Elm Court Estate in Stockbridge waits for redesign
STOCKBRIDGE -- Overlooking one of the town's most scenic vistas, the historic Elm Court Estate on Old Stockbridge Road sits silently behind closed gates on its still-snow-covered landscape, still awaiting transformation into a high-end boutique resort.
Ten months after voters approved a zoning bylaw allowing the property's new operators, Travaasa Experiential Resorts, to add a wing exceeding the maximum allowable height of 35 feet, plans have yet to be filed with three town boards prior to construction.
The resort company's Front Yard LLC, which purchased the property from Robert and Sonya Berle's Elm Court Realty LLC, in July 2012 for $9.8 million, is nearing completion of its redesign.
An application for a special permit will be filed with the Select Board, probably early next month, said Christopher Manning, senior vice president of Amstar in Denver, the global real estate investment firm that owns a subsidiary, Green Tea LLC, operator of Travaasa.
"We want to be sure we have everything we need once we file," Manning stated in an email message. Amstar acquires, develops and manages hotel, office, multifamily, retail and industrial properties in the U.S. and overseas, with more than $2.5 billion in assets under its control.
According to the company's local attorney, David Hellman of Hellman, Shearn and Arienti in Great Barrington, his client will also need to file with the Stockbridge Conservation Commission and the town's Historical Preservation Committee, as well as the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals. The entire frontage of the property is in that town, including a 50- to 100-foot strip extending from Old Stockbridge Road.
"We don't anticipate any problems, but we have to go through the process and there could be some issues with neighbors," Hellman said.
Opening of the resort is not expected until well into 2015, at the earliest, assuming all town approvals are granted.
The Conservation Commission would be involved because the inn's site high on a ridge line overlooking Stockbridge Bowl falls within the Scenic Mountain Act, a state law adopted by the town.
According to the commission's secretary, Sally Underwood-Miller, the board would evaluate whether the new structures would be visible above the tree line or from the lake. But she said she doesn't expect significant difficulties.
Hellman attributed the filing delay to the need for detailed, specific plans since "the project will be very scrutinized." He also cited the aftereffects of the extensive, "harrowing" process of winning a zoning change from voters -- rejected once at a February 2013 special town meeting but then approved on May 20 at the annual town meeting.
During an open house for about 300 visitors at the Elm Court last April, the resort owners projected that up to 100 year-round jobs would be created once it opens, as well as a considerable infusion of tax revenue into town coffers.
As approved at Town Meeting by the required two-thirds majority, the town's new cottage-era estate bylaw allows Elm Court -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985 -- to add a four-story wing, up to 50 feet high, to house 80 of the 96 guest rooms. The other 16 are in the main mansion, which the Berles had used for five years as a small, luxury bed and breakfast that attracted wedding parties.
The 2012 purchase of the 55,000-square-foot property by Amstar's Front Yard LLC for $9.8 million was the highest price ever paid in the county for a former private residence.
It was built in 1886 for the Sloane and Vanderbilt families. After a series of other owners, it was sold in 1999 by Peter and Lila Berle, descendants of the Vanderbilts, to their son Robert and his wife, Sonya. Their company, Elm Court Realty LLC, based in South Carolina, holds Front Yard's $8 million mortgage for the site.
The Berles restored the property to its original grandeur after it fell into disrepair in the 1950s and suffered damage from vandals. The Gilded Age mansion retains many of its original furnishings and detailed woodwork.
According to the Denver resort company's plans, the mansion will remain much as it is now, while the new wing would be tucked mostly out of sight down a hill and into the woods, protecting existing views from the mansion and neighbors' homes.
Travaasa, adapted from a Sanskrit word meaning "memorable journey," operates resorts on the island of Maui in Hawaii, and in Austin, Texas.
The new wing on the Stockbridge property would retain the original style of the Elm Court, using materials, design elements and angles to match the mansion and to create a shorter, smaller single structure connected to and behind the mansion for the vast majority of the guest rooms.
The mansion retains an imposing entrance foyer, a large library, music room, conservatory and dining area in addition to a few luxurious suites.
A traffic study, prepared by the Fuss & O'Neill engineering firm in West Springfield, found no prospect of safety issues on Old Stockbridge Road.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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