LENOX -- Town leaders heard the message loud and clear from Old Stockbridge Road residents at a packed Select Board meeting -- they oppose a new 112-room hotel in their tranquil neighborhood along a bucolic country road.
More than 25 people filled the board’s Town Hall meeting room, concerned over the proposed Elm Court resort, spa and 60-room public restaurant sought by Front Yard, LLC, a subsidiary of the Denver-based Amstar Group real estate investment company.
Most of the Elm Court property is in Stockbridge, but the entrance and the road frontage are in Lenox.
Lenox Select Board Chairman Channing Gibson reminded the audience that "there is no application before any Lenox board at this point. All the action right now is down in Stockbridge, so we don’t have an official role to play. ... This isn’t the time to argue whether there should be an Elm Court expansion. We don’t need to be persuaded of anything, other than to hear that there are some concerns."
If Stockbridge approves the hotel plan, the Lenox Planning Board would make a recommendation and the Zoning Board of Appeals would issue a go or no-go.
Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen emphasized that a "peer-reviewed" independent traffic study would be required from an engineer chosen by the town, to be paid for by the developer.
The Stockbridge Select Board will resume its public hearing Monday, Aug. 4, having asked Front Yard to submit expanded traffic studies.
"Since new information may be presented at the meeting, it would be premature to predict what action, if any, will be taken," Select Board Chair man Stephen Shatz told The Eagle.
"It’s an open meeting; anyone can take part," Stock bridge Town Administrator Jo-Ann Marsden said. That includes Lenox residents and town officials.
The Lenox Selectmen held their first discussion Wednes day night, responding to a request from the Lenox Plan ning Board.
"Our concern is how our residents and our town would be impacted," said Kate McNulty-Vaughan, current member and former chairwoman of the Planning Board, representing the board and its chairman, Kameron Spaulding.
"We expect to see a presentation by the developer’s team so that Lenox residents also have information about the project," she stated. "It’s very clear that the Lenox ZBA has a role in the permitting process and our question is, when will that process begin?"
The resort developers have said that they’re seeking ap proval "one town at a time."
"We’re massively impacted by anything that goes on at Old Stockbridge Road," Gregory Whitehead, president of the Bishop Estate Association, told the Lenox Selectmen. The state-incorporated association represents a cluster of homeowners between that road and Kemble Street.
He contended that the developers propose "one of the largest expansions of hospitality uses in the history of Berkshire County in one giant step." Whitehead also argued that Amstar, the applicant’s parent company, specializes in a strategy "whereby much of their return to investors is generated by the exit, or sale, of their properties. The key point is that their responsibility is to their investors."
"Everyone who lives in the neighborhood would enthusiastically welcome an appropriately scaled proposal that would be in harmony with the existing neighborhood," he commented. "This proposal is not it."
"We’ve been stunned at how quickly this seems to be going through Stockbridge," White head added. That town’s Conservation Commission has approved the project, and the Historic Preservation Com mission signed off on plans to alter the mansion at Elm Court, which would have 16 of the 112 guest rooms. The remaining 96 would be in a new annex connected to the mansion.
Whitehead denied that the association is adopting a "NIMBY" (Not in My Back yard) attitude toward the project, pointing out that it has supported condominium ex pan sion at Canyon Ranch as well as the Spring Lawn resort approved by the town on property adjacent to Shakespeare & Company. That project, on the edge of town along state Route 7A with sidewalks and shoulders, involves a 95-room resort in 14 buildings that would be developed in stages, depending on market demand.
Annie Selke, a Lenox resident whose Pittsfield-based home-design companies em ploy 120 people, depicted as "disingenuous" the "threats" of supporters that the Elm Court property would fall to "rack and ruin" if the proposal is denied. "I know there is an appropriate, adaptive re-use of the Elm Court estate that will enhance, and not detract from the town of Lenox and the Berkshires as a whole," she said, citing Bishop Estate and the nearby Winden Hill condominium complex as examples.
Representing the developer, attorney C. Nicholas Arienti of Great Barrington confirmed that expanded traffic studies by the Fuss & O’Neill engineering firm in West Springfield, hired by the applicant, would be presented to the Stockbridge Select Board on Aug. 4.
"If and when we receive a special permit there, then the formal process will start here in Lenox relatively soon thereafter," he explained.
Also on behalf of the developer, Brent White of White Engineering Inc. in Pittsfield, declared that additional traffic studies would address the concerns of Lenox residents, in cluding pedestrian safety, drive way access "and different traffic control devices that could be considered to im prove the safety of the existing conditions."
In their own words ...
Lenox Planning Board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan: "If I lived on Old Stockbridge Road, I would be really concerned, and I think our citizens, and our roads, clearly are going to have impacts from this."
Bishop Estate Association President Gregory Whitehead: "We think the potential impacts and costs are quite massive for Lenox, and we think it’s crucial that Lenox be involved as early as possible. The project is on a narrow, former carriage path with a heavy commercial traffic exclusion already in place. There are no shoulders, no sidewalks, no clear sight lines, many blind and difficult driveways, and the road has traditionally been a favorite for walkers and bicyclists due to its aesthetic beauty."
Annie Selke, Lenox resident: "I’m obviously pro-business, I honestly don’t think this helps business. This development is grossly over-scaled and not in keeping with the Berkshire brand and will all but destroy the special character of what the town of Stockbridge has designated as a scenic road."
Lenox Selectman Kenneth Fowler: "One of the concerns I’m hearing here is scale, over and over again. The sudden growth immediately differs from what we’ve done in the past, and I think that’s causing the main concern about the type of traffic this may generate."
Lenox Select Board Chairman Channing Gibson: "I think all of us would like to see Elm Court thrive, as many of the old Gilded Age homes have. I haven’t heard anybody who says ‘I don’t want anything there,’ that it can only be a private home. I hope that the applicant is aware of how uneasy the process is for residents of Lenox because things are being done that seem beyond our control that have direct impacts on the town."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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On Twitter: @BE_cfanto