Clarence Fanto: Rockwell’s vision still plays vital role
LENOX -- Another battle has been joined over a major new hotel project.
But this one does not pit developer against developer, as has been the case with the Hilton Garden in Pittsfield (now under construction) and the Courtyard by Marriott, which was first sited off Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield, but is now approved at Brushwood Farms in Lenox yet is held up by a court challenge by hotel owner Vijay Mahida.
The passionate debate that erupted before the Stockbridge Select Board this past week involved a parade of nearly 15 nearby residents strongly critical of the proposed 112-room Elm Court Inn, whose Denver-based owners, Amstar Group and its subsidiary, Front Yard LLC, are seeking special-permit approval.
The company purchased the inn from Robert and Sonya Berle two years ago for $9.1 million; Amstar upped the ante when its original plan for an 80-room hotel wing connected to the historic 16-room mansion was expanded to include 96 rooms in the wing.
Set back from Old Stockbridge Road, which bisects Lenox and Stockbridge, the property (which lies in Stockbridge) is on the National Register of Historic Places. Part of it was restored by the Berles, but the rest awaits major rehabilitation from its current, badly deteriorated condition.
The new owners have not divulged the total cost of their plan, but their local attorney, David Hellman, told The Eagle recently that the expense of the renovation would match that of the new wing, the connector to the mansion, a spa, and a 60-seat public restaurant.
Bearing a petition signed by 79 neighbors on Old Stockbridge Road, most of them Lenox residents, the group’s leaders, Barney and Julie Edmonds, and their hired attorney, Elizabeth Goodman, urged the Select Board to deny the application on the grounds that the scenic, bucolic neighborhood’s present and future character would be jeopardized.
At one point, Goodman raised the possibility of a legal challenge if the Select Board approves the project. That did not sit well with the board’s chairman, retired attorney Stephen Shatz, who deemed it "not helpful for our deliberations."
As seen on CTSB-TV’s public access channel via Time Warner Cable, most of the public speakers at the three-hour Select Board session emphasized the burden of increased traffic that the hotel would generate on the hilly, narrow road that connects the center of Lenox to Route 7 near High Lawn Farm.
Although several speakers favored the project, stressing that only a large, deep-pocketed company such as Amstar could rescue Elm Court from oblivion, the neighborhood residents were firm in their opposition, based on what they saw as traffic safety hazards as well as a detrimental effect on the area. Several suggested that the company return with a smaller hotel proposal.
One opponent, Eugene Talbot, a former Stockbridge selectman, explained that while he does not live in the immediate neighborhood, approval of the project would be a setback for the town’s long-standing efforts to maintain its Rockwellian image.
Clearly, for many residents, the spirit of illustrator Norman Rockwell’s vision of the town remains front and center when it comes to any proposed development.
Talbot cited the cottage-era special permit bylaw adopted by the town, which requires the Select Board to abide by the zoning rules whenever applications come before it.
Shatz, who navigated between the two sides at the contentious meeting and managed to keep the discourse civil, pointed out that the bylaw permits "adaptive re-use" for certain historic relics of the Gilded Age in town (there are at least seven). That "re-use" could include a boutique resort such as proposed by Amstar.
But Talbot countered that the bylaw also requires to consider carefully the impact on neighbors when deciding on an application. During the meeting, Shatz and Selectwoman Deborah McMenamy affirmed the validity of that point.
The project’s proponents who spoke briefly -- including Amstar CEO Gabe Finke and the former senior vice president Chris Manning (now a consultant and investor in the resort) -- emphasized that recent history has shown that no one else has stepped up to the plate to rescue Elm Court. Attorney Hellman has called the project "the poster child" for the town’s cottage-era bylaw.
The key issue facing the Select Board stems from a portion of the town’s zoning bylaw stating that any project seeking a special-permit approval must be "essential or desirable to the public convenience or welfare at the proposed location; will not be detrimental to adjacent uses or to the established or future character of the neighborhood; will not create undue traffic congestion or unduly impair pedestrian safety."
That’s the heart of the issue, according to the objectors, who contended that the increased traffic generated by the hotel during construction and once it’s occupied would indeed cause congestion and threaten the safety of pedestrians -- bottom line, detrimental.
The Select Board members agreed to put off a decision until Aug. 4, when Amstar’s traffic engineers, the highly respected Fuss & O’Neill firm, of West Springfield, submit expanded studies on the impact. They’ve been asked to examine several locations not covered in their original report -- notably the busy intersection at the center of Lenox where Old Stockbridge Road meets West, Main and Walker streets.
The decision won’t be easy, as Shatz acknowledged during the discussion last Monday night.
Interestingly, a similar large-scale resort proposed for the equally historic Spring Lawn property adjacent to Shakespeare & Company was approved by Lenox boards after careful scrutiny. Like Elm Court, that site lies within a residential neighborhood. But adjacent residents came out to support the project, which is now undergoing final design.
But in the case of Elm Court, the concerns expressed by so many neighborhood residents who live just over the town line in Lenox but would be affected by the Stockbridge board’s decision are not being taken lightly.
Many towns in Berkshire County face momentous decisions when they consider major economic development projects that could transform scenic areas and create heavier traffic. Residents consider the quality of life here essential, not just for themselves, but for the region’s ability to attract a vital influx of visitors and second-home owners seeking escape from urban and suburban lifestyles.
Best of luck to the three members of the Stockbridge Select Board as they seek a solution to the cross-currents at play. Does the proposed Travaasa Experiential Resort comply with the bylaw that seeks to protect and rehabilitate historic mansions and estates by allowing "adaptive re-use" of the properties for other purposes? Equally important, does the project protect the neighborhood from substantial traffic safety impact and from disturbance of a close-knit, peace-and-quiet loving neighborhood?
From where I sit, it would be unwise to place a bet on the outcome.
Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto.
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