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Land trust buys Flagg Mtn. for state

CONWAY — A controversial proposed 25-lot mountaintop development that would have been visible from Shelburne Falls, Ashfield and Conway has been permanently averted by Franklin Land Trust’s purchase Wednesday of 166 1∕2-acre Flagg Mountain to become a state Fish and Game wildlife management area.

Plans for the Flagg Mountain property sparked controversy in the hilltowns in 2006 and 2007 from neighbors and town officials who raised concerns about emergency vehicle access having to come from Ashfield to the Conway property and about the access road disrupting wetlands. The project came to a halt largely because of the poor financial market since 2008, giving the Shelburne Falls-based land trust an opportunity to negotiate with owners Wesley and Annette Rowe.

“I don’t think people have any sense of the impact 25 house lots across the top of that mountain would have had,” said Franklin Land Trust Executive Director Richard Hubbard, who called the project “one of the best projects I’ve ever been involved with.”

Under the deal, $850,000 in federal money will be used to buy the land, which will in turn be turned over to the state for preservation.

The Flagg Hill project, which was marked on its Web site as offering “exceptional mountaintop living in the foothills of the Berkshires, would have been visible from the Bridge of Flowers and other points in Shelburne Falls, as well from the Mohawk Trail headed westward toward Shelburne center.

It was the Mohawk Trail visibility that caught Hubbard’s attention as he noticed on his drive to work one day that one house lot had been cleared.

“When I saw that patch all of a sudden, I thought, ‘What’s that?’ A house could have landed on that spot, and it would have been really devastating,” said Hubbard, who worked with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to obtain federal Scenic Byway funding to protect the vista.

The 25 “pristine wooded mountain lots with spectacular views” of Vermont, New Hampshire and the Pioneer Valley, ranged from four to eight acres, the Flagg Mountain Website said, and were offered from $59,000 to $259,000.

“There are some of the most spectacular views from the top of that mountain,” said Hubbard. “It would have been great for anybody who might have happened to buy a house lot on top there, but it would have been terrible for the rest of us to have to look at the mountaintop.”

He said the COG had its Scenic Byways funding application for $850,000 denied twice over two years because the Flagg Mountain property had been subdivided into house lots. Then, after the scenic money eventually had been approved, Congressman John Olver’s office had to intercede when the funding was nearly taken away.

“I wasn’t sure we were going to make it,” admitted Hubbard. In addition to cooperation from a variety of local, regional, state and federal players, he said, sheer luck also played a role. “All it would have taken was for one person to buy a house lot on top of the mountain, and that would have destroyed the property as a candidate for Scenic Byway funding. That would have probably destroyed the mountain forever. “I think the area’s really dodged a bullet.”

The Rowes, who have since moved from Conway to Florida, met with Hubbard several times after the 2008 financial meltdown hindered their attempts to sell the house lots. “After a few meetings, we were able to convince them to not only move ahead, but they became somewhat excited with the idea of being able to preserve the mountain and get some money as well.”

Beginning in 2006, the Flagg Mountain development project met with opposition from neighbors who formed a Flagg Mountain Interest Group concerned about the potential loss of the rural character of the mountain and the surrounding area and the impact on wetlands and the natural environment.

Late in 2006, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Conway Conservation Commission ordered Rowe to stop logging the property and building a common roadway because of concerns about violation of forest cutting plans and wetlands protection, respectively. Meanwhile, Ashfield raised objections about having to maintain road built to access the Conway development.

Once the land has been purchased by the land trust with a loan from Farm Credit East, it plans to give the property to the state Department of Fish and Game, according to an agreement between the land trust, the COG and state agencies. When the property is deeded over to the state, the Scenic Highways funding can reimburse the land trust for the loan.

At 1,402 feet in elevation, Flagg Mountain is situated in Conway’s northwestern corner on the Ashfield and Buckland town lines. The 166½ acres is adjacent to 93-acre Buckland State Forest and New England Forestry Foundation’s 329-acre Laughing Dog Forest, which in turn connects with an 86-acre World Species List Forest.

“In all of our work in land protection we try to create contiguous blocks of conserved land to enhance wildlife movement and forestland viability,” Hubbard said.

The property will be removed from the town’s tax rolls. But trails on the land, accessible from Warger Road in Ashfield, will be kept open to the public for hiking, bird watching, hunting and other recreation, said Hubbard.

National Scenic Byway Funding, administered by the Federal Department of Transportation, has been “really helpful for us in preserving properties,” said Hubbard, including fields along Route 2 in East Charlemont and near the French King Bridge in Erving, as well as parcels along Route 116 in Sunderland and Route 63 in Northfield.

Because of changes in funding for the program, the competitive land preservation grants that have been helpful around the region will no longer be available on the discretionary basis that has been used until now, said Beth Giannini, the COG’s senior transportation planner who applied for the grant.

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

Will Flagg mountain be returned to the species' forest or will it be harvested for animals and plants? Flagg Mountain (Flag Mountain) in Conway, MA was purchased via a land trust for the State of Massachusetts. The question I have is why would the owners sell the land rather than donate all the land? Would you sell one of your children? Did they really care about the forest? The real conservationists here, as is often the case, are the ones that on their watch return the acres to the natural landscape. Would it be the ones that bought the land with contributor money or possibly State money? Who conserves? If one has control of acres and sets these acres aside for the species' forest in perpetuity, then s/he is the conservationist. So, who's money was it? Certainly not the original owners even if it was a so-called bargain, conservation land sale? I will certainly be discussed if I see a photo of the Flagg Mountain owners shaking hand with Franklin Land Trust and/or the Fish and Wildlife Service while each is holding the corners of a big fat check, because the real owners are not there.

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