Real estate attorney Philip Heller dies; brought ' thoughtful and sensible approach' to dealings
Philip Heller, noted for his keen wit, was recognized as a wise and gentle expert who knew the intricate ins and outs of land use regulations and zoning bylaws to help developers win project approvals from town boards in Lenox and Stockbridge.
He was widely admired and respected not only by clients, colleagues and town leaders, but also by many residents who appreciated his gentle demeanor, warmth and old-school manners during the 46 years he practiced law in Berkshire County.
Philip Franklin Heller died on Wednesday at home in Stockbridge after a seven-year fight with a rare form of cancer. He was 73.
"Phil was a great gentleman and among the best real estate lawyers to have ever practiced in Berkshire County," said attorney C. Jeffrey Cook of Cohen Kinne Valicenti & Cook. "Phil will be remembered for his always thoughtful and sensible approach to whatever legal challenge was in front of him. He was always considerate of the other lawyers and parties involved in everything he handled, and maintained a calm temperament that always helped move things along with a minimum of wasted effort."
Attorney F. Sydney Smithers of Cain, Hibbard & Myers described Mr. Heller as "a dear, dear friend; my best friend outside the firm."
His survivors include his wife, Anita Heller, whom he married 48 years ago; daughter Elizabeth Pyle; son-in-law Jeffrey Pyle; grandchildren Lucy and Emily Pyle and brother Frederic.
"Aside from being a good husband and parent, he was a good friend and a good lawyer, and it doesn't get any better than that," said Pittsfield attorney Leonard Cohen of Cohen Kinne Valicenti & Cook.
Heller was born April 15, 1945, in New York City. His parents were Harry Heller, who owned a large taxi fleet and a chain of tuxedo stores in the city, and Lillian Heller, who managed the stores and became an accomplished sculptress later in life.
He earned his bachelor's degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., did graduate studies in Urban Affairs at American University, received his Juris Doctor degree from Suffolk University Law School in Boston in 1971 and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar the same year.
He opened his own practice after moving to the Berkshires, an area he first visited as a college student, skiing with his brother at Catamount Ski Area in Egremont.
Heller opened an office on North Street in 1973 in the former Berkshire County Savings Bank building. He was a public defender from 1973 to 1978, working alongside lawyers and future judges Michael Ripps, Mary-Lou Rupp and Rita Koenigs.
In 1978, he was appointed as a part-time special prosecutor for the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, which had just been created by state lawmakers in 1978. He worked there for eight years as assistant in charge of training district court prosecutors alongside the first Berkshire County district attorney, Anthony Ruberto.
Smithers recalled Mr. Heller's early years representing the Federal Land Bank in Springfield, which granted mortgages to Berkshire County farmers. "Phil was so genuine, so nice, and so unpretentious that I know many of those farmers became his lifelong clients and friends," he said.
In 1976, he took over the Lenox practice of Charles Alberti, who had been named a District Court judge, later moving to the Superior Court.
In 1984, Mr. Heller formed a partnership with attorney Fredric D. Rutberg that continued for 10 years until Rutberg was appointed as a judge in the Southern Berkshire and Central Berkshire district courts. (Rutberg is part owner, president and publisher of New England Newspapers Inc., which includes The Berkshire Eagle and three southern Vermont newspapers.)
"Phil was a fine man and a great lawyer whose reputation was earned through honesty and hard work, tempered by his devotion to family and community," Rutberg said.
Attorney Lori A. Robbins joined Mr. Heller as an associate in 1986, and in 2008 they formalized their partnership as Heller & Robbins, specializing in real estate, land use planning, zoning, permitting and business law.
"During that time, more than half my life, he has been a great mentor and inspiration to me and all of our staff," Robbins said. "I hope to continue his legacy of vigorously representing clients and carrying on his tradition of being a deal-maker, not a deal-breaker. He enjoyed people, always taking an interest in their circumstances, and tried to fashion the best outcome for them. He loved the Berkshires and will be missed by all of the people whose lives he touched."
Heller was known and admired for his strong work ethic, putting in many hours in the office, in court and appearing before town boards. His avocations included reading historical accounts, particularly about World War II.
He was an ardent vintage car enthusiast and was frequently spotted tooling around Stockbridge in his prize-winning 1967 Austin Healy convertible. A skier in winter and golfer in summer, he was a member of the Stockbridge Golf Club for many years.
As an amateur musician, his chosen instrument was the trumpet.
As one of the area's most prominent attorneys specializing in real estate and zoning issues, Heller has represented a long list of developers, including Canyon Ranch, Cranwell and Joseph Toole, owner of the Yankee Inn, Hampton Inn and Courtyard by Marriott in Lenox. He was highly respected for balancing the need to encourage local development while preserving the Berkshires' scenic beauty and open land.
He also handled Shakespeare & Company's transition from its original location at The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration, where it was founded by Tina Packer in 1978, to the troupe's Kemble Street campus in 2000. It has been reported that Packer was so grateful for his help that she gave the attorney a cameo role in one of the final productions at The Mount.
Mr. Heller's numerous other projects included legal assistance for the conversion of Berkshire Christian College on Old Stockbridge Road to the Winden Hills Condominiums.
He appeared frequently before zoning and planning boards in Lenox, where he was present so often that he was called "the Lenox Lawyer."
In recent years, he also took part in several community forums in Lenox on land use and housing issues.
Gwen Miller, the Land Use Director/Town Planner in Lenox since November 2014, recalled her first encounter with Heller, a week or two after she started in Town Hall.
"He came in, dressed very stylishly, and promptly began to explain the many hotel and resort projects pending or on their way in Lenox, the histories of the properties, the relationships between the owners, the status of appeals and decisions," she recalled. "He was just nice, professional, an institution in his own right, whether explaining an old decision or suggesting a bylaw amendment. He was a pleasure to work with."
Miller credited the attorney for his "wealth of knowledge encompassing land use law and regulations, case law, interpretations of our zoning bylaw, and the institutional and land use history of iconic Lenox properties. He has always readily shared his information and experience."
She said that "it's hard to find a big Lenox project that he has not stewarded toward a result good for the property owners and the town. He has also been a useful set of eyes in terms of ways to make the Lenox Zoning Bylaw a more clear document that better delivers the results the town seeks, particularly in relaxing housing regulations."
Besides Shakespeare & Company, his other nonprofit pro bono clients included the Berkshire Theatre Festival and Ventfort Hall. Heller also counseled the former Berkshire Visitors Bureau, now part of the 1Berkshire economic development agency.
A longtime Stockbridge resident, he served on the Parks and Recreation Commission from 1997 to 2016.
Earlier, he was a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals in Lenox from 1971-73, chaired the Pittsfield Traffic Commission from 1978 to 1987 and was on the city's Community Development Board from 1996 to 1997.
Among his honors, Heller was given the Massachusetts Bar Association's Community Service Award for Berkshire County in 1998, and the Lenox Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award in 2007.
Since 1976, he had been a director and pro bono attorney for the Edward J. Madden Open Hearts Camp in Great Barrington. He also created a $40,000-plus trust for the Lillian Heller Curator's Award at Chesterwood museum in Stockbridge, in honor of his mother.
Heller served in the New York state National Guard and the Massachusetts Army Reserve from 1969 to 1975.
"Philip had a keen wit and was famous for his humorous axioms, which were not only hilarious, but true," according to his family. "We will miss his smile, love, friendship, generosity and wisdom."
Funeral services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Temple Anshe Amunim, 26 Broad St. in Pittsfield, followed by a graveside burial service at the Stockbridge Town Cemetery.
Donations in his memory can be sent directly to the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Company or to the Madden Open Hearts Camp, 250 Monument Valley Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_Cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.