Lenox Historic District commissioner resigns, citing 'growing gap' in preservation mission
LENOX >> A member of the Historic District Commission has resigned following last week's 4-1 approval of a project to demolish an 1888 residence in the heart of the business zone and replicate it as a new site for the long-established Casablanca fashion retailer.
Lucy Kennedy cast the dissenting vote after an intense debate on Tony Chojnowski's plan to relocate his business from its nearby Housatonic Street building, which he has leased for 30 years, to the three-family residential property he owns around the corner on Church Street.
In her resignation letter to the Selectboard, Kennedy cited "the growing gap" between the commission's mission as a preservation-oriented board and its decisions. She called for a "thoughtful, quick" replacement of the Historic District Commission with "some kind of special zoning or architectural review board," which is "desperately needed in the village."
In an interview, Kennedy acknowledged "mixed feelings and regrets" about her departure.
"I don't mind being the minority vote," she said. "But I find it increasingly difficult to have discussions about decision-making because we're not following consistent guidelines or directions."
The commission has become a "rather arbitrary decision-making body," straying from the bylaws approved by town meeting voters in 1975 establishing the historic district, she said. The bylaws allow for demolition of a pre-1923 structure if the commission approves a "certificate of appropriateness" or a "certificate of substantial hardship, financial or otherwise" for the applicant.
Last June, the commission denied Chojnowski's original application for the project on a 2-2 vote.
Chojnowski's resubmitted proposal was approved last Tuesday. The majority of commissioners found that the building had deteriorated and could not meet building-code requirements for a business establishment.
The structure is expected to be razed next fall and then rebuilt according to a plan by EDM Architects and Engineers of Pittsfield that would recreate the historic look of the site. The project will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million, according to Chojnowski and his team.
Project supporters argued that approval would be a plus for economic development in the town, which has at least eight vacant storefronts and some businesses that shut down for all or part of the winter.
But opponents contended that replication of an historic building is not equivalent to preservation.
"If you start eliminating the historic look and feel of Lenox village, it seems a short-term gain but you may be doing long-term damage to its appeal to tourists," Kennedy said. She also questioned the economic gain, since Chojnowski's currently leased building will be empty unless another merchant fills the space.
"I'm not sure it's a great success for Lenox business because he's moved from one location to another," she said.
Kennedy also cited the lack of widespread public involvement in the commission's decision on the project as another reason for her resignation.
"I haven't heard a real groundswell of concern one way or the other," she said. "This has not generated much public interest and there's not much backing for any intention of preserving the village as it is."
Whether or not the future of the historic district emerges as a discussion at the annual town meeting in May, Kennedy emphasized that she's not prepared to lead an effort in that direction since she has "no strong point of view" on what the solution should be.
Nevertheless, she said, "I'm not sure I agree with the business community's argument that having an historic district is getting in their way, but I believe 'the question should be called.'"
She proposed that the discussion begin with the Selectboard and include input from the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.
As for the commission she's leaving, Kennedy, who runs the lenoxhistory.org website, conceded that "we may be making very good decisions but we're straying further and further from being a bona fide historic district."
The commission should be "reinvigorated or replaced, one or the other," she said. "It's up to the Selectboard and the voters to determine whether we should have to have a Historic District Commission or some other form of regulation."
To fill the vacancy, the Selectmen will be seeking applications from residents interested in serving on the commission, possibly with recommendations from the Berkshire Historical Society.
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