Great Barrington planners get pushback on zoning for downtown density, marijuana processing

The Great Barrington Planning Board is proposing zoning alterations that would make it easier to build more on existing downtown land, like side and back yards, in neighborhoods like the one shown here. Some residents are concerned about this increase in density.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The concerns ranged from marijuana growing facilities to what you can build in your backyard.

Residents at Thursday's public hearing for the Planning Board's proposed zoning amendments had a few residents pushing back about regulations that can change the way land is used.

It can alter the whole neighborhood.

"It's a pack-them-in attitude," said Michelle Loubert, speaking to a proposal that would make it easier to allow more use of in-town land, like back and side yards.

Town planners say expanding how much land one can build on, and raising the size limits of small accessory homes from 600 to 800 square feet, will reduce sprawl and give people more flexibility in a time of changing demographics.

"We have more seniors, more people living alone, and income is not going up," said Town Planner Christopher Rembold, noting that more than 50 percent of the town's homeowners are "cost burdened." "Housing prices are going straight up."

Rembold said the town's housing stock was built before 1939 and has not adapted to modern realities that require an assortment of housing types.

The planners have been steadily working to revise outdated zoning that, all across town, has also not adapted. They are, for instance, proposing to revise the Stockbridge Road and South Main Street business districts to reflect the dying off of brick-and-mortar retail and the desperate need for more housing — more of which will make it more affordable, board members say.

But it is increasing housing density downtown that had some people worrying about what might happen to their view if their neighbor is able to add a small two-bedroom accessory unit to their side yard.

Others said relaxing density restrictions could speed potentially undesirable fallout.

"It might enable a quickening of the pace of change of the character of the neighborhoods," said resident Glenn Goble, an architect.

And others say these density changes might be "too much too fast," as resident Holly Hamer put it.

But board Chairwoman Brandee Nelson said planners "are trying to address serious housing challenges in our community."

Where marijuana businesses are allowed to operate also drew some heat.

Some residents are worried about a proposed amendment would allow marijuana processing and cultivation facilities to be located together, but only in industrial and the two spacious residential zones.

"Smell travels," Loubert said, citing articles that describe a skunky stench that has roiled neighbors of cultivation facilities in California. She warned the board that she will do more research about this issue and present her findings to voters at Annual Town Meeting in May.

And Claudia Shapiro suggested the board shouldn't allow any type of marijuana establishment into town.

"It's a gateway drug, and you're sending the wrong message."

The public hearing on the board's proposed zoning amendments will continue at 6 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall. The proposed amendments can be viewed on the town website, townofgb.org.

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