61 — Not just a number

In 1995, twin brothers, Millard and Frederic Pryor, gifted over 120 acres of forested land in West Stockbridge and Richmond to the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC). The Richmond Land Trust (RLT) and BNRC jointly own a conservation restriction on the property.

Interestingly, as a young economics student, Frederic Pryor was captured by the soviets in East Germany, charged with espionage and held prisoner for several months. Eventually his release was gained as part of a prisoner swap involving U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. The story of this was told in book form, later made into a Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, with Frederic played by the actor Will Rogers.   Obituary

The Steven’s Glen reserve is beautiful land stretching down the lower slopes of Yokun ridge towards the valley floor. Lenox Mountain Brook tumbles down the mountainside, rushing through a waterfall in a steep-sided ravine before it splashes, tumbles, and slows into a marsh. Eventually, Lenox Mountain Brook joins Cone Brook. There are stands of mixed hardwood forest and majestic glades of giant white pines and hemlocks.

The Berkshires were once home to Mohicans before they were displaced by European settlers and, in the years around 1900, a wooden pavilion built in Steven’s Glen became a popular party spot. From BNRC’s trail guide:

Stevens Glen enjoys a remarkable history. The Stevens family settled here in 1760 and worked to clear the land for farming. Coaching parties crowded to the mountain summit through the late 1800s and early 1900s, their carriages discharging hundreds of passengers for an evening of dancing on a pavilion near the ravine. It’s hard to envision 900 people up on this ridge dancing away, and even harder to imagine how the women in the late 1800s made it to the ravine in their tiny heeled boots, petticoats, and long dresses.

This past week, the Concom learned that a 50+ acre, forested property just to the north is up for sale by its owner, Leigh Merlini. And just on the other side of the Merlini property, is a 13.5 acre ConCom property.

Currently, the Merlini property is mostly protected by Chapter 61 — a state program offering tax reductions to the land owner as an incentive to conserve the land. If the property is taken out of chapter 61 protection for a sale, the town has a 120-day, right-of-first-refusal — the right to purchase the land for the exact amount equal to the amount of the pending sale. In this case, that’s $310,000.

Richmond is also allowed to transfer the right-of-first-refusal to BNRC, RLT, or a similar non-profit and that option is just beginning to be explored.

At last night’s BOS meeting, Leigh Merlini’s attorney was asking the selectmen to immediately sign away the right-of-first-refusal. But after some deliberation, two more weeks were given so that BNRC could look more closely at this property — to see if they would like to acquire it. Now it’s a race against time.

Holly Stover and I walked up through the abutting ConCom Sanctuary property to the border it shares with the Merlini parcel. There are mature forest stands, filtered views of the Taconic and Yokun ridgelines, rocky outcrops, and old stonewalls to enjoy.

All of this highlights just how fragile Chapter 61 protection is. Sure, there is a small tax-rollback penalty for taking the land out of Ch.61, but it is very weak tea. And I wonder about the many other Ch.61 properties in Richmond. How many will eventually succumb to development?


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