Your right to walk on your town trails is in danger
Town Meeting is on May 18, 7:30 pm at Richmond Consolidated School.
Vote to protect your freedom to walk Richmond’s trails—vote for the Planning Board’s version of the new zoning law.
On this page, you’ll find:
A summary of why the Richmond Planning Board has proposed a new zoning law and the difference between the versions on the meeting warrant (agenda).
Answers to all your questions about what’s going on at Hollow Fields and what’s being done about it.
Two versions of a new zoning bylaw will be up for a vote at the May 18 Richmond Town Meeting. Both new laws would make it clear that Richmond allows hiking and nature walks on private land. However, there is an important difference between the two.
One version, developed and recommended by the Planning Board, makes it clear that allowing people to walk on private land is “by right.” It would resolve the long-standing dispute at Hollow Fields, and prevent similar issues in the future from jeopardizing public access to all the beautiful hiking trails in Richmond.
The other version, submitted by a small group of town residents, is almost identical with ONE KEY DIFFERENCE: It would require landowners such as Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC), the Richmond Land Trust, Mass Audubon, and even private businesses that happen to have trails on their land, to file a special permit application with the Zoning Board of Appeals if they “promote” their land.
Proponents of this version will try to make it sound reasonable. They argue that it gives neighbors “control over the character of their own neighborhoods.” But think about it: “control” means asking the government to put restrictions on private landowners. (Note: a “special permit” is NOT the same thing as an event permit, which has always been required for large gatherings, and it does NOT mean that individual hikers will have to get a permit to use trails. It applies only to the landowner. See FAQ below for more details.)
A special permit might result in restrictions on uses that you enjoy, such as walking your dogs, or hunting, or riding a horse, or hiking before 9 am or after 5 pm. In fact, the dispute with the neighbors has led to that limitation already: you can’t hike at Hollow Fields to see the sunset, and if you work 9 am – 5 pm, you can’t go at all.
Walking, birding, hunting, and riding are all uses that BNRC and other local groups permit and manage based on the characteristics of the reserves. These decisions should fall to the landowner, not a tangle of bureaucracy.
If the wrong version passes, the potential for interference in access to open space is real. And, the Richmond Zoning Board of Appeals, which previously ordered BNRC to stop allowing use of the trails at Hollow Fields, would not be required to approve a special permit at all—they could force the property to close altogether.
If you love walking in nature in your town … if protecting and having access to open space for yourself and your children and grandchildren is something you value … if the special views from the top of Hollow Fields are important to you … if you value open access to publicly-available trails and land in Richmond …
Please come to the Town Meeting on Wednesday, May 18, 7:30 pm at the Richmond Consolidated School and make sure to vote for the Planning Board’s recommended version of the law.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
If you have a question or concern you don’t see addressed here, please call Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) at (413)499-0596 or email email@example.com.
- Why do we need a new zoning Law? What does it say?
- Will the new law cause more problems for people?
- Why is there more than one version of the new law on the agenda for the Town Meeting? What is the difference between the versions? They look almost identical.
- What is a Special Permit? Would the neighbors’ version of the law mean that I would have to get a permit if I sent an email to my friends about hiking, or posted it on Facebook?
- Why shouldn’t there be a permit requirement for big events and groups?
- If the law requiring the special permit passes, would I have to get a permit for a private party at my house?
- What has BNRC done to address the concerns of the neighbors on Perry’s Peak Road?
- Haven’t there been a lot of problems at Hollow Fields? I’ve heard about dogs, noise, and crowds.
- What about that firefly hike you had? Weren’t there over a hundred people there?
- Are there big crowds, noise, or other nuisances at open space properties in Richmond?
- What about big noisy events like bands, parties, and weddings?
- What happened during COVID? What’s happened since then?
- How many other properties would be affected if the neighbors’ version of the zoning law were passed?
- Shouldn’t neighbors have a say in what happens on properties in their neighborhood? What if activities on a neighbor’s property harm my quality of life?
Why do we need a new zoning Law? What does it say?
In Massachusetts, if something isn’t specifically named in a town zoning law as permitted, it is automatically not allowed. Richmond’s current zoning law does not mention hiking, birdwatching or the like, so technically, a landowner may not allow the public to walk on their land.
The Planning Board became aware of the dispute at Hollow Fields and realized that updating the law to include hiking and other passive recreation and educational activities would benefit the town. They began drafting the new law in June of 2021 and welcomed public input throughout the process.
- Defines what is meant by conservation land and open space
- Describes what kinds of activities fall under the definition of recreation and education
- Asserts that these activities are allowed on open space in Richmond
See the complete text of the proposed new law here.
No. BNRC and other landowners will still have to apply for event permits for large gatherings; they will still work with neighbors and the community to address any problems or concerns, and they will still be subject to all the laws and policies of the Town and the Commonwealth. It just ensures that the trails in Richmond, on land that was purchased and conserved by Richmond taxpayers, will remain open and accessible to all.
Why is there more than one version of the new law on the agenda for the Town Meeting? What is the difference between the versions? They look almost identical.
When the Planning Board drafted its new zoning law, a group of neighbors on Perry’s Peak Road near Hollow Fields sought to get limits put on public access to open space. When they did not like the Planning Board’s new law, they submitted their own version, and that will also be on the warrant at Town Meeting.
The other version, submitted by a small group of town residents, is almost identical with ONE KEY DIFFERENCE: It would require landowners such as BNRC, the Richmond Land Trust, Mass Audubon, and even private businesses that happen to have trails on their land, to file a special permit application with the Zoning Board of Appeals if they “promote” their land.
A special permit might result in restrictions on uses that you enjoy such as walking your dogs or hunting or riding a horse, or mean you can’t take a walk in nature before 9am or after 5pm. In fact, the dispute with the neighbors has led to that limitation already: you can’t hike at Hollow Fields to see the sunset, and if you work 9-5, you can’t go at all.
Walking, birding, hunting, and riding are uses that BNRC and other local groups permit and manage based on the characteristics of the reserves. These decisions should fall to the landowner, not a tangle of bureaucracy.
Hollow Fields and the rest of Perry’s Peak was conserved by the Town of Richmond, the Richmond Land Trust, and BNRC “for public benefit and enjoyment,” and the conservation restrictions approved by the Commonwealth require public access. Any restrictions on access to Hollow Fields (including the requirement of a special permit) would have the unintended consequence of keeping that land for the private benefit of the residents of Perry’s Peak Road.
What is a Special Permit? Would the neighbors’ version of the law mean that I would have to get a permit if I sent an email to my friends about hiking, or posted it on Facebook?
No—the permit requirement would apply to the landowner, not the visitor. Any landowner—BNRC, Mass Audubon, Richmond Land Trust, even Hilltop Orchard—would have to request a special permit to allow people to walk on their trails.
There already is, and that wouldn’t change. A “special permit” is not the same thing as an event permit. Anyone who wishes to have a large gathering that uses public services in any way already has to file for an event permit. Neither version of the new law would change that.
If the law requiring the special permit passes, would I have to get a permit for a private party at my house?
No. The law only applies to “conservation land” and open space.
What has BNRC done to address the concerns of the neighbors on Perry’s Peak Road?
BNRC strives to be a thoughtful and respectful neighbor. We have worked for years to address the neighbors’ requests and continue to be willing to do so. BNRC has already:
- Increased monitoring of our trail counters to understand the volume of visitors, peak times, etc. We have observed that visitation went down significantly in 2021 compared to the highs in 2020, and that trend has continued in 2022. The 2021 average of 20 people per day works out to about 1 car per hour in the summer months. There are occasionally days when 50 or more people might walk the trail—that works out to 2-3 cars per hour over a 12-hour day. Those days are very rare and balanced by many days when there are fewer than ten visitors.
- Before the lawsuit, we posted (on the kiosk) that the property is only open dawn to dusk to help deter people from visiting. Right now there are additional signs limiting visitation to between 9 am-5 pm, on the order of the land court judge. Our trail counters show that visitation in those hours is down about 30% from the same time period last year.
- Closed the property if the roads are closed during spring mud season, as determined by the town highway department.
- Required all dogs at Hollow Fields to be on leash at all times (signs are in place), to help protect the neighbors’ horses—a concern they have frequently raised.
- Put up new signage to direct people away from the neighbors and to make it clear that on-road parking is not allowed, as the neighbors initially complained that cars were lining the road and turning around in or blocking their driveway. Note that this happened a couple of times at the peak of the pandemic but hasn’t been a problem in the last year or so.
- Begun the process to request an enlargement of the parking lot to make it less likely that these issues would arise in the future. The current 7-car parking lot is undersized for a popular 660-acre property. When we initiated the process to improve the parking lot, some neighbors opposed it, and the request was put on hold.
- Asked partners like Miraval and Canyon Ranch to let us know when they are bringing groups, and to park offsite and shuttle people to the trailhead, so we can make sure there aren’t too many cars at any one time. We’ve also asked that they not bring early-morning groups. This was especially important to the neighbors because the vans beep when they back up, disrupting the neighbors’ sleep.
Is BNRC willing to do more?
Yes! We can:
- Expand the parking lot to ease crowding on busy days—a 7-car lot is too small for any popular reserve.
- Provide more fencing and screening to keep dogs away from horses and hide the view of the cars from the neighbors.
- Post volunteers or staff on-site during the busiest fall weekends to help prevent on-road parking. (We did this over Columbus Day weekend in 2021—volunteers were on-site for 8 hours daily for three days, but there were never more cars than would fit into the lot.)
- Keep working to find other points of access to the property to reduce the volume of visitors at the Perry’s Peak Road trailhead. This is a process with no defined timeline—there is no way to predict when a landowner would be ready and willing to either sell their land or allow a trail easement across their property.
However, the neighbors have asked for some changes we cannot make. We have a responsibility to keep the land and trails open to the public, free of charge, and manage the land accordingly.
What we CAN’T do:
- Close the property or trailhead completely (unless required to by the town).
- Open a new trailhead elsewhere immediately—we don’t have a willing landowner to provide access.
- Tow, at our own expense, any cars parked on the road.
- Prevent all group outings on the property.
- Ban hunting on the property.
- Limit the hours of access from 9 am-5 pm forever. The early morning and sunset hours are among the most beautiful at Hollow Fields, and many people who work from 9-5 would be excluded from enjoying it—it would become the private playground of the privileged few.
- Agree to file a special permit in order to allow hiking—a quiet, passive, peaceful activity—at Hollow Fields. If that requirement is put in place, it affects every property in Richmond, and sets a precedent across Massachusetts, creating an undue burden both on any landowner wishing to allow public access and any town or municipality which would then have to evaluate, issue, and monitor such permits.
Not on a scale that justifies such a drastic solution. There were big crowds during the early days of the Covid—19 pandemic, but visitation has declined significantly since 2020. A larger parking lot would accommodate normal traffic to Hollow Fields. Hiking is a quiet and peaceful activity. Problems we’ve heard about such as a car full of noisy teenagers have nothing to do with the trails. The measures we have offered to take, such as fencing and screening, would address just about every other complaint.
BNRC held one event in 2018 which attracted 115 visitors—far more than we expected. Since then we have put measures in place to prevent that from happening again, such as requiring preregistration, so we can carefully manage numbers.
Hiking, birdwatching, and wildflower photography are quiet activities. BNRC does not allow motorized vehicles on its properties. Hunting is permitted on most BNRC properties. There is a long history of hunting at Hollow Fields, and we hope that never changes.
What about big noisy events like bands, parties, and weddings?
Any special event such as the Richmond Land Trust Pie Social, which was held at Hollow Fields in 2019, already requires an event permit (different from a “special permit.”) There have never been weddings, bands, or other loud events at Hollow Fields, and out of respect to the neighbors, BNRC would never hold one.
When Covid hit in March 2020, many open space organizations such as Mass Audubon and Trustees closed their trails to the public. (Those organizations also manage buildings like visitor centers, bathrooms, and houses, so it made sense for them to do so.) BNRC kept its trails open. Walking in nature was just about the only thing people could do safely, for many months, and so visitation at all our trails increased dramatically. At Hollow Fields, there were many days that the parking lot was overflowing. The neighbors told us that visitors were parking on the road, turning around, or even parking in front of their driveways, blocking access.
BNRC had already planned to increase the size of the parking lot—the 7car lot is not appropriate for a reserve the size of Hollow Fields. So we submitted a site plan to the Select Board for a larger lot, as that would address most of the concerns the neighbors raised. However, they opposed it, saying that the parking on the road wasn’t actually the problem. They just didn’t want to see that many people walking at Hollow Fields. That’s when they filed their zoning complaint with the Zoning Enforcement Officer.
How many other properties would be affected if the neighbors’ version of the zoning law were passed?
A dozen or more properties in Richmond could be affected. BNRC has 4 properties/trails that are wholly or partially in Richmond. Mass Audubon has one; the Richmond Land Trust has eight. Other businesses, such as Hilltop Orchard, have trails open to the public as well. All of them would be required to submit special permit applications, tying up volunteer-led boards and allowing anyone to place arbitrary restrictions on quiet, peaceful activities on private land.
Shouldn’t neighbors have a say in what happens on properties in their neighborhood? What if activities on a neighbor’s property harm my quality of life?
There are already many safeguards in place to protect neighborhoods, such as noise ordinances. The neighbors’ version of the law opens the door to all kinds of interference into the rights of private property owners.
It’s important to remember that if Hollow Fields had not been conserved, it could have been built up into a housing development. We believe a nature reserve that provides for free, non-motorized recreation is a better outcome.