Architect Brian Humes responds to a question during the Dec. 6 Lee town meeting. At the session, residents approved the first step to move forward with a $36.7 million public safety complex, including relocating the town's public works department. At the dais, (from left) is Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard, Select Board Member Sean Regnier, Select Board Chair Robert "Bob" Jones, Select Board Clerk Gordon Bailey, and Town Administrator Christopher Brittain. Photo by Leslee Bassman.

Lee residents take first step toward new public safety complex, works department site

A new zoning bylaw allows short-term rentals and accessory dwelling units in town.

Lee — Snow flurries couldn’t keep lifelong Lee resident Tom Garrity from the town’s December 6 meeting. For the 63-year-old who owns general contracting firm LP Corporation, the session’s top issue was the vote on a new $36.7 million public safety facility and public works site. “It’s time to update the facilities,” Garrity said. “We just have to figure out how and the best way to do so. It’s time to get up to the new standards, [fire] truck sizes, etc. and the police station needs to be up to date for the safety of the police officers as well as pedestrians. It’s time to visit the situation.”

Although the measure passed with the requisite two-thirds vote, one more step is needed before the project can move forward as a corresponding referendum will be put before voters on a town election ballot this spring. The article appropriates funds to design and construct a new 37,661-square-foot public safety building that incorporates fire, police, and emergency services into a single structure that also provides a community room accommodating 75 to 100 people. The project includes the purchase of 41 Railroad Street which—combined with the existing Airoldi Building, Quonset Hut, and Department of Public Works garage tracts—would form the new public safety facility site. Along with the Railroad Street property, the article provides for the purchase of 1185 Pleasant Street to serve as the new DPW headquarters, with the relocation offering increased storage for the department currently housed in a structure that has far exceeded its life expectancy, Brittain said. The funds would also support the demolition of the Airoldi Building, the DPW Garage, and Quonset Hut.

A Reuse Committee would be created to determine the future of the historic central fire station. “Over the last few decades, unfortunately, the town has built up a significant amount of deferred maintenance on a number of our buildings while, at the same time, outgrowing many of our needs,” Town Administrator Christopher Brittain said. “So, we have an opportunity today to take a step to fix many of these problems.”

The project would serve the town today and 20 years into the future, for the life of the bond, said the project’s architect Brian Humes, who also performed Lee’s feasibility study. He said his resume includes more than 30 years of experience creating municipal facilities.

According to Humes, the $36.7 million tally for the project includes all anticipated increases in costs between now and when construction begins, with the bottom line drafted by a professional cost estimation firm. By building the public safety facility in the downtown district, he said local businesses would appreciate having such services nearby and the location provides “synergy” to drive residents and visitors to the area. Additionally, Humes said that once this property is improved, surrounding properties will likely experience the same uptick in development.

Humes said the current structures are “woefully inadequate” for the town, and Brittain said the police department is operating in a space that is almost 80 percent smaller than the area recommended for the responders.

“We are currently faced with a workplace that is severely undersized, antiquated, and we are dealing with significant operational liability, as well as some very real health, security, and safety issues,” Lee Police Chief Craig DeSantis said.

The town’s fire station was originally built to house a horse-drawn and man-pulled apparatuses, Lee Fire Chief Ryan Brown said, with fire trucks needing to be custom ordered to fit the building opening. Although the structure was modified, he said it remains inefficient and some working conditions are unsafe, with firefighters exposed to vehicle exhaust. “I would not be able to endorse this proposal if I didn’t believe it was the right project at the right time,” Brown said.

Lee Master Plan Committee Chair Peter Bluhm also spoke in support of the project, with his group considering the action as “a high priority” item.

At the Dec. 6 Lee Town Meeting, Historical Commission Secretary William “Bill” Matthews praised the public safety building design. He said the architecture of the new structure “harmonizes architecturally with the buildings on our historic Main Street.” Photo by Leslee Bassman.

Lee Historical Commission Secretary William “Bill” Matthews said he was “delighted” to see the public safety building design that “harmonizes architecturally with the buildings on our historic Main Street.”

Resident Edward Armstrong applauded the project and its cost, saying the project is actually four separate facilities, with those structures costing far greater to build individually than the proposed estimate.

However, not all attendees were on board. Cornelia Kalisher asked if the facility’s pricetag could be diminished by eliminating a tower planned for the structure, an amenity that would provide a training tool and a place to dry equipment.

Nick Lucchese said he thought the public service building was too big and advocated repairing existing structures before the town built new sites, giving local contractors the business.

Ed Lahey voiced concern about the possibility of the basement of the building taking on water as it is close to the Housatonic River, with Humes assuring him the property is out of the 100-year flood plain and will be constructed as slab on grade.

dditionally, according to state code, a municipal facility such as a public services building must be constructed to a higher standard to withstand natural disasters. Other residents questioned the entrance site to the facility as possibly slowing response times, while some hesitated to endorse the project for fear it would interfere with a riverwalk revival.

When asked about the Lee Food Pantry that is currently housed in the Airoldi Building, with that structure to be torn down under the current plan, Brittain said several options exist for the service, including relocating it to either the first floor of the police station, the revitalized central fire station, or the VFW.

In the future, residents will have the option to vote at town meetings to use the interest from the Rest of River settlement, but not the actual funds, toward the project’s bond repayment. If those funds are used, citizens will see an estimated $340 average tax increase annually for the project.

Zoning regulations

At the meeting, three articles amending the town’s zoning regulations passed, including articles seven and eight that, for the first time, approved short term rentals and accessory dwelling units in Lee.

According to Bluhm, town residents have been offering the short-term rentals through online websites for the past few years. Many surrounding towns have enacted restrictions on the units, with Lee’s regulation including a registration requirement, disallowing affordable housing units to be offered as short-term rentals, and potential violations incurring a $300-per-day fine, with the possibility of revocation of the right to offer the rental if there are repeated violations. The new bylaw doesn’t require an annual inspection of a short-term rental unit, but the unit can be inspected at any time.

The Lee regulation also restricts corporations from offering short-term rentals. “In some places, the housing stock available for people who want to live [rent] in the house permanently has been reduced because corporations have bought up houses on the market and then put them on the short-term rental market,” Bluhm said. “And, so, we want to discourage that.”

However, in some local cases, individuals are offering single residential homes as short-term rentals, with that property ownership held by a limited liability company instead of an individual. The Planning Board made an exception for those types of companies in which a family owns the property in corporate form. At the December 6 meeting, voters approved a similar exception by way of amendment for short-term rentals owned by revocable trusts, an entity used for estate-planning purposes by an individual.

Some attendees spoke against the proposal, with one homeowner citing the limited number of homes in Lee available to buy and noting that someone who lives in a residential neighborhood wants to have a neighbor adjacent, not a short-term rental.

Brittain said the town has investigated various software vendors to keep track of the short-term rentals once the measure passes.

Governing detached units, the accessory dwelling unit bylaw made legal in-law apartments or apartments over a garage, said Planning Board Chair Buck Donovan. The provision sets size limits for the units, with the units not authorized on tiny lots, he said. “I think it could really open up some nice possibilities in town,” Donovan said of the affordable housing options accessible dwelling units can potentially provide.

The bylaw, as passed, provides that only one accessory dwelling unit is allowed per property, and the unit can’t be used as a short-term rental. At the meeting, a proposed amendment that would have prevented a resident from living in the accessory dwelling unit while offering the main house for a short-term rental failed.

Article Nine defines a short-term rental as “an owner-occupied, tenant-occupied or non-owner-occupied property,” with at least one room or unit rented out and reserved in advance.

State settlement funds, conservation purchase, land sale, past invoices, voter registration dates

During the meeting, residents also approved transferring state-allocated opioid settlement funds totaling $67,167.21 to the Rural Recovery Center in Great Barrington for use as well as the Lee Police Department for training; purchasing 505 Stockbridge Road for $135,000 for conservation means and connecting two town-owned parcels; selling a dilapidated barn and 1.2 acres of land at 300 Stockbridge Road for $31,000; appropriating $6,127.37 for prior fiscal year invoices; and allowing the town to hold the final voter registration day on Friday, as opposed to Saturday, when local offices are open.