Second-class citizens no longer: Berkshire second-home owners eye greater involvement, voting rights
Stockbridge — Charles Atlas called it “dynamic tension”: the pitting of muscle against muscle in an effort to gain strength. That very phrase might also describe the relationship between Berkshire County natives — or those who have lived here for decades — and the county’s second-home owners.
Much is made about the thriving tourism and nonprofit sectors that drive the region’s economy. A 2009 study by Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard found that the nonprofit sector was generating $1.9 billion in the Berkshire County economy every year and employing more than a third of its workforce. By 2012, that figure had risen to $2.4 billion from the nearly 375 Berkshire County nonprofits, including visitor impact generated by nonprofit expenditures.
Less well-known are the culture and economics surrounding Berkshire County’s second-home owners — a group whose interests and spending habits sometimes overlap with the tourism sector, but whose collective power and influence locally are even stronger than you might think.
Second-home owners have no voting rights in Massachusetts, so their influence in state and local affairs is necessarily limited. They certainly are permitted to attend town meetings and, in most towns, are allowed to speak at the discretion of the moderator.
Many natives embrace the second-home owners, also known in some circles as “weekenders” or “part-timers.” They pay taxes on mostly expensive properties but demand little in the way of services.
Most Berkshire County residents are also unaware that nondomiciled homeowners are also subject to the personal property tax. That means weekenders pay taxes on the belongings in their houses, just as businesses are taxed on the equipment in their offices or retail establishments.
Weekenders do not enroll children in Berkshire County schools, which amounts to a windfall to their towns because education accounts for as much as two-thirds of municipal spending.
Of course, part-timers do not drive on the roads every day. They often make improvements on their properties using local contractors. They employ landscapers, cleaning crews, lawn services and caterers.
And ask anyone who goes out to eat on the weekend: Part-timers pack local restaurants — and they surely account for a disproportionate chunk of the money spent at cultural destinations and major employers such as Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company and Jacob’s Pillow.
The downside, their detractors say, is that they bring their city ways with them. Stories abound about arrogant New Yorkers treating the help poorly in local stores and eateries. But most locals, if they’re honest, will also tell you that the stereotype — like most stereotypes — is not entirely accurate. Gone are the days of yore when Gilded Age matriarchs sunning themselves at their summer estates stared down their noses at the gardener or the butler.
But part-timers do pay premium prices for their country properties. That, in turn, drives up the cost of real estate and even rental housing for those who live here year-round. To make matters worse, as real estate prices climb, real wages are falling.
In other words, the result is high housing costs with low wages in a service-based economy that caters to part-time residents, hospitality and tourism. Click here to see an eye-opening summary of that predicament from the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire.
Weekenders tend to be a fragmented lot. Unless they were acquainted before they bought property up here, they either don’t know each other or perhaps met at social gatherings or while attending cultural offerings.
But in Stockbridge, where more than half of the homes are part-time residences, a group of weekenders has banded together and formed a group to share concerns and ideas. The Stockbridge Part-Time Residents Group is a Google group, or essentially an online discussion group for people sharing common interests.
“Part-time residents don’t often know what’s going on other than what they hear on the street or at the coffee shop,” said part-timer Patty Caya, a digital media strategist who lives full-time with her husband and family in Medford and part-time in the Mahkeenac Heights section of Stockbridge. “Part of the reason for the group is communication of maybe things people are not aware of, things that are going on in town — to create a better flow of information.”
The Google group is private and limited to second-homeowners. The group has set up a no-frills website to allow requests for membership. Click here to access the website and request membership.
And of course, another reason for the formation of the group is for second-homeowners to share concerns and ideas. In Stockbridge there has been no shortage of high-profile issues, including a proposal to redevelop the former DeSisto School property and weed control at the Stockbridge Bowl, along whose shore many part-time residents own homes. And of course, there are perennial concerns about the confusing intersection at the Red Lion Inn right smack in the middle of town.
“We want the people of the town to look upon us not as alien creatures, if you will, but as people who do, in fact, care a great deal about a town in which we own property and in which we spend significant amounts of time,” said Sandy Baron, a noted New York media attorney who has been a part-timer in town for 40 years.
Baron lives in a small community of about 130 people, Beachwood, adjacent to Stockbridge Bowl, a beautiful 372-acre lake near Tanglewood. When Baron first started coming to Beachwood, the neighborhood was about one-third part-timers from New York, one-third part-timers from the Boston area and one-third local residents.
“From the Boston area, it was mostly professors and musicians,” Baron recalled. “Now there are fewer locals.”
In Stockbridge, 54 percent of the homes are owned by part-time residents, according to Michael Blay, who has been the town’s principal assessor for 18 years. Click here to see a spreadsheet of those out-of-town homeowners. That makes Stockbridge a so-called “majority town” of nonresident property owners.
“The majority of properties on the Stockbridge Bowl are second-homeowners,” Blay said. “With the values we have on those properties, very few locals could afford them.”
The Stockbridge Part-Time Residents Group has met for the last two summers with town officials, including the selectmen and officials from the fire and police departments, to get updates on issues of concern, including not only DeSisto and the traffic study for the intersection of Route 7 and Main Street, but more mundane items such as a recent increase in the price of a transfer station permit and possible payments in lieu of taxes for the many nonprofits in the town.
One issue that has also gained currency with the group is the possibility of obtaining limited voting rights for part-time residents. Both Caya and Barron emphasized that this is not the primary focus of their group, but members are nonetheless interested in discussing it.
Edge columnist Carole Owens wrote a piece on that very subject last month and it provoked a strong reaction from readers, both in the comment thread of the column and on the Edge Facebook page.
Both Baron and Caya have noted that at least 10 states — including Colorado, Delaware and Connecticut — give part-time residents some measure of voting rights. The most expansive rights are in Connecticut, where state law allows nonresidents with a tax liability of $1,000 or more to vote in town meetings in towns that have the town meeting form of government.
So taxpaying nonresidents in Connecticut may vote on budgetary matters, zoning issues and ordinances that require approval at town meeting. Connecticut law, however, expressly forbids those same nonresidents from voting for candidates in the town’s regular and special elections.
That law was the subject of an unsuccessful challenge in 1992 from part-time residents owning property in New London, a city that does not have the town meeting form of government. Click here to read an explanatory article titled “Nonresident Property Owners’ Eligibility To Vote On A Town Budget,” from the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research.
In an interview, Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said granting voting rights to part-time residents would require passing enabling legislation in Boston.
The legislation could take the form of a so-called home-rule petition or “local option” similar to laws that were passed allowing towns to adopt their own meals and hotel-room taxes. Pignatelli said the idea has come up before on Beacon Hill but has never gone anywhere, though he did not recall why.
“The simplest thing is to let Stockbridge be their residence,” Pignatelli said of part-timers in that town who would like to vote. “But personally, I have no problem with people who pay taxes having the ability to vote in town meeting. Voting at town meeting — that’s where tax dollars are spent.”
Commenters on Owens’ Edge article last month suggested if weekenders wanted to vote in Berkshire County, then they should simply register to vote here and give up their right to vote in their primary place of residence.
Other permanent residents such as Egremont’s Richard M. Allen were surprisingly sympathetic: “The rallying call ‘taxation without representation’ has a storied history in this country. I think outright rejection of any possible participation by nonresidents is just as arrogant as we often accuse those ‘New Yorkers’ of.”
But first things first. Some part-time residents are more concerned with being heard than having their votes counted at town meeting. Before 2005, nonresidents were allowed to speak at town meetings in the town of Egremont with the permission of the moderator. But that changed when voters, in essence, rejected nonresidents’ bids to speak at three different meetings.
That did not sit well with Thomas and Miriam Curnin, Egremont property owners who, at that time, resided in Larchmont, New York, a Westchester County suburb. They filed a lawsuit against the town seeking injunctive relief.
According to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Springfield, the couple claimed they were prevented from “speaking on issues important to them as taxpayers” — including a proposed sewer system, new zoning laws and the purchase of a $350,000 fire truck — at town meetings in 2005 and 2006.
The Curnins’ lawsuit argued that “Egremont’s policy of not permitting non-voters who own property and pay taxes to speak at town meetings violates their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and similar provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution.”
The judge in Springfield rejected that argument. The Curnins then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, which upheld the Springfield court’s decision. Click here to read the appeals court decision of 2007. Ironically, one member of the Curnins’ legal team was Great Barrington attorney Judith Knight, who only this week lost her second bid to win election as Berkshire County district attorney.
In an interview, Curnin said the bylaws in Egremont have since changed to allow for nonresidents to speak. He said he suspects the change was a reaction to his lawsuit and a shift in public opinion.
“We just thought the right to speak was a First Amendment right that should honored,” said Curnin, whose wife, Miriam, is a former mayor of the village of Larchmont.
As for whether the rights of nonresidents should be extended beyond speaking, Curnin replied, “You mean limited voting rights? I think it would be appropriate. We have taxation without representation and taxation is high … I will add that we do not demand much in the way of services.”
There has also been talk among some natives and longtime Berkshire County residents that allowing nonresidents any form of voting rights would open the door to failed budgets — the premise being that part-timers don’t have kids in the local schools and so they would be more likely to vote against the regional school budget or construction bond issues just to keep their taxes down.
Baron said she has heard some locals say they don’t think weekenders want to support town services at the same level as those who are here full-time. But she insists nothing would be further from the truth.
“I think that one of the ironies is I think it’s really not true among many [part-timers], maybe among the majority,” Baron said. “I mean, we have no polls but, in informal conversations with my neighbors, it’s just not true.
“We all believe in good education, we want good roads, we want the sewer system to work, and we want good and adequate ambulance, fire and police,” Baron continued.
But the reality is that, even in Connecticut, few part-timers actually vote in town meetings. This reporter lives in Salisbury, Connecticut, which has almost 60 percent of its homes owned by part-timers, most of whom are only in town on the weekends.
Few, if any, would take the time to drive up from Manhattan in the middle of the week to vote in a town meeting. Sometimes for especially contentious issues that affect part-timers and attract large crowds, public hearings in Salisbury are held on Friday nights to accommodate those who live elsewhere during the week. So it may be that, as a practical matter, the fears of locals that out-of-towners will reflexively vote against school budgets are unfounded.
Still, there are those who, while appreciating the contributions of part-time residents, lament the impact they have had on the cost of living.
“One thing that is a very detrimental to having people from the city move in is that they cause prices and taxes to go up and locals cannot afford that, so they move,” said Gail Garrett, an attorney, selectboard member and town clerk in Mount Washington. “The city people have no problem paying higher prices and taxes, whereas the locals can’t.
“Compounding the problem, I noticed, in our town, for example, a clear pattern of high-end homes being assessed way below their value and poorer homes being assessed way more than their value,” Garrett continued. “That really gives the locals a double hit.”
There is no way to know how many, but some full-time Berkshire County residents started out as part-timers. And most of them are delighted to have taken the plunge to move up here full-time.
Take Brian Tobin of Mount Washington. He and his husband, Bill Short, bought a place in the Ashley Falls section of Sheffield 17 years ago. Tobin is an executive coach and Short is a college and career consultant. They still maintain an apartment in New York.
“We were weekenders and we only hung out with other weekenders,” Tobin recalled. “We loved being here but, on Sunday night, we’d go back to [New York City] where we both had jobs.”
Since they love the Berkshires and both had jobs that could be performed elsewhere, they bought a place in Mount Washington in 2006 and moved there full-time in 2008, Tobin said, “just as Wall Street was blowing up.”
Tobin promptly got involved with town government, where he sits on the selectboard and is acting police chief. “I do issue gun permits and coordinate with the State Police,” Tobin explained. “People call me ‘chief,’ which is hilarious.”
Tobin was also a driving force behind the successful completion of a $750,000 high-speed broadband Internet network for Mount Washington, which earned the tiny town the sobriquet of “the little engine that could.”
Like Stockbridge, Mount Washington, at 51 percent, is a majority second-home owner town. But Tobin pointed out what seems to be a little-known fact: Nonresidents may serve in town government if the position is appointed. This is especially helpful in a town like Mount Washington, which has a full-time population of only about 170.
Two members of the zoning board of appeals are nonresidents because members of that panel are appointed by the selectboard. The planning board, on the other hand, is elected, so only residents can run for that office.
Another full-time resident who made the transformation from weekender is Stockbridge resident Stuart Hirshfield. He and his wife, Susie, have lived permanently in Stockbridge for the last six years. They bought property in town, built on it a few years later and were second-home owners coming up from the Upper East Side of Manhattan for more than 25 years.
“We’ve always been very involved,” Hirshfield, a retired corporate bankruptcy attorney, said in an interview. “The fact that you’re not a full-timer does not mean your not occupied or involved.”
Hirshfield has served on the boards of several nonprofits including the Colonial Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield. He has also served on the board of overseers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which spends its summers at Tanglewood. Susie has served on the board of the former Berkshire Opera Company.
“We have participated in the cultural aspects of the community for many years,” Hirshfield explained. “Most of cultural organizations in the Berkshires — an overwhelming percentage, I’d say — thrive because of the involvement of second-homeowners. You’d have to question whether these organizations could survive without them.”
Like many part-timers, Hirshfield was frustrated at his inability to have a say in what goes on. Now, as a full-timer, he can become fully involved, as when he was a prominent opponent of the massive 37 Interlaken project and ran unsuccessfully for the planning board a few years ago.
Hirshfield noted that a majority of the town’s tax base comes from second-homeowners. The town’s businesses are also an important player, but they have the chamber of commerce to represent them. That’s why Hirshfield supports the Stockbridge Part-Time Residents Group and the idea of giving them limited voting rights.
“It would be most appropriate for the people who comprise the majority of the tax base to be able to weigh in on important matters, so I am absolutely in favor of it,” Hirshfield added. “The [lack of a vote] proves they have no voice in what the town is paying for, yet they’re paying the majority.”
At least half a dozen part-time residents’ associations have sprung up on Cape Cod and members say they, too, support limited voting rights. Steven Fossella, a full-time resident of Quincy, is president of the Provincetown Part-Time Resident Taxpayers Association.
Interestingly, the town in southern Berkshire County with the highest share of part-time residents is Otis at 63 percent. In Provincetown, on the outer Cape, it’s a walloping 83 percent, the highest percentage on the Cape.
And part-timers pay 85 percent of the $21 million in property taxes Provincetown collects each year, Fossella says, but individual second-homeowners are not allowed to speak at town meeting. Only a designated representative of the part-timers can speak, and then only with permission of the moderator.
As for obtaining voting rights, Fossella insists that “the state gives the town the right to define who is an eligible voter in the [town’s] charter.” He is looking to the legislature for guidance and seeking legal advice, as well. Sarah Peake, who represents Provincetown in the state House of Representatives, is a former Provincetown selectman.
“We want a meaningful voice,” Fossella said, referring to his fellow second-home owners.
In nearby Wellfleet, where a nonresident taxpayers association was founded in 2000, nonresidents comprise 65 percent of the town’s property owners. Just south of Provincetown, the Truro Part-Time Resident Taxpayers Association was founded in 1996.
Regan McCarthy, who remains on the Truro association’s board but recently stepped down as president after 12 years, lives in New York City but has owned property in the town since 1990. The TPRTA represents the 76 percent of residential property owners who do not live full-time in Truro.
“We may be part-time residents but we’re full-time taxpayers,” McCarthy said, echoing the sentiments of many second-homeowners.
Interestingly, McCarthy said she and many of her colleagues have historically been opposed to giving part-time residents the right to vote on budgetary matters in Truro.
“That changed this year for us, and so did my personal position,” McCarthy said.
Last year, despite strong opposition from part-time residents, the Truro Board of Selectmen adopted the so-called residential property tax exemption, which allows qualified full-time residents to exempt up to 20 percent of the assessed value of their properties from taxation. The local exemption is permissible under Chapter 59 of Massachusetts General Law.
Since state law requires that the exemption be revenue-neutral, taxes had to be raised for part-timers and others not eligible for the exemption to make up for the loss of revenue.
Click here to read a story about the controversial adoption of the exemption in Truro from Wicked Local Provincetown. One nonresident called it a “money grab,” while others called it an insult and yet another example of “taxation without representation.”
“It goes from absurd to extreme,” McCarthy said of the plight of Truro’s part-timers. “We have no vote in the matter at all.”
Reliable statistics on the numbers of second-home owners in the Berkshires are not easy to come by. But a feasibility study for the Berkshire Flyer, a proposed New York-to-Pittsfield rail link, found that “there are about 2,500 second home owners in Berkshire County with primary residences in the New York metropolitan area.”
Those numbers came from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which conducts regular studies on population trends in Berkshire County. Of course, that statistic does not include the growing numbers of weekenders from the Boston area and elsewhere. Click here to read the Berkshire Flyer study.
And it’s equally hard to nail down the economic impact part-timers have on the Berkshires, though Jonathan Butler, CEO of 1Berkshire, a countywide economic development group, said they are a important part of what he calls the “visitor economy.”
“Second-home owners are not visitors, but they influence the economy in the same way,” Butler said in an interview. “They’re staying here, eating in restaurants, going to shows. They’re out and about. We know they contribute to overall visitor metrics.”
And real estate prices in Berkshire County, even in portions of Pittsfield and North Adams, have been trending upward. That’s yet another sign of the impact of second-home owners, Butler surmised.
But towns in the Berkshires that have high percentages of second home owners tend to have one thing in common: access to water. The towns in or near South County with the highest percentages — Salisbury, Otis, Becket, New Marlborough, and Stockbridge — have an abundance of lakes.
“That’s a really obvious correlation,” said Otis assessor Michael Thiemann. “Lakes are, of course, where people buy lakeside properties and usually on small lots, so the numbers go up. Plus, nobody wants to be there in winter. And a home on a lake is so much more valuable than the one across the street.”
“Homes that are clustered around the a body of water, they’re always on the increase,” said Randall A. Austin, administrative assessor for the town of Lenox, which includes portions of Laurel Lake. “New owners will often tear down and rebuild to a higher value.”
Caya and Baron see relations between full-timers and weekenders improving. Baron says, as part-timers start to spend more time in the Berkshires, they become more involved.
“Their civic commitment is growing with the number of weeks and days they spend living here,” Baron said.