Dr. Kevin Mitts: Populism comes to Lenox

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LENOX — "I've been here 33 years and I'm still a newcomer" my late friend Joe Cacciola told me as we weathered the storm to build the St. Ann Family Center in Lenox in the early 2000s. He was referring to town residents' opposition to the project, expressed with anger, accusation, and emotion. As a newcomer to town, that was my baptism to small town politics in Lenox.

Concerns then included loss of property value, lack of parking, traffic, late night parties and (gasp) bingo, as well the impact the project might have on the financial viability of the parish of St. Ann, perhaps even causing financial ruin. While all of those concerns were valid, listened to and addressed, the "spirit" of the discourse struck me: vitriol, frustration, and resentment for such a simple project as a family center.

The St. Ann Family Center was built and it has been a meeting place for the church and a valuable town resource. All is well in our tranquil town.

In 2006 my business sought a town permit for a "clinic" in the Aspenwell shops. We lost that issue and we are just fine for it. But the process again exposed fear. There was fear about a "clinic," zoning challenges, about harm to the healthcare system. The process was painful, and we nearly left Lenox. And 13 years later, such a "clinic" exists at that site, coexisting and competing, and Aspenwell thrives.

Along comes the Lenox Sawmill Affordable Housing Project. Full disclosure: I am not involved in affordable housing, but I make dinner for one who is: Marybeth Mitts is my spouse. I am no housing or finance expert, but she is: a Masters in Public Finance with work experience including the Senate Budget Committee, Fannie Mae, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of the Navy Office of the Comptroller Shipbuilding and Conversion, Deputy Comptroller of two Marines Corps Air Stations, private consultant for numerous southern California cities' affordable homeownership and rental housing programs; nine years on the Lenox School Committee; and several years on the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust and Committee. She clearly does not "lack expertise."

While no expert, I do recognize a fair process. And the process leading to the Sawmill project town vote on Thursday, May 2 has been very public, legal, and fair. Ample opportunity has been given for public discovery, and public comment. Further discussion will no doubt occur at the Lenox Town Meeting.. And, as Marybeth repeatedly tells me: "The town will decide."

ANYTHING BUT CIVIL

I can also recognize civil discourse. And while this process has been open and fair, the discourse has been anything but civil. Meetings have been remarkable for the public displays of intimidation, anger, intolerance, classism, and borderline racism. The tolerance,and encouragement of such behavior by residents, leaders, neighbors, and friends, is equally disappointing:

The Affordable Housing Selection Committee had a public hearing for selecting a final developer's bid. After public comment and prior to the selection vote a committee member was in opposition to any rental housing project at the Sawmill site, shouted down the chairwoman (Mitts), went on to accuse her of being disingenuous (lying), moved and voted to kill the project, and abstained in the selection vote, leaving only four voting members to choose the contractor.

Public hearings have been held by Mitts to allow the community to express their concerns and have their questions answered. Mitts has been repeatedly interrupted, treated rudely, shouted at, physically intimidated, and accused, again, of being disingenuous.

In overt displays of lack of compassion for town residents who might need financial assistance to live with their families Lenox, comments and occurrences at these hearings have included:

* The project will house "single mothers with children, and you know what kind of people they attract";

* "People from Springfield might move here";

* "They'll be walking on our neighborhood streets"

* "The schools are full"

* "We want responsible homeowners, not renters"

* "They can see in my windows"

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* If working class residents and outsiders would just save more for longer they could afford a house in Lenox;

* A local reporter was yelled at and needed to step back from an angry attendee when he asked for a name to quote earlier angry comments;

* The host of the site for one of the informational hearings was derided for hosting a hearing on an affordable housing project;

* Accusations that Committee members would "circumvent" the town to push the project through.

* The town will "fall into a trap of being sold a bill of goods."

On the other hand, valid residents' concerns have included:

* The need for more property taxpayers vs renters;

* Lenox's conveyance to the developer (a $600,000 town purchase in 2011 from Community Development funds, around half of which are state matched funds) amounts to a gift with no return to the town;

* Traffic density and school capacity;

* Will property values decline?;

* Will crime and the need for emergency services increase?;

* Will the development have adequate on-site resident management?

IGNORING OF FACTS

Such reasonable concerns have been repeatedly and completely addressed at the numerous public hearings. But attendees at one meeting may miss an issue presented at previous meetings and think specifics are being withheld, hidden, or missed. Opponents float hyperbole, bogus or misinformed facts and figures, and won't be bothered when confronted with factual responses but continue to repeat the same misinformation as fact. Sound familiar? The mistrust of our local politics may be a trickle down of the national political environment. But such anger and conspiratorial, accusatory nature is not fitting for politics in a town such as ours.

This project, like others in our town's history and those occurring in adjacent communities, is controversial because of the fear it elicits in townspeople. People fear their way of life is threatened. They fear they are losing something of value. And they fear change. And those fears are understandable. But such fears do not justify the methods.

A small town affords the opportunity for congenial discourse and interaction, on a public and personal level. In the case of Lenox's Sawmill project our town has often forgotten decorum, respect, and decency for those who donate their time, expertise, and emotion to, as the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust Charter states: "maintain housing for individuals and families of all ages and incomes in order to maintain (the town's) vitality as a vibrant, eclectic, connected and desirable community".

Like Joe, after only 18 years here I'm still a newcomer. I guess I just don't get it. But the town will, indeed, decide.


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