Great Barrington homeowners sue developer, planners over rental complex plan

The Great Barrington Planning Board is now named in a lawsuit by a homeowner on Manville Street, alleging the board did not properly advertise its public hearing to approve a controversial rental complex on what is a quiet, dead-end street.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Two Manville Street homeowners who have already appealed the town Select Board's decision allow a rental complex to be built on the dead-end street have also now filed a lawsuit and appeal against members of the Planning Board and the developer.

On Tuesday, Donald E. Willis Jr. and Priscilla Willis filed a complaint in state Land Court that contends the Planning Board's Oct. 25 site plan approval was "arbitrary and capricious" in that the proposed 47-unit, three-building complex will harm the street and its ambiance for a number of reasons.

The Willises, who reside in Huntington Beach, Calif., say that among threats to the street are traffic problems, snow removal and adequacy of parking. They also claim two procedural failures by the board — that board members did not each sign the decision, which was certified by the Town Clerk; and that the board did not mail notice of the site plan review to the Willises, who are direct abutters.

The complex known as Manville Place has been under fire from the beginning.

Many residents of this tree-lined street, a small haven surrounded by a bustling commerce district off Route 7, have opposed the $15 million plan for many of the same reasons in the Willises' November complaint against the town and the developer, Framework Properties. That appeal, however, targeted the project's construction in a water quality protection zone.

Residents also point to a loophole Framework found in the town's new zoning bylaws that allows the construction of more residential units if even a small amount of commercial space is added.

Some Planning Board members have acknowledged that their rewriting of zoning bylaws, in an attempt to keep big-box stores out of this area backfired, creating an unintended loophole.

Framework developers Ian Rasch and Sam Nickerson say their project is a good one. It will be an aesthetically and environmentally sensitive complex that will add new rental stock to a market desperate for it, and that would enhance the neighborhood, they say. They have pegged rents at between $1,650 to $1,850. Construction is set to begin in the spring.

Rasch declined to comment, and the Willises could not be reached for comment.

Planning Board Chairwoman Brandee Nelson said while she hadn't had a chance to review the entire complaint, the Willises claim that they should have received a notice for the site plan review is false, and this was also confirmed by Town Planner Christopher Rembold.

"The site plan review is not a public hearing so there's not a notice requirement," Nelson said. "I'm not sure of the legitimacy of this suit."

Board member Jonathan Hankin said he's not sure how it will go in Land Court.

"It's a crapshoot when you go in front of a judge," he said, noting that this case is "completely subjective."

But Hankin said the board did consider carefully all the potential threats to the street. "Traffic engineers assured us that [the traffic] was not out of line, and the applicant created more parking than was required by the planning board," he said.

Hankin said the board also considered the project's benefits.

"We're trying to the extent possible reduce the use of cars in places where you can walk to town, and Manville Street is a good place to do that," he said. "There is town water and sewer, and you can walk [to town and stores]. It's better than putting it in the middle of the hayfield."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.