Selectboard members listen to testimony (copy)

West Stockbridge Select Board members listen Monday night to testimony from Amy Brentano of The Foundry and Truc Nguyen of Truc Orient Express as well as their lawyers.

As a spiraling spat involving Truc Orient Express and The Foundry continues to escalate in West Stockbridge, it is sad to see such a dispute divide a small, tight-knit town while pitting two popular small businesses against each other. It is all the more disappointing that local officials’ heel-dragging has unnecessarily exacerbated the issue.

The tension has been palpable at recent hearings before the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Select Board that were centered on whether the town should grant The Foundry a special permit for the outdoor performances the arts venue has been hosting in lieu of indoor events amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Those outdoor performances partially take place on a private road known as Merritt Way that belongs to the property owned by Amy Brentano, The Foundry’s artistic producing director. Merritt Way also happens to be the only motor-vehicle access to the Orient Express. Thus, The Foundry’s outdoor shows, beloved by its patrons, are a point of consternation for the neighboring Vietnamese restaurant. Orient Express proprietor Truc Nguyen says the performances produce excessive noise and effectively block access to the restaurant, impeding her family’s business during critical weekend hours as it seeks to claw back from the squeeze COVID put on many eateries.

Back in June, The Eagle praised both businesses for coming to a temporary compromise over this sticky issue, but our optimism for that neighborly approach panning out was predicated on the prospect of local officials doing their jobs — that is, working with the two parties on a more sustainable and permanent way forward. Instead, in the months since, the town has passively allowed The Foundry to continue hosting outdoor performances after being notified in May that The Foundry lacked a special permit required by town bylaws for businesses operating as commercial amusement. Local authorities have the power to condition special permits to mitigate impact to the surrounding community. Without a special permit, though, there are no such conditions in place, and the impact appears to be falling unfairly on the Orient Express, where Ms. Nguyen not only derives her family’s livelihood but resides as well.

Now, with emotions building to a fever pitch among both sides and their supporters, the town must swiftly move to resolve a mess it had a heavy hand in creating. Merritt Way, an unofficial roadway, has been the only point of vehicle access to the Orient Express for two decades since the town converted the Harris Street span over the Williams River to a footbridge, landlocking Orient Express from public roads. That particular issue should have been meaningfully addressed by the town years ago, instead of just this summer only after it spurred this dispute. Meanwhile, allowing The Foundry to operate without the proper permitting for months after being notified has needlessly pitched two local businesses, their owners and their supporters against each other as the issue continues unresolved.

Further, the panel responsible for issuing a special permit needs to address what many in the community perceive to be a conflict of interest. Select Board Chairman Eric Shimelonis, who is also a musician and sound designer, told The Eagle previously that he had helped Ms. Brentano with setup and shows at The Foundry in the past. He insisted his work was “gratis,” saying he had “never drawn a dollar in salary or any other non-cash value from The Foundry.” Nevertheless, Mr. Shimelonis has a responsibility to better explain this background to his constituents. He should not be the one who determines unilaterally whether his past work with The Foundry constitutes a conflict of interest on this issue, and even if there is no conflict the perception among many in the community is enough to demand it be addressed more thoroughly. If not, a decision could leave a sour taste in the mouths of already aggravated stakeholders.

After Monday night’s lengthy Select Board meeting that became more heated as it wound into the night, the board continued the special permit hearing until Thursday. There should be no more delay, as a reasonable solution is on the table as it has always been: issue The Foundry the required special permit with sensible conditions such as noise limits and traffic regulations that can be enforced to alleviate the strain put on a local restaurant, through no fault of its own, that has called West Stockbridge home for 42 years.

Local officials obviously don’t want to see these establishments, both of which bring much to downtown West Stockbridge, go out of business any more than their supporters. If they want to see this contentious issue resolved, as we all do, they should move quickly to do the due diligence they’ve neglected for too long.