hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News February - March 2016



Developers change course, will save old school


Responding to a public outcry, the developers who wanted to tear down a historic school building in Great Barrington, Mass., have agreed to save it.

Vijay and Chrystal Mahida, who already own two motels in Great Barrington and several others around the Berkshires, now plan to renovate the former Searles Middle School as an 88-room hotel. The brick school building, vacant for a decade, is a century-old Georgian Revival structure with arched chimneys and 14-foot-high ceilings.

The online news site The Berkshire Edge reported that the developer’s revised plans, submitted to the town on Jan. 13, drew the blessing of Save Searles School, a local group opposed to the demolition. The Edge quoted the group’s founder, Bobby Houston, as saying developer Vijay Mahida “cares enough that he stepped up in a big way.”

The new plans are a lot like what was expected when the Mahidas originally said about a year ago that they would buy and renovate the old school on Bridge Street for use as a boutique hotel. At the Mahidas’ request, the town Historic Commission voted unanimously last spring to designate the old school building as having cultural, architectural and historical significance.
But it soon appeared that the developers were just using the historic designation as a way to get around a town bylaw that limits new hotels to a maximum of 45 rooms. The room limit does not apply to redevelopment of historic properties.

With the historic designation in hand, the Mahidas proposed in September to “redevelop” the Searles property by tearing down the old school building and replacing it with an entirely new 95-room hotel and conference center. That plan set off a wave a public opposition, the more so because of what critics called the bland, standard-issue corporate design of the new hotel.
After opponents began organizing and packed a series of public meetings last fall, the developers began to reconsider.

“We didn’t expect the community to be divided as much as it was,” Vijay Mahida told the Edge. “We thought we met the bylaw, but it didn’t change the hearts and minds of the people.”

Mahida said he has been given a rough estimate that it will cost “a couple million extra” to reuse the old school building rather than demolishing it and starting from scratch. The demolition-and-replacement plan had been estimated to cost $24 million and would have included nine more hotel rooms than the new proposal.

In other news from around the region in December and January:


Rutland faces vote on fluoride
Voters in Rutland, Vt., will be asked in March whether they want fluoride added to the city’s water, as it has been for the past three decades.

An advisory question placed on the March 1 town meeting ballot by citizen petition asks, “Shall the commissioner of public works fluoridate the public water supply of Rutland?”

The Rutland Herald reported last month that the city’s Board of Alderman declined a request from its public works commissioner, Jeffrey Wennberg, to insert the words “continue to” into the text of the ballot question – to make it clear to voters that the city’s water already is being fluoridated.

Instead, the board opted to use the wording submitted by the anti-fluoride citizens group that petitioned to put the question on the ballot.

Alderman David Allaire said that although the change suggested by Wennberg might clarify the issue for some voters, “I think it does slightly change the tone of the question, and I don’t think, at this late hour, it is something we should do.”

Alderwoman Sharon Davis said she believes most voters “are well aware there is fluoride in their water.”

Rutland’s debate over fluoride, now being waged primarily in letters to the editor in the Herald, echoes last year’s debate in Bennington, where 58 percent of voters rejected a proposal to start adding fluoride to the town’s drinking water in an effort to curb tooth decay. It was the sixth time since the early 1960s that Bennington had rejected the idea of fluoridation.

Supporters of fluoride say the incidence of dental cavities is substantially reduced in municipalities that fluoridate their water. Opponents say they fear overexposure to fluoride could have unintended health effects – and that people should have the right to choose whether to ingest it.

As in Bennington, Rutland’s vote is only advisory. If voters say no to fluoride, it will be up to Wennberg to decide whether to discontinue its use.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley