LENOX — Decision time is approaching for the $15 million mixed-use development proposed a year ago by Nathan Winstanley on his downtown property, as the Zoning Board of Appeals schedules a crucial meeting for Dec. 9.
At a recent ZBA meeting, attorneys representing Winstanley and local architect Jim Harwood, whose lawsuit against the town to overturn the board’s approval of the Windrose Place project last January remains pending in Berkshire Superior Court, traded conflicting interpretations of town zoning bylaws.
During the two-hour remote public hearing Nov. 18, attended by about 30 residents, there was heated debate, with 17 speakers splitting roughly down the middle.
Winstanley, a retired marketing executive, has proposed renovating the 1790 Northrup House at 114 Main St., where he had operated his business for 30 years, and constructing three new buildings. The project would include 26 luxury apartments, and one of the buildings would have street-level businesses or offices.
The ZBA approved a special permit for the project, 5-0, in late January, and voted 4-1 to exempt it from inclusion of several affordable housing units.
Berkshire Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins, in his Aug. 17 hearing on Harwood’s lawsuit, took affordable housing off the table. But, he sent the case back to the ZBA for another look at issues involving a 200-foot setback from the nearest residential property in the residential district, as well as density and parking requirements outlined in town bylaw provisions affecting multifamily developments of more than 15 units.
Attorney William E. Martin, representing Winstanley, pushed back against Harwood attorney Peter Puciloski’s view that the 200-foot setback in the town bylaw also protects second-floor apartments above restaurants and other businesses in the downtown commercial zone. Martin termed the proposed development a by-right project in that zone.
Civil engineer Jim Scalise, a designer for the project, also stated that multifamily dwellings in the commercial district are allowed by right.
“This is an area where the town encourages development,” he said.
Scalise also asserted that the buildings proposed for the Winstanley property cover 30 percent of the land, while town zoning allows 75 percent coverage.
“You could literally double the footprint of the buildings and still meet the dimensional requirements of the zoning,” he said.
In response, Puciloski told the zoning board: “Mr. Scalise has not said this project complies with the zoning bylaw, that it complies with the [200-foot] setback, or that the design of the parking lot complies, because it doesn’t do any of those things.”
Harwood, who filed his court appeal against the ZBA’s approval of the project last February, declared that the development plan “is broadly in conflict with our zoning; it is asking for whole-cloth relief from numerous important requirements and it has overstated its economic benefit. It will provide near-term construction jobs, but it provides no permanent jobs.”
Susan Wolf, among the supporters of the special permit application, called it “a very thoughtful plan to add some much-needed housing and bring some vitality back to the town. We need the tax base from this. This is a high-quality project that brings those needed housing units.”
Lenox native Thomas Romeo described support for the development by abutters.
“This project will be good for the town not only for the tax base, but for the historical preservation of the [1790 Northrup] building, which is so important for those of us who have lived in Lenox our whole life,” he said.
“This area is commercially zoned; there’s nothing to prevent the Winstanleys from putting up a commercial property with more density and traffic,” resident Paul Hirt said. “They’re putting in something much more in keeping with the nature of the town rather than putting up a big box or other building that would attract more traffic in and out.”
But, opponent Kimberly Duval argued that “it just doesn’t make sense; it’s not the right project for this town. I would hate to see egg on our faces for a project that, 10 years from now, has become a developer-driven rental situation or investors buying each unit ‘to Airbnb them.’ As someone who’s in corporate real estate, I can tell you that a budget of $15 million is not going to build you luxury condos.”
Several opponents focused on the waiver approved by the zoning board to spare the project from an affordable housing contribution.
“I don’t feel our town’s commitment to affordable housing should be waved away so easily, especially when there are so many other concerns about density, scale and massing,” Margaret Keller said.
“Waiving some of the requirements is arbitrary,” Colin Mathews said. “If you need to bend or break the rules in order to make something work, then you don’t have a project. ‘Working the ref’ like this is anti-democratic and gross. It’s really against the spirit of what we’re trying to do in Lenox to overlook the contribution necessary to the Affordable Housing Trust. If there’s any housing crisis in Lenox, it’s over affordable housing.”
Mathews also maintained that “this goes against the spirit of direct democracy in our town and in New England, because somebody can’t maximize their earnings on the project they proposed by playing by the rules.”
But, supporter Mark Fischetti responded that “the ZBA made its decision, and the only reason we’re here is because one person can’t live with the outcome. That’s ‘working the ref.’ ”
At the scheduled Dec. 9 meeting, the board is expected to debate and discuss the project with a goal of reaching a decision.
“Everybody is anxious to get this matter resolved,” ZBA Chairman Robert Fuster Jr. said.