Lenox committee picks local developer for affordable housing project

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LENOX — A local developer has been selected to build a mixed-income, affordable housing complex on the Sawmill property off the Route 7/20 bypass.

The nonprofit Berkshire Housing Development Corp., in partnership with the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire, was chosen on Wednesday to build the $15 million complex. The plan calls for 50 rental units — 41 affordable and 9 market-rate — in five buildings on 6 acres of a 19-acre site.

The final vote, which followed a spirited debate, was 4-1 in favor of Berkshire Housing/CDC, with member Frederick Keator abstaining. Boston-based Pennrose Properties was the only other bidder.

But the project still faces a high hurdle to clear. At the May 2 annual town meeting, residents will vote on whether to donate the Sawmill property to the developer. A two-thirds supermajority is needed for approval.

The town purchased the undeveloped land for $600,000 in 2011 with CDC as the designated developer, but no projects emerged over the next five years.

Under the current plan, income-eligible individuals and families could apply for 12 one-bedroom, 28 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom units at prices ranging from $805 to $1,350 per month. People who work or live in Lenox would have initial preference.

Opponents, including residents of an adjacent subdivision on Stoneledge Road, point out that the overwhelming 2011 town meeting vote that authorized the town to purchase the privately owned land for affordable housing was based on an ownership model and not rental units.

Unidentified critics of the current proposal have sent out two anonymous mass mailings to townspeople and created a Facebook page blasting the project as flawed, poorly planned and "a financially unsustainable mess."

Former Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Debbie Burke lamented the "continuing acrimony and accusations, and the resulting defensiveness" swirling around the rental vs. ownership debate.

"We are neighbors, friends; we rely on each other," she said at Wednesday's meeting. "I guarantee that at some point in your life, if it hasn't happened already, somebody who lives in subsidized housing in this community will come to your personal aid."

She pleaded with those gathered in Town Hall "to remember that this is a community where we need to be caring about one another and living with one another."

Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller sent out a request for proposals last November, reviewed by Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen, for either an ownership or rental development. But Berkshire Housing/CDC and Pennrose were the only two developers that responded, offering plans for a rental complex financed in part by state and federal tax breaks and other incentives available primarily for rental projects.

The Sawmill Selection Committee scored the project in favor of Berkshire Housing/CDC by a narrow margin over Pennrose, 127-108.

The local group won high marks for affordability, income eligibility, site and building design, sustainability, energy conservation, development experience, financial feasibility, management capability and overall quality of the proposal and presentation. Pennrose also scored well on most of the categories, but lost some points from committee member Joe Strauch on site and building design as well as overall quality and development experience, since it had no track record in the Berkshires.

Pennrose proposed to buy the land for $50,000 from the town, while Berkshire Housing/CDC asked for the site to be donated "because that significantly increases the financial viability of the project and ensures greater affordability for the tenants."

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"I really liked the design of Pennrose's project because of its smaller, more homey structures," committee Chairwoman Marybeth Mitts said. "But CDC of South Berkshire appeared to get more support, being a local developer. I think both proposals were fantastic."

"I had an extremely difficult time with this decision," committee member Kate McNulty-Vaughan said. "We had a very highly capable, regional East Coast developer offering to come in here and do some pretty important things."

She praised Pennrose's presentations as "wonderful" but cited "a great local team we're familiar with, and we've seen their projects," she said. "This was extremely close."

Member Carol Haythorne, who supported Pennrose, said that while "both proposals were excellent, Pennrose's design, the small village-type feel it created, was more in keeping with Lenox."

But Strauch said he felt "much more comfortable with the local people."

During prolonged discussion ahead of the vote, Keator emphasized the ownership concept that drove the town's purchase of the property over the finish line eight years ago. He also contended that 20 properties have sold for under $200,000 in Lenox each year since 2011, "which is certainly affordable."

Keator pinpointed this week's purchase of the former Crystal Street school in Lenox Dale by a Springfield investor for $775,000 for use as 10 market-rate apartments. "The town had the opportunity to at least look at it and consider it, but we haven't," he argued.

He said that construction of the Sawmill project, including blasting, would "disrupt salamanders, traffic patterns, neighborhoods." Keator also cited what he described as lack of involvement by the Select Board and claimed that available properties in town could be "repurposed" for affordable housing.

He asked to adjourn the meeting of the Sawmill Selection Committee "until we have had a more collaborative approach to the affordable housing situation in Lenox, including the selectmen, town manager, Finance Committee, planning, zoning, community preservation and conservation committees." But the other four committee members declined to support his motion.

"What we're trying to do here is to build housing so that young families have somewhere affordable to live in town and to move into the area," Mitts said.

She also noted that the town's Affordable Housing Committee and Trust has considered various properties in town, but they were not suitable for family housing.

But Keator angrily countered that "the town said in 2011 that it didn't want a rental project, and no one has gone back to the town to ask, have you changed your mind? Now we're going through this whole process without asking the townspeople whether this is what you really want."

Mitts emphasized that the request for proposals sent out in November sought either ownership or rental housing, but no ownership proposals emerged.

"I don't think rental housing is like a terrible, horrible thing," she said. "A lot of people need rental housing. They're just like our children, like we were when we were starting out in life. I don't think anybody has anything to be terrified about."

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


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