Sunday September 16, 2012

LENOX -- City and town planners for Pittsfield and Lenox continue fine-tuning a proposal to ease traffic congestion on a half-mile commercial strip along the busy Route 7 & 20 corridor from Mazzeo's restaurant in Pittsfield south to the state highway's intersection with New Lenox Road.

One of the county's most heavily-traveled roadways -- with an average of 40,000 vehicle-trips per day, according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation surveys -- is a tangle of turning lanes, entrances and exits to a cluster of eateries, a major auto dealer, vehicle service centers, a florist, a shopping center anchored by Price Chopper, a day spa, inns and motels, a shoe store, liquor center and other businesses.

The latest version of a proposed zoning "overlay" district -- a new set of regulations on top of existing rules -- came under review this past week at a joint meeting of the Pittsfield Community Development Board, represented by city planner C.J. Hoss, the Lenox Planning Board and Brian Domina of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

"There's a tremendous number of access points, 61 within the corridor, so you get a lot of conflicts," Domina stated at the meeting.

The state DOT is requiring the two communities to come up with a plan based on an engineering study. But it has taken two years and a half-dozen joint meetings to produce proposals to be presented eventually to the Pittsfield City Council for action, and to a special town meeting in Lenox once town-government boards sign off on it.

"If we don't try and do some sort of correction," said Lenox Town Planner Mary Albert son, "the system is going to break and then we're going to be looking at more drastic fixes and I don't think anyone wants to lose property or right of way. This may not be perfect, there may be issues, but I think it's preferable to the other design options that are out there."

She predicted some business owners would be willing to consider redesign self-regulation.

"We don't want to get to the point where it's completely broken and the state comes in and gives us design standards that we don't want," Albert son declared.

According to Domina, the goal is to encourage property owners along the built-up strip to comply with standards aimed at better management of the access points, especially for sites that may be expanded or redeveloped. Businesses with drive-through windows, which require a special permit in Lenox, are to be included in the zoning proposal.

The discussion of a newly-drafted proposal for a Lenox bylaw, which differs from an existing Pittsfield version, focused in part on potential incentives for business owners along the commercial strip who would be asked to revamp and simplify their entrances, exits and connecting lanes.

The plan, as drafted, calls for a single driveway for each business parcel, though additional access may be permitted to meet traffic-safety requirements. A driveway can be defined as a two-way single lane system or an entrance and exit loop, Domina explained.

"We want to make sure there's a relief valve," said Albertson after the meeting. "We want to see a consolidation of driveways and easements, but if a business is so small it can't comply with that, you don't want to punish them unreasonably if they can't work with their neighbor to come up with a ‘cross-country' easement."

Drastic changes such as a highway median or widening the right-of-way have been dropped, Albertson said, based on business-owners' opposition.

"The sell job here, when this is finalized, is going to have to be pretty serious and a re minder to people that the alternatives could be much worse," said Kathleen Mc Nulty Vaughan, who chairs the Lenox Planning Board.

Based on the discussion at the Lenox Town Hall session on Sept. 12, Domina intends to fine-tune the proposals before additional meetings and eventual presentation to Pittsfield's City Council and Lenox voters. "A realistic time frame might be 2014," said Albertson, noting that Lenox and Pittsfield could act separately on the proposed "overlay" district.

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.