Proposed housing along Mount Tom range stirs controversy in Easthampton

  • A rendering of the Mount Tom area and proposed residential development along Reservation Road. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/PASCOMMUCK CONSERVATION TRUST

  • Donal Carbaugh, a resident on Reservation Road in Easthampton since 2004, stands at the entrance to the private land as well as trails on the Mount Tom Reservation. Carbaugh is against plans for five homes on land adjacent to the reservation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donal Carbaugh, a resident on Reservation Road in Easthampton since 2004, stands at the entrance to the private land as well as trails on the Mount Tom Reservation. Carbaugh is against plans for five homes on land adjacent to the reservation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donal Carbaugh, a resident on Reservation Road in Easthampton since 2004, stands at the entrance to the private land as well as trails on the Mount Tom Reservation. Carbaugh is against plans for five homes on land adjacent to the reservation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Private land adjacent to the Mount Tom Reservation, where five homes have been proposed. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A stake marking the boundaries of the private land and the Mount Tom Reservation land where five homes have been proposed. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A view from the Bray Tower looking down on Mount Tom Reservation land. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Donal Carbaugh, who lives on Reservation Road, looks up at Mount Tom Reservation land. Behind him is the private land where five homes have been proposed. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2021 12:59:46 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A housing development proposed at the base of Mount Tom has raised alarm among residents who say the property should be protected for its environmental value.

Opponents of the development at the end of Reservation Road are calling for the Planning Board to revisit the approval it granted the proposed project in 2008. According to City Planner Jeff Bagg, the city is interested in protecting the Mount Tom area, but would need the landowners to offer the property for sale at a reasonable price to prevent the development.

The landowners, Suzanne Scallion and Rosemary LePage, say they plan to develop five lots in an environmentally conscious manner, and that they had previously offered to sell the property to the city and the Kestrel Land Trust conservation group.

Earlier this week, the city’s Pascommuck Conservation Trust, which oversees 16 properties and advocates for protecting natural resources, issued a call on social media for state and city officials to protect the area. The five proposed residential lots for sale would present environmental risks and intrude on people’s enjoyment of Mount Tom, according to the trust.

“Mount Tom is a really unique place, not just because it’s the scenic backdrop of Easthampton and much of the upper Valley,” said Gerrit Stover, a volunteer with the trust, “but also because it’s biologically very rich,” and home to plant and animal species deemed at-risk by the state. As a result, the area is a state-designated BioMap Core Habitat, meaning that it hosts important biodiversity.

Portions of the lots for sale overlap with this area, according to Bagg, who added that the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife is responsible for overseeing the protections that this status grants the area.

Opponents of the development are also concerned that Bray Tower, one of the observation points on the mountain, is about 500 feet from the proposed northernmost house, which Stover said is problematically close to an area where people go to be among nature. Reservation Road in Easthampton runs from East Street up the mountainside toward the Mount Tom State Reservation.

“Five hundred feet sounds like a lot until you’re up on a mountain and someone’s playing their stereo or running their lawnmower,” Stover said. “So really, the closer the development gets to that point where people are trying to enjoy nature, the less intact and rich that experience is.”

The project also poses the risk of erosion at the mountain’s base, according to Stover.

Peter Lane, the Northampton attorney representing Scallion and LePage, said in a statement that the landowners “believe that environmentally responsible projects are appropriate for this site,” and that each lot is designed with two acres of buffer zone between the property and the reservation.

“As former residents of the road, they are conscious of the need to tread lightly and work closely with the state and city agencies involved,” Lane said. “Previous development on the road while they were living there ruined their own quiet enjoyment and led them to move away.”

Plans for the development also allow continued access to the road and reservation for hikers and pedestrians, Lane said.

“We are confident that in the end we will have approval for plans that allow small-scale sustainable development to coexist with public access to the preserved habitat of this beautiful mountainside,” he said.

A reemerging conversation

In 2008, the Planning Board approved the development under the condition that the public access way is brought up to safety standards for emergency vehicles. The property owners intend to achieve this through establishing a homeowners association to oversee this responsibility, Bagg said.

But opponents of the project are now questioning whether the Planning Board should have granted this approval and hope that their concerns will lead the board to revisit the decision.

The Planning Board has not had a meeting since these recent concerns arose, Bagg said, and is scheduled to talk about whether the road meets Fire Department standards for emergency vehicle access at its next meeting, rather than whether the development should happen at all.

Bagg has received a high volume of letters from people who are concerned about the project, he said.

The city would be willing to explore the possibility of buying the land, according to Bagg, but would need to have certain conditions in place to make this option viable.

“The city is interested in protecting the land … but to really do it, we need a willing landowner to work with us, and we need a price that is reasonable for the city to afford,” he said.

Donal Carbaugh, a Reservation Road resident, also expressed a need to preserve the natural beauty of the area. The proposed development is situated on a steep slope, he said, and houses built on these lots could be threatened by runoff from the mountain.

“The parcel of land is much more valuable as an addition to the Mount Tom reservation … than it is to anything else” Carbaugh said.

Carbaugh belongs to a coalition of people opposed to the proposed development and said he has been involved with preserving this area for at least 15 years.

He understands “that the owners of the land have a financial stake in that land,” he said, but suggested that local land trusts, as well as the city and state, could partner to buy the land.

Scallion and LePage have discussed conservation options for the land with the Kestrel Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, according to Lane, and offered to sell the property to Kestrel and the city before listing it for sale two years ago.

“They waited a full year at the request of the city to see if grant funding for an access project would come through,” said Lane, the attorney representing the landowners. “When it appeared the city was no longer interested in their property as an access point to the park, they proceeded with their plans for environmentally conscious residential development of the lots.”

The development has also raised the question of whether the city or the state owns Reservation Road. City records show that Easthampton transferred ownership of the road to the state in 1917, Bagg said, and there’s no indication as to whether the city received the road back from the state at some point. As a result, it is not clear whether the owners of the lots would need to gain approval from the state or the city to develop the land.

The Planning Board is slated to discuss the project at its April 6 meeting at 6 p.m.




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