LENOX — It took only 75 minutes for annual town meeting voters to approve $29 million in town spending — it includes $14.2 million for public schools — and $9.2 million in borrowing for multiple capital projects.
Also greenlighted in the fast-paced Tuesday evening session guided by Town Moderator John McNinch: a farmhouse property transfer to The Mount, and an agricultural bylaw regulating farm stands and allowing a flock of backyard chickens at residences.
The session, originally planned for the soccer field outside Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, had been moved into the air-conditioned Duffin Theater because of heat. The relocation was especially fortunate, as a severe thunderstorm with torrential rain pelted the area during the second half of the 5 p.m. meeting.
The turnout of 224 residents was 6 percent of 3,769 registered voters.
Local government funding totaling $7.6 million for municipal services, including Town Hall operations, public safety, public works, the Community Center and the town library, passed unanimously by voice vote.
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan cited parents and students for their “great sacrifice” during the 15-month disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was a very difficult year for parents, students and school personnel,” he said. “I wish to thank all for their patience and perseverance through remote, hybrid and in-person learning.”
To applause from the voters, Vaughan also saluted eight retiring staffers, including LMMHS Vice Principal Brian Cogswell, and thanked three School Committee members who chose not to seek reelection in May — Anne Marie O’Brien, Molly Elliot and Francie Sorrentino.
He singled out Sorrentino, who served four terms, as “a strong advocate for our students, especially those who might need a boost now and then. She listened closely to all townspeople and has been a real cheerleader for our schools.”
Sorrentino helped prepare hundreds of meals for residents during the first months of the pandemic, he said.
Vaughan expressed “enormous thanks” to interim Superintendent William Cameron, who served for 20 months and retired from the post as of Wednesday.
On the $14.2 million school budget, Vaughan acknowledged concerns raised by several Finance Committee members over personnel costs that account for 85 percent of spending. But, he pointed out that the guideline for all school districts ranges from 80 to 85 percent, since education is “heavily people-driven.”
Voters approved the education budget 175-18, using electronic ballot “clickers.”
Other spending proposals that passed, mostly unanimously, included:
• Major Permanent Building Committee capital investment projects totaling nearly $9.2 million, to be funded by borrowing.
The list includes up to $1 million (but more likely $650,000) to restore the town library’s damaged dome room ceiling; $750,000 for design, engineering, and repairs to the 1901 Town Hall’s roof and cupola; $3 million to design and engineer federally required environmental upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant, a first step; $2.3 million to replace a waterline on Reservoir Road, and $2.1 million to design and engineer a new public safety building at a site to be determined.
“We have fantastic police and fire departments and an ambulance squad,” Selectman Edward Lane said to applause from the voters. He explained that the new building is needed to replace “woefully inadequate” facilities for those services.
• Capital spending for equipment and other investments totaling $875,000 for the highway and school departments, police, fire and ambulance, and the Land Use department, funded by a transfer from the town’s “free cash” reserves.
• Community Preservation Act funding of $410,000 to assist historic preservation projects at the library, Trinity Episcopal Church, Church on the Hill and St. Ann Church, as well as annual debt service for the town’s purchase of the library. Also: $112,000 for the Affordable Housing Trust.
The sale of the deteriorated 1906 farmhouse property on the shore of Laurel Lake to The Mount won unanimously with cheers from voters. The 1.4-acre parcel on the 16-acre Edith Wharton Park, jointly owned by Lee and Lenox, also gained the support of town meeting representatives in Lee last week.
Public access to the lakefront is maintained, said Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount. The nonprofit plans to rehabilitate the farmhouse, part of the original Wharton estate, for occupancy by writers-in-residence. The two towns would retain the right of first refusal should The Mount run into financial trouble.
The Planning Board’s new agricultural uses zoning bylaw, explained by Chairwoman Pam Kueber, brings the town into alignment with state laws since “we are, fundamentally, a rural community, and anything we can do to help our residents to be more self-sustaining should be encouraged.”
Properties of 5 acres or more are exempt from local bylaws for farming, Kueber said. Properties of fewer than 5 acres are subject to special permits from the town.
The new bylaw, approved unanimously, covers setbacks, operating hours, signage and lighting for commercial farm stands in residential districts. Small neighborhood farm stands can be used to sell garden produce by right.
A limited number of backyard chickens can be kept by right for personal use — up to 24 on properties of more than 2 acres, and no more than 18 on parcels of fewer than 2 acres. Roosters are only allowed on parcels of 1 acre or more.