Elm Court legal battle over; resort building project to move forward

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STOCKBRIDGE — Five years after it was first proposed, the $50 million, 112-room Travaasa Experiential Resort project at Elm Court has a clear path forward.

A settlement reached between a group of neighbors and the owner of the property has put to an end the prolonged legal battle over the project, which is just over the town line from Lenox.

"We are pleased to see that the final legal hurdle has been cleared," said Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen on Monday. "We are looking forward to working with the Elm Court team as well as gaining some important infrastructure improvements along Old Stockbridge Road."

The resort proposal includes a 60-seat public restaurant and a 15,000-square-foot spa near the original 1886 estate, which was partially renovated by the previous owners, the Berle family, but requires additional work.

The Stockbridge Select Board first approved the special permit for Front Yard LLC, which purchased and owns the real estate for Travaasa, in September 2014. The Lenox ZBA gave the project the green light in June 2015; that approval was required because three acres of the 90-acre property — the entrance and the road frontage — are over the town line in Lenox.

But eight Elm Court neighbors sued the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals in July 2015 over its approval. After the Massachusetts Land Court ruled in favor of the town and the resort developer last July, the neighbors took the case to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals.

An Appeals Court docket entry dated Nov. 8 terminates the neighbors' case, stated attorney Joel Bard of KP Law in Boston, the firm that represents the town of Lenox.

"This ends the appeal," he wrote in an e-mail message. "As a routine matter, the Land Court will enter final judgment for Front Yard and the ZBA, formally ending the case. But in reality, the litigation is over."

The dismissal was based on a private settlement between Front Yard/Travaasa and the neighbors, Bard told The Eagle. Thus, no terms of the agreement are available.

The appeal was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be pursued further, and without an award of court costs or fees to any party, according to the court filing.

Lenox officials have expressed the belief that the resort's guests will spike business at downtown eateries and retailers.

In addition, the resort developer would spend at least $2.3 million on sewer and water line extensions and upgrades in Lenox, plus a one-time $480,000 sewer hookup cost and $100,000 in annual fees.

Former Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz, who wrote the decision as chairman of the board when it approved the special permit in 2014, also welcomed the resolution of the case.

"We are pleased that the litigation has now been terminated and look forward to the restoration and redevelopment of this property and the benefits which will accrue to our community," Shatz stated on behalf of his two Select Board colleagues at the time, Charles Gillett and Deborah McMenamy.

Stockbridge officials are anticipating property and lodging tax revenues, estimated at up to $800,000 a year. There's also a one-time $350,000 building permit fee for the town and a payroll of $3 million annually, according to Travaasa's projections.

Adam Hawthorne, the resort operator's president, has said the company would invest $2 million the first year and $1 million annually thereafter to market Elm Court and the surrounding area to potential visitors.

The property will generate about 100 jobs with annual pay averaging $36,000, he noted.

Questioned by opponents during the Lenox ZBA meetings, Hawthorne explained that the size of the resort is required to maximize revenue during the high season and yield a 6 to 7 percent profit margin for the company, based on year-round 60 to 70 percent room occupancy.

The Elm Court saga began in July 2012 when Front Yard, LLC, purchased the Elm Court estate from the Berle family for $9.8 million in order to develop a resort on the site. Front Yard is an affiliate of the Denver-based Amstar Group, an international real estate company.

After Stockbridge voters at the May 2013 annual town meeting approved changes in the town's Cottage Era Estate bylaw to clear the way for the project, the town's Select Board approved a special permit in September 2014, with a long list of conditions regulating the use of the property, taking into account many of the neighbors' concerns.

Approval by the Lenox ZBA on a 4-1 vote came in June 2015 after six lengthy meetings and public hearings. By the end of July, the Lenox and Stockbridge neighbors appealed the special permit approval by in a lawsuit naming the ZBA and its individual members as well as Front Yard.

Land Court Judge Karyn Scheier presided over a one-day trial held in the Berkshire Superior Courthouse in August 2016. Schneier toured the Elm Court site, and during the trial heard three witnesses from the group of neighbors as well as Travaasa President Hawthorne, project engineer Brent White and property manager Les Freeman.

Under questioning by Zachary Berk of Saul Ewing, LLC, the Boston law firm representing the neighbors, Thomas Sebestyen, an attorney who lives directly across the road from Elm Court, explained that he moved to Lenox 19 years ago "for a nice, quiet residential neighborhood with good schools."

Acknowledging that he sees heavy traffic from Tanglewood during the summer season, Sebestyen testified he values the relative quiet outside his home.

Second-home owner Jane Bloomgarden, a clinical psychologist and educator who lives on Stone Ledge Road in Stockbridge, told the court she and her husband, David, bought the land and had the house constructed 17 years ago for weekend and vacation use.

"It's a refuge; quiet, peaceful and tranquil," she testified, "a way of life that lets us decompress from stressful careers we both enjoy."

She called the Lenox board's approval of the resort "exquisitely inconsiderate, it feels like a nightmare. The project seems like a behemoth that doesn't consider the neighborhood character and interferes with our way of life, a mega-business out to make a lot of money from the town."

Bloomgarden predicted that noisy wedding parties would continue "until God-knows what hour."

The Lenox ZBA had ruled that the neighborhood character would not be substantially adversely affected, based on multiple traffic studies.

In her 26-page decision filed July 18, 2017, Judge Scheier wrote that the zoning board's special permit "is not arbitrary and capricious and hereby is upheld."

She dismissed complaints by the neighbors that the resort would create excessive noise, pointing out that Lenox zoning bylaws offer protection and that the ZBA imposed multiple stringent limits on outdoor noise levels, any noise after 10 p.m. and restrictions on the number of events the hotel could host in any week. The Stockbridge Select Board's special permit approval included similar limitations.

Following the ruling, Stockbridge Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon said he expected the developers to be "good citizens of the town and of the area, accommodating their neighbors as best as they can."

"I'm very excited, I think it was the right decision," said Selectman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo. "It's the best thing for that property, and it would be great for the town."

But within the required 30-day period, two of the neighbors took the case to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals.

Less than three months later, the private settlement was reached, and late last week, the Appeals Court dismissed the neighbors' complaint.

Travaasa Experiential Resorts' only other property is in Hana, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Last January, the Amstar Group sold Travaasa's flagship resort in Austin, Texas, to the Miraval Group, a division of Hyatt Hotels. Miraval is currently expanding and renovating the Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort in Lenox.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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