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GB Selectboard must respect hotel bylaw

In his letter to the editor, Steve McAlister writes: "The Board needs to determine if saving a token amount of the building really amounts to historic preservation as intended by the bylaw."

To the Editor:

Through all the controversy surrounding the proposed hotel project for Bridge Street in Great Barrington, the hinge point remains clear: the voters of approved a bylaw which requires that the building be substantially saved. This is clear from the video footage of the town meeting, and it’s clearly what the voters intended. The Board of Selectmen has some discretion to exercise in deciding how much of the building must be preserved, but it is not unlimited discretion, since a court review would presumably examine the intent via the video footage and written record of the town meeting, and conclude that people were voting to essentially preserve most or all of the building. This is especially the case because the Searles School was mentioned by name as a major candidate for actual preservation.

Therefore, the Board needs to determine if saving a token amount of the building — essentially two walls, some floorboards and a few miscellaneous items such as a shower head — in short, one percent or so of the building — really amounts to historic preservation as intended by the bylaw. It should be obvious that it does not. If the Board concludes that the building is not being preserved, which is the only reasonable conclusion, then they have no choice but to deny the Special Permit, because to grant it would be to overrule the town meeting bylaw and invite an appeal by voters. The town counsel has made it clear what must be satisfied in order for the selectmen to be on solid footing, and his opinion was bolstered by the developers’ own Boston attorney’s agreement on that.

The bottom line is not about whether it’s inherently a good project or a bad project, or whether it will bring much revenue or employment, or little. Those are not ultimately the criteria by which the Selectboard can make their decision. There is only one question at bottom: is the building preserved in accordance with the town’s laws (and therefore is the Selectboard’s decision safe from a divisive appeal), or is it not? If it can’t pass the smell test for real preservation, then every other consideration is irrelevant, because the law won’t have been satisfied.

In the end, the town meeting is the last democratic bastion of the little guy against powerful, moneyed corporate forces, such as Hilton, that seek to impose their business-model template on Great Barrington just as they have on countless other towns from coast to coast, with the consequent sameness and ugliness. They don’t care if it fits our town or not — they’ll just make the town fit them. There is no room for historic preservation in their uniformitarian model, and that model is now trying to cram 95 rooms onto a site that won’t contain them unless they essentially wipe it clean, apart from keeping a token of the school that is meant to appease the upset citizens. Surely we can do better. A few other towns have, with very successful hotels in old schools.

I respectfully ask the Board of Selectmen to pay heed to the clear will of the local people as enshrined in the bylaw, and do not let big business and their business models decide our future as a town. Please uphold our bylaws, and deny the Special Permit on that very solid ground.

Steve McAlister

3 Warren Ave.

Great Barrington

The writer is a former member (19 years) and chair (13 years) of a Massachusetts planning board and sole Special Permit Granting Authority.

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