Clarence Fanto: Become a planning board member? That'd be a tough decision

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LENOX — It's difficult being a school superintendent in the Berkshires, as chronicled here last weekend.

Turns out, being a town planning board member might be even tougher.

People's Exhibit A: The Lenox Planning Board, after two dozen public meetings since last June and several hundred hours of discussion, research and deep-dive subcommittee sessions, abandoned its proposed zoning revamp to regulate the rapidly growing online short-term vacation rental business that benefits homeowners, investors and entrepreneurs but hurts innkeepers.

People's Exhibit B: The Lee Planning Board, in a 2-2 split this past week, could not decide whether to endorse a zoning bylaw allowing retail pot shops in portions of the downtown corridor on Main Street, extending toward East Lee on Route 20, and a section of Route 102 through South Lee, up to the Stockbridge town line. The five-member board is down by one because of a vacancy.

People's Exhibit C: In Great Barrington, also on the retail marijuana issue, a turf war between the Planning Board and Select Board continues over which group should have special permit granting authority, as well as Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton's wish for special permits to be required for any growing facility, no matter the size or location.

Other communities, notably Stockbridge and Williamstown, have seen their planning boards tied up in knots on how to resolve zoning issues involving development, especially resorts, resulting in often-fierce disputes among members.

For example, in April 2016, three out of seven residents serving on the Stockbridge Planning Board quit in a huff, and a fourth had to step down because he won a seat as a selectman. The upheaval followed deep division as the three former members had wanted to confine votes and discussions to the town's specific zoning bylaws, while others favored more extensive, wider-ranging examination and debate on the town's planning and development issues.

Here's the problem, as I see it. Although there are some differences from town to town on the role of planning boards, in general, they are advisory, offering recommendations for, against, or no opinion on development proposals, master plans, visioning statements and, most significantly, zoning disputes and site-plan reviews for new projects.

In general, a ZBA (zoning board of appeal), select board or town meeting have the final say, depending on the scope and impact of a proposal, with planners' recommendations taken into account but not always accepted.

It should be emphasized that most planning board members are dedicated volunteers willing, perhaps eager, to put in many hours to research proposals and study the state's and the county's two most controversial issues — retail marijuana stores, which are expected to be allowed to open July 1, and Airbnb short-term vacation rentals.

How many weed stores in a given locale, and where they should go, is the thorny challenge that bedevils many towns, even though majorities ranging from 52 to 67 percent, depending on the community, have approved legalized marijuana. NIMBY, we're looking at you.

Pittsfield promises to be the retail center of the Berkshires for the new industry, now that the City Council has voted to allow as many as 35 shops, as long as they're at least 500 feet from any spot where children gather.

Some towns have adopted moratoriums on weed emporiums. If those towns fail to approve a recreational marijuana zoning bylaw by the time those temporary bans expire, those facilities can go anywhere in town where retail activity is allowed by existing zoning regulations.

Furthermore, there is no state cap on the number of recreational marijuana shops allowed in a community unless a city or town passes one. But any limit can't be less than 20 percent of a town's retail liquor-sales licenses. So, if a town has 10 package stores, it can choose to impose a maximum of two pot retailers.

No wonder planning boards gain a reputation, deserved or not, of dithering and of frustrating procrastination.

But, as Lenox Planning Board member Kameron Spaulding pointed out as he bemoaned that board's sudden pullback last Tuesday from a prepared short-term rental zoning policy: Making no decision is actually a decision to punt, to kick the can down the road (supply your favorite overused catchphrase).

When I retire after 50 years in the news profession, would I consider running for a Planning Board term, typically five years? Only if the board adopted a cap on time spent making a decision, no matter how controversial or complex an issue might be. My generous bottom line: 10 meetings, 30 hours, or three months, whichever comes first.

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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