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Lenox Voters Reject Affordable Housing, Embrace Marijuana

An auditorium with every seat filled faces a stage and a screen with the Lenox town leadership sitting behind tables and one person behind a podium.
Josh Landes
The 2019 Lenox Town Meeting at the Duffin Theater in the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

Lenox, Massachusetts residents voted against an affordable housing plan at Thursday night’s town meeting. They also moved to open up the town to recreational marijuana sales.

Residents from the Southern Berkshire town of around 5,000 poured into the Duffin Theater at the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School to take on a 21 article warrant. The overflow crowd necessitated the use of monitors in the school cafeteria for those who couldn’t find seats in the auditorium or didn’t want to stand in its packed aisles. While one major issue – the town’s zoning bylaws for short-term rentals – was tabled, there was still plenty to discuss. After approving the town’s almost $20.8 million budget and trading land parcels with a landowner adjacent to Kennedy Park, the biggest issue of the night was a proposal to turn over town land for an affordable housing complex. Lenox is one of the wealthiest communities in Berkshire County, overall one of the state’s poorest counties. Elton Ogden is the president of the Berkshire Housing Development Corporation.

“Our mission is to improve the quality of life in Berkshire County," said Ogden. "One of the ways that we do that is by developing very attractive, very high quality, and very highly energy efficient homes for people. That’s what the Sawmill project is all about, it’s about creating 50 homes for people that 55% of Lenox residents would income qualify for.”

Argument over the proposal was fierce, beginning before the meeting even started with opponents of the plan handing out leaflets in front of the school. Aspersions about the morality of either choice abounded in the community.

“I don’t think there’s one person in this room tonight who opposes affordable housing," said William Welch. "If you oppose article 15, it does not make you an elitist, a snob, a fear monger, or has recently been suggested, a racist.”

Lenox resident Welch expressed dismay with the project, questioning the impact of an additional 200 new residents on the town’s resources.

“There are better approaches to affordable housing in this town and better uses for this land. Why should we push it through right now instead of waiting and examining our other options?” asked Welch, to applause.

“I think we have to start thinking of this in terms of workforce housing," said Anne Meczywor. Another Lenox resident, she was among the plan’s supporters.

“These are our teachers, our firemen, our highway workers, the people who make our town vibrant and work right there," said Meczywor. "We come to town meeting time and time again, and over and over again we hear residents say ‘our kids can’t afford to live here.’ We’re not looking at housing that is going to be substandard. This is something that’s going to be well managed, it’s going to be attractive, it’s going to increase the vitality of this community.”

While the yes vote won a simple majority, it failed to reach the two-thirds supermajority required to pass.

On another subject, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the town’s zoning bylaws that will open up Lenox to adult use marijuana businesses. A similar proposal from the town’s planning board barely failed to reach the two-thirds supermajority required at a special town meeting in November 2018.

“Following that November vote, the planning board did discuss how we could improve the bylaw based on what we heard in November to earn those extra votes," said Pamela Kueber. "We met with the select board. We also held a meeting with residents in Lenoxdale, our industrial zone, to get their feedback on how we could improve the bylaw proposal.”

Kueber, of the planning board, says the meetings produced a new, more restrictive zoning bylaw.

“Key requirements of this zoning bylaw now include that a special permit from the Lenox zoning board of appeals would be required for all marijuana establishments," she explained. "The special permit enables the zoning board to go through a very rigorous process and even ultimately to say ‘no’ to any establishment they felt did not meet the requirements of a special permit.”

Retail sales will be exclusively located on the Route 7 and 20 corridor, and only two stores will be allowed in Lenox. All other kinds of marijuana business will be located on the corridor and in the town’s industrial zone. Among other restrictions, the new Lenox bylaw does not allow for any “noxious odors” from any marijuana business. The final vote of the night was a demonstrative rejection of a citizen’s petition to prohibit recreational marijuana in Lenox.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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