Special to The Eagle

LENOX -- After nearly seven years on the front lines of the community’s contentious controversies, Town Planner Mary Albertson turned off the lights in her office for the last time this past week to embark on a new career.

Albertson, 51, notified the town last month of her plan to retire after 20 years in the state’s municipal employee system, making her eligible for a pension.

At a well-attended farewell gathering on Thursday, Town Hall staffers honored her service to the community. She has worked mostly behind the scenes as a professional adviser to the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals on frequently thorny issues requiring precise understanding of Lenox bylaws.

Albertson has helped the board navigate between the shoals of prevailing opinion in town -- those who advocate economic development in order to hold down the rate of property-tax increases, and others who place a premium on preserving a pristine landscape and the authentic historic flavor of the town.

But, as she pointed out in an interview, she has been careful not to weigh in on the pros and cons of specific projects, viewing her role as a "facilitator, helping board members get the best information possible, and then they make the decision for the community. That was always my professional approach. "

"In New England, you have a wealth of history here," she commented. "I’ve always felt there’s an obligation to preserve what makes this place so special. "But there is always that push and pull, as I’ve also found in other communities. There are those who’d like everything to stay the same, but unfortunately time marches on so you have to move with the times."

She cited recent hotel projects such as Joseph Toole’s Court-
yard by Marriott -- approved by the ZBA but now delayed by a court appeal filed by a rival developer -- as an example.

"In any community, there are folks who want to hold on to tradition," she said. "Certainly, in Lenox you want to preserve what you have because it’s part of the attraction, the history with Tanglewood and the Gilded Age, there’s a huge obligation there. In many ways, it’s very special."

She acknowledged surprise that some residents still voice mixed feelings, questioning and debating the essential value of tourism to the town -- "When I started here, I would have taken that as a given."

Despite the importance of the hospitality industry, Albertson also cited the potential of smaller, "value-added" light industry focusing on artisanal food or clothing products unique to the Berkshires.

The downtown historic district’s streetscape upgrade, including the installation of authentic George Westinghouse street lamps and other village improvement efforts, ranks as her favorite project during her tenure -- she helped write grants that helped fund the nearly $3 million project completed in early 2010. Albertson said she was also especially pleased by the town’s recently adopted open space and recreation plan.

Her main disappointment, though she described it as "the nature of the beast in a small community," was the amount of administrative work such as meeting minutes required of the town planner. In addition to the planning and zoning boards, she was involved with the Community Preservation and Affordable Housing committees.

"But part of the joy of being in a small community is that you get to wear so many hats, and every day is a little bit different," she emphasized.

A childhood resident of northern California and Texas, Albertson obtained her master’s degree in urban design and planning from the University of Washington in Seattle. Her first job was as planner for the city of Everett and Snohomish County, Wash., in 1987.

After moving to Massachusetts, she served as city planner for Westfield from 1990-96, followed by similar posts in Holden and Leominster before former Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel appointed her in 2007 as the community’s first full-time town planner.

Life after Town Hall will focus on her interest in health and wellness. 

After several months of training, she will be an area meeting leader for Weight Watchers. She credits her participation in the company’s "at work" program -- weekly meetings held in Town Hall -- for a beneficial lifestyle change.

Albertson became impassioned when asked about the dearth of citizens willing to volunteer for town boards and committees.

"Public service is such an honor," she said, tearfully. "I hope people will do it more, helping make great decisions. Often, the most fulfilling stuff is just helping out the average homeowner. It’s something everyone should do at some point in their lives -- give back, be part of it, don’t complain, be part of the solution."

According to Town Hall officials, her position will not be filled for a few months. Whenever her successor appears, Albertson offered this advice:

"Just be patient, have a sense of humor, and don’t give up."