LENOX -- In many cities and towns, the building inspector is one of the most powerful local officials with the authority to green-light, delay or derail commercial and residential projects.
Lenox is no exception, where the veteran Building Commissioner William Thornton’s by-the-books approach has at times caught business and homeowners unaware.
Witness the recent reversal of his initial ruling against a handweaver seeking to move into office space at Lenox Commons. Based on zoning bylaws, Thornton determined that the planned production of design samples by Sam Kasten Handweavers would violate a "light manufacturing" restriction in the so-called Gateway District just north of town along Pittsfield Road.
But after Ute Arnold, office manager for the company now located in Pittsfield, appealed the denial to town leaders, a permit was issued when it was learned that the small samples did not qualify as "light manufacturing." Town counsel Joel Bard agreed.
The mediation resolving the dispute was handled by Town Manager Gregory Federspiel, working with selectmen Channing Gibson and David Roche.
Asked about the outcome, Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler described Thornton’s job as "very difficult. It carries a lot of responsibilities since before he signs off on something, he has to make sure it’s right."
Added Fowler: "Bill works really hard to make sure people comply. He’s a wealth of information, and his job is to make sure the public is safe and the zoning laws are complied with. If you talk to enough people, you’ll hear good things about Bill."
Thornton is a part-time inspector, paid for less than 20 hours a week, who puts in extra hours and works with two part-time assistants and a clerk. He has declined comment on the handweaver issue.
According to Selectman Gibson, "the building inspector has a real responsibility to do his job and interpret the code to the best of his ability."
At the same time, he asserted, "it’s important to make sure that we don’t do anything to drive business away and that we try to find solutions to code issues, to see if the laws need to be changed. We can’t afford to turn anyone away and if that requires changing the code, we need to look at it."
Gibson acknowledged that a building inspector is a "natural target for a lot of people. Bill does his job the way he sees that he should."
Fowler, interviewed separately, commented that "building inspectors are always looked at as the villains. It’s a daunting job, one I would not want to have."
Looking ahead, Fowler said it would be a "wise decision" to move toward one full-time building commissioner.
"Bill may be at a point where he’s ready to step down," said Fowler. "I would want him to be involved in the process. I would want Bill to come to us, not force a situation on him."
Federspiel, the town manager, observed that "it’s hard to prevent people from having the perceptions they have. But Bill went above and beyond," in connection with the Sam Kasten Handweaver permit application. "He felt constrained by the bylaws and his job is to uphold the bylaws. We were able to dig further and find a path forward."
Furthermore, in Federspiel’s view, "people get impatient. People want things yesterday and it takes a little time to go through it. Can you be everywhere at once and make instant decisions? No, you can’t. If people allow us to move forward, I think we do."
"There’s always going to be conflicts with enforcement and interpretation of zoning and building codes," the town manager maintained. "He’s often in the position of having to tell people to do things differently than they want to do because of code issues. So it tends to be adversarial -- that might be too strong a word, but it gets to that point. He’s telling people things they don’t want to hear a lot of times."
The town manager suggested that "if people want the services, to go to a full-time building commissioner and a full-time clerk, we can provide better service." But it would cost the town more. Nevertheless, Federspiel said he has talked to the Select Board about the possibility.
"I would love to be able to go to a full-time commissioner and clerk, if you really want to do it right," he said, noting that other towns the size of Lenox have done so.
If people read the codes and abide by them, Federspiel said "then he [Thornton] is fine. If they cut a corner or don’t understand the zoning, he’s got to play the bad guy sometimes."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto