WEST STOCKBRIDGE – A legal dispute that is rocking this small Berkshire community and involving people across the county has now caught the attention of two Hollywood celebrities and a former governor.
The quarrel over permits, noise and road access, and amplified by struggles linked to the coronavirus pandemic, has sprouted all summer between two neighboring and beloved downtown businesses, the Truc Orient Express restaurant. and The Foundry Theater.
And with a special permission hearing looming for The Foundry, Oscar winner Allison Janney of “West Wing” fame responded Thursday with a letter to The Eagle’s editor in support of ‘a permit for the performing arts venue to continue to operate. And on Friday, actor Allison Mackie sent a letter to the newspaper as well; the two women have worked with foundry owner Amy Brentano in the past.
Brentano said that amid more than 100 letters of support, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who lives in nearby Richmond, sent a note of support to the city. Famous supporters are just a few who have rallied for the two pandemic-hit companies as they face what they say is a decisive audience, amid a situation that has fueled rage against city officials and sowed deep divisions in a larger community that loves its food, art and culture.
The board of directors is due to hold a special hearing at 6 p.m. Monday on Brentano’s request to obtain a special permit to operate the theater. In 2019, the council granted it an entertainment license, but failed to grant a permit, which the city’s zoning regulations require.
And that hearing follows a busy and inconclusive Zoning Appeal Board hearing Thursday in response to a request from Truc owner Truc Nguyen, who asked the ZBA to enforce the zoning bylaw. The ZBA continued the hearing until September 22, as a decision made by the Select Board on Monday could render a zoning board decision unnecessary, ZBA member Jack Houghton said.
“They will either say yes or no, and if so, then without a doubt with conditions [around noise and other issues]”Houghton said, noting the decision may not be made on Monday due to the complexity and passion surrounding the dispute.” Strong emotions, “he added.
Janney, who has been involved in the local theater for years, said she performed in plays written by Brentano when they worked together decades ago in New York City, and was inspired by the expansion of her work by Brentano into the Berkshires when she moved here. in 2002.
“I am passionate about the Berkshire artist community and The Foundry has become a full and unique participant in this community in just a few short years,” Janney wrote. “I sincerely hope that there will continue to be happy music, theater, dance and art in the center of West Stockbridge for many years to come.”
The issue of the special permit came to light in May, when Nguyen complained that Brentano, owner of the road between the two companies, was planning, for safety reasons, to cut off or control the access of customers to the restaurant. by closing the road. during open-air performances only on weekend evenings. Nguyen was also concerned that this would continue when she reopens the dining room.
This road, Merritt Way, has been the only public access to Truc since the city converted the Harris Street Bridge to a walkway in 1991, removing vehicle access directly from Main Street. Nguyen and her mother live on the landlocked property and also run a store there. The family has run the restaurant for 42 years.
Despite concerns expressed by Nguyen, home inspector Brian Duvall decided not to enforce zoning bylaws against The Foundry after Nguyen’s attorney Mitchell Greenwald requested it, according to emails between Duvall and Greenwald obtained by The Eagle. In his response, Duvall noted that The Foundry was applying for the special permit – with the help of the city attorney, what Greenwald says is a conflict of interest and unfair to Nguyen.
In his application for zoning enforcement, Nguyen included allegations of high noise levels, trespassing, alcohol consumption and marijuana use by site patrons among the reasons for the enforcement.
Brentano told The Eagle that these were accusations without evidence and that The Foundry was careful with alcohol and did not allow cannabis. She said she was grateful for the continuation of the meeting and for all the support.
“It’s heartwarming at a difficult time,” she said.
Nguyen said she also appreciates the support she has received from the community. But, she said she continues to suffer from the noise from the foundry, and says her take-out customers often don’t want to use the outdoor seats she bought. She has, on several occasions, expressed a sense of isolation as an immigrant in a very white Berkshire who feels unheard.
“Music hurts me every weekend,” Ngyuen said of what is sometimes amplified sound on the outdoor stage. And she said she was upset by a video on Foundry’s shows, posted on Facebook, which appeared to poke fun at her noise complaints.
“I live here,” she said. “How can you license entertainment without considering the impact it will have on neighboring businesses? “
A city resident says the situation is deeply painful for all and the city needs both businesses to be successful in what is a complex rural economy.
“Each party will have to make accommodations,” Jon Piasecki said in an email. “The job of the Select Board is to create a level playing field to ensure fairness.”