Sawmill housing project forum aims to get voters 'more informed' ahead of Lenox town meeting

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LENOX — An informational forum on the town's mixed-income affordable housing project is set for Monday evening at Town Hall.

The multimedia event, presented by Affordable Housing Trust Chairwoman Marybeth Mitts, is designed to explain the proposal and answer voters' questions ahead of the May 2 annual town meeting, where the fate of the project will be determined.

Acknowledging the debate going on in town, Mitts said that "we've got to get out ahead of it a little bit." She described the forum as an educational session to address concerns about the proposed workforce and affordable housing apartment complex and clear up issues raised by immediate neighbors and other town residents.

Topics will include the appearance of the project, how far it will be from residents of the adjacent subdivision on Stoneledge Road, and the justification for the proposed donation of the land to the developer, Mitts said.

As a result of the forum, she pointed out, "people can go to the town meeting more informed so the vote can go as smoothly as possible. We don't want to spend a lot of time on it because there's a very full docket, so I'd like to get out in front of it and answer as many questions as possible ahead of time."

The forum will begin at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Town Hall auditorium.

A crowded annual town meeting agenda also includes competing zoning articles restricting or ruling out recreational marijuana businesses in town, and a citizens petition to allow short-term house and room rentals of 30 days or less by right anywhere in town for up to 180 days a year.

At the May 2 meeting, after acting on the proposed town budget and several other items, registered voters will be asked whether to approve donating town-owned land to the selected developer of the Sawmill Brook housing project. A two-thirds supermajority is required to convey the 19.6-acre property off the Route 7/20 bypass, just north of Housatonic Street, to Berkshire Housing Corp., in partnership with Community Development Corp. (CDC) of South Berkshire.

Because of environmental issues, only 6 acres of the parcel can be developed. If voters approve the land donation, Berkshire Housing, chosen by the Sawmill Selection Committee last month over a competing application from Boston-based Pennrose Properties, would construct 50 rental apartments in five buildings, with rent ranging from $805 for single-bedroom units to $1,350 a month for three-bedroom units, with local preference for Lenox residents and workers.

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For a family of four, annual income of $48,420 would qualify for an affordable unit, while a single individual earning $33,900 could apply, according to the Berkshire Housing proposal. Nine or 10 market-rate apartments are designated for middle-income renters.

The state's Department of Housing and Community Development is expected to sign off on a marketing plan and lottery process, reserving 50% to 70% of all units for individuals and families who live in or work in Lenox, and their immediate relatives, during the first year of rental activity. A waiting list would be set up for applicants after all the available apartments are leased.

Using Community Preservation Act funds, the town purchased the land from private owners for $600,000 in May 2011. Town meeting voters overwhelmingly approved the deal, 89 percent in favor, though it was advocated then as an ownership affordable housing complex. With state funds and incentives drying up, CDC South Berkshire was unable to secure a developer during a five-year effort that ended in 2016.

Mitts emphasized that starting last November, the selection committee requested proposals involving ownership or rental housing, "but there is no more federal or state funding available for ownership housing. This is the only option; there are no other resources."

Donation of the land is standard procedure for every project that seeks financing through state and federal tax credits, Mitts stated.

"This is nationwide, and there has to be some kind of a local match through a cash contribution," she noted. "The land counts as the local match, since it was acquired through Community Preservation funds. So what makes the most sense is to make that land our donation to the project, giving us bonus points for the state and federal funding because it shows community commitment, helping us to receive the tax credits."

As for concerns voiced by some people that a low-income rental neighborhood might be crime-prone requiring frequent police response, Mitts said that "there are low-income people living throughout this town right now. I don't think they create any more crime than any other person in our fair town; This is going to be workforce housing and affordable housing for young families and for rent-burdened seniors in town. Those are the people we anticipate will be renting."

Supervised management of the property will ensure prompt resolution of any problems that could arise, she added.

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


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