Proposed Lenox development faces affordable housing test

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LENOX — Must a major residential and commercial development proposed for the downtown historic village include provisions for housing affordable by low- to moderate-income residents?

That issue is likely to be front and center at Tuesday night's Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on the 26-unit Windrose upscale condo or rental complex, including a building with first-floor commercial space, proposed by retired marketing executive Nathan Winstanley. The estimated cost of the project to be constructed by an outside developer ranges from $17 million to $20 million, Winstanley has said.

The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.

It's the third ZBA meeting on the proposal, following an extended discussion last month and a recent site visit to the 3.25-acre site at 114 Main St.

The units in the split residential/commercial zone would be in a renovated, expanded 1790 mansion most recently occupied by Winstanley's business, two new structures and a third new building at the corner of Main and Franklin streets containing ground-floor commercial space and two second-floor residences.

The Planning Board is submitting a five-page advisory letter to the ZBA contending that the town zoning bylaw's "Residential Inclusionary Development" section applies to Winstanley's special permit application for the project.

The proposal is designed to attract second-homers and local residents to the apartments that would be a stone's-throw from downtown restaurants and shopping as well as the Post Office and Town Hall.

According to the Planning Board, all residential developments requiring a special permit and providing new dwelling units must include a designated number of low- to moderate-income housing units or a cash payment to the town's Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing at a different location. The amount of a payment would be determined by the ZBA through the special permit procedure.

For a development of 26 residential units as proposed by Winstanley, the town's zoning bylaw calls for a minimum of two affordable units.

The letter signed by Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber and approved by a 3-1 vote last week argues that the Winstanley application does not comply with the zoning bylaw's minimum requirements for inclusionary development.

"There is a clearly expressed community need for housing affordable to the workforce in Lenox — employees of the town as well as those employed by a majority of businesses in town," the advisory opinion states. "The development and permitting of several new resorts have added to that need. The preponderance of employment in Lenox is in occupations at the lower end of the income scale: retail, personal services, accommodation and food service, arts, entertainment and recreation."

The Planning Board also cites a "clearly established need for housing affordable for the large segment of `cost burdened' households and families among current residents: The increasing senior population and young families struggling to keep or find housing within their means (and income profile)."

The proposed development site provides an ideal location for prospective residents who can no longer drive, can't afford a car, prefer to avoid dependency on vehicles or who work in the village, the document states.

If the Winstanley team seeks an exception to the bylaw requirements relating to affordable housing units, the Planning Board is urging the ZBA not to grant it. Otherwise, the letter asserts, "a waiver of the required affordable units (or equivalent payments) would contradict the express purpose of this bylaw, and the public interest of Lenox residents; and be open to appeal on that basis."

In a dissenting opinion to be presented to the zoning board, Planning Board member Kameron Spaulding said he believed “that the board was driven out of a desire for affordable housing overall to quickly draft an opinion on a project without proper study.”

“No time was given to understand the language and history of the bylaw to see if it should apply and the applicant never came before the board and we never heard from them or their attorneys,” he added. “In the past, projects have come before the board before opinions were rendered and I think that the board hastily crafted a response."

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According to research by Spaulding, who voted against sending an advisory letter to the ZBA, “the development at 114 Main is a Mixed Use Development, a defined term in the Lenox Zoning Bylaw, and therefore is not subject to the Residential Inclusionary Development.”

In his view, “the Lenox bylaw does not claim to cover all developments, simply residential developments. It is my belief that these differences matter and that the board is incorrect to get involved with this project without taking the time to properly understand the bylaw and the history.”

At the initial Dec. 18 ZBA public hearing, project attorney William E. Martin of Martin & Oliveira questioned whether the affordable housing bylaw applies to the proposed development, based on how the town has interpreted and enforced the provision. He cited Canyon Ranch's recent condominium development as an example.

But Martin pointed out then that if the ZBA disagrees with his view, he would apply for a waiver from the requirements and explore the issue with the town's attorneys.

The zoning bylaw section on requirements for affordable housing within residential developments was adopted at a 2009 town meeting by the necessary two-thirds majority of voters "who recognize the positive influence of affordable housing in our community," the letter points out.

The bylaw's goal is "to promote the general public welfare, including but not limited to ensuring an economically integrated and diverse community by maintaining and increasing the supply of affordable and accessible housing in the town of Lenox."

According to the town's five year Housing Production Plan (2017-21) approved by the Planning Board and the Select Board, about 47 percent of Lenox households have low or moderate incomes, defined as a maximum of $51,200 per year for a two-person household.

"For Lenox, affordable housing is not only a matter of basic social fairness," the Planning Board document states. "It is also an economic development imperative. Lenox does not have housing that employees of the Town and many local businesses can afford to buy or rent."

"Lenox needs a larger inventory of homeownership housing that is affordable for moderate-income and middle-income families," the letter asserts. "There is not enough housing to encourage families from other towns whose children attend the Lenox Public Schools to move to Lenox and become part of the community."

The town aims to increase low- to moderate-income housing in detached single-family homes, multifamily units, townhouses, congregate dwellings and assisted living while also increasing the supply of affordable rental housing and affordable homeownership units.

Other goals of the plan include:

- Increase the variety of mixed-income housing options in or near commercial areas and villages in order to support the local economy and promote smart growth.

- Provide affordable housing choices throughout the town.

- Create and preserve at least 10 percent of Lenox's year-round housing units as affordable housing in order to provide the town's share of regional housing needs.

- By the end of this five-year plan, create at least 60 new low- or moderate-income housing units that will count on the state's Subsidized Housing Inventory.

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


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