Stockbridge Planning Board candidates sound off at forum

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STOCKBRIDGE — Candidates for several Planning Board seats aired their views at recent informational forum as the election looms less than a week away.

A May 4 forum at the Town Offices featured candidates for three contested Planning Board seats and one uncontested position. It was sponsored as a nonpartisan event by the town's Democratic Committee and moderated by resident Bob Jones.

Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. May 21 at the Senior Center in the Town Offices, 50 Main St. There are 1,661 registered voters.

Rivals for a two-year term are two current board members, Christine Rasmussen, a Berkshires native, and Stuart Hirshfield, an appointed member.

Rasmussen advocated "respect for the land, pragmatism for conservation and awareness that development can occur, but it must be done in harmony with the parcel." She called for emphasis on carrying forward the town's historic character, remarking that "most days, old is worth the trouble."

Rasmussen told the crowd that she has heard calls for updated bylaws "to address the ability of seniors to live comfortably in our community, and attract people to workforce housing that we need to develop."

"We need sustainable ecological development to embrace our natural splendor and character," she said, "while providing the incremental growth necessary to fund the municipal services we need and our $12,846,000 town debt."

Hirshfield, the Democratic caucus nominee, was a part-time resident since 1993 who moved here full time with his wife, Susie, in 2012 after retiring from his law practice after a 50-year-plus career specializing in corporate bankruptcy law and mediation.

Emphasizing the art of compromise, he recounted Planning Board agendas crowded with requests from property owners to build on or improve their land, construct driveways, signs or fences.

"Granting these requests must be balanced against the interests of neighbors and the town" through its zoning bylaws, Hirshfield pointed out. "I'm well-equipped to handle these tasks through experience, temperament and judgment." He also cited the need to update zoning bylaws "to be clearer, more consistent and to reflect the needs of our modern day."

"Being mired in the past is not a road map to the future," Hirshfield said. "But forgetting our past and what makes Stockbridge special is a prescription to failure."

He also said that promoting "sensible and orderly growth will encourage new residents and businesses, while not disrupting the town's open spaces, residential neighborhoods, natural resources, property values or the environment."

Vying for a three-year term, town government newcomer William Vogt emphasized scrutiny of projects based on "community impact and desirability."

"I certainly want to maintain Stockbridge's beauty and ambiance," said Vogt, a 17-year resident and active community volunteer in the county and nearby Columbia County, N.Y. "But planning is about sensitive growth, planning is about the future, not the past."

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Vogt voiced concern over the reception given to what turned out to be a failed bid to redevelop the DeSisto estate — a former therapeutic school — into a large-scale resort.  Property owner Patrick Sheehan promoted a $150 million resort project for the 37 Interlaken Road (Route 183) site that included a 40- to 50-room hotel, 134 condo units, food and beverage service, conference facilities and 34 single-family homes. Encountering local resistance, there was talk of "other options," but none have surfaced yet.

"I was disappointed by the seeming unwillingness of the selectmen to engage actively with the developer of the DeSisto School [resort] project in any meaningful way," he said. "There seemed to be a rush to judgment, an assumption that the project was a nonstarter, and therefore any dialogue with the developer was pointless and unproductive. There should have been a willingness to sit down eagerly, actively with that developer to see if there might be ways to make the project attractive to the town. Instead, it was dismissed."

Seeking the same slot, Barney Edmonds, away for a family event, issued a statement read by the moderator noting that he's is a 21-year town resident who has spent 10 years as an elected Housing Authority member, and chairman for the past four years. To fill a vacancy, he was appointed to the Planning Board last July.

"We need to listen carefully, ask the right questions and study the applicable bylaw. Because our duty is to help shape the town's future, I prefer to go slowly," he stated. "A wrong choice can put the town on a slippery slope with an unknown outcome. I want to plan and encourage a future in which Stockbridge remains relevant and strong."

Edmonds, the Democratic caucus choice, noted his support for Tanglewood's recent landscape modification project and for a marijuana zoning bylaw restricting a retail shop to one "appropriately sized" enterprise in the business district "to increase our tax base."

He encouraged a look at the impacts of the "gig economy" and of short-term rentals, "and to find a better way to preserve open space and to ensure that our decisions strengthen and not diminish property values."

For a one-year slot, longtime county resident and the town's former Tax Collector Nancy Socha, the Democratic caucus nominee, suggested a "neutral resolution" to applicants' projects before the Planning Board while complying with current bylaws as they are written. "You have to be thoughtful, listen to both sides and make an educated decision," she said.

She also cited a nearly 100 percent collection rate during each of her 12 years as the town's collector.

"I really love Stockbridge," she said. "I hope to bring my listening and professional skills to be one of your extraordinary Planning Board members and being part of this charming and welcoming town."

Also seeking the one-year position, Dr. Charles Kenny is a 40-year resident and chairman of the town's Board of Health. His orthopedic clinic used to be at the Old Corner House on Main Street, and he even made many house calls over the years.

He credited the late town matriarch Mary Flynn, the first woman elected to the Select Board back in 1978, as a mentor on ways of preserving and protecting the town. "She emphasized to me that our town is special because in Stockbridge, progress is preservation," Kenny recalled. "She warned me about smooth-talking people from out of town who liked our small town, and then proceeded to take charge and change it."

Kenny, a trained biologist, explained his desire to join the Planning Board because of the complex planning problem to confront cyanobacteria algae blooms that first afflicted Stockbridge Bowl late last summer. "The following year is going to be crucial for the Bowl," he said. Applicants for new projects around the state-owned lake should be warned that "the watershed cannot be endangered," he added.

Unopposed for a five-year term is incumbent Marie Raftery, a town resident for 50 years who has served on many town boards and committees. Although she was out of town for the forum, she offered a statement read by her husband, Keith Raftery. She was elected for a two-year Planning Board position in 2017.

She pledged to uphold the town's zoning and planning bylaws and to work with recently hired town planner Joel Russell. "I will try to be forward-thinking about economics and all aspects of development in ways that will benefit and enhance the lives of all," she said, with emphasis on retaining open space while opening up opportunities to make the town "more livable and vibrant for all citizens now and for coming generations."

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


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