LENOX – In a cliffhanger climax to a nearly three-hour annual town meeting, a supermajority of voters approved a conservation restriction to legally and permanently protect 948 scenic acres of Yokun Ridge, including Lenox Mountain, from residential, commercial or industrial development through a partnership between town government and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.
The agreement preserves the rights of the Water Department to upgrade and expand the waterworks by written notification to the Conservation Commission and the Natural Resources Council, which will hold joint responsibility to monitor activity on the land.
Voters on Thursday night also passed all town spending proposals totaling $23.6 million, including $12.2 million for School Department operations and staff benefits. A $55,000 tourism-oriented economic development budget won approval without discussion.
Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, who leaves June 21 for his new job as town administrator in Manchester-by-the-Sea, was accorded a tribute by Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler, which was followed by applause and cheers.
Because a two-thirds supermajority is required for any town land transaction, a hand count produced a four-vote margin of victory for the conservation restriction.
The tally was 238 in favor, 112 opposed. In order to pass, 234 “yea” votes were needed. The turnout of 357 represented just over 9 percent of the 3,804 registered voters.
A citizens’ Watershed Study Committee led by Selectman John McNinch produced the proposal to preserve the scenic and natural resources of the town-owned land, with no restrictions on Water Department work within the 120-acre watershed surrounding the two reservoirs.
“We’re not giving this land away,” McNinch said.
Berkshire Natural Resources Council President Tad Ames contended that existing state protection is riddled with loopholes, is open to interpretation and doesn’t offer “a strong and enduring enough layer of protection.” The top priorities of the conservation restriction are to maintain local control and ensure minimal “bureaucratic burden” on the town’s DPW, he stated.
The Natural Resources Council and Lenox Conservation Commission will have “the right to prevent development if such a notion is brought forward. Beyond that, they don’t have any right to dictate to the town,” Ames added.
Former Selectman Richard Piretti said that control of the land should remain solely with residents.
“We have done an excellent job of managing that piece of property,” he said. Piretti described the proposed restriction as “almost like a land grab,” adding that future generations would be “shackled” with hands tied.
But Conservation Commission Chairman Neal Carpenter responded that while the restriction gives the town and its Water Department “full control over all the land, the [conservation restriction] protects open space for generations to come.”
“The watershed land should be managed solely for water supply,” said Richard Fuore, Water Department foreman for the past 27 years. “The town should not have to go through a private association to do work on its own land. The watershed is the most precious land we have.”
Public Works Superintendent Sean VanDeusen urged town control of the area for future generations “rather than a third-party, non-resident organization not beholden to the local democratic process.”
VanDeusen maintained that the Berkshire Natural Resources Council would have “total veto power over future decision-making processes about what happens on Yokun Ridge. Under their plan, BNRC decisions are final and binding. They are an overseer and a policing agency, but our town and its DPW can police itself.:
“Putting this land in a [conservation restriction] will prevent things like the Kennedy Park Belvedere from happening in the future, by mistake, knowingly or by chance,” said Patty Spector.
Local hotel owner Joseph Toole objected to the permanence of the restriction. “We’re never going to get out of this,” he said, because it would undermine trust in the Berkshire Natural Resources Council to exit a land stewardship.
“I don’t see the BNRC as an enemy here,” said Kate McNulty Vaughan, a Lenox Land Trust officer. “I’m shocked that people are portraying them that way. They are in partnership with us.”
She asserted that the agreement is tilted in favor of the town.
“We will own the land forever, just as we do now,” she said, urging a vote in favor.
“You’ll understand the reason we went to the calculator,” said Town Moderator Hugh Cowhig as officials huddled over the final tally.
Cowhig announced the outcome to applause, cheers and whistling, adding: “This has been a very hotly debated item. You people are to be commended for the manner in which you handled this discussion, everyone was polite, respectful, and I thank you for your cooperation.”