Select Board candidates sound off on short-term rentals, school budget

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LENOX — With a lively debate at the Community Center on hot-button local issues, the curtain went up Monday on a four-week town election season highlighted by a competitive three-way race for an open Select Board seat.

Competing for the position vacated by three-term Selectman Kenneth Fowler are Michael Feder, a semiretired bank executive and financial consultant for top corporations; Marybeth Mitts, a leader on the Affordable Housing Trust and a former nine-year School Committee member; and Max Scherff, a hospitality industry veteran who joined Canyon Ranch two years ago as food and beverage director.

While they found common ground on some issues, the three candidates also offered sharply contrasting views on others as they fielded questions from some of the 35 town residents attending the forum moderated by Community Center Director Kim Graham.

Asked to describe the biggest challenges facing the town, Scherff cited the need for a new wastewater treatment plant, a new facility for police, fire and ambulance services, affordable housing to help staff local businesses and the pending PCB cleanup of the Housatonic River.

Mitts prioritized economic development, including dealing with short-term Airbnb rentals and an expanded hospitality industry.

Feder emphasized the need to "stabilize and enhance the value of this community," with attention to somewhat declining housing prices and the gradual increase in local taxes.

"We need to be creative about additional ways to finance our schools," he said. "They are fabulous, they create a big hole and the homeowners are paying for it."

He cited the gap between the cost of educating nonresidents and the $5,000 state payment for each school choice student, unchanged by the state Legislature since 1993.

Scherff called the town's schools "a great draw, a big selling point" and offered "no big concerns" about the school budget.

Mitts pointed to the School Committee's role as the budget overseer and described the Select Board's role as supporting the committee's decisions.

"The values of the real estate here in town would not be as high were it not for the excellent state that we find our schools in today," she said. "Much of the growth and the financial success of the town is directly correlated to the success of our school district."

Acknowledging declining enrollment of resident students, she said that while "paying to keep the lights on and teachers in the classroom, why not fill the marginal seats we have with students from other districts. We're lucky that people want to come to this district for those marginal seats."

On short-term Airbnb rental proposals through a citizens petition at the May 2 annual town meeting, Mitts voiced skepticism about a provision allowing homebuyers to create an investment housing business if they live in the house for 30 days in their first year of ownership.

"We want to keep our residential districts residential," she stated, adding that prospective homebuyers might resist moving to a neighborhood with multiple short-term rental houses. "People want to move to Lenox because they like the small-town character, because we have great schools and they want their children to thrive and grow in these schools," she said. But Mitts expressed support for rentals in owner-occupied homes and in accessory dwelling units.

Property values increase based on the strength of the school district, she added.

"I believe the town wants to maintain its charming New England character," she said

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Feder cited bed-and-breakfast inns as an element of the town's charm.

"We want to keep Airbnb from putting them out of business," he said. "We want to be careful to develop a solution that protects the existing room-and-board, bed-and-breakfast merchants and at the same time doesn't create an environment in which young families with children are all of a sudden priced out of the market."

Scherff urged marketing the town to drive more visitors to the inns, the larger properties and to the Airbnbs as "a win for everybody, a rising tide floats all boats." While advocating individual property rights, he also said he doesn't want to live on a street where half of his neighbors are short-term rentals that are empty half the year.

"There's a happy medium here," he said. "If we want to make the town more affordable and make sure our taxes don't go up, let's make sure the businesses do well by getting more people here."

Offseason marketing

Asked whether they support the Chamber of Commerce's proposal to sharply increase Town Hall's economic development spending for offseason and shoulder season tourism, the candidates differed.

Scherff backed expanded spending on marketing to help the town's businesses thrive.

But Mitts cautioned that town government involvement through enhanced funding for specific plans would require a formal request for proposals process.

"You can't hand the money over to someone and hope for the best, there have to be some controls on public funds," she said.

Feder said he needs more information on the marketing options and how they would be managed, "but I sure as hell want to know before I would agree to use public funds for private promotion."

On affordable housing proposals, Feder urged consideration of specific opportunities "on a case-by-case basis, who benefits and who doesn't."

Mitts, citing her service on the Affordable Housing Trust, noted that the specific Sawmill Brook development proposal for town-owned land off Housatonic Street will be voted on at the upcoming annual town meeting.

"Forty-seven percent of renters in town are rent-burdened," she said, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their pretax income on housing.

"Affordable housing is an economic development issue," Mitts said. "If you can't hire the right people you need, if there's no place for them to live in town, they're not going to locate here and you're not going to have your restaurants staffed, Canyon Ranch and Cranwell won't be staffed."

Scherff, declaring that he would vote for the Sawmill project, agreed that "it's hard for a business to recruit talent here because there aren't enough places for people to live."

Asked about upcoming votes on zoning for adult-use recreational marijuana businesses, Feder voiced outright opposition to dispensaries anywhere in town, while Mitts and Scherff supported the Planning Board's zoning proposals confining them to commercial zones north of downtown.

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


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