'At least some' of historic Searles Middle School must be preserved
GREAT BARRINGTON — In the case of any development at the site of the former Searles Middle School, "at least some of the historic structure ... must be preserved as a part of the project."
The town's attorney shared that determination with the Selectboard on Monday night at the beginning of a public hearing on the project. The hearing was continued to 7 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Monument Valley Middle School.
The attorney's finding appears to support the case made by opponents of a plan to raze the structure and build a hotel on the side. But the developer said adjustments will be made to the project that will meet that criteria.
Developer Vijay Mahida is seeking a special permit to construct a $24 million, 95-room hotel on the site of the former school, which served as a high school and middle school for the town until 2005.
Opponents point to a bylaw, passed in May 2014, that limits hotels to 45 rooms. But the bylaw grants an exemption if the plan involves a building of historic significance, which would include Searles.
Mahida's plans to raze the structure, opponents say, is a procedural end-run around the bylaw cap that is unethical — and potentially illegal.
The concern moved the Selectboard to request a ruling from town counsel.
On Monday, attorney David J. Doneski of the legal firm of Kopelman and Paige of Boston appeared to concur with opponents.
In his opinion, Doneski wrote that, as the special permit granting authority for the project, the Selectboard "may reasonably determine the extent of the preservation required for compliance with the purposes of the Zoning Board."
Doneski said to propose a building based, in part, on a historical exemption and then to remove that exemption would be "an unreasonable result. The factual and legal basis for the exemption would no longer exist."
Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said the board will take up the application and town counsel's ruling at the Dec. 16 meeting.
However, David Carpenter, director of administration for the Mahida Family Hospitality Group, said the decision was "much appreciated.
"We've been listening to town officials, elected officials and residents," he said. "Their input has been valuable to us."
Carpenter said the developer plans to make a presentation at the Dec. 16 meeting with a plan that will "reflect" some of that input.
The principal reason for the rescheduling of the hearing, he said, was to make adjustments to the final plan.
Opposition to the project has coalesced over the past few weeks, with a Facebook page and regular letters to the editor in various newspapers. Carpenter said, however, that "we have our supporters, as well."
He added that supporters of the hotel project will be in attendance as well.
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