Crowds expected to make voices heard on Searles Middle School project Wednesday


GREAT BARRINGTON — The Selectboard is expected to get an earful Wednesday from residents about whether to allow a 95-room hotel on the site of the former Searles Middle School on Bridge Street.

But don't expect an answer: Officials on Monday said they don't anticipate taking a vote just yet. They have scheduled another meeting on the matter for Jan. 20.

"I think we'll need another night," said Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton.

Wednesday's public hearing is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at Monument Mountain Regional High School, where it had been moved to accommodate the anticipated crowd.

Local developer Vijay Mahida is seeking a special permit to build a $24 million boutique hotel on the site of the former school. Because the proposal exceeds the 45-room limit on new lodging projects, the developers sought — and were granted — a waiver from the town's Zoning Board of Appeals based on its status as a historic structure.

The exemption stipulates that the project must incorporate some elements of the former school.

But David Carpenter, director of administration for the Mahida Family Interests, has said the unique interior of the 105-year-old building, with a number of levels and half-levels, make using the existing structure unworkable.

So the current plans call for razing the structure down to the foundation level, prompting howls from opponents who say the building's unique design features must be preserved under the terms of the exemption.

Those sentiments were backed up in November by town counsel, which stated that the Selectboard would be within its rights to deny such a permit if the developers did not incorporate at least some elements of the former school.

Attorney David J. Doneski, of the Boston law firm of Kopelman and Paige, explained in a letter to the board that, as the special permit granting authority, the board must decide what a "reasonable" degree of preservation must be carried out to accommodate the town bylaw.

In Doneski's opinion, to base, at least in part, a proposal on a historical element, and then to remove that element, would be "unreasonable."

In response, Carpenter said the developers would submit an amended plan on Wednesday based on input from the town and town officials.

The project has support from a segment of the town's residents. Specifically, they point to a potential for $450,000 in tax revenue from the business.

The new hotel, tentatively dubbed "The Berkshire," is modeled after former Berkshire Inn on Main Street, which was badly damaged in a 1965 fire.

The former school has been vacant for more than a decade, when the three towns in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District abandoned the structure.

After several years of sitting idle, a New Jersey-based developer Camus Corp. proposed in 2009 to retrofit the building for mixed use. That plan eventually fell through, in part due to the sagging economy.

The structure was purchased by abutters Iredale Cosmetics two years ago. Iredale, in turn, negotiated a purchase and sale agreement with the Mahidas to sell the structure for $850,000, pending approval of the special permit.

Privately, many residents and town officials believe that leaving the building vacant for too much longer will eliminate any hope for redevelopment.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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