(Courtesy Photo)
Editor's note: This story was modified to correctly attribute comments to Attorney Robert Fuster Sr., as opposed to Board Member Robert Fuster Jr.

LENOX -- After more than two months of impassioned debate among townspeople and multiple Town Hall hearings, a proposed Courtyard by Marriott at Brushwood Farms has won approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The vote was 5-0 in favor of granting special permits for the hotel project, a four-space increase for parking, use of the site, a sign-request approval, and a waiver exempting the four-story building from the town's height limit of 35 feet, although the board can grant exceptions up to 50 feet. The hotel's roof would be 43.4 feet high with a maximum of 48 feet at the structure's highest point.

Developer Joseph Toole, who was clearly delighted by the decision, said he intends to break ground this spring for a scheduled opening of the 92-room, $10 million hotel in spring 2015.

Attorney William E. Martin, a critic of the project on behalf of his client, rival hotel owner Vijaysinh Mahida, told The Eagle after the vote that though he plans to study the written decision, he does not anticipate appealing it.

Summarizing the Toole proposal, attorney Philip Heller marshaled multiple arguments in favor of the hotel. He noted that hotels are allowed in the town's limited commercial zones covering only 5 percent of land in Lenox, that the plan conforms with all setback, environmental and safety requirements and has a design consistent with comparable properties in the county.

He also emphasized a significant economic impact that would further boost tourism in the region and pumps annual tax revenue into town coffers, along with a $1 million annual payroll. Heller also described the hotel project as consistent with the town's master plan, adopted in 1999, that encourages commercial development for improved employment opportunities, economic viability and fiscal health.

Explaining their support ahead of the unanimous vote -- a 4-1 supermajority was required for approval -- board members discussed the merits of the plan, along with mild reservations about the height of the hotel building.

ZBA Chairman Ethan Berg described the hotel as a contribution to Lenox as a hospitality community and emphasized a positive economic impact. His previous concern over the height issue was eased following the board's site visit last month. "It did not feel out of place, so I did not have that visceral negative reaction as I was thinking I might have."

While expressing the hope that the Route 7 and 20 commercial zone does not become "a strip of homogenized hotels," Berg declared that he has become "much more comfortable over the last four to six weeks about this project."

Board member Robert Fuster, Jr., acknowledging that the appearance of the planned hotel is not perfect, called it "overall, not a bad design." He commended Toole's positive reaction to public critiques of the original design -- which Fuster had labeled as "ugly" -- showed "a willingness to respond" by returning with a new facade.

"I think the overwhelming support from the public has been positive," he asserted, "but I do want to thank everybody for their comments."

"The town has planned to put these kinds of developments in a certain section of town," said ZBA member Clifford Snyder, "and this is the section." He noted improvements in the revised design presented by Toole's team, adding that the town does not have an architectural review board. "To try to get a design everybody is going to like is not going to happen," Snyder commented. "Would I make some changes? Yes, but everybody else in the room would also make changes."

Snyder pronounced the plan "OK" and, while adding some concern about the height, he deemed the proposal as acceptable. "I wish it were a little smaller, but that's not enough for me to vote against it," he said. "Overall, it's a good use of the property."

ZBA member Ned Douglas agreed, despite similar reservations about the height.

Attorney Robert Fuster, Sr., noting 41 communications from the public on the proposal, said it would be impossible to read them all -- "it would take until Friday" -- nor was it required to be read in public. He commended Mahida's lawyer, William E. Martin, for "giving us a lot to think about. Frankly, I don't agree with him, but I appreciate the way he presented it, and it was insightful and gave me a lot of information so I could understand and properly view this project." Martin had questioned the ZBA's authority to grant height waivers.

Fuster praised Toole and his team for their new design, "head and shoulders above the original one, and I'm very grateful you did that. It made my job, frankly, a lot easier."

The Marriott, proposal, originally designated by Toole for a site off Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield, was relocated to a 6.7-acre portion of the 75-acre Brushwood Farms property in late November after Toole encountered legal challenges to his original location based on environmental issues.

During the public hearing portion of a one-hour ZBA session at Town Hall on Wednesday night, several supporters and opponents of the project weighed in, although there were only about 20 spectators, fewer than at previous hearings.

Attorney Michael Hashim of Pittsfield, representing his aunt, June Hashim, owner of the Brushwood Farms site, said of Toole's project: "It doesn't get much better than this." He described approaches from numerous developers over the past 20 to 30 years "who want to do something with this property."

Hashim acknowledged that most of the proposals, including some from "big box" retailers, would not have been acceptable to the town.

Hotel owner Dilip Desai, a Lenox resident whose Pittsfield holdings include the Comfort Inn on South Street and the Best Western on West Housatonic Street, strongly endorsed Toole's project.

The zoning board's approval becomes final once the written decision is filed, expected next week, followed by expiration a 20-day appeal period.

To contact Clarence Fanto:

cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.

On Twitter: @BE_cfanto