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PETER MOST: Great Barrington Town Meeting — the good, the bad, and the ugly

Five percent of eligible town voters (253 residents) observed unequal portions of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s consider each in turn.

Great Barrington’s schizophrenic 2024 Town Meeting offered an all-you-can-eat town politics buffet, although few residents showed up to partake. Five percent of eligible town voters (253 residents) observed unequal portions of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s consider each in turn.

Town Meeting had a little something for those that believe deeply that tackling Great Barrington’s housing crisis is critical to the town’s future (the good) and more than a morsel for those that do not (the bad).

Voters approved a zoning-bylaw change to permit multi-unit residential dwellings of four or more units by right on U.S. Route 7 from about the Thornewood Inn to Brookside Road. With that vote, meeting participants sent a message to developers that Great Barrington is open for business. Projects are not economically feasible without some scale, and developers generally need at least 20 units to consider a project viable. No longer will developers have to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars in a quest for a Selectboard special permit. The zoning amendment does not mean, however, that Route 7 will be lined with Trump Tower-like structures, as all other town ordinances concerning size limitations and setbacks will need to be observed. Still, as has been discussed before, avoiding the special permit gauntlet removes a hurdle to development, a complicated process under the best of conditions.

The town also approved a $250,000 expenditure to permit the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire to close on the purchase of the former Thornewood Inn. As you likely know, the Thornewood Inn is being repurposed as a workforce co-living residential development with 14 units and a shared kitchen, similar to the arrangement that appears to be working well for Construct Inc. at the former Windflower Inn. The modern co-living model is new to Great Barrington but not new. Compared to co-living conversions, ground-up workforce apartment construction is four to five times more expensive per unit, and building renovations can be at least three times more expensive, making co-living conversion developments cost effective with nearly immediate impacts. Co-living is unlikely anyone’s first choice for housing or viable as a long-term housing solution, but it offers housing essentials—a roof, warmth, and unlimited internet—so it is nothing to scoff at.

You can always count on Town Meeting to disappoint, and this one did in consideration of Article 28. Brought by Citizen’s Petition, the article sought to rezone two contiguous parcels on a heavily trafficked Silver Street for development of a non-commercial multiunit residential development. It is not possible to pinpoint precisely why the town objected to multiunit housing on the south side of Silver Street while the 66-unit Beech Tree Apartments on the north side has been a terrific contribution to the town for over five decades, but I will take a stab at a few of the possibilities.

There was the neighbor that enjoys his views of the scenery across the vacant portions of the two Silver Street lots. Sure, it is lovely to see fields in the distance, but the town should never prioritize a neighbor’s desire for scenic views over the housing needs of the many. Simply put, the town needs to stop granting homeowners de facto views easements in perpetuity if it wants to meaningfully attack our housing deficit. Corn fields are lovely in August, but housing is lovely and critical to our community all year long.

Then there was the person who commented at Town Meeting that he had moved to a bucolic Great Barrington not long ago and he would like to keep it that way. Well that’s rich, says the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. And perhaps the final nail in the coffin was the elected official that groused that zoning changes may not be permissible by a Citizen’s Petition. The fact that the town’s counsel approved placement of Article 28 on the Town Warrant should have made it clear to everyone that zoning changes by Citizen’s Petition are absolutely permissible under Massachusetts law. If tossing an ill-considered erroneous comment was intended to anger town voters, mission accomplished.

Voters approved an expenditure of $150,000 to obtain an additional $100,000 state grant to design and plan renovation of the Ramsdell Library. Voters likely considered the sum trivial enough to earn support. Although this downpayment was not a concern, it is the far larger sum that may be sought in a couple of years that should weigh on voters’ minds.

As was pointed out at Town Meeting, the Ramsdell Library has a nearly identical twin in Somerville (a town with a population about 60 times greater than Housatonic). In 2021, Somerville spent $10.5 million renovating its library. No one has suggested that the Ramsdell Library renovation will cost as much, but Somerville’s tab suggests that real dollars are at stake. Real dollars are also at stake when we consider the cost to replace Monument Mountain Regional High School (about $60 million with state aid), the cost to fix Housatonic Water Works ($35 million), the cost to repair the Brookside Road Bridge ($3.6 million), and the list goes on due to the fact that, as was repeatedly stated at Town Meeting, the town’s history of deferred maintenance has come home to roost.

The Ramsdell Library proponents made the point that Housatonic has been underserved, and so it has. It is not clear that renovating the Ramsdell Library is the wisest way for greater Great Barrington to make amends for failing to invest in the village with so many other pressing town needs, but renovation may become Housatonic’s red line. To their credit, in addition to seeking $3 million in state aid, renovation proponents intend to privately raise some portion of the millions necessary for the renovation so that Great Barrington’s 6,900 residents can enjoy an abundance of libraries. It should be noted, however, that it is not a good look for Housatonic residents to claim that they have not been properly embraced by the rest of Great Barrington and then walk out of Town Meeting en masse once the Ramsdell Library funding request passed. Maybe at least pretend to care about the rest of Great Barrington that you assert doesn’t care about you?

As for the ugly, it was the use of the term “illegals” with reference to children attending local schools. ‘Nuff said.

Woody Allen said that a relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. The same can be said for creating housing opportunities in a community. If we fail to expand housing, in all forms, our town will wither. Town Meeting laid the groundwork for additional housing, but we still have miles to go before we can rest.

Survey Monkey Questions

Here is a link to the following Survey Monkey polls:

  1. Should the town prioritize housing development over a neighbor’s wish to preserve landscape views?
  2. Would you have attended Town Meeting this year if it had been held on Saturday morning rather than on Monday night?

Survey Monkey Results

A recent column asked, “Should the town make a $150,000 downpayment on plans to improve the Ramsdell Library in order to access a $3 million grant from the state with a requirement that the town spend an additional $2 million of its own?” As of publication, 59.52 percent said “yes.”

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