Olivia’s Overlook and land owned by the Richmond Land Trust (i.e., the entire community). Whether the landowner is the town’s land trust, Mass Audubon or BNRC, the conservation restrictions on these lands are supported by public subsidies and state tax breaks. That means we, the people, have a considerable stake in preserving not just the land but the public’s use and enjoyment of it.

Typically, we don’t use this page to take a side on one issue in a single town’s annual meeting warrant. This open space debate, however, is bigger than just Richmond. For one thing, plenty of non-Richmond residents cherish the access that would be challenged by the more restrictive amendment. Perhaps more importantly, it would be not only a poor choice for Richmond but a bad precedent for other Berkshire communities with valuable open space. Voters should not give the broader “not-in-my-backyard” contingent a blueprint for suppressing public use of treasures that should be shared by all, not just those who own property next door.

Further, this measure strikes us as clearly infringing on the most basic rights to free expression. The amendment targets any landowner that “promotes or advertises, by any means or medium” — at once vague and broad. That nonprofits like BNRC and Mass Audubon might have to obtain a special permit just to declare that hiking or birdwatching is allowed on land they own is a ludicrous notion.

To preserve pieces of wild wonder, to embrace them as places of reverence and recreation, to acknowledge that these natural resources can and should be shared — these are principles steeped in New England and Massachusetts tradition that in many ways our fair county uniquely prizes. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

To really live up to those principles, though, conservation of open space and public land must recognize that those key words — “open” and “public” — mean something.

We hope Richmond voters recognize this, and support the Planning Board’s open space amendment over the residents’ more restrictive one.

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