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Searles School decision endangers Great Barrington’s future

In her letter to the editor, Suzie Fowle writes: "The Town of Great Barrington just set a dangerous precedent: If a developer starts with an unreasonable, untenable proposal, he or she will be rewarded for scaling it back."

To the Editor:

This morning, as I was thinking locally, about last night’s vote to approve the Special Permit for an 88-room hotel at the former Searles School, I heard on national radio that today (Feb. 23) is W.E.B. Du Bois’ birthday. “Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts,” piped Garrison Keillor to millions of listeners. One hundred and forty-eight years ago today, a stone’s throw from the Searles hotel site, Du Bois’ mother went into labor and birthed a son, destined for greatness, on the banks of the Housatonic, as its waters flowed under winter ice.

I am reminded of one of Du Bois’ quotes, from The Souls of Black Folk: “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, — criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led, — this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.” It is in this spirit that I share my concerns from last night’s meeting.

The front page story of this morning’s Berkshire Eagle (which takes up more than two-thirds of the front page) states that “Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton congratulated the developers for their willingness to compromise.” My reaction to that statement was: what compromise?

On one side of the negotiation – or what should have been a negotiation – was the original application for a 95-room boutique hotel and conference center at the former Searles School site. It was a super-sized proposal that flew in the face of the letter and spirit of our bylaws. In order for there to have been a compromise, the other side of the negotiation would have had to be clarified. What was the Selectboard’s position, from which they compromised? Did they discuss and formulate a best-case scenario?

Negotiators enter their process knowing their targets and their walkaway terms. Did the Selectmen know their terms? Maybe. But last night, none of them, other than the Chairman, explained his vote, and none of them, to my knowledge, referred to the Special Permit criteria (Section 10.4.2 of our bylaws).

Here is what the vote last night looked like from where I sit: The Town of Great Barrington just set a dangerous precedent. The precedent is that if a developer starts with an unreasonable, untenable proposal, he or she will be rewarded for scaling it back, even if the down-sized version is still over-sized and out of scale with the site and the Town.

What other developers might be drawn to our new precedent? Maybe Ivanka Trump is checking us out on Google Maps as I write. Are we that desperate for tax revenue? If so, I suggest that the Selectboard and Finance Committee let that be known, so we can work deliberately and not allow the tail to wag the dog.

Let’s be clear about our goals and our terms for Great Barrington’s future.

On Feb. 23, 2018, it will be W.E.B. Du Bois’ 150th birthday. Where do we want to be on that day? How do we want visitors to his birth site to experience their pilgrimage? How will we honor the soil and the river we share with him, our common sense of place? Let’s keep his story (controversies and all) alive in our classrooms, even though they are no longer adjacent to his birth site. Let’s recognize that the fabric of our community is made of many interwoven strands: Du Bois’ story, our schools, the river and its banks, the hotels, the visitors, the tax revenue, the town officials, all of it. Let’s stand our ground and tighten our fabric as we move forward.

Suzie Fowle


P.S. Here is the link to today’s Writer’s Almanac and Du Bois’ birthday announcement:

The writer is a member of the Great Barrington Planning Board.


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