LENOX — In order to stimulate economic growth and add more housing options to attract younger residents, a reboot of the town's labyrinthian zoning regulations is inching forward following a forum involving residents and members of town boards.
Under the microscope during the two-hour meeting were proposals for potential mixed-use developments downtown — commercial space at street level, apartments upstairs — as well as multiple family dwellings such as "accessory dwelling units" (a second structure on a single lot) in order to offer less expensive in-town housing.
"For young people coming here who might want to pay less, it seems to make sense," said Selectman Channing Gibson. "If we want transition of population in this town, we have to provide multifamily options, I don't see how we get away from that. Otherwise, we're just going to age in place."
Downtown property owner Robert Murray, president of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, cited "a significant demand for apartments for people who make a salary between $30,000 and $50,000. A lot of people, millennials, want to live in walking distance of downtown, so it will bring people into town and allow us to grow our town in a more diverse way."
According to Don W. Fitzgerald, head of the combined Lenox and Lee Building Department, "everybody is concerned with how it looks, how we can maintain some growth and economic development, and how we can be the one that hangs on to population in a surrounding county that's losing people, but retains its character. That's the dilemma."
Fitzgerald pointed to the tangle of unpredictable zoning rulings facing potential developers.
"If you want economic growth, you need to make the outcome predictable, because right now it's not; it's fickle," he said, "and that's bad because nobody wants to invest money by rolling dice in a dice game."
"If we don't bring more people into town, get them to move into entry-level and other kinds of housing, we're going to see the population ebb," Gibson warned. "Unless people want to give up fire, police, ambulance service, roads that look the way they look, taxes are just going to continue to go up and up and up. For everybody's income, and for a population that's living on a fixed income, that's going to get very, very challenging."
"How are we going to pay for everything in the future; where's the money going to come from?" he asked. "That's one reason we all work the tourism side so hard, because it's the only place we can generate bucks. It's daunting and I don't know how we'll do it without bringing in more people, young people, and hopefully hang on to them."
No decisions on zoning revisions have been made, said consultant Judi Barrett of RKG Associates in Quincy. She was hired to shepherd the zoning review, working with Town Hall leadership and building upon public feedback from two open houses last October.
According to "best practices" statewide, she emphasized, parking requirements affecting business uses should not be part of the town's zoning regulations. Home occupation regulations also would benefit from simplification, she said.
Barrett also advocated consideration of "custom manufacturing" options such as cabinet-making and other artisanal activities along with removal of sign guidelines from the zoning blueprint.
The town has an aging yet stable, well-educated population, she said.
"People here are not necessarily struggling," Barrett said. "You have some relatively well-off households but you have a lot that are not."
About 46 percent of people in Lenox qualify as low- or moderate-income, according to federal guidelines. Nearly 30 percent of Lenox residents are over 65.
"It isn't a desperate situation," she acknowledged, "but it isn't the household wealth people might sometimes perceive Lenox to be from the outside because of all your cultural institutions. What you don't have here are a lot of high-wage jobs that are permanent and reliable."
"That's not to say your economy is bad," she told the audience of about 50, but there's "a kind of imbalance typical of communities with seasonal populations" focused on tourism. Land-use policy is worth examining to make it easier to develop viable businesses, Barrett said, since zoning bylaws can be "an impediment to change."
Barrett depicted the current zoning bylaw as "not the easiest thing in the world to navigate, some places along the way are a bit unclear, and some provisions are out of date." The effect is restrictive, limiting what can be done without a special permit, she added.
Some of the proposed zoning bylaw changes involve basic "cleanups" that can be handled at the annual town meeting in May, Barrett said. But as a matter of policy, she urged much less reliance on requiring business-development special permits — "I'm stunned when I see the number of them" — without jeopardizing the character of the town.
Town Planner Gwen Miller suggested that the more wide-ranging, policy-oriented zoning changes would best be handled at a special town meeting, perhaps this fall.