Stockbridge Planning Board declines to endorse 37 Interlaken Project
STOCKBRIDGE — A proposal to develop a $150 million resort and single-family housing complex at the former DeSisto estate took a hit on Tuesday evening, but developers are still hoping to work with the town to turn the 37 Interlaken project into a reality.
After more than three hours of spirited debate, the Planning Board voted 7-0 to recommend that voters reject developers' proposed revision to the Cottage Era Estate bylaw that was necessary to allow the project to go forward. The unanimous decision is advisory, but is expected to carry weight in a town deeply divided over the project.
However, the board did approve a compromise motion calling for its zoning review committee to examine the current bylaw "as a matter of the highest priority," and potentially draft revisions of its own that could win Planning Board and town voter support.
Developers want to build a 40- to 50-room hotel, 139 condominium units, 34 single-family homes and restaurant at the 313-acre property on Route 183, a mile south of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.
The current bylaw would allow the hotel, but not the condos and the clustered single-family home development, according to attorney Jonathan Silverstein, who represents the 37 Interlaken team.
The bylaw revision, which was crafted by Silverstein, a municipal law specialist with KP Law in Boston, could still be put to a townwide vote. If approved, it would be subject to an extensive site plan review by the Planning Board.
In a comment to The Eagle on Wednesday, Silverstein described the public hearing as "the beginning of the conversation that we've been wanting to have for a long time now," and he welcomed the compromise that was approved.
"We applaud the Planning Board for giving this issue the priority it deserves," he said, "and look forward to working cooperatively with the town to prepare a zoning bylaw amendment that can help to produce a financially feasible development of the property that the town can support, and of which it can be proud."
About 150 people turned out for Tuesday's public hearing in the gymnasium of the Town Offices. Of the 20 residents who spoke, 13 voiced opposition to the proposed zoning change, the resort project, or both, while five expressed varying degrees of support and two were non-committal.
"It's the power to say no that lets you get to maybe, and then to yes, and that is what's at stake here," said Dr. Eric Plakun, associate medical director of the Austen Riggs Center who spent 21 years on the town's Planning Board. "I live in Stockbridge for two reasons: because of its scenic, small-town beauty and because I love small-town New England democracy. I love that about this town and I'm not prepared to see it given away."
"The notion that we would give away the power to say no to a development is a complete anathema to small-town New England democracy, it's not what we do, it's not the way we live," Plakun said, drawing cheers and applause from the audience. "We've done fine preserving the values of Stockbridge and its scenic beauty, managing our tax base, that's the job we need to do."
He described the developers' proposed bylaw as "a Trojan horse, dressed up to look like a gift, but it's filled with trouble."
On a similar note, resident Jane Ryan viewed the proposal as "a huge power grab and it makes me angry. This outside developer proposes in his new bylaw the elimination of many constraints that served us well in the past. He's counting on our collective inability to understand what we are giving up."
She implored "my fellow townspeople, friends and neighbors, be wise as you've been in the past, don't give the store away and don't kill our golden goose to get one egg."
However, Margaret Kerswill, a local business owner and president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, emphasized that the town's financial well-being must be considered. "I've seen what can happen when a town doesn't open itself up to expand business, not in unreasonable ways but to bring new people in. We need to be looking for a new generation as our town size shrinks."
And Paul Lindenmaier, head of school at Berkshire Country Day School, touted the proposed project's capacity to increase jobs and tax revenue in the town. "I am 100 percent in support of a zoning solution that balances a pathway for this project to move forward with a regard for the long-term need, enduring identity and future success of this town," he said.
Lindenmaier also cited Patrick Sheehan, the 37 Interlaken property owner, for his "deep roots in the community. His children attended BCD, he has been a very supportive person over the years, and for many years, Patrick and his family have been huge supporters of many of the cultural institutions in the Berkshires."
"As a businessman in Berkshire County, he's very well-respected and known for the quality of his projects, his integrity and for providing many well-paying jobs for many individuals," Lindenmaier added. "His businesses have been material contributors to the region and his past and current employees hold him in very high regard."
But opponent Dr. Charles Kenny warned that "if we give this developer what he wants because he's threatened us with these bylaws, we're going to invite all sorts of other developers using the same strategy. I urge the Planning Board to reject these bylaw amendments because they're not good for our town; they're dangerous."
After the discussion wrapped up, board Chairman Gary Pitney thanked the public for "thoughtful, well-reasoned, civil" comments.
"That's one of the things about Stockbridge that's pretty cool," he said. "There could be a couple of hundred people in this room tonight and we can have a pretty decent discussion and differing points of view."
Addressing the zoning proposal by the 37 Interlaken developers, Pitney said "to have someone come into town and attempt to subjugate and undo years of history, stewardship and caretaking of our town, I don't think we can let that stand. I urge our citizens when it comes to the May town meeting to vote this proposed bylaw revision down."
Board member Ruth Pearce voiced concern that the proposed zoning bylaw, if approved, is "too vague" and could encourage as many as 15 landowners to seek Cottage Era Estate status. Currently, only the 37 Interlaken site, the Congregation of Marian Fathers on Eden Hill, and Elm Court, where an approved 112-room hotel is under development, qualify as Cottage Era estates of 80 acres or more with a single-family home on a property built during the Gilded Age from 1870 to 1920.
Describing the resort proposal as "the elephant in the room," board member Wayne Slosek urged "a way forward to possibly have some negotiations and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There's benefits to this project for sure, and we have to look at it closely."
He suggested a discussion with neighbors to see if there was any aspect of the resort proposal they could support "and not end this with denial of the bylaw." Slosek expressed concern that "we may have strangled ourselves where this type of project becomes undoable, unmanageable in a way that we can't see a way forward. I'd love to see a discussion happen where this is not all or nothing."
Planning Board member Lisa Sauer agreed but objected to the bylaw change proposal "to have one particular project go forward. That's what a special permit is for."
The developers' zoning proposal "would move control of large developments, not just this one, that will have the greatest impact on the future of Stockbridge away from the Planning Board and into the hands of the developers," said Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Kate Fletcher. "That's an enormous concern and should be of concern to all of you."
She asserted that zoning proposals need close scrutiny to see if they protect natural resources, property values and "help define the character of the town. It's not all or nothing; we can be business-friendly and have development without totally compromising what we have that is unique, a central downtown and rural outskirts. Tourists don't come here to see Cape Cod-style developments."
In an emotional plea, board member Eugene Talbot, noting that he and his wife, Shirley, are nearly 92, urged preservation of "the Stockbridge we came to 65 years ago and love. I urge us not to change anything, because for me and the people I know who value Stockbridge, they don't want to change very much."
On the other hand, member Marie Raftery stated that "it's worth a try to come together" with the developers "and try to make something we can all work with. It sounds like they're willing to work with us; it's worth our effort to try to find something on that property that's going to be workable for them or us. Something's going to happen to that property, whether it's this plan or the next guy down the road. We need to get a bylaw we can work with."
She described the developers as "not out to ruin our town; let's give it a try. I don't think we should just say no, you can't do it."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-637-2551.
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