Elm Court resort hearing extended amid outcry in Stockbridge
STOCKBRIDGE -- Following more than three hours of high-intensity verbal fireworks, the Select Board on Monday voted to defer a decision over a proposed resort at Elm Court and to resume the public hearing at their Sept. 8 meeting.
The delay appeared to dismay Gabe Finke, CEO of the Denver-based Amstar real estate investment company that owns Travaasa Exper iential Resorts, which would operate the hotel.
The company plans to sink $50 million into the project off Old Stockbridge Road, Finke said. If built, Elm Court would rival Canyon Ranch and Cranwell Resort, both in Lenox, in its size and scope.
Acknowledging "a lot of emotion in the room," the clearly frustrated executive asserted that his company had been blind-sided by the fury and extent of the opposition. "Amstar does not typically put itself in these situations," he declared. "We don't typically take what's known in the industry as ‘entitlement risk,' where the outcome is subject to the ups and downs of a public vote."
At Monday night's standing-room only board meeting attended by about 100 people, Stockbridge and Lenox residents expressed fierce objections to the proposed 112-room resort --16 in the existing mansion, 96 more in a connected wing, plus a 60-seat restaurant open to the public and a 15,515-square-foot spa.
Select Board Chairman Stephen Shatz asked for no applause -- a request that was ignored -- and ruled several speakers out of order as harsh challenges to the board and the developers erupted, as well as derisive laughter.
Since the entrance and frontage of the property are in Lenox, that town's zoning board would have to rule on the resort if it's approved in Stockbridge.
Opponents, 20 in all, decried the scale of the project, the traffic impact and what they view as the disruption of a tranquil rural neighborhood.
Eight supporters argued that a large resort with deep-pocketed owners is the only way to preserve the Gilded Age-era mansion.
Community support cited
Finke explained that Amstar agreed to pursue the project "in a community that values its history" so as to preserve the 1886 property sold by the Berle family, descendants of the original owners, to Amstar's subsidiary, Front Yard LLC, for $9.8 million in 2012.
"We went about building community support for what we proposed," Finke said. He noted a 183-0 town meeting approval last year of an amendment to the "cottage-era estate" zoning bylaw that would permit a hotel as a preservation-oriented re-use of the estate as long as it's not a substantial detriment to the neighborhood. Initial plans were also approved unanimously by the Stockbridge Historic Preservation Commission and the Conservation Commission.
"And yet -- this is where I'm disappointed -- we are being vilified with leaflets and editorials as if we were trying to build a Walmart on Old Stockbridge Road, or more precisely, a Marriott Court yard," Finke asserted, his voice rising.
‘Meaningful tax base'
Finke argued that the development is designed "to respect the wishes of the community an investment that is six times what a typical hotel of this size would cost, creating jobs in the community and a very meaningful tax base."
He cited studies showing that the resort would not impact traffic "level of service" on Old Stockbridge Road, nor would the 96-room addition be visible beyond the property -- "those are facts, what's on the leaflet are not facts, not true. It's meant to create fear and rally opposition."
He described complaints about speeders and short-cutters using Old Stockbridge Road as problems "that exist today, whether or not this project is approved. Our plan does not make that worse."
He insisted that "as a sign of good faith," the company's 11th-hour offer to build a sidewalk from the northern entrance of Elm Court to Hawthorne Street resulted solely from public demand at the previous hearing on June 23. "We don't want the sidewalk. Half the people want a sidewalk, half the people don't," he said.
"We're not here to fight, we're not trying to broker between the community what they want and don't want," he concluded. "We've given every interested party what we believe they've asked for, we've planned it in the best interests of Stockbridge and Lenox." His remarks were greeted by applause from a portion of the crowd.
But the majority was clearly inflamed against the resort plan, even though an expanded traffic study by the company's hired traffic engineers, Fuss and O'Neill of West Springfield, was validated through a "peer review" by Tighe and Bond, a leading engineering and environmental firm based in Westfield. The studies showed no significant impact on area roadways.
Neighborhood resident Barney Edmonds told the Select Board to urge the developers to return with a smaller-scale plan. A petition circulated in the neighborhood now bears 130 signatures of opponents, he added.
"I ask the board to be careful, your decision has a huge impact on all of us," implored Dr. Alec Kloman, an Old Stockbridge Road resident. "A sloppy decision on your part can set a disaster rolling forward. This is a big deal, I urge you to question some of these ‘facts.' What's the rush?"
Among the supporters, Norman Rockwell Museum Director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said that "it's a major undertaking to preserve these old historic structures. There are very few people, companies and businesses that can take care of the properties we've inherited in this amazing region."
Conservation Commission Chairman George Shippey, a former selectman, said: "I can't imagine any other organization willing to invest considerable funds" into Elm Court. He cited the creation of 100 new jobs and increased property, lodging and meals taxes. "We need an increased tax base in this town," he stated.
In their own words ...
Adam Hawthorne, president of Travaasa Experiential Resorts: "There will not be a substantial increase in peak weekday-hour traffic. All but one intersection has no change in level of service from the new info that we surveyed. … We found that there will be no change to the level of pedestrian safety on Old Stockbridge Road."
Barney Edmonds, organizer of neighborhood opposition: "It's not about stopping growth or limiting opportunities. It's about encouraging healthy, smart, sustainable growth, encouraging business which better reflects our small-town values, aspirations and needs, like supporting businesses owned and operated by townspeople, aspirations like sustaining our unique landscape and historic legacy."
Julie Edmonds, neighborhood opponent: "I don't see how tacking on this giant annex is going to save Elm Court, I think it's just going to destroy it."
Annie Selke, neighborhood resident: "This is grossly over-scaled for a quiet residential neighborhood and not at all in harmony with the Stockbridge zoning bylaw … This will be detrimental to the character of this neighborhood. Old Stockbridge Road as we know it will forever be compromised."
Lila Berle, former owner, descendant of original Elm Court family: "90 acres of open land is at stake. This development does not take the 90 acres and build on it. My liking of this is that the open space is really important to Stockbridge and for that alone, this design is really good."
Great Barrington attorney Alexandra Glover, hired by two Elm Court neighbors: "This particular project is too large … these people need to come back with a smaller, scaled-down proposal. … There's new information that no one has had a chance to see. It's a 'rocket docket' to have a first hearing in June, these things go on for three months, six months, I had one in Lenox that went on for a year and a half."
Duncan Pollock, Stockbridge resident: "We do need the right kinds of development to create some opportunity for young people, to attract visitors to patronize our many wonderful cultural institutions. There should be more dialogue between the developers and the neighborhood group, but you can't have everything the way you want it, because there's a question of economic viability. You need some give and take here, but as a development concept, this doesn't get any better."
Gregory Whitehead, president, Bishop Estate Association: "From expanding a modest family B-and-B to a huge corporate-portfolio resort in only four years, this strikes us as truly incredible. We believe that this particular proposal fails to meet any of the five conditions you're obliged to meet [ under the town zoning bylaws ].
Wayne Lemanski, neighborhood resident of Lenox: "We support the project because we want to see the property preserved. Size does matter … a small country hotel will not work, especially with the current $8 million in long-term debt, the additional capital and debt to rehabilitate the billiard wing and the enormous operating expenses associated with running a property of that size."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto