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Zoning Board of Appeals rules that Deerfield River Portage needs special permit to stay in business

DEERFIELD — The river tubing company that has been based at Stillwater will need to get a special permit if it wants to continue operating, the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled last week.

Deerfield River Portage has operated for five years within a residential agricultural zone without a special permit.

As a result, this summer Zoning Enforcement Officer Richard Calisewski issued a cease-and-desist order.

However, the zoning board’s decision did not rule out the return of the portage company next season.

Chairman Ron Bohonowicz said the company can apply for a special permit and come before the board again with a business plan.

Danielle Canedy and Kate Clayton-Jones, who run the portage company, however, said they have to determine whether they will even apply for a special permit for next summer.

“It may be possible we close our doors,” Clayton-Jones said. “We have to figure it out. We don’t know if it is in our best interest to do something that isn’t going to happen. We’re going to look at all possibilities and take it into consideration.”

Since 2008, Deerfield River Portage has provided summer tubers with inner-tube rentals and transportation along the river from Bardwells Ferry Bridge to Stillwater Bridge on the Deerfield River.

The company sells people tubes for $55 at the beginning of the ride and at the end of the trip, the company buys them back for $20, in effect, charging $35 a tube for their services.

The tubing company caught the attention of the town this summer when it brought in 1,100 tubers to the Stillwater area, an increase from 700 the previous year.

Clayton-Jones, however, said their customers only make up a small number of the thousands of people who tube down the river.

“It’s a fraction of people using the river. We took 1,100 but there are as many as 3,000 people tubing. We’ve seen across the country inner tubing has blossomed,” Clayton-Jones said.

With the spike in the tubing business came complaints from Stillwater Road residents.

According to Deerfield Police, the department issued 93 parking tickets and received 92 calls and complaints for service to the Stillwater area to address parking and littering problems in June and July.

Patrolling the area has cost the department between $9,000 and $10,000.

However, as soon as Clayton-Jones and Canedy learned of the town’s concerns, they changed their operations.

“In July, we could see where you’re coming from,” Clayton-Jones said. “We got far busier than we ever imagined. We responded quickly. So many of the things you were seeing were taken off the table.”

In the past, the company used a large van to meet customers by the public parking area near Stillwater Bridge. The customers park their vehicles in the public parking spaces.

But Clayton-Jones said the portage company has moved the parking-rendezvous location from Stillwater Road to their home at 617 Hoosac Road in Conway, where their front yard can hold up to 30 vehicles. On their website, they altered the address as well. She said the Conway Select Board gave the business its blessing to run a home operation.

Since the company’s creation, Clayton-Jones said they have strived to be good “stewards of the river.”

“Deerfield River Portage has always tried to be a solution to the problem that existed,” Clayton-Jones said.

The problem of commercial activity along the Deerfield River, however, extends beyond the town of Deerfield.

TransCanada Hydro Northeast Inc. owns much of the land along the river used as public access points. And TransCanada operates several hydroelectric projects along the Deerfield River.

The projects include ownership interests along the river and numerous access points to promote passive recreational enjoyment of the natural resources as required by the company’s license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Brandon Kibbe, a land agent for TransCanada.

The license, Kibbe explained, requires the company’s lands to be permanently protected by a conservation easement, held by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. The easement prohibits commercial recreational use of the property.

“If Deerfield River Portage is using company-owned land, then its activities would be in direct conflict with the terms of the conservation easement,” Kibbe stated. “TransCanada is committed to abiding by the conservation easement and thus cannot permit commercial recreational activities on its property.”

The easement could prohibit any business along the area, from other tubing companies to boat tours and fishing businesses. The easement does allow for noncommercial activities, permitting people to go tubing.

Clayton-Jones said the portage company will try to work with the Department of Conservation and Recreation to solve problems.

Several Stillwater Road residents opposed the tubing business, complaining of traffic along the road and intoxicated tubers coming off the river.

Neighbor Carol Rogalski said over the past four to five years traffic has increased significantly.

“I have to block my driveway. People turn around on my front lawn. I don’t even like being home during the summer,” Rogalski said. “It is not pleasant to live there anymore. Something needs to be done. That area has become a disaster.”

Though Bohonowicz said he recognized the tubing business is not solely responsible for the issues, he added, “In the last few years, we’ve seen usage go up dramatically.”

Bohonowicz warned that the town is reaching a point where the area might be entirely shut down, with no public access.

“This whole thing could fester up and no one will have access,” he said.

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