Lenox to explore broad zoning changes during 'all board' meeting

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LENOX — For perhaps the first time in recent memory, the members of all town boards, along with the public, have been invited to a meeting that could lay the foundation for major changes in the town's zoning restrictions.

Among the major goals, said Town Planner and Land Use Director Gwen Miller, is lowering the price of admission for new businesses to fill the downtown historic district's eight or more vacant storefronts, and creating more flexible and affordable housing choices so people who work in town and out-of-town families who send their children to Lenox schools might be able to live in the community.

The "All Boards" meeting, rare if not unprecedented, is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Lenox Library.

The end result could be wide-ranging zoning bylaw revisions for presentation to voters for a decision at the annual town meeting in May.

A formidable list of topics for discussion on Tuesday has been drawn up by a small working group, including Miller, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen, the Planning and Zoning boards and the Building Department, with the help of the town's economic planning consultant Judi Barrett of RKG Associates, whose Massachusetts office is in Quincy.

The local participants prepared a list of thorny zoning issues that are difficult to interpret or apply, Miller said, augmented by public feedback from a pair of Town Hall open houses held last October.

At those meetings, Miller recalled, participants spoke of trying to attain "year-round vibrancy in Lenox downtown, and one solution I heard repeatedly was, 'Why don't we have more services and offices that are housed downtown, with professionals who are downtown during the day and the week? How do we get younger people to move into and stay in Lenox, with more jobs and housing opportunities?"

According to Miller, "what we hear from the town is that we want to be able to maintain the quality and diversity of our services, but we don't really want the costs to increase, we don't want taxes to always be increasing."

"If we're embracing tourism and hospitality as a linchpin of our local economy," she added, "are we giving the people who staff that industry a place to live?"

Barrett is working on a revamp of the town's entire zoning bylaw to restructure it, clean it up and remove duplications with state law. At Tuesday's meeting, she will present portions of her findings, aiming for a complete document to be discussed at informational forums and a required public hearing prior to the annual town meeting on May 5.

Among possible policy changes up for discussion is a potential lifting of prohibitions on apartments in several of the town's districts, creating an option for multi-family dwellings that could be approved by special permit not only in two of the town's commercial zones on Pittsfield Road and in high-density residential areas but also downtown, instead of a requirement for difficult to obtain variances.

Revisiting restrictive parking and loading dock requirements for new businesses or establishments changing their commercial mission downtown will be explored, Miller said.

"We want to see what's the consensus from the public and our officials," she pointed out. "Maybe they don't want to remove the requirements; where is the middle ground?"

Another proposal is to expand potential approvals of multi-family residences in the town's Lenox Dale industrial district. The multi-family dwellings still would be prohibited in the town's primary residential district zoned for one-acre properties.

Also on the table is a potential expansion of mixed-use residential and commercial developments by right in the downtown commercial district, as well as by special permit in the town's other commercial zones, the industrial district and higher-density residential neighborhoods. Such developments — Lenox Commons, for example — are already allowed in the Gateway District on Routes 7 and 20 just north of downtown.

Another agenda item would explore allowing light "custom manufacturers" such as cabinet makers and weavers by special permit in every district, except by right along the Pittsfield Road commercial strip and in the Lenox Dale industrial zone.

Easing rules on home occupations will be discussed, as well as possible use of larger spaces for commercial recreational uses, such as an indoor rock-climbing facility, in the commercial strip and industrial area.

The meeting will include a look at a proposal to ease rules on "accessory dwellings" — secondary residential structures on homeowners' properties. The idea is "to help people age in place, make housing more affordable by generating income and providing rental opportunities," Miller said.

"It's a difficult section of the bylaw. So many people don't take advantage of it, and we'd like to see it used," she added.

Another agenda item would standardize sign requirements for downtown businesses and transfer approvals to the building inspector while addressing concerns of the Historic District Commission.

The main thrust of Tuesday's meeting is to gauge potential "buy-in" from the public and town officials, Miller said: "Do you like it; do you think it's crazy?"

Nearly a dozen boards are on Miller's invitation list — Selectmen, School Committee, Zoning Board of Appeals, Finance Committee, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Board of Health, Historic District Commission, Historical Commission, Community Preservation Commission, and the Land Management Committee.

It's a who's who of elected and appointed town government officials. Citing the work of the School Committee's strategic five-year plan, Miller suggested "maybe there are ways we can both support each other."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

If you go ...

What: All-Boards public meeting to discuss a revamp of the Lenox zoning rules.

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Lenox Library, 18 Main St.

Why: Preliminary discussion of proposals to ease regulations on new businesses, increase lower-cost housing options such as multi-family dwellings and streamline zoning bylaws to allow more mixed-use developments and "accessory dwellings" on homeowners' properties.


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