Land trust looks to preserve Lenox greenery

By Kate AbbottPrint Story | Email Story
Undermountain Farm is a family-owned open land that the new Lenox Land Trust could preserve. (Photo By Kevin Sprague)
LENOX — Many of the familiar green sweeps of Lenox are less protected than people realize, Kevin Sprague, president of the fledgling Lenox Land Trust, said last week. The land trust is up and running and trying to reach out to people to teach them how to preserve the land, Sprague said. Its first public meeting will be held Sunday, Feb. 29, at the Lenox Community Center from 3 to 5 p.m. for anyone curious about the trust or interested in becoming a member. “We’re in business,” Sprague said. “We’ve formed a corporation, and we’re ready to start exploring ‘now what?’ We see ourselves working to preserve as much of the Lenox landscape as possible — open space, view sheds, watershed lands, hilltops — whatever leads people to think Lenox is a beautiful place.” The land trust is not looking to take away anyone’s land but to educate people who are interested in preserving land they own, he said. The new trust began last summer. Sprague and his brother Karl set it in motion, with the help of Thomas Stokes, president of the Stockbridge Land Trust. Karl Sprague is also involved with the Stockbridge Land Trust, and the Sprague family owns Undermountain Farm in Lenox. The land trust held a few meetings at the Lenox Club in July and August and formed its first board of directors: Kate McNulty-Vaughan, Gene Chague, Lois Lenehan, Sally Bell, George Darey, Warren Archey, Dick Celli, Patty Spector and Charlie Liston. The board has met monthly since September. Kevin Sprague noted the depth of experience on the board. Its members have worked with the state Departments of Environmental Management and Environmental Protection, Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Lenox Planning Board, among others. Since last summer, the board has spent most of its time forming the nonprofit corporation, establishing its bylaws and mission, building a Web site (www.lenoxlandtrust.org) and studying assessors’ maps, open-space maps the town has created and maps from the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Sprague said. It has already started identifying areas and parcels of land to focus on protecting, he said. “There are quite a few issues, and we have not determined an order of priorities yet,” he said. “We are assessing the situation before setting explicit goals.” However, he noted that hundreds, if not thousands of open acres in Lenox could be developed, he said. Although the vast majority of townspeople might think many of the places are publicly owned or protected land, they are not, he said. The hilltops along Yokun Ridge, for example, could be developed, although with some difficulty. Sprague said the land trust plans to look seriously at the Scenic Mountains Act that other towns in the Berkshires have adopted. The act preserves land above a certain height and steepness and is designed to keep ridgelines free of houses. Land could also be developed along the boundaries of Kennedy Park, according to Sprague, who has lived in Lenox his whole life. Over the last 25 years, he said, he has watched the park borders slowly get whittled down as landowners legitimately developed private land many people had thought belonged to the park. The trust would also look closely at the Lenox “gateway areas,” especially the southern approach by High Lawn Farm and the Stockbridge border, he said. The land trust does not want to suggest that the town could get built up overnight but residents should focus on areas the community values most highly and be aware of what could change, Sprague said. “We’re not saying people who have owned open land for hundreds of years are suddenly raging to build on it,” he said. “There is a bigger issue here than taking land and putting it into conservation restrictions. We have to live with development.” Many people think a land trust just acquires land, he said. A land trust can own land or hold conservation restrictions to preserve it, but the directors of the Lenox land trust see themselves chiefly as providers of information, he said: The trust may not buy land at all, he said. The board hopes to work with other local organizations, including the natural resources council and Massachusetts Audubon Society, which are better equipped to maintain property, he said. The land trust also will let landowners know what options they have for preserving land. Sally Bell has already drafted a layman’s guide to conservation options on the Web site. In it, she explains conservation restrictions, which give tax credits for land preserved as open space. A landowner who puts land under a conservation restriction still owns it. The restriction may cover all or part of a parcel of land, allowing some uses such as agriculture or timbering, and it may even increase the value of land bordering the conserved land, Sprague said. “People worry that conservation restrictions affect the town’s tax base, lower revenues and hurt town services. There’s an argument that the town saves money by conserving land,” he said. “It is less expensive to have open space than to provide utilities, infrastructure and services for buildings and people on developed land.” Some town organizations are already concerned about preserving open space and the character of Lenox, Sprague said, including the Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and the Selectmen. But the land trust is a private organization and can explore options the town does not have, Sprague said, such as raising funds as a nonprofit or applying for state grants to buy land. Anyone who becomes a member will directly support the land trust’s ability to pursue its goals, he said. The $25 annual membership fee will go straight into operating funds to allow the trust to work with landowners, underwrite legal fees or pay for educational materials, he said. The trust is looking to create a land-acquisition or leverage fund, too, so it can buy land or contribute to the cost of buying it at need. It has a few entities already interested in underwriting when final papers for nonprofit status are filed, Sprague said. Sheffield, Stockbridge, Egremont, Alford, Richmond and Williamstown already have land trusts preserving farmland and open space within their towns. Sheffield’s land trust is protecting 1,821 acres, according to the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition. Some land trusts have celebrated their centennials, and the Northeast has a good record, according to the Land Trust Alliance: New England had the nation’s first land trust, and the Northeast still has more land trusts than any other area of the country. Lenox has a long history of stewardship for its green spaces. Sprague said the land trust will provide more options for that stewardship.

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