Neighbors of proposed Lenox Sawmill housing plans seek slowdown of process

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LENOX — A group of neighbors wants the Select Board to act immediately to slow down a potential mixed-income rental housing complex on the town-owned Sawmill parcel off Route 7/20.

Addressing the board during a residents open forum this week, adjacent Stoneledge Road resident Michael Wilser declared that, otherwise, "the town may be exposed to a lot of complications."

He challenged the Select Board on whether it wants to be responsible for basing the project "on shaky legal grounds, allowing it without a rigorous, technically qualified evaluation of its long-term sustainability, allowing all of this without explicit Select Board oversight and approval and maybe, most important, breaking the trust of the voters in the town."

The town's Sawmill Selection Committee is evaluating two applications from developers in response to a November 2018 request for proposals to construct either ownership or rental housing on 6 acres of the 19-acre site at the northeast corner of the state highway's intersection with Housatonic Street. The committee will resume its discussions of the proposals at 7:30 p.m. March 27 in Town Hall.

If the committee approves either of the proposals, voters at the May 2 annual town meeting would decide whether to sell or donate the property to the designated developer.

The warrant article, requiring a two-thirds majority for approval, would amount to an up or down vote on whether to go ahead with the project. Even if approved, the housing plan would enter a prolonged, comprehensive permitting process, including close scrutiny by the Conservation Commission.

Wilser, a leading spokesman for the opposition group of Stoneledge Road property owners, cited the 2011 annual town meeting vote approving the $600,000 purchase of the privately owned land for the development of ownership-affordable housing.

But over a five-year period, the sole developer who responded at that time, Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire, was unable to secure state-backed financing for an ownership project.

Addressing the Select Board, Wilser emphasized the "serious change in direction" by the town's Affordable Housing Trust that is "completely opposite of what was intended by the inhabitants of the town" at the 2011 meeting, where 89 percent of the voters approved the town's purchase of the Sawmill land through Community Preservation Act money designated for affordable housing.

"In our view, the town's decision to develop Sawmill as rental property is beyond the scope of its authority," Wilser said. "The only way to remedy this is to come back to Town Meeting to get explicit approval to develop it as rental property."

He also described the Sawmill Selection Committee's evaluation of the developers who responded to the recent request for proposals as "superficial and rushed and numerous questions were left unresolved."

Berkshire Housing Corp., a nonprofit partnering with CDC South Berkshire, proposes to build 50 rental units — 41 affordable and nine market rate — with 12 one-bedroom, 28 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom units in five buildings. The development cost is projected at $15 million.

Pennrose Properties, a regional commercial developer with a Boston office, has outlined 56 rental units in a dozen 2.5-story multifamily buildings totaling 46 apartments of affordable housing and 10 market-rate, with 19 one-bedroom, 22 two-bedrooms and 15 three-bedroom units. That project would cost $19 million. The proposed village-style, clustered development would resemble Pennrose's Nauset Green, under construction in Eastham on Cape Cod.

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According to Wilser, a chosen developer would begin spending money on the project, but if the town fails to approve the sale or donation of the Sawmill property, "the developer could well come after the town to recoup those costs."

Another Stoneledge Road resident, Julie Digrigoli, supported Wilser's statement. adding that "we are quite disappointed with how this has gone. This has been a rude awakening for someone like me to see how the system was working."

She decried what she called a lack of community input, asserting that "I've had to work very hard just to try to get the basic facts." Digrigoli urged the selectmen to prioritize "really meaningful" dialogue with residents.

"As a community working together in which we share knowledge, it will make for a better project and a better Lenox," she said.

Selectman Edward Lane responded to the neighbors that "you definitely have a place at the table discussing this with the appropriate people and committees." Lane, along with David Roche, acting as chairman of Wednesday night's meeting, agreed to take part in the discussions.

The state seeks 10 percent of homes to be classified as affordable in all 351 cities and towns. In Lenox, just over 7 percent of the housing qualifies.

The Pennrose developers have stated, based on town statistics, that 70 percent of Lenox households would be income-eligible to live in its affordable units.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the median household income in Lenox is $64,000 for a family of four. Proposed monthly rents for the Pennrose project range from $863 (one-bedroom) to $1,568 (three-bedroom), depending on income. For the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. proposal, the comparable range is $805 to $1,350.

For a family of four, annual income of $48,420 would qualify for an affordable unit, while a single individual earning $33,900 would be eligible, according to the Berkshire Housing application. Both developers include a limited number of market-rate apartments (nine or 10) for middle-income renters.

Town Hall advocates of the development have cited the need for first homes affordable for young municipal and private sector employees, including the hospitality industry, and to older, longtime residents on fixed incomes seeking to downsize in order to remain in the community.

Both applicants seeking approval for their proposals have cited the favorable, central location of the property along the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus line, close to downtown, schools and employers.

But they have also acknowledged the environmental challenges of the site, named for the Sawmill Brook that runs through part of it.

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


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