CHESHIRE, Mass. — Town officials will apply for a special permit on behalf of Appalachian Trail hikers to accommodate camping on the Cheshire School grounds.
A proposal to place a camping site on the town-owned land came to a halt last week when it was found to be in violation of the town's zoning.
After some research, Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV told the board of Selectmen on Tuesday that he may have found a way to establish a campsite for through-hikers on a portion of the grounds of the vacant school.
"I think last week was good to get all of that information out so we know what the issues are but just because there are issues does not mean that there is not a path we can move forward on," St. John said.
In the past, through-hikers have camped at St. Mary's Church, however, the diocese wishes to end this practice.
A group made of church representatives and Appalachian Trail Community Committee members formed to find a solution and pitched having campers stay in a designated area on the Cheshire School grounds. The school was closed several years ago although the town leases out space there.
Although at first it was generally accepted by town leadership, last week Code Enforcement Officer Gerald Garner and Planning Board Chairwoman Donna DeFino put the kibosh on the project noting that per town zoning, there is no camping allowed in residential districts without a special permit.
Also, the area proposed, which is near where the skating rink used to be, did not meet the sanitary amenities required for a campsite.
The Board of Health and residents argued that the site was not a true campsite and therefore could bypass these regulations.
St. John read the definition of a campsite and noted that the proposed site certainly meets this definition but that the key to move forward lies in the state's sanitary code. He read a section that stated any campground that is restricted to tent camping and backpacking shall be exempt from the state sanitary code.
"Tent camping and backpacking are exactly what this is so it makes sense for this type of thing," he said.
The only caveat is that a water supply must be available within 1,000 feet and with a water main running along Church Street, the proposed site easily meets this requirement.
St. John said the next step would be to work with the Appalachian Trail Community Committee and the Appalachian Mountain Club and submit a request for a special permit to the Planning Board.
"It would be as easy as going to the Planning Board and requesting a special permit on behalf of the hikers," he said. "They could put certain restrictions such as putting up some sort of screening ... it just takes some planning and time to do."
St. John said the goal would be to be ready for next year but school-building abutter Chris Wood said it may be too late and that there are already fewer hikers stopping in Cheshire.
"The word is getting around that Cheshire is not a hiker-friendly town so if we want to be an Appalachian Trail Community we should do something to prove that we are," Wood said. "They are talking about it and they are not liking Cheshire. The word goes north and south."
Michele Francesconi, who is affiliated with St. Mary’s Church, agreed and said if the town is going to act it has to be soon because hikers are already making plans for next year.
"There isn't really that much time because hikers are already planning their trips and usually they are going to want whatever decisions they make to be in the AT guide book," she said. "Those print deadlines usually come up pretty fast."
With proper posting procedure, the Planning Board could see the case in August and even then it is not a done deal.
"We have to adhere to our town bylaws and interpretations," she said. "We are a five-member board and everyone has a voice. It is an open hearing so anyone opposed or in favor will have a voice at our meeting."
Wood asked if the town could take some action to show that Cheshire is still accommodating hikers but selectman Robert Ciskowski was hesitant to bypass procedure.
"We will not be held hostage by hikers we will do what we can but there is a lot of hurdles," he said. "I think it is nice that we are in an Appalachian Trail friendly Community but we can't drop everything."
The selectmen came to an agreement that they would post a sign on the Appalachian Trail kiosk informing hikers that they are working towards a solution.
The selectmen were asked if hikers could still camp on the school grounds and Ciskowski said they are not looking to enforce any new rules.
"We aren't saying they can't camp there and no one has made a decision yet whether or not they can camp there," he said.
Wood said he would continue to tell campers they can stay on the grounds.
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