The future of a valuable, landmark estate and its Undermountain Farm and Stables along one of South Berkshire's most scenic vistas is hanging in the balance.
After dealing with a foreclosure notice, The Sprague Family Trust, owner of the 180-acre property, plans to consider a potential sale to a developer, possibly for affordable housing.
The mansion at 399 Undermountain Road, home of Peter J. and Tjasa Sprague, has a foreclosure notice from VFC Partners, the financial firm in Waco, Texas, which acquired the loan several years ago from Bank of America. The Spragues purchased the house in 1973.
A "balloon" payment of about $400,000 is due by the end of this month, said family representative Kevin Sprague, interviewed at Studio Two, his branding and design agency. Refinancing discussions are underway through various banks.
The bigger issue, he emphasized, is the ultimate fate of the property, which he termed "the most visible, prominent piece of open real estate in Lenox."
"My parents have sacrificed a great amount of their treasure to maintain it the way it is," Sprague said. "I've been interested for decades in doing the right thing by that property, as much as one can.
"We don't have millions of dollars so we can make this the most perfect thing and hand it to the town, nicely wrapped with a bow," he said. "This is a private piece of property. It has value and we're not in a position to give it away. It could change hands."
He listed options such as selling to a developer or an individual owner.
In Sprague's opinion, resistance to changing what he described as outmoded zoning and code regulations, especially affecting large private estates, "has done a lot of damage to this town."
Sprague explained that his parents, now in their mid-70s, and the rest of the family no longer have the wherewithal to maintain and manage the property. The Sprague Family Trust includes Peter J. and Tjasa and their four sons, Carl, Steven, Kevin and Michael.
According to Kevin Sprague, "we're a little daunted because the few times we've started looking into this, we've run instantly into a brick wall of ‘No, no, no, can't be done, it has to go to Town Meeting and you have to spend $60,000 on a design first."
Sprague contended that "there is a bureaucratic system designed to destroy the opportunity for this property. We as a family are not necessarily interested in the huge expenditure of time, energy and exposure it would take to find out what that is.
"I would like the town to call me about what's going to happen," Sprague continued. "I don't want to have to call the town and then be summarily embarrassed and taken apart when I bring a reasonable proposal to start an important, intelligent discussion with the right organizations toward the fate of something that's important. We are open to a dialogue.
"If the town wants something interesting to happen here," he said, "they'd better play ball, they'd better start thinking about it pretty darn hard and show up at the table, because otherwise, yes, the time is limited. We have things we want to do with it. If they want to play, our phone can ring. If they don't, we'll find somebody else who does."
He predicted a resolution of the property's future would be needed within one to three years. As one option, he proposed updating the farm's structures for "a density of housing that is not otherwise allowed by the zoning. It would be very smart to build some type of attractive, efficient housing in the valley or back in the woods, where it would be relatively low-profile and not have to populate the ridge line along Undermountain Road with a bunch of McMansions."
Sprague said that his father, Peter, is "a true entrepreneur, and at times he's been wealthy and at times he's been bankrupt." At 73, he is the founder of Wave Systems Corp. in Lee, established in 1988, and is currently chairman and CEO of WaveXpress Inc., a subsidiary.
"He's always thrown all his chips into whatever game he's playing," said Sprague, "and sometimes he's reaped the rewards and sometimes he hasn't. We have tried our best as a family to plan financially for the property, but we've not been able to set aside a nice bank account simply for the sake of everybody else's enjoyment to keep it in perpetuity as a farm."
Calling the property "beautiful and irreplaceable," he advocated retaining as much open space as possible. But, citing one- to three-acre zoning in the neighborhood, Sprague said "we could easily plunk down any number of little houses right along it and that would be it, we'd be done." However, he said it's unclear which town zoning rules apply to the farm property.
"Could we do a subdivision? Could we do intelligent development? What things could you do that would be better than plunking down a bunch of McMansions every 300 yards?" he asked. "We don't really want that."
If zoning rules and building codes permitted, he speculated "you could easily draft an elegant development scheme for that property that would maintain it in farmland and convert the old barns into condominium units." Smaller, efficient and affordable houses could be built in less-visible sectors of the property, he added.
By the numbers ...
Here are current assessed values and tax bills for the Sprague Family Trust Properties on Undermountain Road in Lenox:
Undermountain Road (Sprague mansion and 11.45 acres): $1,663,500 value; $29,431 tax
Undermountain Road (farm, stable, structures, 145.3 acres): $1,040,280; $22,487 tax
Undermountain Horse Farm business value: $500,000-$600,000 a year; $20,000 profit
Note: A portion of the farm property used for pasture and to cultivate hay is assessed and taxed at a lower rate because of designated agriculture and forestry use under Chapter 61 of Massachusetts state law.
Additional property: Peter J. and Tjasa Sprague recently acquired property at 55 Kemble St., adjacent to Schermerhorn Park, for $345,000 from Theodore J. Martin.
Sources: Lenox Board of Assessors; Lenox Tax Collector; Sprague Family Trust; Berkshire Middle Registry of Deeds
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BEcfanto