Great Barrington OKs rental complex, leaving neighbors unhappy and mourning historic maple

This 200-year-old sugar maple is imperiled by the construction of a 22-unit rental apartment complex off Route 7. Developers say they are changing their plans to minimize the impact to the tree.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Developers of a four-building rental complex have altered the plans for the project to preserve a 200-year-old sugar maple tree on the parcel.

But a group of residents remain opposed to the project, which they say is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, and will bring an increase in traffic and other problems to their street.

And they remain concerned for the fate of the tree, which they say could be imperiled by development on the parcel.

The Planning Board last week unanimously approved the site plan for the Highfield on Main project by TOPA Enterprises.

Afterward, two neighbors issued an email claiming their letters of opposition had not been read by the board before the site plan review, and suggested they might pursue some type of appeal.

"We and our neighbors are reviewing our options," wrote Michael Kernan and Barbara Matz.

The development of 22 units, proposed for a lot at the corner of Route 7 and Mahaiwe Street, complies with zoning regulations for this mixed-use area, so no public hearings or special permits are necessary.

But on Mahaiwe Street, emotions are running high. And the imperiled tree has forged an alliance of residents and the group trying to save the maple.

The developers told the Planning Board that they are altering their plans to protect the "Mahaiwe Maple," and the board imposed conditions to that end.

But activists aren't convinced, and even held a bagpipe dirge funerary march on Friday to the tree, where they eulogized it.

This is the second proposed housing complex to infuriate residents who live in this South Main Street area where homes are mixed with and surrounded by businesses.

The Highfield location is not far from dead-end Manville Street, where a controversial rental apartment complex proposal set off a firestorm last year.

Yet developers and town officials counter that new housing stock, especially within walking distance to town, is desperately needed— and an important source of revenue.

Construction is likely to begin sometime this summer, said Tom Doyle, TOPA's managing member. Doyle told The Eagle that the company had previously removed a blighted structure from the property in 2009 in preparation for some kind of development.

"It was a drug-infested dwelling," he added, noting that it's been used informally by residents as a dog park.

He said construction costs would determine the price range for the apartments, and that they would be affordable for middle-income residents.

Worries

But residents opposed to the plan peppered the board during the site plan review.

"Boy, I am looking forward to this town of Great Barrington, rated as the No. 1 small town in American by The Smithsonian Magazine in 2012," Kernan said. "Wait, what are those four stucco pillboxes doing there? They don't belong here. This looks like a quiet residential street, full of old houses and even older maple trees."

Kernan spoke to numerous concerns, which he also included in a six-page letter to the board, including the narrowness of Mahaiwe Street, the inadequate number of parking spaces the developer proposes, and "jamming four buildings into a half-acre of land."

And, of course, the sugar maple.

"The maple tree is alive and vibrant," he said. "The leaves are full and colorful. ... It is budding right now."

According to several opinions by experts, any construction at the site places the tree in danger.

The board put conditions on the project that include having the town arborist inspect the tree in several years, and plant new trees should this one not survive.

There is also the survival of the roads, Matz said, noting that the street has weight restrictions.

"Mahaiwe Street is pretty fragile," she said. "Who is responsible for fixing the road after all this? ... We're falling apart as it is."

This mixed-use zone has proven tricky for town officials.

Holly Hamer, who organized the funeral procession for the tree, said that she wished a public hearing could be had.

Board member Jonathan Hankin explained that an identical project in this area, in the future, would be subject to special permits and public hearings should voters approve the board's newly proposed zoning changes related to density at the May 6 annual town meeting.

Board members say while they understand resident concerns, they walk a tightrope with regard to crafting zoning bylaws.

"The problem with specifying [too many regulations] is that you get no development," said board member Jeremy Higa. "If you make it more open you get things — you make it more closed and you get nothing."

Nelson spoke to the need for in-town housing, and that this need is driving zoning rules in the area.

Still, change can be painful.

"Obviously we're very emotional about this," Matz said. "It's our neighborhood."

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