Our Opinion: Stockbridge shouldn't jeopardize essence for 37 Interlaken

It has happened in towns and villages across America; thanks to their history and the pride and good stewardship of their citizens, they develop a unique character that defines them for years, decades, even centuries. They slumber on, self-sufficient, comfortable and, yes, charming in their traditional way of doing things.

Then, they are "discovered." With the outside attention, inns, bed and breakfasts, boutique shops pop up like crocuses, and before the locals have a chance to catch their breath, developers begin sniffing around open land, seeking ways to parlay that town ethos into a marketing concept that will sell units. And by so doing, they threaten to forever alter that ineffable essence that made the town so livable for its original residents, and so attractive to visitors in the first place.

As it confronts the question of whether to move forward with the 37 Interlaken development on the old DeSisto School property, the town of Stockbridge finds itself at an existential juncture. The community is losing population, those who remain are aging and while there are needs to be addressed, a resistance to higher property taxes makes fulfilling them difficult.

In this context, a developer like 37 Interlaken's Patrick Sheehan, who has personal ties to the town, appears like a white knight claiming to provide jobs and an increased tax base. He needs a change in a bylaw that would enable him to build out his cottage-era property to fit a planned hotel, condos, housing clusters and a restaurant. The existing zoning bylaw has served Stockbridge quite well through the years, and protected the sovereignty of its residents over the way growth of their home town is managed.

Mr. Sheehan would like to see that bylaw changed in a manner that would eliminate the discretion of the town's Select Board to grant or limit its intended uses. His lawyer has even helpfully provided a draft of the alteration for the Planning Board to adopt. The Planning Board, at its Tuesday meeting, unanimously voted to take a cautious approach by leaving the zoning bylaw intact, while seeming to invite a liberalization of the permit-granting process, opening a door to future changes.

There may be a way for Stockbridge to thread the needle between meeting future needs while preserving the way of life that is so precious to its residents and appealing to visitors. 37 Interlaken should scale back on the project design in deference to its location in a residential area. The developer's argument that only a project of the size he proposes can be economically profitable has yet to be proved. At its current size, it's too much for a small town to swallow, at least all at once.

The Planning Board and the town should work with the developer to design a project that, while beneficial, can be more easily absorbed. The concept at the heart of the proposed bylaw change ought to be dropped and the developer should have to rely on the process that was in existence, and clear to all, when he embarked on this venture. Stockbridge should only change its zoning procedures if and when its citizens decide that such a change is desirable for the town's future, not to suit a particular developer — no matter who he or she may be.

Should Mr. Sheehan decide that a scaled-back version of his project doesn't provide a proper return on his investment, the town should wish him well in his endeavors in other communities and move on. Stockbridge will still be Stockbridge, and the same appeal that makes it unique today will most likely attract other developers. The town is in the driver's seat here; it is not, and never should be, a supplicant.


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