Elm Court Resort: Developer submits special permit request in Lenox

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LENOX >> The bell has rung to open the next round in the fight by a major developer to build one of the county's largest resorts on a scenic, historic property located mostly in a Stockbridge residentially-zoned neighborhood.

Front Yard LLC, a subsidiary of Denver-based Amstar, a global real-estate investment company, has filed a massive special permit application — complete with traffic studies — to gain access to the 90-acre Elm Court property along Old Stockbridge Road.

While only three acres — the entire frontage and entrance — are in a residential Lenox neighborhood, approval is needed from the town's zoning board to move ahead with the $50 million, 112-room resort, including a 60-seat public restaurant in the main mansion, built in 1885.

The proposal includes a newly built spa, and construction of a connecting annex containing 96 rooms of the high-end resort.

Despite fierce opposition from neighbors and other Stockbridge residents, that town's Select Board approved the project last Sept. 8 after multiple public hearings and extensive debate after Front Yard LLC purchased Elm Court from the Berle family in July 2012 for $9.8 million.

Town leaders in Lenox promise close scrutiny by the Planning Board on an advisory basis and the decision-making Zoning Board of Appeals, as if the entire resort were sited in the town.

"Absolutely, we've been anticipating that the entire time," said Town Manager Christopher Ketchen in a joint interview with Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller on Tuesday. The application arrived in Town Hall late Monday.

Six town zoning bylaw criteria for special permits allowing resorts in residential areas, including neighborhood character, traffic flow and public safety, adequacy of utilities, impact on the environment, as well as economic and fiscal impact, will weigh heavily in the final outcome, Ketchen added.

"It's my role and Gwen's role to provide planning and zoning board members the absolute best quality of professional support that we can," he declared. "We absolutely trust that they'll execute sound judgment when it comes to considering all the merits of the project."

The material submitted by the developer's local law firm, Hellman Shearn & Arienti LLP of Great Barrington, included the Stockbridge Select Board's approval document as well as traffic studies commissioned and paid for by the developer and a peer-reviewed analysis by Tighe & Bond, a well-known New England engineering and environmental consulting firm, also working for Front Yard LLC.

But Ketchen said the town has ordered its own, independent peer-reviewed traffic study by BETA Inc., a transportation engineering firm. Front Yard LLC, will be billed by Lenox for the cost of that report. "The peer reviewer in this instance works for the town, not the applicant," he noted.

The town manager acknowledged the intense feelings voiced by residents represented by the Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association while the application was reviewed in Stockbridge.

"There's certainly room for passion and there should be," Ketchen said. "There's room for differing opinions and there should be. I feel that if we can keep the conversation closely to the merits of the project as they relate to the six criteria, and not move off into other tangents, we'll have honored the process."

If approved, the hotel would be operated by Travaasa Experiential Resorts, another Amstar affiliate, which runs getaway properties emphasizing "culture, fitness, spa and wellness vacations" in Austin, Texas, and on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Elm Court would rank third in the county behind Canyon Ranch and Cranwell Resort, both in Lenox, in the number of rooms.

The resort would tie into the Lenox sewer system and tap into the property's existing connection to town water. Both systems have adequate capacity to handle anticipated flow demands, said Ketchen.

Negotiations are continuing between the town and Front Yard LLC on the cost of infrastructure requirements, which is likely to exceed $1 million, the town manager predicted.

"The town's not looking to make a profit but at the same time, there's work to be done," Ketchen asserted.

A new water pipe leading to Elm Court likely would be needed, he noted, as well as a southbound extension of the existing sewer line that now terminates near the entrance of the Bishop Estate residential development.

Also, a new sidewalk along Old Stockbridge Road from the Elm Court entrance to Hawthorne Street is a potential benefit, Ketchen added. "There is a desire on the part of the town to maintain pedestrian safety along that road," the town manager said. "I trust that both the Planning Board and the ZBA will consider that and take a balanced approach when considering that kind of infrastructure in a residential neighborhood and how it reflects the character of the road as it exists."

The Stockbridge Select Board's special permit specified that the developer build the sidewalk, if Lenox approves the resort and wants a pedestrian walkway.

Miller noted that "improving and creating pedestrian connections between our downtown and residential neighborhoods is a priority of the town's official Open Space and Recreation Plan. To me, that's a tangible benefit of the proposed project."

The Lenox Chamber of Commerce has already endorsed the resort, since guests are likely to shop and dine in the town's business district.

Town leaders have also cited positive economic benefits, though Stockbridge would gain the lodging and meals tax revenue generated by the hotel and its restaurant, as well as property taxes — an estimated $600,000 annual total — plus a one-time $350,000 building permit fee.

"It's certainly going to benefit the town more than Elm Court in its present state is," Lenox Select Board Chairman Channing Gibson told The Eagle prior to the application's arrival. "It's hard to imagine that it won't provide something to the town."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

SIX Requirements to be met

LENOX >> The developer of the proposed Elm Court Resort, located primarily in Stockbridge, is seeking a special permit from Lenox to gain entry into the 90-acre property. Three acres, including the frontage and entrance, are along Old Stockbridge Road in Lenox.

In a legal brief filed with the Front Yard LLC application, attorney C. Nicholas Arienti of Great Barrington, made the case for the special permit, already approved by the Stockbridge Select Board. He cited six requirements in the Lenox zoning bylaws that must be met before a resort can be approved in a residential area.

• "The community will benefit in numerous ways from the proposal," Arienti wrote. He listed the creation of 100 full- and part-time jobs serving the 112-room hotel, its spa and public restaurant, as well as the resort's proximity to the Lenox business district. The property would be open to the public, and the proposal would "predominantly preserve and maintain the expansive open space, which has historically been of paramount importance in the identity and character of the property."

• "Front Yard is committed to working with the town of Lenox on improving and/or extending the sewer and water line along Old Stockbridge Road for nearly a mile to its property, providing a significant direct benefit to Lenox residents along this stretch of road," Arienti's memorandum stated.

• "The project will not create undue traffic congestion or unduly impair pedestrian safety," the legal document asserted, citing several peer-reviewed traffic studies commissioned by the developer.

• The town has adequate water and sewer capacity to handle the requirements of the resort, Arienti wrote, citing engineering and D&W reports. He also underlined Front Yard's obligation to extend town sewer lines to the Elm Court property and to upgrade the existing, 123-year-old water line along Old Stockbridge Road if the permit is granted.

• Although Elm Court is in a residential zone of mostly single-family homes, Arienti listed the nearby Hillcrest Educational Center, the Winden Hill condominiums, the rear entrance to Shakespeare & Company and the Turnure Terrace elderly subsidized housing facility as additional features of the neighborhood.

• The preservation of the Elm Court estate, its open space, and the resort's parking and stormwater drainage plans already approved by Stockbridge boards all minimize the impact of the project on the natural environment, the legal memo argued.

• The sewer and water line upgrades planned by Front Yard would benefit all Lenox residents because "they would not have to publicly finance this significant municipal improvement using their own tax dollars," Arienti stated.

Arienti, of the law firm Hellman Shearn & Arienti LLP, noted that Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien and Fire Chief Daniel Clifford will be consulted for their feedback on the project.

"Front Yard respectfully requests that the Town of Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals grant a special permit for access to the portion of Elm Court in Stockbridge for the purposes permitted by the Stockbridge Special Permit," the memorandum concluded.

— Clarence Fanto

A special permit application filed in Lenox Town Hall this week by Amstar affiliate Front Yard LCC seeks access to its 112-room, $50 million resort on the Elm Court property in Stockbridge, already approved by that town's Select Board. The Lenox Planning Board, in its advisory role, and the Zoning Board of Appeals, the permit-granting authority, will schedule meetings and public hearings. A hotel in a Lenox residential zone must serve community needs, according to the town's zoning bylaw, according to these guidelines:

• Traffic flow and safety (including parking and loading);

• Adequacy of utilities and other public services;

• The neighborhood character and social structures;

• Impacts on the natural environment;

• Potential economic and fiscal impact to the town, including town services, tax base and employment.

Source: Lenox Zoning Bylaws at www.townoflenox.com


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