Land trusts ink deal to conserve 20 acres along Mill River in Williamsburg

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer 

Published: 01-19-2023 8:07 PM

WILLIAMSBURG — Twenty acres of forest along the West Branch of the Mill River is officially conserved as “forever wild,” the end result of a lawsuit in which adjacent land suffered environmental damage from a solar development in 2019.

The newly conserved area in Williamsburg, which includes 1,400 feet of river frontage, is now under the ownership of the Hilltown Land Trust, with an additional conservation restriction held by Kestrel Land Trust. A “forever wild” designation means that the forest grows naturally with minimal human management or activity, according to a release put out by the trusts.

Sally Loomis, executive director of Hilltown Land Trust, said the land came under their ownership as part of a $1.14 million settlement between Dynamic Energy Solutions, a Pennsylvania solar company, and the state attorney general’s office, after a lawsuit alleging the company had polluted the area with sediment and violated federal stormwater requirements.

Damage from the construction by Dynamic Energy Solutions in 2018 resulted in erosion of a hillside, uprooted trees and destroyed stream beds, altering 97,000 square feet of land and 41,000 feet of riverfront area, according to the attorney general’s office. The area affected is adjacent to the newly conserved area.

Loomis said the acreage under the control of the trusts is preserved solely for its environmental benefit. “With a few extreme exceptions, it would never be logged,” she said.

The conservation restriction, held by Kestrel and completed through the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, gives the land an additional layer of protection, Loomis said.

“The conservation restriction dictates what can and cannot be done on the land,” Loomis said. “That’s something fairly unique to Massachusetts, in that the state agency has some involvement in those conservation easements and restrictions, and gives some quality control and consistency.”

In the release by Kestrel Land Trust, Mark Wamsely, the group’s conservation director, highlighted the conservation as a way to combat climate change. The release also notes the state’s 2022 Climate Change Assessment, which states that risk of flooding and erosion in the hilltowns is likely over the coming century.

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“It’s important that we address climate change in a thoughtful way and don’t accidentally harm the very natural resources that are under threat,” said Wamsley, adding that, “Conserving forests is one way the Hilltowns can make a critical contribution to combating climate change.”

The two land trusts’ service areas overlap in Williamsburg and Westhampton and they have previously partnered on a variety of large-scale conservation projects, including the 1,000-acre Brewer Brook conservation project in Westhampton, Williamsburg, Chesterfield and Northampton.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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