Neighbors appeal Elm Court ruling; developer vows to move ahead

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LENOX — Two neighbors of the historic Elm Court property have appealed a recent ruling that cleared the way for a 112-room, $50 million hotel on the site.

Nonetheless, the developer has pledged to move forward with the project.
The appeal was filed a day before the expiration of a 30-day period that followed a Massachusetts Land Court decision affirming the project, according to Attorney Zachary Berk of the Boston law firm Saul Ewing LLC. A group of neighbors had challenged the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals' approval of a special permit for the hotel, to be operated Travaasa Experiential Resorts.
The new complaint was filed in Massachusetts Appeals Court by Jane Bloomgarden, of Stone Hill Road, and Thomas Sebestyn, of Old Stockbridge Road, Berk said, because the Land Court decision specified they were the only two among the original group of eight with legal standing.

Berk said while it's difficult to predict how long it would take the Appeals Court to rule, he tells clients to expect six months to a year before a decision is handed down.

Developer Front Yard LLC purchased the 90-acre site from the Berle family in July 2012 for $9.8 million. While 87 of Elm Court's 90 acres are in Stockbridge, 3 acres, including frontage and an entrance off Old Stockbridge Road, are in Lenox. A special permit from the Lenox board for access to the site was required for the development — previously approved in September 2014 by the Stockbridge Select Board — to move forward.

In a ruling signed on July 17, Land Court Judge Karyn Scheier dismissed the complaint filed by the original group of eight neighbors and upheld the Lenox ZBA's approval of a special permit for the project.

Anticipating the filing of the appeal, Adam Hawthorne, president of Travaasa Experiential Resorts, nevertheless has signaled full speed ahead for the development.

"We don't plan on allowing a further appeal to hinder our progress in any manner," he wrote in an e-mail response Monday night to queries by The Eagle. "We are within our legal rights to start the Elm Court project during the appeal and we plan to do so."

Hawthorne said "myself and the Travaasa team have chosen not to allow any further action by these individuals to delay the Elm Court project. We don't think that it is fair to our team or to the vast number of community members that have supported our plans."

He said "in the upcoming weeks, we will begin to act in accordance with the rights granted to us through the above-mentioned approvals and engage with the appropriate officials in Stockbridge and Lenox in order to start the project and ultimately to realize our vision for a restored Elm Court."

"Ultimately, we think the appeal would again affirm the ZBA's decision and would only be an attempt to cost the Town of Lenox and Travaasa further time and legal expense," Hawthorne wrote in his statement. "However, if there's a positive side to them choosing to appeal, we believe that it would only strengthen our claim that this lawsuit has been pursued in bad faith."

The stakes are high for both towns.

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

Stockbridge officials project up to $800,000 a year in property and lodging tax revenues.

According to Hawthorne, the resort would create about 100 jobs with annual pay averaging $36,000 and 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.

In her ruling, Judge Scheier wrote that the Lenox ZBA's approval of a special permit to Front Yard for access to the resort "was not arbitrary and capricious, nor was it based on legally untenable grounds, and thereby is upheld."

She dismissed complaints by the group of 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 limits on the number of events the hotel could host in any week.

The ruling also upheld the Lenox board's decision that the town's zoning bylaws allow a resort to operate on the property, which had been run as a boutique wedding destination inn by members of the Berle family for a few years prior to the sale to Front Yard LLC, an affiliate of the Denver-based Amstar international real estate company.

In a detailed statement, his first since the Land Court ruling, Hawthorne cited part of Travaasa's vision statement: "Far too often we stayed in cold, soulless concrete towers that suppressed the magic of a destination." It also reads, "we searched for an experiential destination resort that truly embodied a sense of place — its culture, its cuisine, its adventures."

"We believe that, once complete, the project that we've proposed for Elm Court will exemplify this vision of an experiential resort and will ultimately showcase the culture, cuisine and adventures that made us fall in love with The Berkshires," Hawthorne added.

He described last month's Land Court ruling as "the most recent milestone along our nearly four-year path to make this vision a reality. Although this path has been long and arduous, it has made it clear to me that we've chosen the perfect community for Travaasa."

Hawthorne welcomed "the involvement from the public throughout the approval process, which has provided a clear example of the commitment to community that exists within Stockbridge and Lenox. Within Travaasa, our culture demands that we do not offer a `white glove' form of hospitality but instead we offer a style of hospitality that is more akin to the experience you have when you're visiting close friends or family at their home."

Citing the company's existing resorts in Austin, Texas, and Hana, Hawaii, he wrote that "we have found that this is an experience that cannot be manufactured. It must derive from the passions of individuals that have an ingrained commitment to their community. Throughout this process, it has been made clear, that this passion is abundant within the community of people surrounding Elm Court."

Hawthorne expressed gratitude "to all members of the community who chose to play a role in this process. I was especially impressed by the members of town staff and the members of the boards, which so gracefully, and equitably, administered the many public meetings that were held to discuss the Elm Court project."

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.



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