Division remains among Lenox Select Board over tax incentives

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LENOX — Select Board members continue to express division over a proposed Town Hall policy to deal with applications from new business owners for local property-tax breaks.

Support and skepticism surfaced in fairly equal measure during the board's most recent meeting as members examined a work-in-progress document crafted by Town Manager Christopher Ketchen and Town Planner Gwen Miller.

A board-approved policy would not require a town meeting vote.

But residents attending the May 5 annual town meeting are expected to face two applications for special tax agreements sought by the Toole Lodging Group for its Courtyard by Marriott project at Brushwood Farms, and by a citizens petition from the Mahida family's hospitality group for similar tax relief when granted to any other hotel developers.

Consensus continues to elude the Select Board, which is delaying action on the Toole application until it comes up with overall guidelines.

Select Board Chairman Edward Lane urged that a project developer seeking a special tax agreement should include it with a permit application to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

"I know my colleagues may not agree with me, but I really believe that," Lane said.

Selectman Channing Gibson said that when the town tries to lure a new business, a negotiated tax break may be needed before the ZBA begins its permit hearings.

Gibson cautioned that with advance notice that a developer was seeking a tax break, the zoning board might end up "setting tax policy for the town" if it rejected a permit because a developer included a tax incentive agreement.

"I wouldn't want that to be a vote-changer," he said. "But I suppose it could be."

"I don't think they would do that," Lane responded. "Transparency is the key thing. Everybody should have all the information available to them."

"We don't want to hide anything, I agree," Gibson said.

Lane voiced concern about "doing this [policy] wrong. We want it done right the first time, no matter how much time it takes." He also suggested addressing the potential impact of special tax agreements on competing businesses.

Gibson clarified that he was not trying to push the policy through quickly. "I'm totally open to hearing all sides of it," he said.

He also suggested an "end point" so that a developer could not put in a tax break application after a building permit is granted.

Miller agreed since that would ensure that a project is feasible even without a property tax special assessment.

She suggested careful consideration of the type of businesses the town seeks to attract based on demand for it as part of "sustained growth for the long-term."

Lane pointed out that when there's a robust demand in Lenox for a specific business, "what do you need a tax break for? That's a legitimate argument."

But Gibson responded that even profitability may not be achieved "right off the bat."

Selectman Kenneth Fowler asserted that applicants seeking tax benefits "have to open their books and let us know exactly what they're doing."

Several board members agreed that any policy guidelines should apply to all sites of potential business activity such as the vacant Niagara Mill in Lenox Dale and the long-empty former Price Chopper building off Routes 7 and 20.

The supporters of possible tax deals for hospitality industry applicants cite the lodging tax revenue that new hotels would bring in, helping hold down the rate of property tax increases for local residents and businesses.

Selectman David Roche, noting public concern about the scarcity of local jobs, said that "we owe it to the voters to come up with a policy and present [specific applications] for them to decide. We have to show that we've developed a policy that makes sense, attracts businesses and gives them a chance of success, and they'll employ people."

"It's not only going to be the lodging industry, it's going to be other industries as well," he added.

"To me it makes sense," Fowler said, "though very few people have come up to me and said, 'What a great idea.' A lot of people whose opinion I respect immensely have said, 'Don't do this, it isn't a good idea.' But I still think this is something that works, to bring businesses to Lenox. Sometimes we have to lead from the top."

"I like the idea that we're saying we're in business with business because we need it," Gibson said. He objected to any attitude stating that "we're Lenox and if you want it, you should pay for it and if you don't like it and can't afford it, don't come here."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

What's next ...

The Select Board will resume the discussion of property tax incentives at its next meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall.


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