CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town paused efforts to establish a temporary Appalachian Trail hiker’s campsite on town property with concerns over zoning.
The Board of Selectmen tapped the expertise of the building commissioner, Planning Board, and Board ofHhealth Tuesday to sort out a potential hiker campsite on the Cheshire Elementary School grounds, which at this point in time does not seem feasible.
"This is going to be a tough project and we had a lot of good information shared here tonight and we will have to do a little more thinking on this," Chairman Robert Ciskowski said. "I don't think we can come up with anything tonight."
In the past campers have utilized St. Mary’s Church and its grounds however the diocese plans to stop this practice. Residents have been leading an effort to chisel out a portion of the Cheshire Elementary campus for hikers to camp on - specifically an area near the church where the old skating rink used to sit.
"The spot is near St. Mary’s and they are doing it anyways so we just want to see if this summer and maybe next summer if it makes sense with the town’s plans," Appalachian Trail Community Committee member Eilleen Quinn said. "I think we need to find a good solution to allow hikers to camp in town on town property."
Although generally supported by town officials there were still concerns. Less about liability and more about scheduling conflicts with local sports and building leasers.
Michele Francesconi, who is affiliated with St Mary's, has been a steady presence in the effort hoping to find a new location for the hikers after the diocese bans camping on the church grounds.
She said the group was looking for an official go ahead and the only physical changes they wanted to make was to place signage throughout town directing hikers to the designated spot.
She there is already a portable toilet on the premise, a bear box, and hikers are already camping in the area as they have done in years past.
Francesconi said at the moment they are in peak hiking season and it may be better to let the camping ride for the summer and take up the effort in earnest in the off season.
However Planning Board Chairwoman Donna DeFino said camping in that area does not jive with the town’s bylaws because camping is not allowed in residential districts.
"According to what our bylaws read you cannot camp in a residential area," she said. "The school is a residential area the church is a residential area."
She said it would require a special permit to camp in this zone and Building Commissioner Gerald Garner said this would trigger a variety of code issues that come with establishing a campground.
"There are a lot of technical issues that need to be looked at before you can even think about it," he said. "There are a lot of regulations and things you need to look at before you say open a campground. I am a code guy and we have to start at the zoning and work up."
Garner rattled off a quick list of amenities needed at a campground that if not present would warrant an enforcement letter from his office.
He said the town would need to supply drinking water, a place to wash, and stationary toilets. He went on to say a certain amount of parking, camping space, and boundary lines would also be needed to comply.
Garner added that he foresaw even more issues with the Youth Center moving into the elementary school.
"Anyone that stays at that campground is going to have to be checked because the state will require that," he said. "These are transient people that need to be checked before they are allowed to be around children and that will be hard to do."
DeFino added that with it being town owned property the town will have to patrol the area to make sure there is no dubious activity afoot. She said this necessary enforcement would be difficult.
Garner added that he refused to police the area.
"If people call me about complaints there I will not act on them I will give them to you," he said. "I can guarantee they will be calling me. Right now they are complaining that they are defecating in people’s yards."
The board then directed the discussion towards the Board of Health and Chairman Rick Salvi said he did not consider the area a campsite and did not see an issue.
"It’s not a campground it is a place for them to put there head down and sleep over night so take campground out of the mix," he said.
The same sentiment was shared by a majority of the residents who attended the meeting who felt the town has supported hikers for years and should continue to do what they can.
Garner said he did not want to battle over definitions and from his position the proposed site is clearly a campground.
"It’s a campground and that is exactly what your codes state it is so I am going to call it a campground," he said. "I am going to send a notification to you to get rid of the campground it is a violation of the zoning and that is my job...we are not going to play this semantics game."
It was noted that other communities support hikers with campsites and that there had to be some solution.
"I think it is important for us to come up with a creative solution," Quinn said. "It is so easy to find 25,000 reasons why we can't."
Garner said there are options and he had no issues with camping in the agricultural district. Residents who joined in on the conversation considered moving the campsite to state land. Garner said this would be out of his jurisdiction.
DeFino added that she thought it was a good thing that the town supported thru-hikers and noted the majority of the hikers are upstanding people. She just did not think it was the town’s responsibility to set up a campsite for hikers especially when said campsite would only cause issues for the town.
She did say that camping could be allowed on private property and noted that there are two possible locations: one on West Mountain Rd. and off of Route 8. She said one of these properties has allowed camping in the past but the town would have to approach the land owners.
Ciskowski also charged the Appalachian Trail Community Committee to reach out to other communities who allow camping on public land.
But in the meantime the hikers will have to pack it up and go somewhere else.
"I will post tomorrow they can't tent there anymore and the only other two shelter options are five miles north and five miles south," Francesconi said.
The town, in which the trail passes through, is a designated Appalachian Trail Community. This designation came with a pledge to be trail friendly, to provide opportunities for hikers to interact with the community, and to provide trail education to the community.