The future of Stockbridge is Tuesday
To the editor:
The Berkshires have attracted very wealthy people for more than a hundred years. Drawn by its scenic beauty and culture, they have invested in multimillion dollar homes. This is particularly so in Stockbridge, where select boards and planning boards have historically staunchly defended residential neighborhoods against outside developers, making these residential homes better investments than the stock market. As a side benefit, Stockbridge full-time residents have also profited from higher home values and lower taxes. About 90 per cent of the town tax income comes from residential properties. For most of us, our home is our biggest investment, one that we will eventually pass to our children. For Stockbridge, the real economy is its high residential home values and solid residential tax base.
Not everyone in Stockbridge is wealthy. Most of us need jobs with a steady income, and the prospect of lowering taxes even further looks awfully appealing. How to do that without spoiling what we already have is challenging. The consulting firm of Standard and Poor reported that further development of Stockbridge’s tourist and hospitality sector is not advisable. There is evidence in neighboring towns that such overdevelopment may already have occurred. It was recently reported that hotels and B&Bs in Lenox, for example, have been struggling with an off-season occupancy rate of 30 percent. To correct this problem, planners are looking to increase off-season tourist attractions, encouraging expansion of existing ones. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. S&P warned of the susceptibility to economic downturns of local economies that were too dependent on tourism and hospitality. Preservation makes good business sense for our town.
People in small towns like ours are often trusting and easily convinced by outside developers that we will profit from “more jobs” and “lower taxes,” like high-pressure salesmen who convince us to buy more of their wares than we really need. We don’t need more hospitality jobs in the Berkshires; we need more workers. The towns in the Berkshires that have more commercial development than Stockbridge also have higher tax rates and lower home values than Stockbridge. Our future development must make sense on sound economic grounds.
Short-term rentals loom on the horizon as a growing part of the hospitality sector. Because Stockbridge has not yet over-extended its development, we are in a much better position to consider how to implement this 21st century concept than some of our neighboring towns. We must not let such rentals jeopardize the character of our residential neighborhoods or our existing hospitality businesses. Can such rentals lure young and middle aged people to town?
Location is a most important aspect of future development in our town. The Berkshire Mall was pushed through with the short-term goals of jobs and tax reduction. The Mall lured businesses, workers, and patrons away from the main street in Pittsfield. North Street became a ghost town. We must take care to protect and complement our existing business district and not make the same mistake.
The Stockbridge Bowl highlights the interdependence of the environment and our economy in the Berkshires. A first-time cyanobacterial bloom last August forced the closure of the lake. Some individuals have sought to minimize the devastating potential of such blooms. Whether it is out of ignorance or personal agenda, or a combination, is hard to tell. Let it be clear to all that such blooms can devastate a tourist industry. The prevention of such blooms requires scientifically, not politically based management.
The natural beauty of Stockbridge is its greatest asset and its greatest vulnerability. Stockbridge select boards, planning boards, and conservation committees, past and present, deserve credit for steadfastly protecting what is a foundation of the Berkshire tourist industry. Hundreds of thousands of people come every year to Stockbridge and the Berkshires as a result of the arduously achieved preservation of our natural environment. This courageously protected beauty sets the stage for the arts and supports all the tourist venues we have. Preservation is easily misunderstood as obstructionism by people who primarily seek short-term profit from this beauty. Fortunately, those who fail to understand this have thus far not been in charge in Stockbridge.
The future of Stockbridge will be decided in its coming election Tuesday. For the sake of Stockbridge, we must reject the delusional thinking of some who claim Stockbridge only belongs to them. For the sake of the Berkshires, we must make sure that how we proceed in Stockbridge is based upon sound long-term principles and reality-driven consideration of the future for everyone.
The writer is candidate for a one-year place on the planning board.