Town Hall Briefs: For the first time, Great Barrington will hold its town meeting outside; special permit for gated parking lot denied

Great Barrington — The postponed annual town meeting will be held Monday, June 22, at Monument Mountain Regional High School as planned last month, but the number of items will be a fraction of those on the original warrant, the selectboard decided Monday night.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s physical distancing guidelines, the meeting will be held outside either on the football field or in a parking lot.

“I don’t want to sit with 500 people in the auditorium at Monument,” said selectboard Chair Steve Bannon. “We don’t even know whether the first wave of this will be past by then.”

Great Barrington Town Moderator Michael Wise. Photo: David Scribner

Town moderator Michael Wise presented three options to board members. They could hold off on an annual town meeting altogether, which would force the board to pass monthly budgets based strictly on the preceding year’s budget.

If enabling legislation is passed on Beacon Hill, they could reduce the quorum, hold the meeting in the auditorium or some other indoor venue with adequate space, and citizens would vote only on essential business. Or, Wise suggested, they could “try some alternative, which could be outdoors.”

“I’ve gotten half a dozen messages from other towns who are planning to have meetings outdoors — in picnic pavilions, under tents, on football fields, parking lots,” Wise told the board. “Large groups outdoors seems to be a growing consensus.”

The board voted unanimously to limit the number of warrant articles to 16 and hold the town meeting outside. How to organize the logistics of the meeting, such as accommodating those who want to speak and tallying the votes, will be determined at the board’s next meeting Monday, June 8.

Voters at the Great Barrington annual town meeting in 2018. Photo: David Scribner

The most important item is getting the budget passed before the end of the fiscal year Tuesday, June 30. If the town meeting is not able to pass a budget by then, the town of Great Barrington, like hundreds of other small municipalities in the state with a town-meeting form of government, has a problem. The selectboard would then have the authority to pass so-called one-twelfth budgets, monthly spending packages that would be the same as the previous year, until a town meeting could be held and a budget could be passed.

Town manager Mark Pruhenski said staff had come with a list of 15 essential items, later amended to 16, that should be voted on before the end of the fiscal year, including the town budget and Great Barrington’s share of funding for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. Click here to see the entire list.

The items to be included for consideration at the outdoor town meeting Monday, June 22, are 1-9, 12-14, 18-20, and 28. The rest, including 18 proposed zoning amendments, will be voted on at a later special town meeting, the date of which remains unclear.

The town’s assessment owed to Berkshire Hills in the district’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget is a little more than $17.5 million, an increase of nearly 5 percent over last year. The first of four payments is due in August. It cannot be made if the town is only allowed to spend one-twelfth of last year’s budget.

The town’s proposed operating budget, which does not include education spending, is more than $12.1 million, an increase of 4.9 percent over this year. The proposed capital budget is upwards of $4.3 million, a decrease of almost 50 percent from this year.

Permit for private parking lot denied

The new owners of a downtown building were denied a special permit for the construction of a private parking lot by the selectboard Monday night.

The parking lot behind the former Foster’s hardware store (now Hammertown). Photo: Terry Cowgill

The new owner of the building at the intersection of Main and Bridge streets, Philips International Holding Corp., would like to buy the lot on School Street currently occupied by the Individual Laundry laundromat, demolish the structure, and build a gated parking lot of some 38 new spots for the exclusive use of upstairs office tenants and customers of the street-level retail establishments in the Berkshire Block.

At its Dec. 12, 2019, meeting, the planning board gave the proposal a negative declaration. Click here to see the letter describing the board’s reasoning. The proposal was greeted with skepticism at its first public hearing before the selectboard in January.

A subsequent public hearing last month turned tense when selectboard member Leigh Davis suggested the new owner, a New York City-based corporation, was issuing a “threat” to the town government in insisting that the company would close to the public the existing lot it owns behind the former Foster’s hardware building if the town did not grant the special permit for the proposed new private lot on School Street.

Meanwhile, planning board member Jonathan Hankin issued a statement to the selectboard calling on selectboard member Kate Burke to recuse herself from voting on the matter because of her position as general manager of the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market, which is held just around the corner from the proposed School Street lot and the existing Foster’s lot. For her part, Burke has insisted it was not a conflict, but after recently discussing the matter with state ethics officials, she publicly disclosed her position with the farmers’ market Monday night, though she declined to disqualify herself from voting on the matter.

The dirt road leading from the Individual Laundry laundromat up to the existing parking lots behind Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

As the special permit-granting authority, the selectboard was charged with evaluating whether the proposal complied with the letter and spirit of the zoning bylaws and whether it was consistent with the town’s master plan.

At Monday’s meeting, selectboard members Bill Cooke and Leigh Davis reiterated the concerns of the planning board that the new parking lot would be inconsistent with the intent of its B3 zoning designation, which encourages mixed-use development, among other things. The current laundromat building, owned by the Torrico family, has two apartments upstairs, though they are no longer occupied.

Burke and selectboard Vice Chair Ed Abrahams argued that the town needs more parking and that the proposal would not be out of character with that area of town. And besides, if nixing the proposal meant losing the Foster’s lot for public use on nights and weekends, then approving it would be worth it.

In the end and after a lengthy discussion on the criteria of its proposed findings, the board voted 3-2 to refuse the special permit. Only Burke and Abrahams voted for it. As a special permit vote, approval would have required a supermajority of 4-1 anyway.