Seeking special permit, DeSisto developers delve into plan with Stockbridge Select Board

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STOCKBRIDGE — Can the proposed $150 million resort and housing complex at the former DeSisto Estate gain any traction through a special permit from the Select Board?

That was the unanswered question following a sketch plan review by the 37 Interlaken development team to test the waters for the project before the selectmen and an audience of about 80 Monday night.

Civil engineer Jim Scalise of the SK Design Group in Pittsfield carried the ball for the developers as "an informal step" while detailing potential, complex zoning challenges.

He explained that, if approved, "sales would drive the construction, and it would take up to 10 years or more to develop a project of this magnitude."

According to the town's zoning bylaws, a sketch plan with a map and major features of the proposal gives the Select Board and the applicant "an opportunity to discuss the proposed project prior to the submission of a formal application and a significant commitment of time and money on the part of the applicant."

The plan includes a 40- to 50-room hotel in the main mansion, including a restaurant, pub, spa, gift shop and event space, connected through a walkway to six buildings with 139 condominiums, and 34 single-family homes surrounded by a 15- to 20-acre working farm. There would be three swimming pools as well as tennis courts.

While the proposal has won support from the business community and some residents, it has encountered fierce headwinds from some neighbors and other locals who object to its size and scale.

Scalise described the project for the 320-acre property as "a destination, a residential development that will occupy about 100 acres." He pointed out that it would not encroach on uplands protected by the Scenic Mountain Act, nor on the watershed of Lake Averic, the town's reservoir.

Calling the sketch plan review "an arms-length conversation," he cited two special permit requirements — a project must comply "with provisions and requirements of the bylaw, in harmony with its intent and purposes," and must be "essential to the public convenience or welfare at the proposed location."

He also noted a requirement that the project "would not be detrimental to adjacent uses or to the established or future character of the neighborhood."

While those are "the tough ones," Scalise conceded, "it gives the board some latitude in whether they find the project fitting for the town or not."

He outlined provisions of the Cottage Era Estate bylaw, including the preservation and restoration of the property, including open space and landscape features, while encouraging "adaptive re-use."

Scalise emphasized the potential combination of uses covered by the bylaw — one-family dwelling, open space and recreation, hotel or restaurant, commercial nursery or greenhouse, agriculture, conference and retreat facilities, including private parties and weddings, studios for artists, or resort.

The 37 Interlaken project is aimed at several of those uses, according to Scalise: one-family dwelling, hotel and a restaurant in a conference and retreat facility, including private parties and weddings.

But he acknowledged issues about how the project fits with some of the bylaw requirements. In order to avoid prohibited new, detached structures within 200 feet of the main mansion, the project proposes to attach the six new residential condo buildings to the hotel by walkways.

"Although that may sound like a loophole to many," Scalise admitted, "it's a point of discussion."

He also conceded another talking point — whether the bylaw allowing for one single-family home could apply to more than one, since the proposed project calls for 34.

Scalise asked whether "it's proper to request a special permit with multiple homes under the Cottage Era Estate bylaw, or should I ask for a second permit for a cluster subdivision if I want to follow this plan. I'm just asking the question, not debating it."

He also contended that the town's zoning bylaw defines a hotel as accommodating transient or permanent guests, meaning it could be interpreted that the 139 condo units in six buildings fits under that definition, since owners would have access to hotel amenities such as the restaurant.

"Would you be asking for seven hotels?" responded Selectman Terry Flynn.

"No, it's all part of one connected building," Scalise told him. "I'm not here to debate that with you. It's much easier for you to say it's not in harmony with the bylaw and we'll call it a day rather than even to talk about the number of buildings related to the hotel. It's a question, but it's a valid question."

He said town counsel or the opinion of the Select Board would be the "ultimate answer" to the question.

At the start of the meeting, making his first public appearance before the Select Board, owner Patrick Sheehan called the estate "an amazing property. We've worked very, very hard to do the right thing for the property and the town. We've been very transparent and open to the community in trying to describe what we're doing."

"We look forward to working with you on a cooperative process to help move the property forward," he told the three selectmen. "We think we can do great things there."

Sheehan is not used to public speaking and had to be coaxed into addressing the board, Project Manager Rob Akroyd of Greylock Design Associates explained. Sheehan acquired the abandoned DeSisto School off Route 183 for $1.3 million at a public auction in 2009, five years after the school closed following allegations by state authorities that students' health and safety had been endangered.

"It wasn't easy to try to come up with a plan for the property," Sheehan stated. "This is a very, very well thought-out plan that took years to develop. We feel like it's a very good plan for the property, the town and for the region."

Sheehan noted that he had spent "a significant amount of money" tearing down more than 100,000 square feet of dilapidated school structures and maintaining the deteriorating historic estate dating from 1892 during the Gilded Age's Cottage Era, along with two smaller buildings.

"We worked really hard to be a good neighbor, taking care of the buildings and landscaping the property," he added.

In response to a question from resident Susan Hirshfield on whether a completed project might be flipped to a large hotel chain, Sheehan responded: "I manage all my own businesses."

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


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