hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

News & Issues September 2019

 

Berkshires town weighs new rule to save its history

Proposal in Lenox aims to avoid demolition of older buildings

 

 

 

Supporters say a proposed new local law in Lenox aims to preserve neighborhoods of older homes like this one along Fairview Street. The proposal calls for a town Historical Commission review -- and a possible delay of up to one year -- before demolition permits for older structures could be granted. Susan Sabino photo

 

By JOHN TOWNES
Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.


A plan to tear down a Victorian-era house near the main intersection in Lenox has prompted local preservationists to push for a new layer of protection for the town’s older buildings.


Under a proposed local bylaw being drafted by the Lenox Historical Commission, demolition permits for buildings that are more than 75 or 100 years old would be subject to an automatic commission review. If a building were deemed significant by the commission, its destruction could be delayed for up to a year while alternatives to demolition are pursued.


The proposal, if backed by a majority of the town’s Board of Selectmen, would be presented to voters at a town meeting in November.


The effort in Lenox was set in motion by the planned demolition of a large old home at 17 West St., just down the hill from the intersection that forms the town’s center. In July, the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals approved a special permit for Chabad of the Berkshires, which is based in Pittsfield, to use the West Street property for construction of a new center for orthodox Jewish services and educational programs. The project calls for tearing down the old house to make way for a new 12,000-square-foot structure.


Although that project might not be affected by the new bylaw, the situation revealed the need for more safeguards to avoid the future loss of historic properties, said Olga Weiss, the chairwoman of the Lenox Historic Commission.


“Lenox is fortunate to have many historic assets that define the qualities of the town,” Weiss said. “That is what residents love about Lenox and is also a basis of our tourism economy. However, many of those properties are not protected.”


The commission is considering either 75 or 100 years old as the threshold age at which buildings would be subject to the proposed new review process.


Under its proposal, the commission would conduct an initial review of any older structure whose owners request a demolition permit. The commission would determine whether the structure is a historically important element of a neighborhood, is architecturally unique, or was connected to a significant historical figure or event. The commission also would hold a hearing, after which it would vote either to approve the demolition or to require a 12-month delay.


If the commission called for a delay, the property owner would be required to work with town officials and others to seek an alternative to preserve the building, such as by restoring the structure or selling it to another party who agrees to use the existing structure. If a practical alternative cannot be found within a year, the demolition would be allowed to proceed. Properties that are determined to be structurally unsound or otherwise not suited to restoration would be exempt from the requirements.

 

Protecting a town’s character
The proposal in Lenox reflects a familiar situation that’s cropped up in communities around the region: A significant but familiar structure is taken for granted until its loss is threatened by a new development proposal, at which point people rally to defend and preserve the site, only to find that they are too late legally to halt its destruction.


The concept of a demolition-delay mechanism is one of the approaches other communities have tried in an effort to prevent the loss of historic buildings.


About 140 communities across Massachusetts already have similar demolition-delay ordinances in place. These include Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Williamstown and other communities in Berkshire County.


“This is not a new or unusual step,” Weiss said. “We’re simply trying to add a form of protection in Lenox that is already available and used by many communities.”


She and other proponents of the demolition delay say the bylaw would not automatically apply to or prevent most building demolitions. As a result, they say, it wouldn’t impede normal development.


“This would not be an automatic hard stop to all demolitions,” said Lucy Kennedy, another member of the commission. “It is just one tool that would simply allow for a pause on the demolition of certain properties.”


Kennedy stressed that the proposal is intended to allow time to explore alternatives before a significant property is demolished.


“It provides an opportunity to first stop and think about it rather than automatically moving forward without public notice or input,” she said. “It is a chance to look for ways to preserve structures that have historic significance or contribute to the traditional fabric of the town and its neighborhoods.”


Even with the bylaw in place, some historic structures might still wind up being lost, she said.
“It’s just one more tool in the toolbox,” Kennedy said. “It would not protect everything, but doing something is better than nothing.”

 

Case that sparked action
The West Street project might not be affected if the proposed bylaw goes into effect. Chabad of the Berkshires is covered by a state law, known as the Dover Amendment, that allows religious and educational institutions to override many local planning laws.


Weiss said there have been conversations between the town and Chabad’s representatives about the possibility of preserving the house, but the decision ultimately is up to the organization.
According to a history compiled by Cornelia Brooke Gilder, the house on West Street was built in 1862 by George J. Tucker, then the Berkshire County treasurer and registrar of deeds, and his wife, Harriet. It later became known as Judge Tucker’s House when it was occupied by his son, Joseph, who was judge of the District Court in Pittsfield, and his wife, Elizabeth.


Joseph Tucker moved to Pittsfield in 1882 and sold the house to Helen Parish, a New York City heiress who lived there in the summer for more than 40 years. She significantly enlarged the house and upgraded the property, which she named Cozy Nook.


The home subsequently had several owners. In 1945, it was sold to Robert Smith, an author best known for a series of books about sports, and his family lived there for the next 60 years. By 2016, the house had fallen into disrepair, and its most recent owner, Lenore Katherine Smith, sold the property to Chabad of the Berkshires.


Originally the religious organization had said it would restore and use the structure for its new facility in Lenox.


But Lori Robbins, a lawyer for the group, said the Chabad subsequently determined that because of the condition of the building and the cost of renovation, it would be more practical to build a new structure instead.


“Chabad really wanted to use that building and had even spent $100,000 to install a new roof on it,” Robbins said. “They did everything they could and had extensive studies of the structure done by professionals to prepare for the renovation.”


But she said the work needed to save the building was too costly.


“Unfortunately, the experts determined that the building is structurally dangerous on many levels,” Robbins said. “It became clear that the cost of making the existing building usable would be significantly beyond their financial capability.


Even so, Weiss and Kennedy said the situation highlighted the inadequacy of the town’s laws for protecting many of its older properties.


Lenox has a historic district in its central core, with strict requirements related to the preservation of structures and the overall appearance of the blocks that form its downtown. It also has a Great Estates bylaw, which gives the town more control over the use of 10 large historic properties in town.


But most houses and other structures in town fall outside the scope of those protections, Weiss and Kennedy said.

 

Wider view of what’s historic
Lenox is in a part of the Berkshires whose landscape and communities were shaped by the legacy of the “Berkshire cottages” -- large vacation mansions and estate properties built by the nation’s wealthy class during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many of these properties later became schools, resorts and other attractions, including the Tanglewood Music Center. The preservation of these estates and mansions has helped to sustain the scenic and rural character of the region.


But although historic preservation often is associated with grand structures from the Colonial and Victorian eras, Weiss and Kennedy emphasized that it also must view history in a larger context. This includes the evolution of neighborhoods and land-use patterns over time, from Colonial settlements and farms to the growth of industry and worker housing. The result has been neighborhoods that grew up with differing characteristics, from upscale to workaday.


“Each era has contributed something to the town’s history, and individual neighborhoods have an aura reflects that,” Weiss said. “For example, houses that were built in the 1920s formed neighborhoods that retain the feeling of that era. Unlike many communities elsewhere, Lenox is fortunate to still have a mix that reflects all its history.”


She added that one goal of preservation is to protect that mixture, including homes and sites that in the past might have been considered ordinary.


“We’re trying to look both at the present and the future,” she said. “If the structures are not protected, that whole sense of history is lost. Trying to replicate that is just what you’d see in a place like Disneyland.”


Weiss noted that Lenox is currently being reviewed for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.


“That would enhance the ability of Lenox to attract visitors and new residents,” she said. “But it would be meaningless if we don’t protect those qualities.”


It will be up to the town Board of Selectmen whether to put the demolition-delay proposal on the agenda for the November town meeting. The proposal’s supporters have been meeting with the board and making their case to other local officials and residents. They also have scheduled a public meeting for Thursday, Sept. 19, to explain and discuss the proposal – with a specific time and location to be announced on the Lenox town website.

 

Debating the trade-offs
Kennedy and Weiss acknowledged that the basic concept and how it is applied might prompt some concern or controversy. Some property owners see measures like the demolition-delay proposal as infringement on their rights, and town officials and others have already pointed out that the delays could add to the cost of development and potentially kill specific real estate deals.
“There are trade-offs involved,” Kennedy said. “No one likes restrictions on what they can do with their property. But on the other hand, when people buy a home to live in, they want assurances that the location they chose will continue to be what attracted them there.”


There are also questions about how stringently the town might enforce such a law.
“In talking with other municipalities that have demolition-delay laws, there are differences of opinion over what types of properties are truly significant,” Kennedy said. “There are also differences about what condition a property has to be in to be considered too far gone to preserve.”


Overall, however, she said communities that have adopted demolition-delay laws have not experienced significant changes in their normal planning processes or construction activity. A very small percentage of proposed demolitions are subject to extended reviews or delays.
Kennedy emphasized that demolition reviews would be on a case-by-case basis and would consider all factors involved in each case.


“It’s important to take each situation individually,” she said. “That includes the condition of a structure, the cost of rehabilitation, and the basic purpose of a demolition. There’s a big difference between taking down a run-down ordinary garage and demolishing a structure that is significant or which will notably change the neighborhood. Those all would be factored in.”
They and other members of the historical commission have been working to draft the proposal to accommodate community concerns. For example, they initially suggested a delay of 18 months but reduced that to 12 months based on feedback from town officials and the public.
Weiss said the demolition delay is intended to protect the interests of homeowners by reducing the likelihood of existing buildings being purchased with the intent of demolition.


“If someone buys a house to live in because they like the location, they don’t want to see the neighborhood changed by someone coming in and tearing down an existing home to build an out-of-scale McMansion,” she said.