Lenox slows consideration of tax breaks for hotel projects


LENOX >> Following heated discussion in town on policy guidelines for potential tax breaks to hotel developers and other new business owners, the Select Board has moved the issue to the middle burner for further study.

The result is that voters at the May 5 annual town meeting won't be considering a proposal from the Toole Lodging Group for a special tax agreement covering its 92-room, $8.3 million Courtyard by Marriott project under construction at Brushwood Farms.

Likewise, a citizens petition from the Mahida Hospitality Group for a similar deal to benefit its plan to demolish the Magnuson Hotel and replace it with a branded Lenox Manor 100-suite hotel and events center is likely to be shelved from the town meeting warrant.

During their third extended discussion on a set of policies to handle applications for tax incentives, the Selectmen on Wednesday night reviewed revisions suggested by the Board of Assessors and presented by Town Planner/Land Use Director Gwen Miller.

But Select Board Chairman Edward Lane suggested further study is needed by the town's Planning Board, Finance Committee and the Zoning Board of Appeals, "at least to get their input and see how they feel about things. We'd be getting a general opinion from a lot of good people that we trust."

"That makes a great deal of sense," said Selectman Warren Archey. "It will help ensure that we're all on board together. I hate to think we're going to be rushed on this, it's got to be done right."

"We want this to be as perfect as we can make it," Lane said. "I feel we have a ways to go. I know it will take some time."

Selectman David Roche agreed but cautioned that he doesn't want the policy to be "sent to some subcommittee to die."

"We'll put a time limit on it," Miller said.

"We do have an application before us," Selectman Channing Gibson pointed out, referring to the Toole proposal for a 10-year, $835,000 property tax deferment.

If the Select Board decides to approve it once the policy guidelines are in place, Gibson noted, a special town meeting would be needed for a decision by voters, probably in the fall.

"I just want to make sure the applicant is treated fairly," he said.

"We shouldn't prejudice that applicant," Lane responded, "but we have to get it right."

"I don't want to see this dragged out any longer than it has been," declared Selectman Kenneth Fowler. "I'd like to see us come to a decision on this policy."

But his suggestion that other town boards could weigh in within two weeks met with skepticism.

"That's exactly why I don't want to rush it," Lane said. "There has to be some breathing room for these people that are going to read this over and give us their opinion."

Town Manager Christopher Ketchen reminded board members that the policy is "your framework for how one would achieve an endorsement from this board," but specific applications such as those from Toole and Mahida require an up or down decision by voters at a town meeting.

He urged townspeople to "speak up, speak clearly and provide some hopeful, constructive feedback," Ketchen said. "We want to take a long hard look at it, but the definition of that shouldn't be construed as forever. At some point, a decision has to be made."

The work-in-progress policy presented by Miller now recommends creation of a special review committee to examine specific applications for special tax agreements. Members would represent the Board of Assessors, the Finance Committee and the Planning Board.

An outside consultant may be called in for advice on highly technical documents "to make sure we're getting an accurate and clear picture from the information that is provided," Miller said.

Applicants also will need to provide specific, detailed financial information about the projects, a requirement recommended by the Board of Assessors.

Another detail to be resolved involves the start date for any multiyear tax relief agreement, depending on the buildout time for a project and a certificate of occupancy approval.

Specific areas of town could be prioritized for appropriate uses and goals, such as the Lenox Dale industrial zone, the Route 7 and 20 commercial strip, the downtown village business district, as well as existing resort, cultural and estate areas as magnets for visitors and job creators.

A minimal level of investment required for businesses seeking a tax break is still a moving target as the policy undergoes further modification.

The number of jobs that would created by a developer remains a crucial factor when considering property tax relief, as applicants would be scored on a point system depending on employment creation. Projects that create additional tax benefits for the town, such as lodging revenue, could gain extra points.

Selectman Roche urged a deadline for deciding on any application once a policy is in place so developers know when to expect a decision after they submit all necessary information. He suggested 30 or 40 days.

He also proposed that applicants get extra points if their projects can be completed in one or two years, rather than a longer time period.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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