Robust turnout expected for hearing on Stockbridge Cottage Era Estate zoning bylaw

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STOCKBRIDGE — It's the largest one-shot development project in the town's history.

The proposal by property owner Patrick Sheehan and his team to transform the former DeSisto School site on Route 183 (Interlaken Road) into a multiphase, $150 million resort, condo and single-family home complex is a lightning rod for supporters, including the chamber of commerce, and opponents, including some nearby residents.

On Tuesday, a robust turnout is expected for the Planning Board's public hearing on the developers' proposal to revise the Cottage Era Estate zoning bylaw in order to advance the project, known as 37 Interlaken. The forum is at 6:30 p.m. in the Town Offices gymnasium.

Voters will have the final say at the annual town meeting May 21, where a two-thirds majority is required for any zoning change.

The 37 Interlaken team proposes a 40- to 50-room hotel and restaurant in the renovated, expanded mansion abandoned by the former DeSisto School in 2004. Sheehan bought the property for $1.3 million at a public auction in 2009.

In addition, the plan includes a clustered development of 34 single-family homes at the rear of the property, along with up to 139 condo units in six new buildings, and a 15- to 20-acre working farm to supply produce to guests and owners. The homes would be priced around $600,000.

The specific zoning revision promoted by 37 Interlaken would allow up to 100 hotel rooms, as well as a restaurant, tavern, boutique, gift shop, coffee shop, artists' studios and recreational amenities such as a swimming pool.

According to the developers, if the project is built, the town would benefit from a minimum of $2.4 million annually in tax revenues, 115 to 145 full-time, year-round positions, and an additional 165 to 220 seasonal jobs.

Planning Board Chairman Gary Pitney intends to focus Tuesday's hearing on the proposed zoning bylaw change rather than on the pros and cons of the 37 Interlaken group's plan.

"I expect it to be well-attended," Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon said, "and I expect our citizens, as is usually the case, not to hold back and to fully express their opinions. I'm looking forward to that from all sides."

A one-hour discussion at last Monday's Select Board meeting offered a preview of the high-stakes debate on a proposed development that many residents view as crucial to the future of the town made famous by Norman Rockwell.

The hearing, moderated by Pitney, will include a timeline history of the Cottage Era Estate bylaw, a 10-minute presentation by the developers, a 10-minute rebuttal by opponents, followed by extensive public comment.

At some point, the Planning Board will decide on the next steps, which could include doing nothing, issuing a recommendation for or against, a nonrecommendation "or anything in between," Pitney said. "Anything is possible."

The board could recommend the bylaw with modifications, he noted, adding that the developers plan to submit their petition for a zoning change to annual town meeting voters, "regardless of what happens" at the hearing.

If the zoning revision is approved by voters in May, the Planning Board would review in detail the developers' site plan for the scenic, 320-acre property in a rural, residential neighborhood near Stockbridge Bowl.

Chabon called for details on potential liability to the town if the project is approved but not completed; the impact of a potential ownership change if the project is "flipped"; the effects on police, fire, town roads, water, sewer, and on housing values; and impacts on the neighborhood and the hospitality industry. He also asked for a study on the "sociological impact — does this fit, is this what we want for the town?"

The Select Board chairman also suggested site visits by members, open to other town officials, adjacent residents of the property and the general public.

The developers' attorney, municipal specialist Jonathan Silverstein of KP Law in Boston, pointed out that "it would not be at all unusual" to conduct binding, enforceable and contractual negotiations with the Select Board on a land development agreement ahead of the annual town meeting, even while the proposed zoning bylaw is under consideration.

Selectman Terry Flynn asked Silverstein if he would withdraw the developers' bylaw revision from the town meeting in favor of working with the Select Board.

The attorney responded that if discussions with the Select Board "are going productively and it makes sense to withdraw the bylaw amendment at that point, then that's certainly something that's on the table. But to ask us to do it when efforts to date to have those negotiations before we submitted the amendment weren't reciprocated is not something my client would consider."

Silverstein added that "we look forward to and welcome" discussion of any changes or improvements in the development team's zoning proposal that might be recommended by the Planning Board or the Select Board.

But Flynn argued that the bylaw proposal "is essentially limiting us from the process" and that he would be "absolutely 100 percent opposed" to negotiations now, since the Select Board "has no leverage."

He commented that, while details of the potential project will come up at the public hearing, the discussion should be confined to the developers' zoning amendment, since that would affect future projects on Cottage Era Estates.

The other two sites defined as Cottage Era estates are Elm Court, where an approved 112-room resort is in development, and the Congregation of Marian Fathers retreat on Eden Hill.

Flynn also stressed that the zoning bylaw review committee appointed by the Select Board continues to examine the entire array of town bylaws, "and that needs to be respected by the townspeople, and the committee needs to be given the time and jurisdiction to come up with a recommendation."

At Tuesday's hearing, Pitney said, "our focus will be to address the bylaw. I really do not want it to turn into a meeting about the project. There is a fine line between the project and the bylaw, but it will be my best effort to try to keep it to what we have as a Cottage Era Estate bylaw and what's proposed."

But, amid laughter from Select Board members and the audience, he conceded that "I don't expect it to be any different from tonight."

Attorney Silverstein told the Select Board on Monday that the developers are seeking a bylaw allowing more than double the number of hotel rooms they're proposing because "we didn't think it made sense to propose a bylaw basically limited to our project. We're not proposing more than what's on our plan; our plan is our plan. But there are a couple of other properties in town subject to the Cottage Era Estates bylaw, and there might be another project that didn't want a residential development but wanted more hotel rooms."

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


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