LENOX -- A multi-phase master plan to transform the 29-acre Spring Lawn property into a potential 95-room, 14-building resort is tracking toward a prompt ruling by the town's Zoning Board of Appeals.
The developers have estimated the cost at $15 million to $20 million.
The proposal by an investment team that includes the Jurney family, which owns the property, and Lenox native Rob Coakley, sailed through a generally positive, two-hour, standing-room only ZBA hearing on Wednesday night.
The board members, led by acting Chairman Clifford Snyder, heard letters of support from the town's Planning Board, Historical Commission and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), as well as favorable written or in-person comments from two innkeepers and, with a couple of exceptions, about 15 residents.
Citing other nearby hotel projects in development, Snyder asked Coakley: "What makes you think you need this many rooms?"
"We think there is a niche that is not being provided for," Coakley said. "We're going to be in a lot different price ranges from some of the hotel rooms coming on board."
He added that the development team would actively seek "a new client base, rather than relying on the existing legacy visitors who come up here. We plan on going after an entirely new audience for the Berkshires; we're pretty confident we can do it, and we're certainly putting up a lot of time, effort and money to prove that concept."
But, Coakley added, "we've been tempered by the reality of the world, and that's why we're scaling this a little more carefully so that we're not over our skis at any given point. We think it's a more intelligent way to go about building this out gradually."
Snyder, citing other area projects targeting a similar high-end clientele, questioned whether the market exists.
During the public comment period, Kemble Inn owner Scott Shortt, whose property borders Spring Lawn, declared to applause: "I don't believe the Spring Lawn project is about divvying up a too-small pie into smaller and smaller pieces; I believe it's about baking a whole new pie."
Following a public site visit by the zoning board set for today at 10 a.m. in front of the 110-year-old Spring Lawn mansion at 10 Kemble St., the ZBA is expected to vote on the master plan at a 6 p.m. meeting in Town Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 18.
"We're very excited, it's been a long, long road to get here," said James C. Jurney, Jr., whose father purchased the site from Shakespeare & Company in 2005 for $3.9 million.
Along with his wife, Gwen, Jurney has been pursuing rehabilitation of the property and a high-end resort plan delayed by the recession and by complex permitting requirements from local boards and the state DCR, which has historic-conservation oversight covering half of the 29 acres.
Representing the Spring Lawn investment group, attorney John Gobel of the Pittsfield firm Gobel & Hollister explained that the developers seek overall approval of the master plan and a special permit under the estate preservation section of the town bylaws.
Spring Lawn will return to the ZBA for specific, detailed approvals covering a two-part buildout, beginning with a 20-room inn and 75-seat public restaurant in a rehabilitated mansion, and a fitness center in the carriage house. Phase two, subject to market demand, includes construction of a dozen low-rise buildings containing 75 additional lodging rooms.
Completion of a public pedestrian trail connecting Old Stockbridge Road and Kemble Street is planned. There will be no pool or tennis courts; amplified music would be limited to a low 50-decibel level, ending no later than 11 p.m. Any large parties are limited to 175 guests.
Coakley reviewed the origin of the plan, as his former development company stepped back from its pursuit of major resort projects at historic sites "when the world took a left turn" during the recession in 2008 and 2009.
"We had to rethink what we were doing," Coakley said, explaining that retrenchment led to a scaled-down approach to marketing destinations for second- and third-home clients. He recounted a chance meeting with the Jurney family that yielded a common vision for restoring the Spring Lawn property and developing a high-end resort for visitors.
Coakley stressed enhancement of the area's four-season appeal to tourists from the New York and Boston metro areas. "We think we have a very good game plan to make this a true fall, winter, spring destination as well as summer, which takes care of itself," he said.
Even after a full buildout of the property, a new transportation study predicts no significant traffic impact even at peak travel periods, said Spring Lawn project manager Josh Martin of Turnberry Consulting in Washington, D.C. Screened-off parking would accommodate 133 vehicles.
"We're trying to respect the property in its original state and return Spring Lawn to its former grandeur as well as making it financially sustainable, because that's one of the challenges with these ‘cottages,' so that you can maintain and preserve the property," Martin declared.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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In their own words
Among the comments during the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the Spring Lawn resort master plan:
n Attorney John Gobel, representing the developers: "It's very important to remember that this is just the beginning of the permitting process. This is similar to how Cranwell and Canyon Ranch were permitted, in stages. This is and will be a very expensive project. The only practical way to get it done is to do it in stages."
n Clifford Snyder, acting chairman, Lenox ZBA: "My concern with a lot of these projects is that everybody has grandiose ideas and sometimes they're great, sometimes they're not, but I'd hate to see some of these projects be started and built, and then find out we really don't need it. And then what do you do? That's not our job to determine for you, but it's certainly a consideration when we review all these things."
n Lenox Planning Board (by letter): "The petitioners have designed a project that is sensitive to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' historic preservation-conservation restrictions."
n David and Suzanne Klausmeyer, nearby residents: "By bringing Spring Lawn back to a meaningful purpose, the town will derive substantial benefits, including the creation of jobs, tax revenue and the integration of this currently under-utilized asset into the appeal of historic Lenox."
n Jim Biancolo, downtown Lenox resident: "A restored Spring Lawn can only help downtown businesses and enhance Lenox's historical assets. I am convinced it addresses critical Lenox needs. Without this project, the property is at risk for deterioration, clearly a detriment to Lenox."
n John and Lorraine Whittenton, Old Stockbridge Road residents: "We would like to express our opposition. ... We are especially concerned about the number of buildings we feel it will negatively affect our property values and add to an already overly traveled road."
n Scott Shortt, owner of adjacent Kemble Inn: "One might think that as an innkeeper next door that I would be fearful of the perceived competition and opposed to the proposed development, but that couldn't be further from the truth at all. These special properties need owners who are committed to these projects, and not a lot of people would be up for the challenge. The business case on these things is complicated, challenging and absolutely fraught with risk. There are a lot easier ways to earn a living than to renovate 100-plus year-old buildings and then sell lodging in a highly seasonal tourism market. I hope you grant a clear, not ambiguous, unconditional approval."
n Tom and Suki Werner, co-owners, Stonover Farm B & B: "Lenox needs to shine a bright green light on this plan, which restores a beautiful and historic building, creates an attractive landscape around it, attracts more young, affluent visitors, gives a shot in the arm to local merchants and increases the town's tax revenue. Spring Lawn will raise the standard for Lenox, making it a more important and desirable destination for urban visitors and benefiting literally everyone in the area."
n Dan Sartori, nearby resident: "I feel that this restoration project is the best chance this property will ever have to bring it back to its once-prominent place in Lenox."