Zoning loopholes decimating a residential neighborhood

Let this be a warning to the rest of the residents of Great Barrington. Sit down with the zoning bylaws. Scour the fine print for the loopholes. Find them. Demand they are changed.

To the Editor:

Just last night (October 18) the Planning Board of Great Barrington provisionally approved a site plan for Framework Properties to take the far end of a small, quiet, tree-lined, dead-end street in Great Barrington where three single-family homes now stand and develop it into a massive apartment complex of 47 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. They did this even though it will completely change the character of the street and neighborhood, monumentally increase traffic flow, and detract immeasurably from both the property value and quality of life of the 20 some-odd families that currently live on the street. Framework Properties is building the complex “by right,” which means that no one can stop them – not the residents of the street, not the town of Great Barrington, no one.

Why is this happening? To paraphrase one of the members of the Planning Board, “The zoning bylaws included a loophole, we the town created the loophole, they are taking advantage of the loophole, and there is nothing we can do about it.” Yes, Framework Properties is driving a Mack truck through the poorly drafted zoning bylaws of the Great Barrington.

Let me back up and explain. Despite the fact that it is a quiet, 100 percent residential street, Manville Street sits in what the town recently declared a Mixed Use Transitional Zone. Within this zone, developers are permitted, by right, to construct multi-family residences of up to eight units. If they want to exceed that number, they must submit to a grueling and potentially fatal Special Permit Process. Why do the zoning bylaws set the “by right” limit at eight? In the words of the Planning Board, it is to allow for careful scrutiny and review of larger buildings in the neighborhood. In my words, it is because when the bylaws were written someone took the time to look at the character of the neighborhood and set a reasonable limit on the size of residential developments so that they fit well with their existing neighbors. Eight units per building. Completely reasonable.

Except the town also offered an easy way out of this limit. The bylaws dictate that if a commercial entity is developed along with the residences, the development then becomes classified as Mixed Use and there are no restrictions (all other things being equal) on the size or scale of the project. So that is exactly what Framework Properties did. They set aside a mere 978 square feet of their immense development – the size of one of their one-bedroom apartments – and declared it a commercial space. A commercial space at the far end of an off-the-beaten-path street that gets no foot traffic and no automotive passer-by traffic. A commercial space to which they vaguely stated they intend to attract “maybe a gym, or a café, or a yoga studio…who knows.

Whatever the residents of Manville Street want. Something that will benefit the community!” And with that, a clear Residential Development can masquerade itself as a Mixed Use Development and build to whatever scale the developers choose. (Mind you, a representative of Framework Properties told the residents of Manville Street at one point, “We could fit over a hundred units on that land. It would look like a scene from the Communist Eastern Bloc – but we have the right to do it.”) And through four or five Planning Board meetings addressing the Site Plan, this “commercial space” allowing for Communist Bloc sized developments received no scrutiny. None.

Don’t get me wrong. The Planning Board asked lots of questions of the developers. Indeed, they demanded written answers to a long list of questions. They asked if sky lights had been considered for stairwells in the buildings. They asked if stucco is really the best choice for the exterior of the buildings. They asked whether the plan included enough garbage dumpsters and whether those garbage dumpsters were placed close enough to the building. They asked whether the plan included enough bike racks. But not one question on their list – not one question – addressed the commercial space proposed by Framework Properties. The lynch pin of their back-door mechanism to build to an unwieldy scale. And yet not one question was posed. That is the definition of complicity. Wink-wink. Free pass. I had hoped that the Great Barrington Planning Board was better than that.

Mind you, this complicity is despite the fact that the plan offered by Framework Properties had been a game of bait and switch from the start. One day we were shown renditions of the planned buildings, in the next breath they weren’t the actual plans for the development and new renditions would be shown some other day. One day we were told that there will be roof-top solar panels for the complex, the next day they were gone from the plan. One day there was a “plan to do everything possible to maintain the existing trees on the properties,” (beautiful trees, I might add), but the next day that became, “All of the interior trees will be removed.”

One day Ian Rasch tells us that the development will include a beautiful public park and greenspace with lush trees and bike paths for the children that will far surpass the current quiet street we now have, the next day there is a less than 60-foot-wide strip of grass with paver stones between two towering buildings with a few chairs and picnic tables. Deception abounding. But, still, not one question from the Planning Board about the commercial space. Who knows what will actually become of that commercial space? I guess we will all have the chance to see.

I want to make very clear: the residents of Manville Street understand the value of adding apartment space for 47 new families to the “housing stock” (as the professionals like to call it) in Great Barrington. And we on our street want to do our part. But we question why 47 apartments need to be placed on a relatively small lot to tower over a beautiful, quiet street. We want to help this town grow in thoughtful and needed ways – that also honor and respect the people who already live here. So add three buildings totaling 24 units to Manville Street, and then an additional 24 units to another Great Barrington Street, allowing both streets to maintain their current character while growing to meet the needs and demands of 2018. Why isn’t that happening? There is only one answer.

The bottom line at Framework Properties. It isn’t cost effective for them to maintain the current character of this town. So there we have it. The profit margins of Framework Properties trump (a word no one uses lightly any longer, but seems appropriate here) the investments and quality of life of 20 some-odd families who are already residents of Great Barrington. Some of whom have owned properties on this street for generations. Others of whom, like myself, have worked hard for years to save the money to invest in a first-home and a certain quality of life for a young family.

So, Framework Properties has been granted permission by the Planning Board to build their mammoth apartment complex on little ol’ Manville Street. In the words of the Planning Board, “There is nothing we can do about it.” So let this be a warning to the rest of the residents of Great Barrington. Sit down with the zoning bylaws. Scour the fine print for the loopholes. Find them. Demand they are changed. If you don’t find them first, some development company like Framework Properties will. And when they do, they will begin their process of turning your beloved street into an enormous apartment complex… or something else. Don’t let these developers ruin our town. Rather, let’s work together to have our town grow thoughtfully, and carefully, and with a vision for the generations to come. In short, catch the loopholes in the zoning bylaws before they do. We on Manville Street sure wish we had.

Ivan Kruh
7 Manville Street
Great Barrington