Saturday June 9, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Town officials are expressing shock at the nearly $9 million asking price for the former DeSisto School, now back on the market after three years of ownership by a realty trust formed by Patrick Sheehan of Dalton.

"That blew me away," said Select Board Chairwoman Deborah McMenamy.

The town places the value of the land and buildings at 35 and 37 Interlaken Road (Route 183) at $1,540,000, according to records at the Assessor’s office.

Sheehan, whose company Sheehan Health Group owns a group of assisted-living and skilled nursing facilities, as well as rehabilitation centers, paid nearly $1.4 million when he bought the scenic 320-acre property at auc tion in Ap ril 2009 -- considered a "fire sale" price since it had been offered at $4.5 million. The land and its buildings overlook Stockbridge Bowl.

Most of the property is zoned residential, with a two-acre minimum lot size, but it operated as the Stockbridge School and the DeSisto School under state laws that can exempt nonprofits from zoning laws.

After owner A. Michael DeSisto died in November 2003, the property languished for six years under bank ownership. At one time, entrepreneurs from New Jersey proposed an equestrian training facillity and riding center, but the project failed to develop.

In the early 1980s, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council acquired a 33-acre hilltop parcel, formerly part of the estate, on the eastern face of West Stockbridge Mountain, called the South Yokun Ridge Reserve. The land was presented to the council as a gift by Hans and Ruth Maeder, who had operated the Stockbridge School on the main property ffrom 1948 to 1976.

Although Lance Vermeulen’s real estate agency is marketing the former school as a single-family residence, concerns have surfaced among some residents about potential development and subdivision of the land for condo units.

While the town has a Great Estates District Overlay that protects a list of properties such as Linwood (the Norman Rockwell Museum), Chesterwood, Kripalu, Berkshire Country Day School, Eden Hill (The Marian Fathers), Elm Court, Naumkeag and several others, the DeSisto property -- originally the Dan Hanna Farm -- is not included, according to zoning bylaws.

Planning Board Chairman Douglas J. Rose, a commercial-litigation partner at the Tully Rinckey law firm in Albany, N.Y., told The Eagle he believes the property could be subdivided, though "it would be a project of some magnitude."

"Subdivisions are fairly expensive animals," he said, adding that removal of the stripped-down mansion and other structures would help clear the way for a developer to present a plan to the board.

Accessibility from Route 183 would be a plus for any developer, he said, but an infrastructure proposal would have to be evaluated by the Planning Board.

Zoning Board of Appeals member Jack Spencer pointed out that the town has not seen a major project of that kind since the White Pines condo project replaced the former Music Inn property near Stockbridge Bowl about 30 years ago.

The town has a zoning bylaw protecting Berkshire Cottage-era estates built during the Gilded Age from 1870 to 1920. It’s unclear whether the former DeSisto site would qualify.

As a selling point, Vermeulen is touting the property as "an opportunity to own one of the few remaining Berkshire Cottages." But he has acknowledged that it needs between $3 million and $5 million for a complete renovation.

The main mansion, with 18,000 square feet, has been stripped down to a shell, though it retains original moldings, staircases, fireplaces and some flooring.

Selling points include several remaining buildings which have been stabilized under Sheehan’s ownership, as well as extensive woodlands and an apple orchard.

But there’s speculation in town that for a prospective purchaser, the surviving structures would end up as "tear-downs."

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.