Lenox eyes protections for older residences

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LENOX — If you buy a house that's at least 75 years old and plan to tear it down, you might have to wait up to 18 months for a demolition permit, if a proposed bylaw wins Select Board endorsement to present it to voters at the next town meeting.

That's the bottom line of a plan the Lenox Historical Commission unveiled for the board at its meeting last week. Commission members were aghast when Chabad of the Berkshires decided to demolish an 1863 house at 17 West St. (Route 183) that had seen much better days and replace it with a modern Jewish Center of the Berkshires. The Zoning Board of Approval issued a special permit for the project last month.

The ZBA approval was based on a 1950 state law provision known as the Dover Amendment, which protects religious and educational organizations from most zoning restrictions. "The Dover Amendment can destroy a community," Historical Commission Chairwoman Olga Weiss said at Wednesday's Select Board meeting.

Displaying a montage of photos showing older buildings in several town neighborhoods, commission member Lucy Kennedy told the Select Board that the town's character is based not on a single house but on "the total experience of Lenox as a town, and each part of the countryside and the buildings speaks to our story."

The photos of the residential area adjoining the downtown business district on Tucker, St. Ann's and Fairview streets reveal that "no one house is particularly distinctive," Kennedy acknowledged. "But as a group, almost all built from 1900 to 1914, they make a real neighborhood experience."

There are 816 houses in town built before 1944, and 446 are on the Massachusetts State Register of the cultural inventory system, she said. "We have a lot of houses that are protected in no way under current law," said Kennedy, except for 115 out of the 816 that are shielded within the town's official Historic District, while 10 are safeguarded by the Great Estates bylaw.

The proposal parallels historic preservation bylaws adopted by 142 other towns statewide, including Pittsfield, Sheffield and Williamstown, according to the commission.

"We hope we can find ways to avoid people wanting to demolish a property, but if they do, we want to have protection to slow them down so we can seek alternatives," Kennedy said. But the proposed bylaw would not apply to structures declared unsafe by the building inspector.

Otherwise, a property owner seeking a demolition permit from the Building Department for pre-1944 structures would be subject to a 18-month delay, the commission's proposed bylaw states, if the structure:

- Is found to be a historically important component of a neighborhood.

- Is deemed architecturally unique.

- Was inhabited by a well-known person or someone who made an important contribution to Lenox history.

That decision would be determined promptly by the Historical Commission, to be followed by a public meeting including immediate neighbors, Planning Board members and anyone else considered appropriate to participate.

Any one of the three criteria could trigger consideration of whether or not to initiate a possible delay in approving the owner's request for demolition, Kennedy pointed out in a followup email to The Eagle.

"There may be houses that people in neighborhoods say, `That's an eyesore, we're just dying to get rid of that house,'" she said at the Select Board session. "But for the most part, we think people like the look and feel of their neighborhoods."

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The commission would take a formal vote on whether or not to institute a "stay of demolition," and a "yes" decision would start the 18-month clock.

During that time, commission members would work with the owner to see if there's another property that would better suit their needs, bring in historic preservation specialists if needed, and seek bank loans or community preservation funds to help renovate a historic structure rather than tearing it down.

"It's important to note that this is a tool, not a formula," Kennedy said in an email. "Of the 21 demolition requests Lenox has had in the last two years, only one would have triggered the process. And when alternatives to demolition have been exhausted, the owner's request would be granted. The tool just means historic structures don't disappear overnight and without public notice as they can today."

She also suggested formation of a Preservation Committee that could help determine future uses for a designated historic house that may be facing the wrecking ball, such as affordable housing or other community purposes.

If the bylaw is approved by voters, it would "encourage people to think a little more before they purchase a property," Kennedy predicted. The main impact would be to offer some protection "for some of these beautiful old neighborhoods we have."

"I think this is a great idea," Select Board Chairman Edward Lane said. In response to his query on who would pay for the consultations during the 18-month demolition delay, Kennedy suggested adding an on-call consultant, possibly at $2,000 to $5,000 a year as part of the Historical Commission budget.

Selectwoman Marybeth Mitts said that "the 18-month delay is financially cumbersome for anyone, it's really punishing. To me, you're definitely going to be pushing people away if you have that kind of a timeline."

Mitts suggested a three- to six-month demolition delay "is about as much as anyone can take."

Lane agreed that "18 months would kill a purchase-and-sale."

Selectman Neal Maxymillian voiced concern over "whether we're making it even harder for a homeowner, since we have an active effort going on to attract people to move into Lenox. I hope we don't make this a burdensome thing."

He suggested that the 18-month delay might have the unintended consequence of chilling the real estate market. He also stressed the need to allow property owners to make improvements to ensure safety.

Kennedy indicated that 12 months might be acceptable, though "it's barely enough, but I'd question the effectiveness of six months."

"We have to get everybody on the same page," Selectman David Roche declared. "You've heard our concerns, which I think represent what the general populace is going to be concerned about. You have to go back and think about it, knowing that you may well have our support."

If endorsed by the Select Board following adjustments, the proposed historical preservation town bylaw would require majority approval from Lenox voters at the Nov. 7 town meeting.

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


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