Lenox taking steps to revise quirky zoning regulations

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LENOX — A first step to unclog the town's convoluted zoning rules is ramping up to prepare voters for discussion at the upcoming annual town meeting.

Complex zoning bylaws governing the town's multiple commercial and residential districts have long been viewed as confusing for residents and a high-bar obstacle course for prospective new businesses, contributing to a widespread perception that the town is less than friendly to economic development.

The current bylaws can be difficult to navigate, unclear and challenging to interpret, with some provisions outdated, according to a fact sheet prepared by town planners.

The Planning Board, which has been crafting the changes over many months of meetings, will hold an informal public information session at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Town Hall, followed by the legally required formal public hearing at 6 p.m. April 19, also at Town Hall.

"These revisions fit neatly into the category of benign changes that we've been discussing all along," said Town Planner/Land Use Director Gwen Miller. "I feel optimistic, but I recognize that any zoning bylaw amendment can be perceived as controversial. I don't see any red flags or yellow flags."

"The most dramatic change that might surprise people involves reorganizing the bylaw sections, making them more user-friendly and categorizing things more neatly," she said. "This is really a straightforward cleanup of the bylaw, so we would be working with an easy to get through document."

For example, the revisions include making it easier for applicants to locate and understand the rules for special permits or site-plan approvals in the commercial districts.

The bylaw cleanup would remove quirks such as the on-the-books prohibition of art galleries. antique stores and clothing stores downtown, a provision ignored in the central business district that has at least a dozen such businesses now operating.

Instead, all such establishments would be reclassified as retail stores permitted within a building footprint up to 4,000 square feet.

Domestic animal daycare facilities such as kennels would now be permitted in commercial districts.

Seasonal room rentals between Memorial Day and Labor Day would continue to be allowed through streamlined regulations, but in the future standards would be considered for homeowner properties listed by online vacation rental sites such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway.

Another zoning bylaw change involves broadening the definition of a household in a residential district. It would no longer be confined to "nuclear families," Miller pointed out.

Adults in a household no longer have to be married or related to qualify as a household. Apartments would now be termed multi-family dwellings, allowed by special permit in several residential, commercial and industrial zones.

A subtle but meaningful change substitutes "home occupations" for "customary home occupations." The latter term is outdated and could be viewed as sexist, Miller said.

The revised bylaw sets specific zoning standards for at-home businesses and professional offices, which would be allowed "by right" throughout the town, A special permit would still be needed if the requirements cannot be met.

Home occupations are limited to two employees and two parking spaces, according to the standards.

The revised bylaws would encourage and allow small artisan manufacturing activities that not only provide livelihoods but generate visitors, such as cabinet-making and weaving, especially if goods are sold on-site.

The recommended improvements require a two-thirds approval at the annual town meeting on May 5.

"There's nothing controversial in here," Miller said. "I'm hoping we'll have two-thirds approval on the whole kit and kaboodle."

The revisions were hammered out with town-hired consultant Judi Barrett of RKG Associates in Quincy, who worked with Miller, members of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Inspection Department. Town Manager Christopher Ketchen also was involved.

Members of the public weighed in at a Lenox Library forum two months ago and at open-house Town Hall gatherings last fall.

More sweeping policy changes are expected to be proposed at a special town meeting this fall, Miller said. "We have our work cut out for us," she said, listing issues such as clarifying downtown parking requirements for businesses, and simplifying rules for accessory dwelling units on residential properties and for multifamily housing.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

If you go ...

What: Planning Board informational session; formal public hearing for proposed zoning bylaw revisions; annual town meeting

When/Where: 6 p.m. Tuesday and April 19, both at Town Hall; 7 p.m. May 5, Duffin Theatre, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School

Information: www.townoflenox.com


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