Lenox residents see zoning restrictions as obstacle to growth
LENOX >> A shortage of affordable middle-class housing, lack of downtown services and the potential impact of the rapidly expanding tourism industry loom as major challenges for the town, based on feedback from residents who attended two Town Hall open houses last month.
Results of the sessions, which attracted about 50 participants combined for a look at issues facing the community, were reviewed during a Planning Board meeting this past week led by Town Planner Gwen Miller.
Local leaders, with help from consultant Judi Barrett, director of municipal services at RKG Associates, are studying possible changes to zoning bylaws for consideration by voters at the annual town meeting next May.
One goal is to lower the high hurdles facing businesses that seek space in downtown Lenox, whose commercial district overlaps with the Historic Village District and its regulations.
"Policy should be in line with the market and the uses that the place supports," Miller said. "In downtown Lenox, that's clothing, retail, antique stores and art galleries," even though the list of permitted uses in the zoning bylaws does not include the eight galleries now operating.
"Maybe it was typo, not an intentional decision," she said.
Some open house participants identified a need for more day-to-day services downtown, Miller noted.
Others pushed for zoning modifications to encourage multi-family housing and apartments, said Kate McNulty Vaughan, a longtime member and former chairwoman of the board. She also pointed to an aging housing stock as a local, countywide and regional problem.
Planning Board member Tom Delasco cited open house discussion on the need for affordable, quality apartments to attract younger residents.
As an example, General Dynamics in Pittsfield "has been hiring "young, smart, talented engineering and technical types to the area in droves. A lot of them aren't staying because they can't find places to live that they can afford," Delasco said.
"Our problem is not to be able to match the desire of what people want," McNulty Vaughan said. "They may find a job out here, which is wonderful, but then if they don't find a housing lifestyle that suits them, other places can offer that."
"It's a conundrum," Delasco agreed. "We're constantly complaining about jobs, jobs, jobs and here you have this wonderful, high-tech type business good-paying jobs. [General Dynamics] is not a smokestack industry, they're not manufacturing anything, it's all design, engineering and software-related, which is ideal for this area."
"But if we can't respond with the housing because we don't want a lot of new houses or we don't want to tear down old houses," he said, "then they're going to go away because they're not going to be able to attract people to stay here."
"We make it difficult in the zoning bylaw for housing in the downtown area," said Miller, the town planner and land use director. "But we know that the trend is not just for millennial professionals but also for Baby Boomers who are down-sizing, they want to be downtown close to culture, activities and services. People want to be in the center of things now."
Reflecting the trend, she noted the Allegrone Cos.' project to convert the Walker House, a former bed-and-breakfast inn, to eight market-rate rental apartments.
Mixed-use development, with apartments above and retail below, was supported by some open-house participants as a goal for the downtown village, said Mark Smith of the Planning Board.
The development of several hundred new rooms at area hospitality industry projects poses the question of housing for the workers needed to staff the hotels, McNulty Vaughan stated. She also noted the growing number of "help wanted" signs at shops downtown.
"The problem with a lot of those jobs, because of the pay scale, is that you can't sustain a family on those kinds of wages," Delasco said.
Some open house participants called for "more active business recruitment" to the town, Miller noted. An update of the town's 1998 economic development plan would be helpful, she suggested.
Discussion also centered on the challenge of redeveloping vacant paper mills, such as the Niagara Mill in the Lenox Dale industrial zone, for other proposed uses such as artists' studios and high-end apartments, given the layout of the buildings and their past as manufacturing facilities.
Delasco proposed a "mid-scale brewery" as a "perfect use" for the Niagara Mill, or a food-processing operation.
"We don't have a lot of industrially zoned land in Lenox to begin with," he pointed out. "Let's not take what little we have and make it even smaller by taking that industrial use out."
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