Affordable housing proposal fails at Lenox annual town meeting

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LENOX — Voters turned down an affordable housing proposal and approved a narrow path for marijuana businesses to operate in the town.

The annual town meeting on Thursday was raucous, unruly and downright contentious at times, but intrepid voters succeeded in exercising their New England grass-roots democracy rights over the course of a four-hour session.

By the time the dust settled just before 11 p.m. and the gavel fell to adjourn the marathon meeting, 618 citizens attending — a 17 percent turnout out of 3,628 registered voters — had settled two major issues, by and large maintaining at least a reasonable degree of civility. It was the largest turnout for a town meeting in recent memory.

In a secret ballot, residents voted 304 to 262 in support of a mixed-income rental housing project on the Sawmill Brook property off the Route 7/20 bypass. But that vote total was well short of the two-thirds supermajority, or 377 votes, the measure needed for approval of the measure, which would have authorized the town to donate the town-owned site for the project.

In the fourth hour of the meeting, weary voters overwhelmingly approved the Planning Board's strict limits on potential adult-use recreational marijuana enterprises and then rejected a citizens petition for a total ban on cannabis businesses anywhere in town.

The result: Marijuana enterprises must seek special permits for sites limited to commercial zones along the state highway north of downtown, as well as cultivation facilities in the Lenox Dale industrial sector.

No more than two retail shops will be allowed, and there will be a 3 percent local tax on any cannabis enterprise revenues. Voters approved nearly unanimously $28 million in total town spending for fiscal 2020 after hearing an upbeat report from Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.

Bottom line: Residential property taxes should rise no more than 2.5 percent, probably less, and the owner of the average-priced, $408,000 single-family home would see, at most, a $124 increase in their bills, but more likely $80 when new growth is factored in and the official tax rate is set next fall, Ketchen said.

Two citizen petitions on short-term Airbnb rentals were yanked off the table by unanimous votes because of "concerns about the process of developing this bylaw and a couple of questions on technical issues," according to leading proponent Ted Silverman.

During the affordable housing discussion, voters made it clear that they would clock Town Moderator John McNinch's recommended two-minute limit on speakers.

Using their cellphone stopwatches to keep track, they shouted down fellow citizens who went into overtime.

Following detailed descriptions of the Sawmill Brook project by Marybeth Mitts, head of the Affordable Housing Trust, and the potential co-developers, Elton Ogden of the private nonprofit Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and Timothy Geller of CDC-South Berkshire, residents lined up to weigh in, with a roughly even split between supporters and opponents of the proposed 50-unit rental apartment complex.

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Urging a "yes" vote on the housing proposal, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School English department Chairwoman Robin Getzen wondered why "affordable is a wonderful quality when it comes to everything but housing, and I'm also at a loss as to why those who oppose it continue to conjure up images of a crime-ridden slum. This kind of thinking falls in the category of fear-mongering, and fear clouds judgment." 

Responding to claims by some opponents that the town's public schools are "full" and could not handle an influx of young families with children, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan pointed out that there's plenty of room for 40 to 50 additional students at Morris Elementary without losing any nonresident school choice kids, and for 20 to 30 more at the middle and high school.

"We have to think of this as workforce housing for our teachers, firemen and highway workers who make our town vibrant," said local Realtor Anne Meczywor. "Over and over, we hear residents say our kids can't afford to live here. We're not looking at substandard housing, this is going to be well-managed, attractive and increase the vitality of this community."

But Aimee Vandyne, one of a half-dozen property-owning opponents on Stoneledge Road adjoining the Sawmill land who spoke, cited environmental concerns involving endangered species and a vernal pool in the wooded area bordering the 6-acre site targeted for development. 

"I question how a project of this size cannot cause the total devastation of this breeding ground," she stated, citing construction blasting and traffic. "Why would the town hand over this land to a developer who would not have the best interests of the land or the environment at heart?"

Another Stoneledge Road resident, William Welch, maintained that opposing the proposal "does not make you an elitist, a snob, a fear-monger or, as recently been suggested, a racist. You're someone who cares enough about Lenox to demand a pause, to make sure affordable housing is introduced in a measured, responsible way." 

He challenged the idea of "adding 200 people to our population all at once, rather than use a gradual approach that allows the town's resources time to adapt to the growth in population."

Welch accused project supporters of trying to push the development through "with reckless abandon, without considering other options such as a new home for a police/fire/EMS facility or even a dog park. Why should we push it through right now instead of waiting and examining other options?"

His Stoneledge Road neighbor, Michael Wilser, conceded the need for affordable housing and described the Sawmill proposal as "certainly well-intended," but worried about "the burden laid squarely in your property tax bills."

He called the developers "the big winners," citing fees to engineers, the construction firm, lawyers and "everyone making a profit off this project. It's good for business."

Pointing to voters' earlier approval of $300,000 in Community Preservation Act funding for a "summer camp" barn restoration at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Dr. Kevin Mitts declared: "It seems to me $600,000 to house 50 needy families is a no-brainer for the town."

Following more pro and con debate, resident Judy Moss called for the vote, resulting in the defeat of the Sawmill Brook housing proposal.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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