Our Opinion: Lenox should approve first step of Sawmill Brook project

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On Thursday, May 2, the residents of Lenox will convene at Town Hall to make a momentous decision. Superficially, the vote at the annual town meeting will address whether or not a town-owned parcel of land should be conveyed free of charge to a developer. At a deeper level, the people of that municipality will decide what kind of town and populace they want to have, now and in the future.

The proposed Sawmill Brook affordable housing complex represents an opportunity for Lenox to spread its demographic wings by providing shelter for those who otherwise might not be able to afford the town's relatively high housing costs — including teachers, firemen, policemen, and others who, through their work or other reasons have as much of a stake in its future as the most prosperous of homeowners. Included in this group are members of their families, including children — which comprise an ever-shrinking cohort in Lenox.

The project has undergone scrutiny for its environmental impact, bang-for-the-buck potential, suitability for its location and effect on surrounding residential areas. Safeguards have been built in so that if the project's developers fail to raise the necessary investment funding, the land will never leave the town's possession. Lenox, whose ratio of affordable housing stands at 7.4 percent in contrast to the state's mandate of a 10-percent minimum, would immediately improve its numbers to 9.3 percent once the 50-unit project was completed. The project, located off the Route 7/20 bypass, would be away from the town center and one-and-a-half football fields' length away from the nearest neighborhood.

In other words, Sawmill Brook is about as safe a bet for the town as any development could be. Even after the Town Meeting vote, the project will be subject to all manner of approvals before a shovel breaks earth. That, however, doesn't take into account the emotional factor. Due to financing problems resulting from the Great Recession, the originally planned ownership properties slated for that parcel were never built. Sawmill Brook, in its present incarnation, will include several types of units, including 10 at market rental rates for better-off renters. All, however, will be rental units — and some of those Lenox residents opposed to the project have cited fears about increased crime, drugs and the unsavory element that low-income renters might bring to the town. Such concerns need to be taken into account and addressed, along with other objections if they are legitimate.

An argument that Sawmill's advocates rightly cite is that the future residents of the project will be rent-stressed professionals and seniors on fixed incomes; in fact, up to 70 percent of the units will be reserved for people living and working in the town.

Next month, Lenox will make a determination as to whether people of modest means with a stake in their town deserve to live there, must commute from more affordable communities, or simply move away because they can no longer afford its cost. A "Yes" vote on the land conveyance would be a step in the right direction, morally and practically.

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