Baker signs off on Lenox land swap involving Kennedy Park, Yokun Ridge acreage

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LENOX — Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a land-transfer bill to swap two parcels totaling 130 acres owned by Mass Audubon within Kennedy Park with the town in exchange for 105 town-owned acres atop Yokun Ridge, bordering the statewide land-conservation organization's Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

The bill, proposed by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and backed by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, was approved July 30, the day before the Legislature's formal session ended. Baker signed it into law Thursday.

The town of Lenox first approached Pignatelli in March with its request to get the required state approval of the land-exchange deal. State lawmakers approved it in order to ensure the "no-net-loss" policy for all public land protected under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution, according to a statement from the Lenox Democrat's Boston office.

But the idea of the land swap has been percolating for many years, perhaps two decades, said Becky Cushing, Mass Audubon's director of Berkshire Sanctuaries, including Pleasant Valley.

The proposal gained momentum three years ago through close cooperation with Christopher Ketchen, the Lenox town manager, and Gwen Miller, the land-use director and town planner.

"We have a great partnership with the town," Cushing said.

The state-approved act that takes effect immediately requires that the two Kennedy Park parcels, 48 acres along West Mountain Road and about 82 acres off West Dugway Road, be used for open space, recreation and land conservation.

"This makes sense for users so there's no disruption in the management of the trails and so the properties can be managed in a consistent way," Cushing said.

She emphasized that both parcels that Mass Audubon is giving to the town have permanent conservation restrictions.

"That is an important point for Mass Audubon, because in this case we want the land to remain undeveloped and managed for conservation and recreational purposes," Cushing said.

"I'm happy to see the land transfer go through successfully," Pignatelli said via e-mail. "Kennedy Park is a wonderful natural resource for the community of Lenox and the Massachusetts Audubon Society is an undoubted gem in our state thanks to their commitment to maintaining our public land for conservation and recreation.

"This legislation signifies a successful partnership between Lenox and Mass Audubon and I'm happy to have helped see it through to final enactment."

The land atop Yokun Ridge includes an informal trail that will become part of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council's Berkshire High Road system, eventually connecting Stockbridge to Pittsfield at Bousquet Mountain. The council and Mass Audubon are partnering to formalize the trail and mark it with signs, making it more easily accessible to the public.

"The town-owned lot atop Yokun Ridge had created a gap in the long segment we own, so this provides more continuity," Cushing said. She noted that the land protected by Mass Audubon has high ecological value, while the town-owned Kennedy Park land has major recreational benefits.

"This is totally a common-sense solution; a very even swap," she said. "Users won't even notice the difference."

She also cited a 15-acre donation by author and Eagle columnist Ruth Bass to Mass Audubon last March in honor of her late husband, Milton, a former Eagle entertainment editor and longtime columnist. The land, also on Yokun Ridge, adjoins the Pleasant Valley sanctuary.

Bass donated the acreage so it could be included in the council's High Road project, which aims eventually to connect the entire county with north-south trail systems.

"It all fits together," Cushing said. "With conservation, you always have to take the long view, thinking of generations to come."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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