RICHMOND — Should the town’s open spaces, including the Berkshire Natural Resources Council’s Hollow Fields Preserve, be available to the public by right for recreation and for educational and research activities with minimal restrictions? Or should special permits be required for organized and promoted public activities?

That’s the controversy to be discussed and potentially decided by Richmond voters, now that the Select Board has approved placing competing versions of a revised zoning bylaw on the annual town meeting warrant.

But, despite similarities, two or even three proposals present a stark choice for the voters.

The proposal approved and recommended by the Planning Board makes all the town’s open spaces and conserved land of 5 acres or more, including Hollow Fields, available for recreation, education and research by right throughout the town, including organized activities offered at no charge. No off-road motorized vehicles would be allowed.

But the version put forward by six residents of Perry’s Peak Road off State Road (Route 41) would be more restrictive. Their proposed bylaw would require the town to issue a special permit for promoted and advertised group activities at the BNRC’s Hollow Fields Reserve and the council’s two other open space sites in the town, as well as other open-space and conserved land held by the Richmond Land Trust, MassAudubon and property owners elsewhere in the town.

Under that plan, activities requiring a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals would include “guided tours for the observation and study of wildlife, plants, flora, geology and other natural features that the land owner promotes or advertises, by any means or medium, to the general public.”

Also requiring a special permit, according to the residents’ proposal, would be “hiking, snow shoeing, backpacking, hunting, fishing, bird watching, photography or other similar recreational activities that the land owner promotes or advertises to the general public.”

Voicing support for presenting the Planning Board’s bylaw proposal to town meeting voters, Selectman Roger Manzolini declared that “it would just put the whole town meeting in a tizzy if we didn’t do this. I think we have an obligation to do so.”

As Planning Board Chairman John Hanson explained to the selectmen, “At our last meeting, we made sure, at the request of the Perry’s Peak Road residents, that their amendment includes all of what we have in ours, identically.”

But the residents, long concerned by what they consider intrusion on their privacy by group activities adjacent to their homes, included provisions designed to minimize such intrusions.

Manzolini and Select Board Chairman Neal Pilson agreed that legally, a third, separate citizens’ initiative petition on how the town’s open space should be used must be included on the town meeting warrant, though it’s nearly certain to be withdrawn by the same 20 residents who filed it.

After brief discussion — steering clear of taking a position on the alternatives — the Select Board voted 3-0 to place the Planning Board and Perry’s Peak residents’ zoning bylaw amendments on the warrant for the May 18 annual town meeting at 7:30 p.m. in the Richmond Consolidated School. A two-thirds supermajority is required for approval of any zoning bylaw or amendment.

The outcome of the vote, if either one of the bylaw proposals is approved, would affect a lawsuit in progress at Massachusetts Land Court. The BNRC had sued the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals last summer for requiring it to obtain a special permit for group activities. The neighborhood residents joined the lawsuit as defendants in order to have a voice in the outcome, according to Jeff Morse, a leader of the group.

Last August, Land Court Judge Robert B. Foster ruled that the ZBA could not enforce the special permit requirement until Richmond voters enacted a zoning amendment, or another court order was issued, whichever came first. He also required the BNRC to limit passive recreation activities at Hollow Fields to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and not hold any special events.

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Open space plan for Richmond: Voters, the choice is yours – Berkshire Eagle

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