At special town meeting, Lenox voters say no to short-term rental rules, pot shops

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LENOX — Thumbs-down on short-term Airbnb rental rules, regulations and restrictions. No marijuana businesses anywhere in town.

That was the loud-and-clear message from a crowd of nearly 400 voters at a special town meeting Thursday night — the largest town meeting turnout in recent years.

By voice vote, residents zapped a proposed general bylaw to set up required health and safety inspections and registration with the town clerk by primary homeowners renting their houses for fewer than 30 days at a time.

Of 14 voters who commented on the proposal, all but two strongly opposed the short-term rental bylaw proposal to inspect and register host properties.

Then, a zoning bylaw to regulate and restrict short-stay rentals also was shot down as a long parade of speakers urged residents to vote "no." After extensive discussion, the bylaw was taken off the table and sent back to the Planning Board for review and potential revision.

The outcome was a major victory for residents renting homes to tourists for short stays.

In a surprise outcome, voters rejected an article that would have allowed retail shops to sell marijuana products by special permit in the town's commercial zones along Pittsfield Road, and other cannabis businesses such as cultivators and processors in those zones as well as the Lenox Dale industrial zone by right.

The vote by hand ballot was 252 in favor and 138 against, less than the required two-thirds margin required for a zoning proposal.

Residents then approved by voice vote an extension of the existing moratorium on all marijuana businesses through June 30. Without the extension, cannabis businesses could have located anywhere in town.

Lenox voters had approved legalizing pot by 52 to 48 percent on the November 2016 state ballot question.

Voters approved five Planning Board warrant articles to widen housing options by allowing multifamily apartment units in the downtown and Lenox Dale commercial zones by right and in the Pittsfield Road C-1 commercial zone by special permit.

The new zoning rules also eliminate the minimum size requirements for apartments and other dwelling units, and lets those be determined by the Building Code and Board of Health.

Approved unanimously was a plan to spend $1,683,000 on Department of Public Works capital projects to fund road and waterline maintenance, using free cash and other available money on hand.

And the voters unanimously authorized $30,000 to begin a Town Hall planning and design study for a potential public safety complex to house the police, fire and ambulance departments.

Ahead of Thursday night's meeting, the short-term rental bylaws for visitors staying fewer than 30 days — they were crafted by the Planning Board with a major assist from Town Hall staff over a year and a half with more than 30 public meetings, forums and hearings — triggered some of the fiercest debate the town has seen in at least five years.

Local innkeepers seeking a "level playing field" for what they view as competing commercial enterprises run by homeowners in residential zones were among the strongest advocates of the bylaws, along with some residents and Planning Board members intent on preserving neighborhood character in the off-season, and also requiring health and safety inspections for short-stay rental properties.

Supporters also cautioned that investors were buying up some middle-priced homes for use as Airbnb short-term rental properties, taking the houses off the market for potential buyers like young families and seniors seeking to downsize.

Opponents argued that whole-house short-term rentals are good for the local economy, preserve homeowners' property rights, help residents pay property tax and maintenance bills, and should be allowed year-round rather than just in the summer and fall tourism season. They also stressed that it was unfair to bar second-home owners who pay real estate taxes from renting their houses to short-stay visitors.

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On the eve of the special town meeting, an organized group of opponents cried foul when its members learned that a talking-points document prepared by innkeepers had been distributed to the Planning Board and several town leaders with an electronic replica of the official town seal affixed to the cover page.

The cover page was withdrawn and was never distributed beyond Town Hall after Chris Ketchen, the chief administrative officer, pointed out that it was illegal to duplicate the town seal on a document unauthorized by town government.

Ketchen and several selectmen underscored their qualms after the Lenox Chamber of Commerce distributed the inn proprietors' document with the seal removed but with TOWN OF LENOX emblazoned in large type on the cover page.

"It was somewhat concerning to me, without respect to the content at all, which is clearly protected speech," Ketchen said at Wednesday night's televised Select Board meeting. "It advocates a position, and that's perfectly legitimate, but the front page gives the reader the impression that this is a town document generated here at Town Hall. It is not."

Nevertheless, Chamber of Commerce President Rob Murray redistributed the document at midday Thursday, explaining that it had been his personal decision to send it initially in response to a "campaign to vote down the Planning Board's recommendation" by the opposition group that mailed a postcard to every resident.

"Our lodging members feel it is a misrepresentation," Murray wrote. He urged support of the short-term bylaw proposals, adding: "I'm not against short-term rentals but feel they need to follow the same rules that our lodging members have to follow to ensure the safety of visitors to Lenox."

Ketchen stressed that voters entering the Duffin Theatre for the meeting would receive four town-generated documents, but "anything else, perhaps meritorious, perhaps not, is not sanctioned by Town Hall. I do think that this is confusing; it has all the appearance of being a town document, and it's not."

Selectman Neal Maxymillian urged Ketchen to make that clear to voters at the town meeting.

"I'd be happy to do that," the town manager responded. "Confusion in the minds of the voters is the worst thing, something we attempt to avoid when we generate anything for public consumption, and we're mostly successful."

Maxymillian also referred to the inn owners' document "distributed by someone" containing the town seal, "apparently cut and pasted from the town website. That's not OK."

Ketchen stressed that the law is crystal clear: "Use of the town seal is strictly prohibited for anything other than town correspondence or town business."

Maxymillian pointed out that several residents he has spoken with were reluctant to attend the town meeting because they think "it's so unruly, people are shouting over each other."

"I'd like to stress that positions are allowed but I don't think we are OK with spontaneous debate," he said. "If they just want to refute the point and just start speaking without being asked to speak, that really disrupts the town meeting process."

"We need to keep things civil," Maxymillian said. "I'd like to welcome people to participate in town meeting and not feel put off that it might be controversial with people raising their voices."

"People should be able to vote without feeling browbeaten," he said.

"It's important for the public to understand that this is your government, your town," Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler said. "Don't let it be run just by the people who show up. Everyone should show up. Don't be put off by the contentious nature of what's on there, be there to vote. That's the important part about being at the town meeting."

As Ketchen put it, "It's important to provide a good framework for a civil but vigorous public process at town meeting."

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


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