Pot, short-term rentals key issues for Lenox annual town meeting

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LENOX — Two of the town's most divisive issues — short-term Airbnb rental housing and adult recreational marijuana regulations — are likely to turn the upcoming annual town meeting into an especially lively, and perhaps prolonged, verbal donnybrook.

For the first time in four years, citizens petitions have been filed for inclusion on the already lengthy, typical agenda of town and school budget requests.

Advocates of short-term rentals through Airbnb and similar online sites filed a proposal that would allow short-term rental of entire primary residences or second homes, and of additional "accessory" buildings on a property, by right anywhere in town, in all commercial, residential and industrial zones. The petition would permit the rentals for fewer than 30 consecutive days at any time of the calendar year, with a cap of 180 short-term rental days per year.

The citizens proposal, signed by 19 residents, also would allow short-term rental of up to two bedrooms in a home year-round by right throughout the town in all zoning districts. The rooms would have to be within the owner's primary residence.

Excluded are investment rental properties, defined as a single dwelling not used by the owners as a primary or secondary residence but only for short-term rentals.

"Use of the property by the owner for purposes other than short-term rental for at least 30 consecutive or nonconsecutive days in the first full year of ownership establishes that the property is not investment rental property," the proposal states.

The petition submitted to Town Hall by residents Kelly Brown and Theodore Silverman lists the purposes of the proposed zoning bylaw:

- Minimizing public safety risks for guests, visitors and immediate neighbors;

- Minimizing nuisance for abutters;

- Sustaining the supply and affordability of residential housing available to community families and individuals who live and work in the region;

- Sustaining the value of Lenox residential real estate now and in the future;

- Protecting Lenox occupancy tax revenues resulting from short-term rentals;

- And minimizing administrative burdens and costs on Lenox town departments and volunteer boards.

The petition, which needs two-thirds voter approval, also requires short-term rental hosts to meet the town's off-street parking requirements, refrain from posting signs promoting or identifying their properties as short-term rentals, ensure that renters obey all existing noise, parking, light and odor bylaws, and not hold special events "except for short-term rental occupation that complies with this bylaw."

A separate citizens petition submitted as a general town bylaw requiring only a simple majority for approval specifies that short-term rental hosts must register with the town clerk by Nov. 1 this year if the zoning bylaw has been approved. An initial registration fee of $100 would be required, and the registration number would be included in online or other forms of listings and at the short-term rental property. Annual renewals would be necessary.

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The Planning Board's version of a short-term rental bylaw was put aside by voters at the Nov. 1 special town meeting after prolonged and inconclusive discussion. The board later decided not to offer a revised version for the annual town meeting at 7 p.m. May 2 in the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School's Duffin Theater.

A total ban

Residents seeking to exclude any and all adult recreational marijuana-related enterprises from Lenox gathered 36 signatures, well beyond the 10 required, to put their proposed total ban on the town meeting warrant. The citizens petition would not apply to medical marijuana businesses.

Already scheduled for a town meeting vote is the Planning Board's highly restrictive zoning proposal that would limit cannabis entrepreneurs to the commercial districts along Pittsfield Road north of downtown, with manufacturing-only businesses also permitted in the small Lenox Dale industrial zone.

The citizens petition, organized by Richard DeFazio, and the Planning Board article each requires two-thirds approval. Voters are expected to request a secret ballot rather than a voice vote or a hand count.

A statewide ballot question in November 2016 approved legalization of marijuana by 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent. The Lenox margin of approval was nearly identical, 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent, or 1,601 in favor, 1,404 opposed.

But DeFazio contends that "most voters did not read the entire question because of time constraints and for other reasons. We believe that they were voting to `get rid of criminals' only."

He asserted that very little information was available at that time about marijuana businesses, since the Cannabis Control Commission had not yet been formed.

"We firmly believe that for the good of Lenox, the town we all love, the article will result in protecting public health [especially for our children and grandchildren]; keep Lenox a safe community to live in; safeguard our environment and protect our town's social image and social norm," the petition states.

DeFazio said his proposal aligns with "the current and future Lenox Master Plan to protect the town's rural character, protect water and other environmental resources and enhance energy conservation."

The Planning Board proposal, revised after multiple meetings and a formal, legally required public hearing Feb. 26, bars all marijuana businesses from the historic downtown village, the Lenox Dale business district, except for manufacturers, and all residential areas.

It requires a rigorous special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals for marijuana-manufacturing and cultivation businesses allowed in the north Lenox commercial zones along Route 7/20 [Pittsfield Road] or in the Lenox Dale industrial zone. Retail pot shops, which would be allowed only in the commercial zones, would be limited to two and would need a ZBA special permit.

A previous, less-restrictive Planning Board article fell eight votes short of the two-thirds supermajority at the Nov. 1 special town meeting.

Lenox has an extended marijuana moratorium through June 30. If neither the citizens petition nor the Planning Board article receives the required two-thirds majority, any type of marijuana business could apply to open anywhere in town where other retail or manufacturing enterprises can operate.

If the total ban proposed by the citizens group is approved, a townwide ballot would be needed to affirm that outcome, as required by state law, because town voters approved the November 2016 marijuana legalization question. The new vote must be held before the June 30 moratorium expiration to avoid a cannabis business free-for-all in the town.

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


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