LENOX — Despite major site-plan changes and concessions on amenities available to the community, the developer seeking to purchase and renovate Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort on Monday hit a wall of opposition and a battleground of conflicting legal opinions.
More than 125 residents crowded into the Town Hall auditorium for the second public hearing on the application by the Miraval Group, which owns a health and wellness resort in Tucson, Ariz.
Miraval, is seeking a modified special permit for a $20 million acquisition and $60 million to transform Cranwell into an exclusive retreat with a gated entrance, valet parking and dramatic improvements to the facility.
Because of last-minute revised plans and legal documents, the five-member Zoning Board of Appeals agreed to delay a vote until the next public hearing at 7 p.m. Sept. 26, or thereafter.
Acting Chairwoman Shawn Leary Considine implored attorneys for Miraval and for all four Cranwell condominium associations not to bombard the ZBA with a crossfire of legal claims and counterclaims.
But F. Sydney Smithers of Cain, Hibbard and Myers, representing the developer, and John Gobel of Gobel & Hollister, attorney for townhouse and condo owners, clashed repeatedly on whether free and open access to the spa, swimming pools and other amenities were guaranteed when the property changes hands.
The legal issue involves the interpretation of a 1999 memo written by local real estate attorney Philip Heller on amenity access rights.
Smithers contended that even though the previous owners, the Burack family, did not impose amenities fees on condo owners for many years, "that does not create a perpetual right of free access."
"If Miraval is going to buy this property and invest three times its acquisition price in fixing it up and making it a great resource and income driver for the town, it is only going to do so on a basis that is fair and equitable," Smithers said.
That dispute and a question on whether the project requires a 200-foot buffer zone setback separating new construction from condo homes, will be referred to town counsel at Kopelman and Paige for further study.
In its initial findings, the Boston firm concluded that the resort expansion does not require the buffer zone because the condos are part of the property. Gobel insisted that they were deeded out to the condo associations so Cranwell could save on real estate taxes.
The major design change to the 380-acre site plan eliminates a 52-room, three-story lodging facility that encountered opposition over its size and location.
Instead, four smaller, residential-style buildings containing eight to 12 guest rooms each would be scattered around the property.
"It's a big commitment to address the community's concerns and improve the overall layout of the resort," said project architect David Rau.
Engineer Jon Dietrich of Fuss & O'Neill said the changes would not affect the minimal traffic impact of the resort expansion. Impact on municipal services and the environment also would be unaffected, according to Steve Mack of Foresight Land Services in Pittsfield.
"The applicant has heard what the neighbors had to say and adjusted the parking lots, the drives, the facilities to accommodate those observations," Smithers said.
He urged the ZBA not to mediate sharply disputed "private property rights" between condo owners and the future owners of Cranwell. Smithers acknowledged that "purported documents" outlining those rights are "a source of bitter controversy" between him and Gobel, the homeowners' attorney.
Smithers argued that those documents give condo owners "access to certain amenities on the same basis as resort hotel guests and that includes a price. Mr. Gobel would have you believe that means they can have everything for nothing. Nobody can afford to run Cranwell and afford equal access to its facilities for nothing."
Gobel acknowledged "tremendous progress" by the Miraval applicants "to address some of the physical concerns we had from a zoning perspective, no doubt about it. We're very encouraged by the big effort they've made to come toward us on the physical concerns, we still have some. We look forward to working with them to address some legal concerns on amenities rights."
Miraval Group CEO and President Steven A. Rudnitsky sought to assure condo owners and area residents that access to the indoor and outdoor pools, fitness center and spa would be maintained at "affordable rates" for families, including children.
Once the renovated resort opens as Miraval/Lenox, rates would range from $810 to $1,200 a year for a two-person household, and $15 a day for guests and $5 for youngsters under 16, Rudnitsky pointed out.
For residents of Lenox and surrounding towns, use of resort facilities would be pegged at $150 per person per month.
"We really do want to make sure that people in the Lenox community understand that we want to stay the course, we want them to feel welcome in the Cranwell community," said Rudnitsky.
Nevertheless, Gobel said "we still don't have any sense as to what this is really going to cost people in the community or what the benefits we've had all these years that we're going to lose are going to be."
During public comment, only one of the 15 speakers supported Miraval.
"When you have gates, you keep the community out," said Linda Miller, of Lenox.
"Tonight, we hear they're locking us out," added David Rothstein, a nearby resident. "We love the way it is and we love the way it was. We want to keep that in our community, we'd love to keep what we have. Please don't take that away from us, don't overcharge us to use the amenities at Cranwell."
"As a taxpayer, I want to know what the benefit is to the town of Lenox," said Rory Canter. "You don't leave the property when you go to a spa that's going to charge the kind of money they're charging for rooms. This kind of a project, of being exclusive, means turning your back on the community."
But local resident Rosalie Goldberg declared that the hotel rooms and grounds need help.
"If Miraval is coming in and bringing money and bringing people to improve the community," she said, "I vote in favor of their coming."
Miraval and its co-applicant, the current owner 55 Cranwell LLC, seek an increase of 43 guest rooms, bringing the resort up to 148.
According to Rudnitsky, the renovated resort would generate $1.3 million in real estate, sales and lodging taxes for the town, following a onetime, $1.1 million payment for sewer, water and other utility connection fees.
In June, 2015, CampGroup LCC, owner of four summer camps in the Berkshires, purchased a two-thirds stake in Cranwell from the Burack family, with L.D. Builders as one-third owner, for $18 million.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
Lenox zoning guidelines . . .
Applicants for resort special permits must satisfy the following zoning bylaw requirements:
• Community needs must be served by the proposal.
• The plan must not unduly impede traffic flow and safety or parking and loading.
• Adequacy of utilities and other public services has to be sufficient to serve the proposal.
• The neighborhood character and social structures should not be detrimentally affected.
• Impacts on the natural environment should not be unduly detrimental.
• The economic and fiscal impact to the town, including town services, tax base and employment should not be negative.