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Danny Bell and Claudia Shapiro own property abutting the Walter J. Koladza Airport on Egremont Plain Road in Great Barrington. Bell and Shapiro filed suit against the town for allowing fund-raising events to be held at the airport.

Great Barrington ZBA rejects another zoning complaint from ‘aggrieved’ couple

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By Wednesday, Jul 29, 2015 News 19

 Great Barrington — There was shouting along with the groans of struggling air conditioning units in the Town Hall meeting room Tuesday night, as the Zoning Board of Appeals entered the ring to face off – once again — with its familiar adversaries, the disgruntled Egremont Plain Road residents and airport abutters, Claudia Shapiro and Danny Bell.

Danny Bell and Claudia Shapiro confront the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals.

Danny Bell and Claudia Shapiro confront the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals. Photo: Heather Bellow

The chronic legal fights being waged on the town by this couple reached a fast boil at Tuesday’s (July 28) Zoning Board of Appeals hearing to decide whether to uphold Building Inspector Edwin May’s refusal to act on Shapiro’s and Bell’s zoning enforcement complaint that the Walter J. Kolazda Airport should be prevented from holding events.

Shapiro and Bell say that the town should have stopped Berkshire Aviation Enterprises from hosting the Rotary Club’s Bike n’ Fly in 2013. They contend it’s a zoning violation, and insist that because the airport was never really zoned commercially, it can’t hold fundraisers, including a car show, in what is a residential area and a water quality protection district. It follows, they say, that the Selectboard should not have issued an entertainment license for the event.

May disagreed on the grounds that the airport was used for aviation well before those zoning bylaws were created. It “enjoys pre-existing status,” he wrote in his denial, adding that Shapiro and Bell’s complaint was a result of a “misinterpretation” of the town’s zoning bylaws.

The Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously upheld May’s order. The previous evening, the Selectboard had recommended the same.

Zoning Board of Appeals listens to Claudia Shapiro: from left, Kathleen Kotleski, Vice Chair Carolyn Ivory, Chairman Ronald Majdalany, John Katz and Donald Hagberg. ZBA member Michael Wise recused himself because he is in the Rotary Club, which sponsors the Bike n’ Fly.

Zoning Board of Appeals listens to Claudia Shapiro: from left, Kathleen Kotleski, Vice Chair Carolyn Ivory, Chairman Ronald Majdalany, John Katz and Donald Hagberg. ZBA member Michael Wise recused himself because he is in the Rotary Club, which sponsors the Bike n’ Fly.


Still, the Board was tortured by a long, breathless recitation of case law and property transfers read from handwritten pages, first by Shapiro, then Bell. As a result, there was no coherent shape to their argument that zoning exceptions should not be made for the airport. Shapiro appeared to enjoy grandstanding, as if that might convince the board. And the board struggled for composure as she stomped from seat to podium, and sometimes across the room, occasionally insulting or accusing the board and the town of incompetence and malfeasance.

“These proceedings are not legal, and are not following proper procedure,” Shapiro declared as she began. “This is already starting out in typical Great Barrington and Claudia Shapiro-Danny Bell-style.”

While attorney Richard Dohoney, representing May, said he didn’t “dispute [the airport] is in a residential neighborhood,” he said the issue was about “use,” not structures, and that the airport had long been used for aviation.

The matter heated up in 2013, traveling to Berkshire Superior Court, which sent it back to the ZBA.


Building Inspector Edwin May.

But the seeds of the war were planted, it appears, in January of 2010, when May told Bell, of Shapiro-Motors Fine Automotive — Danny Bell’s LLC — that he had to stop doing car repairs and auto body work at his home because it is not in a commercial zone. The cease and desist order says that May learned of the work after a 2008 article in a newspaper published photos and an article that described “painting and sandblasting” of cars on the property. The repair shop is advertised by a sign on 195 State Road, where the company also has an office.

Bell appealed the order, but got nowhere with the ZBA.

In her statement last night, Shapiro alluded to the 2010 cease and desist order, and used it as a reason to say the town shouldn’t make exceptions for the airport, since it is right next door to their property which is near the end of the runway. “I am personally, financially, and politically severely aggrieved, having had our land abutting…this airport stripped to strictly residential [use] in 2010,” she said.

The battle has not been cheap. Through the end of July, town officials say they estimated the town will have spent somewhere between $53,000 and $54,000 defending itself from Shapiro and Bell’s claims. The 2010 to 2013 litigation over the automotive work was the most expensive component, at $39,250.

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19 Comments   Add Comment

  1. GMHeller says:

    New England Log Homes Restoration Project and Community Development Corporation (CDC) of Southern Berkshire should hire Danny Bell and Claudia Shapiro to challenge Mass. DEP’s shut-down of the Log Homes site clean-up.
    Performance art is big in Boston and is sure to persuade MDEP to reverse its decision.

  2. susan says:

    Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    – Einstein

  3. GMHeller says:

    Great Barrington’s Liberals are no doubt thrilled that Shapiro & Bell’s private property rights have been destroyed by the town’s Zoning Ordinances.
    What right does GB have to say Bell can’t fix cars on his land?

    1. Dis says:

      What right???? Seriously??? It’s called zoning, it’s what regulates all types of relevant activities in different areas of a town, the same reason no one would want a sewage treatment plant amongst a housing complex or a race track next to a church…. Without zoning, it would be a mess…

      1. GMHeller says:

        It’s a worse mess with zoning regulations.
        Plus, isn’t unequal enforcement of the regulations just as big a mess?
        Better to scrap the entire zoning law, which should never have been passed in the first place.
        Do you really want to establish an accurate count of just how many residents of Great Barrington are running commercial enterprises out of homes located in non-commercial zones in direct violation of the town’s zoning ordinances?
        That’s the dirty little secret re GB’s zoning regs, isn’t it?

    2. JP says:

      Private property rights? Is the airport parking planes on their front lawn? Give me a break.

      1. GMHeller says:

        No, the airport is not double-parking planes over at Shapiro-Bells, but GB Zoning is stopping Shapiro-Bells from restoring antique automobiles on Shapiro-Bell property zoned non-commercial.

  4. Dis says:

    Granted some regulations may be onerous or even perhaps in need of overhaul, but dispensing with them entirely makes no sense… By that logic one could say the same about any regs, speed limits, open burning of tires and garbage, sewage disposal etc…….you cannot move to a residential neighborhood and then claim hardship because you aren’t allowed to open up a scrap yard. I am not that interested in how many other people are breaking the zoning regs, not my job, but if they are called out on the carpet, they should take the medicine without whining…. Just like that speeding ticket I got, it’s my bad

  5. GMHeller says:

    If Zoning is going to apply a strict interpretation to the Shapiro-Bells, then should not as strict an interpretation be applied to activities at every other property in GB — including Koladza Airport?

    1. Patrick Fennell says:

      Ironically the GB fire department had work done on at least one truck by Bell a few years back and at one point GB was buying gravel from the Nolan property when he was fighting with the town about whether or not he had a legal gravelpit.

  6. Dis says:

    Apparently, you and the shapiro/bell clan are not aware of, or choose to ignore the fact that when a property has been in existence prior to zoning, the current regs do not apply….. Unless the airport property were to be sold and the new owners wanted to change its use to a landfill, it’s “grandfathered” status is is unaffected by current zoning regs, it’s the same all over the country, and the reason is to allow for the hardship that would be imposed on said businesses in a retroactive decision.

    1. GMHeller says:

      You might want to check with a lawyer on that interpretation. Kolodza Airport is certainly grandfathered-in as far as certain aspects of zoning, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to all aspects of the current zoning regs nor to all of the commercial activities that could occur on the acreage owned by the airport.
      For example, would you claim that the airport owner is free to invite Big Apple Circus to set up its tent on airport property for the purposes of giving daily performances, or is that usage governed by present zoning regs and not automatically grandfathered-in?

      1. dis says:

        completely different topic…… what shapiro and bell were “supposed” to be contending at the zba meeting on tuesday night, was the simple issue of wether the permit given to the berkshire aviation for a one time event of the bike and fly was given to the airport in violation of zoning. as you well know, or not, the 1 hr long diatribe directed at the zba only touched on that topic ever so briefly and then by some dint of subterfuge/underhanded manipulation took a sharp right hand turn and tried to connect the dots vis a vis the cease and disist order handed to the shapiro/bells in 2010. as to the big apple circus, yes and no…. of course they could apply for a special permit for a one day event just like you or I could, but by your phrasing, no, they could not host the big apple circus ad nauseum …. something I believe you are smart enough to decipher yourself…..

      2. GMHeller says:

        So its okay for a grandfathered-in property to host a one-day event but not a multi-day event regardless of the nature of the activity being hosted?

  7. Dis says:

    Again, a silly question. That is not what I presented at all, the very phrase “ad nauseum” (to a sickening or excessive degree) says exactly what I meant. I do not profess to know what the criteria is for day event permits or how they are measured by the zba, nor what bar height needs to be met with regards to those applications. If you would like to defend the content and actions of bell/shapiro at the zba meeting on Tuesday night, kudos to you. But to blanket that defense with specious banter and hypothetical scenarios, you do yourself the distinct disservice of being blatantly biased, which from my perspective, taints all of your past comments. Bottom line is, the great barrington airport asked for a one day event permit, Edwin May granted that permit, shapiro/bell contested that permit, and the zba ruled that the permit was legally allowed under the code. There is no reason for ANY other topic to be attached to that conversation as all of the other issues are not involved. If bell and shapiro wish to litigate those other issues, they can do so to their hearts content, and to date, they have, but with 0 success…. And not just at the town level, but the state level as well, and every time they have come up empty handed.

  8. GMHeller says:

    There’s no telling how the Supreme Judicial Court might rule should the Shapiro-Bells opt to appeal last night’s ZBA’s decision through the courts using an able lawyer with experience in zoning law.

  9. Carl Stewart says:

    Mr Heller is incorrect when he says “there’s no telling how the Supreme Judicial Court might rule…” on an appeal from the ZBA decision.

    Based on prior land use decisions, Shapiro/Bell would have a very uphill battle. But the SJC may never see this appeal because appeal from permitting agencies’ decisions goes either to Superior Court in Pittsfield or Land Court. The standard of review is whether the ZBA decision was “arbitrary and capricious”. As someone who has litigated quite a few reviews of decisions by administrative agencies, I can tell you that proving arbitrariness and capriciousness is extremely difficult.

    There is a significant amount of time, energy, and money being expended here by both sides to the dispute. Best, in my view, to put that to better use for a more meaningful cause.

    1. Susan Pettee says:

      Thank you, Carl, for being a voice of reason and for pointing out the standard that is applied to appeals from ZBA decisions. As for the Bell/Shapiro auto body business, hammering on metal, sandblasting, and spray painting auto bodies are things i would not like to have happen in my or any residential neighborhood. If Mr. Heller dislikes residential zoning he could move to Houston, TX, where a homeowner can wake up one day and find the lot next door has become a storage yard for metal pipes, with clanking and crashing from moving them around any time of day or night. This actually happened to a friend of a friend.

      1. GMHeller says:

        There’s great comfort in knowing that local Liberals are only too happy to forego other people’s private property rights.

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