Lenox divided over need for affordable apartment complex

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LENOX — A proposal to build an affordable apartment complex on a town-owned strip of land drew skepticism Monday night from many of the citizens who spoke during a forum at Town Hall.

Nearly 100 people attended the nearly two-and-a-half-hour, question-and-answer session on the proposed 50-unit, mixed income rental project.

It was a tough crowd, reflecting a fierce divide in town on the need for and the desirability of a rental apartment complex and whether the town-owned parcel should be donated to the selected co-developers, Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and its partner, Community Development Corp. [CDC] of South Berkshire.

The development would be clustered on 6 acres of the 19.6-acre Sawmill Brook property off the Route 7/20 bypass, near a Stoneledge Road subdivision of about a dozen properties. The town paid $600,000 for the parcel in 2011 for community housing, but residents at the time advocated for owner-occupied units.

If built, the complex would accommodate 120 to 180 people, depending on the number of people per apartment unit, according to Marybeth Mitts, moderator of the forum.

Financing for the project would include $17 million in state and federal tax credits, and the co-developers would retain and manage the complex as affordable "in perpetuity."

A second forum on the issue is slated for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the St. Ann's Church Parish Hall on Main Street. Voters will decide whether to transfer the land to the developers during the annual town meeting on May 2. A two-thirds supermajority is required for approval.

Critics of the proposal voiced a wide range of objections and concerns over financing, neighborhood impact, potential burdens on school and public services. Several speakers challenged projections of just $30,000 to $40,000 of annual real estate tax revenue to the town.

"I pay $5,000 in tax on my house valued at $400,000," said resident Phil Gilardi. "Something that's worth $17 million ought to be paying a lot more."

But approval of the land donation would be only "the initial hurdle" for the project, Mitts said. The developers would face a comprehensive permitting process, including zoning board approval, a traffic study and an environmental review because of an endangered species, the Jefferson salamander, on the property.

"We're looking to get families with younger children into Lenox on a rental basis," Mitts said. "There's a need for affordable housing, this will make a very small dent in that need, but it's a decent one. It's going to be a lovely place to live, with access to town and the high school."

A favorable vote on May 2 gives the town the right to enter into a purchase and sale agreement, said Elton Ogden, president of Berkshire Housing Development Corp. "It will have a lot of conditions, including lining up the financing. If we can't do any or all of those, the deal's off and the town still owns the land, since the land actually will not be conveyed until we have all those pieces in order."

Gilardi countered that no traffic impact study has been conducted yet. "There's an impact to the roads and the schools, and once we give this thing away, we're pregnant; it's going to be hard to go back," he argued.

"A lot of studies still have to occur in order for this project to move ahead," said Mitts, chairwoman of the town's Affordable Housing Trust and the Sawmill Selection Committee, which chose the co-developers. "We're not closing the deal with this one vote. The vote gives the developer site control in order to start the process."

The land will come back to the town if the developers fail to gain financing and to win zoning and environmental approval, she said. "Nothing's been given away, nothing's getting pregnant."

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Supporter pushes back

Resident Chuck Kocher, a supporter of the project, warned that "unless we start doing things to grow this community, we're probably going to end up as a town full of octogenarians who have no one to take care of us. I know a lot of people who've been in Lenox a long time but their kids can't afford to live here. We have a demographic problem coming at us full steam. The project feels like a necessary thing for us to be doing."

He urged Mitts and the developers to clarify the financing underpinnings of the project at the annual town meeting. The proposal is currently available on the town's website, townoflenox.com.

Ralph Petillo, the drama teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, cautioned that "we're full, we're at capacity, school choice has helped." He suggested that if the proposed complex were ownership rather than rental, "the taxpayer would have a vested interest when he comes to town if we need to increase fire, sewage and water. I'm not against renters, but we need to create jobs in Berkshire County before we create housing."

But Veronica Fenton, a former School Committee member for six years and a renter when she moved to town 25 years ago, responded that the housing complex "is about growth in our community, in a good way." She described earlier comments about the project's supposed impact on local education spending, and that the school is at capacity, as "completely inaccurate and irresponsible."

The school district's strategic plan calls for more resident students, Fenton noted, and less reliance on school choice, now nearing 40 percent of total enrollment.

She added that there are plenty of jobs going unfilled for "skilled people and middle-management people" but that hiring is impeded by the lack of "wonderful, affordable places to live."

"Most of the kids have a car loan, schools loans and they have rent. We want them to be here, we don't want them to go to Northampton or New York, and they need a place to live," Fenton said.

Stoneledge Road property owner Julie DiGrigoli, advocating "hitting the pause button and doing some due diligence on this project," contended that "there's a misconception that affordable housing doesn't exist here in Lenox."

She cited her research showing that 41 percent of the owner-occupied housing in town is valued at $299,000 or less, and pointed out that since 2017 a total of 42 properties in Lenox sold for $200,000 or less.

Funding for the land purchase, approved by 89 percent of town meeting voters in 2011, came from the town's Community Preservation Act funds designated for community housing. In her introductory remarks, Mitts reminded the audience that from 2011 to 2016, CDC of South Berkshire was unable to secure financing for a 50-unit ownership project because state tax incentives became unavailable in the wake of the Great Recession.

Only 7.4 percent of housing in Lenox, where the median price of a single-family home is $339,000, is rated as affordable, well short of the state's 10 percent mandate, Mitts said, although there's no penalty.

"We need to be making progress toward it," she said.

The project, if approved, would increase affordable housing to 9.3 percent of the total.

"This is an excellent site for housing," Mitts said, since it's midway between downtown and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, and on a BRTA bus route with hourly daytime service. "Because of current state building codes, these apartments will probably be the highest quality rental units in town," she added.

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


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