LENOX — It had the festive air of a gathering by townsfolk to celebrate the imminent arrival of summer.
A caravan of vehicles as far as the eye could see filed into the parking lot of Lenox Memorial Middle and High School on Thursday evening as jazz recordings played from a large speaker system and town officials gathered under a pop-up shade tent.
The community’s first “drive-in” special town meeting had a serious purpose: Helping to save beleaguered downtown restaurants by revising town bylaws to permit owners to expand their outdoor dining space during Gov. Charlie Baker’s cautious reopening of the state’s economy.
The 7 p.m. meeting started 10 minutes late to admit the last arrivals of registered voters. More than 100 vehicles filled four rows of the parking lot, pleasantly surprising town officials who had worried about attracting the minimum quorum of 27 voters.
As it turned out, 183 out of 3,692 registered voters attended, about 5 percent, said Town Clerk Kerry Sullivan.
The consensus was that residents were intrigued by the unusual format and setting of the special town meeting as much as by the opportunity to give the local hospitality economy a much-needed boost.
"I've lived in Lenox all my life and my parents brought me to town meetings when I saw just a small kid, so I've been to a lot of them, but man, this is unique, and thank you for the great turnout," said Select Board Chairman Edward Lane. "We're going to grant outdoor dining and alcohol relief to people, to speed up the process for both. We're going to allow alcohol to be consumed on town property and outside dining, but with restrictions. We've all got to be responsible adults to go along with this."
"It's a good chance for locals and second-homers to get out and enjoy the town, hopefully we'll see a lot of people we don't ordinarily see," Lane added. "We're just trying to do whatever we do help restaurants and retail."
Under clearing skies on Thursday evening, residents waved their voter cards and honked their horns after listening to Lane’s presentation of the proposals on FM radio frequency 90.5.
The town will provide 20 picnic tables for the library’s Roche Reading Park and Lilac Park across Main Street to accommodate even more diners.
With no discussion, voters unanimously approved the town bylaw revision requested by Christopher Ketchen, the chief administrative officer and town manager, and endorsed by the Select Board, to streamline licensing for outdoor dining, including the consumption of alcohol in cordoned-off spaces adjacent to restaurants.
“While the Commonwealth has recently provided cities and towns with greater latitude in permitting such activity, there are several elements unique to the Lenox Town Bylaws that must be addressed in order to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the legislature and the Governor,” Ketchen stated in a letter to voters ahead of the meeting.
The enthusiastic “yes” vote was accomplished in barely 10 minutes, likely a record for a town meeting, acting Town Moderator Janet Pumphrey told the crowd as the session adjourned.
The revised bylaw reduces the paperwork and speeds up the timeline for the Select Board to approve outdoor dining licenses. It also allows the board to grant a six-month lifting of bylaws that prohibit alcohol consumption on specific town-owned property such as sidewalks and potentially streets that may be partially closed to expand al fresco dining.
Before their orderly exit from the parking lot, voters also approved a citizens amendment, supported by the Select Board, reducing restaurant owners’ liability insurance requirements from $5 million to $2 million for the outdoor dining season.
On Friday, the Select Board approved an application from Whitney Asher’s Brava restaurant and wine bar at 27 Housatonic St. for outdoor dining and alcohol service at five tables under a canopy on parking spaces in front of the establishment from 4 to midnight through October. Previously, the board had approved al fresco picnic tables outside Arizona Pizza on Pittsfield Road (Route 7/20).
Police Chief Stephen O’Brien and Fire Chief Chris O’Brien had inspected the site and approved the safety precautions that include an alcohol control plan, barriers, lighting and staffing, Ketchen pointed out. Letters of support came in from building owner Steve Oakes and from residents of the two apartments above the restaurant.
“It’s a very comprehensive and thorough application that meets all of the bylaws,” the town manager noted. "This is everything we could have asked for in an application."
Looking back at the drive-in meeting, Lane called it "just a cool little thing. I heard nothing but really positive reaction. It showed a lot of support, people wanted to be involved, they really care.”
Several dining spots, including the Olde Heritage Tavern and Cafe Lucia, began serving customers on their own patios and outdoor spaces earlier this week, attracting large crowds that waited up to an hour for one of the 40 tables available at the tavern at the dinner hour.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.