Voters to decide on short-term rental zoning, pot bylaws

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LENOX — When voters troop into the annual town meeting early next month, three items will be front and center in the smorgasbord of 20 warrant articles.

Up for debate and a vote: whether to ease zoning restrictions on short-term Airbnb rentals, a citizens petition; where to allow marijuana enterprises in town, if at all, with a June 30 deadline for a decision approaching; and whether the town should donate to a developer a 19-acre parcel off the state highway bypass for a mixed-income rental housing complex.

Disposition of land the town bought for $600,000 in 2011 for affordable housing, advocated then as an ownership project, requires a two-thirds majority for approval.

Likewise, zoning articles affecting short-term house and room rentals of less than 30 consecutive days, as well as two competing sets of marijuana enterprise restrictions, also need the same supermajority to pass.

At its 6 p.m.Tuesday meeting in Town Hall, the Planning Board is expected to discuss the petition filed early last month by 35 citizens to bar all marijuana businesses from the town, as well as a citizens petition submitted by 19 supporters of short-term rentals in all town zones.

Both citizens petitions dealing with zoning require a legal public informational hearing presented to voters by the Planning Board. That's slated for April 23 at 6 p.m., and includes a review and analysis by Town Counsel Joel Bard at KP Law in Boston. The marijuana issue will be first on the agenda, followed by the short-term rental discussion.

Based on feedback at the public hearing, the Planning Board would evaluate the petitions and prepare a report, probably in writing, to present to annual town meeting voters.

Even if Bard finds that either of the petitions has legal deficiencies, the bylaws would still go to the town meeting for consideration.

The annual town meeting is at 7 p.m. May 2 in the Duffin Theater at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Short-term rentals

The citizens petition on zoning would allow short-term rentals of entire primary residences or secondary dwellings, including second homes and accessory units on a property, by right anywhere in town, in all commercial, residential and industrial zones.

Also, it would allow short-term rental of up to two bedrooms in a home year-round by right in all zoning districts. The rooms would have to be within the owner's primary residence.

Not permitted 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. However, if the owner lives in the home for at least 30 consecutive or nonconsecutive days in the first full year after the house is purchased, that means the building is not an investment rental property, the petition states.

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"A large number of people in our town rent out their homes on a short-term basis, have done so for generations and view it as a common practice for residential properties in Lenox," Jim Harwood said in an Eagle interview. "When I hear people say that renting a house short-term is a commercial activity, and therefore it's a hotel, that's just inconsistent with the history of Lenox."

Marc Manoli is another resident who signed the petition. He suggested that the case for the town's estimated 100 to 200 short-term rental hosts is that "in our democracy, typically the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," whom he identified as a few innkeepers. "Now we have a very small group of people advocating against the needs of a very large population in the town. Why? Because they're very vocal."

A majority of complaints about some short-term rental hosts could best be handled if the town adopts a noise ordinance, said Harwood, one of the citizens who signed the petition. He's the sole candidate on the May 6 town election ballot for a Planning Board seat being vacated by Deborah Rimmler.

A separate citizens petition not dealing with zoning would require that short-term rental hosts must register with the town clerk by Nov. 1 this year if the zoning bylaw has been approved. The proposal calls for a first-time $100 registration fee and inclusion of the registration number online or other forms of listings and at the short-term rental property. Annual renewals would be necessary. This proposed general town bylaw needs only a simple majority for passage.

Marijuana bylaws

The citizens petition prohibiting any and all adult recreational marijuana-related enterprises from Lenox gathered 36 signatures, well beyond the 10 required. It would not apply to medical marijuana businesses.

"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]; keeping Lenox a safe community to live in; safeguarding our environment; and protecting our town's social image and social norm," the petition prepared by resident Richard DeFazio states.

The Select Board has not yet decided whether that petition would come first or would follow the already scheduled zoning proposal from town planners.

That restrictive proposal limits marijuana retailers, growers and other cannabis enterprises to the commercial districts along Pittsfield Road [Routes 7 and 20] north of downtown. Only manufacturing businesses would be allowed in the Lenox Dale industrial zone. Any applicant would have to seek a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Also, no more than two retail pot businesses could operate in commercial zones.

No marijuana enterprise of any kind could set up shop in the historic downtown village, the Lenox Dale business district or in any residential area.

The town's extended marijuana moratorium expires 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 wherever other retail or manufacturing enterprises are allowed.

An additional complication: If the total ban proposed by the citizens group passes, a townwide ballot would be needed before June 30 to affirm that outcome, as required by state law. That's because town voters approved the statewide marijuana legalization ballot question in November 2016.

If the town ballot fails, the same free-for-all would develop, putting marijuana businesses in the same category as any other retail or manufacturing business.

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


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