Mountain bikers ride along the trails at Saxon Hill Forest in 2016. Essex’s community development department now hopes to create a management plan for the area.

Mountain bikers ride along the trails at Saxon Hill Forest in 2016. Essex’s community development department now hopes to create a management plan for the area.

Consultants last week shared findings from a visioning process for the Saxon Hill Forest with the Essex selectboard, reporting that residents expressed a desire to both seek out new recreational opportunities while maintaining what the town already has.

The Saxon Hill Forest is comprised of more than 330 acres of publicly owned land, including 245 acres the town recently obtained as part of its sand extraction settlement in 2015 and a 90-acre parcel leased to the town by the Essex Westford School District. Zoning regulations and a court decree require the land be used as “passive recreation,” but don’t specify what that should look like, prompting the town to contract with the SE Group on a five-month outreach process.

“We wanted to make sure that going into that management plan development process, we had a really solid understanding of what [residents] want that place to be,” explained town planner Darren Schibler.

On Oct. 28, the selectboard took the preliminary step of accepting the consultants’ report, a move that essentially notes that it has received it. Members will now need to adopt the framework at a future meeting, after which town staff will use the document to draft a property management plan. That plan will note specific tasks and timelines, along with how much they will cost. It will also detail policies and procedures for continued maintenance of the property.

The 24-page vision framework identifies 10 goals and recommendations. Most items call for the town to manage the forest in a way that will maintain the current forest, levels of access and stewardship of its trails and resources, while a few highlight a desire for more rec opportunities and partnerships for economic development in the area.

The consultants based the document on feedback at several public outreach efforts over the last several months, including a forest walk event, a public open house and a community survey, which featured over 400 responses focused on several key issues.

The management plan will need to identify funding sources to pay for site improvements and maintenance, the consultants wrote. But survey respondents strongly supported keeping the forest free to use, and when asked who should have to pay if a fee was implemented, favored charging non-residents over residents.

Asked for top funding priorities, both survey respondents and open house attendees identified new trail development and maintenance and upkeep, allocating about 60 percent toward the two combined.

Respondents weighed in on the ongoing debate over whether to increase leash laws in the town and village as there’s currently no dog-walking or leash policies at the Saxon Hill Forest. They were mostly split on the issue, with half of those who took the survey saying they feel there should remain no added laws, while the rest supported the requirement at least during some hours of the day. Commenters also referenced the firearm discharge ordinance.

“Thankfully, those were two things you guys were taking on,” said Drew Pollak-Bruce, a planner with SE Group.

The consultants also sought feedback on parking and access to the forest. They noted that a temporary parking lot on Thompson Drive serves as the forest’s primary parking area and experiences overflows during peak hours, forcing cars to park alongside the road or in nearby lots.

“The Saxon Hill Road lot should remain as an overflow or secondary lot to provide an alternative access point and help accommodate the demand for parking at the site,” the framework reads. “Clear signage denoting parking areas and no parking zones should be added to improve communications.”

The Saxon Hill visioning work comes four years after the town settled a contentious lawsuit dating back to an Essex Planning Commission’s denial of a 2011 application to create a sand extraction operation across more than 50 acres within the forest.

The landowner, Allen Brook Development, Inc., appealed the decision to environmental court, and the case was set to go to trial in the spring of 2015, but the town reached an agreement with the landowner weeks before the trial that allowed the sand extraction to impact a 27.5-acre area in exchange for the 245 acres.