CPA projects and Town Meeting

Hi folks, we had a nice turnout this past Saturday at St. James Place for the CPA event. Folks who attended were able to hear from each of the prospective CPA grantees and learn about the projects.  And we were all thrilled to see the renovations inside the old church (once slated for demolition).  Thanks to all the projects and to the folks at St. James Place for hosting us, and to WAMC for previewing the event on their Friday show. (For audio, click here.)

As you know, the CPA was approved by Town Meeting and at the ballot in 2012, but this is the first year of actual project spending.  This year, nine (9) projects made it through the application process and were judged most worthy of funding. A “yes” vote on Article 14 will approve these projects. Article 14 is recommended by the Community Preservation Committee, the Selectboard, and Finance Committee.  Remember, only Town Meeting (i.e., only those registered voters who come to Town Meeting) has the power to appropriate CPA funds these specific projects.

The nine recommended projects total $866,640, well within the CPA budget. Each project has been thoroughly vetted by the Community Preservation Committee and meets the Town’s CPA plan, the Master Plan, and the state regulations for CPA. If you’d like some more information about the projects, feel free to  contact me or download the CPC’s report to Town Meeting.

And by the way, on this coming Thursday morning April 30 at 9:15 AM, tune in to WSBS 94.1 FM for “Let’s Talk” for a little bit more information on Town Meeting and these CPA projects.

Town Meeting is Monday, May 4 at 6:00 PM at the high school.  The full Town Meeting warrant can be downloaded from the town website.

CPA Projects 2015

CPA Projects 2015

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More Zoning: Proposed changes at Risingdale and North Plain Road

Hi everyone. It was good to meet with a few of you at Ramsdell Library and chat about the proposed zoning changes. Also, I had the pleasure to talk with (Courier Editor) Kameron Spaulding on “For the Record,” the Berkshire Record’s weekly TV program about local issues. Please check it out on the CTSB TV website – go to Chanel 16 and search for “For the Record.” The show date is March 6, 2015. You can also watch it on Channel 16 Time Warner Cable.

In this post I wanted to touch on another of the proposed zoning changes, specifically the B1 zone proposed for two areas – the Risingdale Café area and the Country Carpets area. In both cases the zoning map will change, and the attendant regulations will also change. Read on…

The existing B1 zone regulations that govern Risingdale are almost a mirror image of the B2 zone, a General Business zone which favors medium-large scale retail and commercial uses, similar to the size and density of what currently exists on Stockbridge Road, and restricts residential uses to large lots. (See this post about Housatonic Village Center zoning.) These regulations may be appropriate for Stockbridge Road, but do not foster a “neighborhood business” area that was originally intended to allow small-scale neighborhood centers with services for local residents. Worse, the existing B1 regulations encourage medium- and large-scale box retailers that would be inappropriate in these areas.

So the B1 amendments are intended to address these issues, and they will make the B1 a true neighborhood business zone that incorporates a variety of residential uses. The amendments would limit the size of potential new retail uses to 6,500 square feet, which is less than what is typically required by box/chain retailers, and will prohibit retailers of 10,000 square feet or more, which would be incompatible with a neighborhood zone. Retail uses between 6,500 and 10,000 square feet may be approved by Special Permit.

There is only one B1 location currently in town; it is in the Risingdale area. It was originally intended to cover the Risingdale Café. However, when the zoning and tax maps were digitized, a mistake was made that appears to place the Café in the R1B zone. The proposed map amendment will fix that mistake, and will also extend the zone somewhat to include several similar parcels on Park Street / Route 183.  Here’s the current Risingdale map (on the left) and the proposed map (on the right). (click map for larger image)

Risingdale Existing (on left) and Proposed (on right)

Risingdale Existing (on left) and Proposed (on right)


Another proposed map amendment will rezone the Housatonic North Plain Road area from B2 to B1. The B2 zone in this location makes several existing residential lots nonconforming. It also allows retail stores of up to 20,000 square feet, the size of a medium-large box retailer. This proposed map amendment will include the existing residences as well as the existing retail business, Country Carpets, all of which will continue to be allowed. Perhaps in 1960 there was a grand plan to make North Plain Road look like a commercial shopping strip and not allow for single family homes. But the reality today is that, while small scale retail like Country Carpets is appropriate, large scale retail is not.  The maps below show the existing B2 zone (map on left) and the proposed B1 (map on right). (click map for larger image)

North Plain Road Existing (on left) and Proposed (on right)

North Plain Road Existing (on left) and Proposed (on right)




Remember, there are plenty of ways to get more information, including watching CTSB, checking the Town website, and coming to the Public Hearing on March 12.  Thanks for reading.

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“Let’s Talk” on the radio

Need more zoning?   I’ll be chatting with Jesse Stewart on the Thursday morning Feb. 26 edition of “Let’s Talk,” on local WSBS FM 94.1 at 9:05 AM.  Jesse is a good interviewer and I am hopeful we can shed some more light on what is often a complex subject.  Hope you can listen.

– Chris

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Zoning Proposals for Housatonic Village Center

I know that I have been offline for a while, but I hope you’ll take this opportunity with me to discuss an exciting subject: ZONING.  Wait, keep reading! I promise it will be interesting.

The Planning Board has proposed a variety of zoning amendments for Town Meeting (May 4, 2015) to consider. Most people “zone out” when it comes to zoning regulations, but zoning is an important part of shaping the place where you live and work, so I want to try to explain the proposed changes in plain language. I’ll go into each of the proposed changes over a series of blog posts, but I will begin in Housatonic, with perhaps the most significant of the proposals

All of the proposed amendments can be downloaded here, or viewed in the libraries.  Also, there will be a public hearing on March 12, 2015, but in the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

The first proposed zoning amendment will rezone portions of Housatonic Village. The basic objectives of this proposal are to ensure that the zoning regulations reflect the existing fabric of the village, not “anywhere Great Barrington,” and that they regulations promote the scale and types of development that make Housatonic such a great village. Here’s some background and explanation:

History: In Housatonic by the early 1900s, the village streets were laid out, the railroad had passenger station and a freight, the mills lined both sides of the river and operated at full tilt, a street car circled the business district and connected to Great Barrington, and a variety of businesses and homes (including single family homes, multi-family homes, and boarding houses) lined the streets. In other words, the core area of Housatonic was more or less fully developed (built out). The image below is from a 1904 map of the village.Housatonic 1904

The lines marking out individual parcels (or building lots) reflected existing street patterns, topography, and the fact that the Monument Mills company owned much of the land. Zoning did not exist, and as lots were created, there was no need to meet minimum setbacks. So when zoning was instituted in Great Barrington in 1932, a series of setback standards and use regulations were imposed on top of an already-built village. Even so, the 1932 zoning code bore at least a passing resemblance to the existing development patterns: homes were allowed more or less side by side, and residential uses were allowed in business areas (for example, on top floors or alongside).

In 1960 the zoning standards changed, and for the worse. It was when the B-2 General Business Zone was adopted, and it is the year I have called a “turning point into nonconformity.” In this zone, residences had to be on larger lots with bigger yards (which, remember, did not exist since the village was already built and lots already created). Residences were essentially precluded from inter-mixing with businesses. Two-family homes were no longer allowed.

The two photos below show the same clusters of buildings. In the first, you can see the density and pattern of certain areas, and you might think the same zoning regulations apply to each. But in the second image, which shows the zoning districts (each color is a different district with different regulations), you can immediately see that zoning district boundaries bear little resemblance to the existing village pattern.  figure ground Hosuatonic figure ground Hosuatonic zoning

Existing Zoning: Today’s zoning is almost exactly the same as the 1960 zoning. The B-2 zone remains in place. Most of what exists in Housatonic village—small lots with homes near the street, and a mix of businesses and residences—could not be built under the existing zoning. Lots are too small. Mixed-use is difficult. Almost 75% of the lots in the B-2 zone are nonconforming. Nonconforming status is not the end of the world, but it could thwart property improvements. It takes time and money to get through the red tape of regulations when you are nonconforming. And, think of it this way, when zoning laws say something is nonconforming, it is like saying “that use (or that size lot) is not what we want.”

Why is that a problem? Because, for the most part, what we have in Housatonic actually is what we want. People want to see a village in Housatonic, not a commercial strip. It’s Housatonic Village, not Housatonic strip. In discussions and community meetings going back at least a decade (when the school closed), and certainly in those held in 2011-2012 during the creation of the Master Plan, people frequently say they like the size, scale and feel of Housatonic. It’s a compact small-scale village, and people like it that way.

Unfortunately, the existing B-2 zoning will not allow a compact small scale village to happen here. Instead, think of the commercial district of Stockbridge Road or South Main Street. Take Stockbridge Road and plunk it down in the middle of Housatonic. That’s what happened in 1960. That is what the B-2 zoning promotes. That is what we have now.

Proposed Village Center Zoning: The Planning Board suggests changing that, to amend the zoning bylaw so that it better reflects the fabric of the village. The idea is there should be fewer hoops to jump through if you to invest in your property. If you’re nonconforming that’s ok—we won’t hold that against you anymore. The proposal is to remove the B-2 zone and put in its place a unique Housatonic Village Center (HVC) zone. And while it allows retail, residential, and a mix of uses, it restricts the size of retail uses to 6,500 square feet, so that larger retail or chain stores better suited to the commercial strips do not disrupt the village business district. (By way of comparison, the Housatonic Post Office is almost 3,000 square feet, and the Housy Dome is almost 9,000 square feet.)

In summary, the Housatonic Village Center zone will:

  • Eliminate the B-2 zone in the village and replace it with the new HVC district;
  • Bring all currently nonconforming structures into conformance.
  • Allow for mixed-uses, live-work, and small restaurants by right in the HVC;
  • Cap by-right retail uses at 6,500 square feet, but allow retail up to 10,000 square feet by Special Permit from the Selectboard, and up to 20,000 square feet in the case of historic structures such as the former school;
  • Reduce parking requirements to reflect the walkability of the village center;
  • Rezone the east side of Meadow Street, currently split by zoning districts, to HVC.
  • Rezone 425 Park St (Brick House Pub) and its rear lots from R2 to HVC, rezone 421 Park Street from I to HVC, and rezone 402 Park Street from R3 to HVC. Each of these Park Street parcels is nonconforming in their existing zone.

The following maps show the existing zoning and proposed changes. (Note, there are other changes proposed, such as the HVOD – Housatonic Village Overlay District and the R1B to R3 rezoning – which I will lget into in the next post…)

Existing Housatonic Zoning
Existing Housatonic Zoning
Proposed Housatonic Zoning

Proposed Housatonic Zoning

I hope this post gives you some background and helps answer some questions. Please take a look at the proposed changes and contact me if you have questions. I’ll hold “office hour” sessions at the Ramsdell Library on Wednesday, February 25 from 4-6 PM, and Wednesday, March 4 from 5-7 PM.

Finally, come to the public hearing March 12, 2015 at 7:00 PM at Town Hall, in order to register your support and/or concerns.  Thanks for reading.


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Railroad Station Report

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) has issued its draft report on Passenger Railroad Station Locations. Downtown Great Barrington’s historic station is one of the preferred locations for a railroad station serving the planned passenger railroad. The draft report includes analysis of Great Barrington’s old station, its location, access, and impacts on the neighboring residential and business areas.

The full draft report can be from this link.

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Grant Funds awarded: Housatonic cashes in

On Friday in Housatonic, Governor Deval Patrick and Congressman Richard Neal showed us the money — over $800,000!  At the special event, which was also attended by Ben Downing and Smitty, Governor Patrick announced the partnership of Great Barrington and Sheffield was awarded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for a housing rehabilitation program and infrastructure engineering.

The CDBG program is extremely competitive.  There are too few dollars and many requests.  So were especially honored that the Governor chose to make the statewide announcement of grants from Housatonic.  It recognizes the amount of work and investment the Town of GB has been putting into Housatonic, and the great strides these funds will help us make.

The funds will be used for housing rehabilitation for low- and moderate-income homeowners (or those who rent to low- and moderate-income residents).  We’ll have enough for about 15 projects (maybe more, depending on the scope of each homeowner’s needs), generally split between GB and Sheffield but with a focus on Housatonic.  I should note that local banks have pledged their involvement as well, to underwrite loans for additional homeowner needs. Thanks to Greylock Fed Credit Union, Lee Bank, Pittsfield Co-Op Bank, and Salisbury Bank.

Also, the grant provides over $75,000 to complete engineering on stormwater in Housatonic, on Front Street and under the mills.  Finally, Sheffield will use about $25,000 for engineering to make their Town Hall accessible.  BRPC will use the balance of funding to administer the programs for us.

Here is the link to the official announcement.

This grant award is a direct outcome of the Master Plan and proof that we are actually implementing the Master Plan.  All of you who attended the CDS meetings and public hearings in the winter, and the Master Plan meetings over the previous few years, should be gratified with this success!  Participation pays off – literally!  Thank you!!

By the way, every year Congress threatens to gut the CDBG program.  Every year communities across the country fight to keep it going.  These funds are critical to serving local needs.

grant award map

Towns in green win through the competitive Community Development Fund subprogram. Towns in yellow and blue generally receive some allocation because of their economic status.

Governor and Congressman

Governor Patrick and Congressman Neal

engineering will target Front St and outfalls 2 and 3



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Great Barrington’s “electrical connections”

It seems like the rain will clear out in time for the Solar Energy celebration tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon.  The celebration starts at 1:00 behind Town Hall.  Learn about the Solarize program and see solar panels in action, eat food, listen to the music.

Speaking of energy and electricity, I am about halfway through “The Race Underground,” a book by Doug Most, about the building of the subways in both Boston and New York.  The period of time covered is the 1880s through 1910, more or less.  This was a period when electricity and associated inventions were literally changing the course of history.  And, some of you know, Great Barrington played a major role in that.

Snapshot from Drew's newsletter. See link at left for the full PDF.

Snapshot from Drew’s newsletter. See link at left for the full PDF.

Regarding the subway race in Boston and New York City, the most important electrical engineers on both projects was Frederick S. Pearson.  One of his inspirations: William Stanley. Here is a great description, prepared by local historian Bernard Drew in 2011, of William Stanley’s contributions: Stanley Wired

The Main building at AIER. for more info.

The Main building at AIER. for more info.

You might have heard the name of Frederick Pearson as the person who developed “Edgewood,” the estate that would later become the American Institute of Economic Research (AIER) on Division Street at Long Pond.  And, he eventually bought the Housatonic Water Works, which would remain in the Pearson family until the Mercer family would purchase it decades later.  In a twist of fate, Pearson was killed when the the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915.

Also in the book is a fascinating bit about electrical inventor Frank J. Sprague, who put together the first electric street railway, thanks in part to his embracing the alternating current designs of Stanley.  (Sprague also eventually made dramatic improvements in elevator designs.)  One of Sprague’s sons, Robert, would go on to found Sprague Electric, which employed tens of thousands in North Adams, MA.  That company took over historic structures in North Adams which today house the MASS MoCA museum.

In 1902 the American Institute of Electrical Engineers had its conference in Great Barrington. One might imagine the great minds of Pearson, Sprague, Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Steinmetz, A.G. Bell, and or course local boys William Stanley and Ralph W. Pope, all in a room debating the future of electricity, modern America, and the changes they would unleash on the world!  Amazing!

Frank Pope, mentioned in Drew’s newsletter about Stanley, was in business with Thomas Edison, during which time they filed a few patents and invented the stock ticker.  Frank owned what is now the Wainwright Inn for years.  Pope Street is named for the family.  Today, my wife and I are luck to live in the Ralph W. Pope House, a tiny cottage that Pope inhabited in his later years until he died in 1929.  Pope, with his older brother Frank, was pioneer in telegraph, and was secretary of the AIEE for years. Ironically, when we moved in to the house, we had to re-wire it and upgrade the old “knob and tube” system!

Hope to see you at Solarize Saturday!

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