Stockbridge Planning Board's zoning review: Cottage Era Estate bylaw 'problematic, flawed'

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STOCKBRIDGE — The Cottage Era Estate bylaw needs to be replaced by one that's equally applied throughout the town.

That was the recommendation of the Planning Board's Zoning Review Committee during a meeting last week.

"We do not recommend that Stockbridge continue using the Cottage Era Estate bylaw," said Kate Fletcher, committee chairwoman. Addressing the Select Board and a crowd of about 50 last Wednesday, she described the bylaw as "problematic and flawed, representing `spot zoning' that, not surprisingly, created much polarization and unhappiness in town."

Instead, she said, the town should pursue a bylaw that emphasizes "open space, preservation of resources both natural and historic, and the importance of planning for an economically healthy future of the town," and prioritize bylaws aimed at "maintaining the special character of Stockbridge and its neighborhoods, as well as the quality of life for the people who are there."

To do this, the committee is seeking the services of a professional consultant to work on a review of the entire set of zoning rules, including the controversial Cottage Era Estate bylaw. She cited alternative models to the estate bylaw being used in Amherst and Concord as examples that should be examined by the selected consultant and the committee. The process of researching potential consultants, either private or from the University of Massachusetts or the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, has already begun. The planner's services would be paid from the Planning Board's $25,000 budget, according to Town Administrator Danielle Fillio.

The committee, appointed by the Select Board last August, is tasked with reviewing and recommending potential revisions to the town's entire set of zoning rules and regulations. The town's Cottage Era Estate bylaw became a lightning-rod issue since a $150 million resort proposal by 37 Interlaken at the former DeSisto Estate, originally named Beckwithshaw, emerged 15 months ago.

"The natural inclination is that we want to make everybody happy," said Bob Jones, zoning review committee member, "so you end up `spot zoning;' making allowances for each of the individual properties instead of having a bylaw that's equally applied throughout the town. This is the main problem we found with the bylaw."

Although the Cottage Era Estate bylaw only covers properties of 80 acres or more that have a single-family residence built during the Gilded Age era of roughly 1870-1920, there are some properties in town, not currently covered by the bylaw, that could meet the acreage threshold by purchasing a few additional acres, he said.

Jones suggested hiring a professional planner who has experience working with other towns in the state that have similar concerns — historic preservation, open space and open vistas as well as economic prosperity and development.

He pointed to Agawam and as an example of balancing those concerns and zoning laws. Agawam is home to Six Flags New England, formerly Riverside Park, which originally opened in 1870 as a picnic grove. The theme park is now described as the oldest amusement park in the Six Flags chain.

"If you can't do it by putting a Six Flags in the middle of a neighborhood, how do you do it?" Jones asked. "Hopefully, we can get some good direction from people who are well-versed in this."

Committee member Carl Sprague added, "We've had tremendous public input. I'm always astonished at the number of people who show up at our meetings, their thoughtfulness and the amount of useful opinion across the spectrum that's been expressed."

The resort proposed by 37 Interlaken's developers had included a 40 to 50 room hotel, restaurant, 139 condo units and 34 clustered single-family homes has been opposed by several of the estate's abutters. Developers of the 37 Interlaken plan had offered a new Cottage Era Estate bylaw as a solution, but the Planning Board shot it down, 7-0, at a public hearing in February. Instead, the board asked the Zoning Review Committee to fast-track a review of that bylaw, which applied to the former DeSisto property off Route 183 in the Interlaken neighborhood, the Congregation of Marian Fathers on Eden Hill, and Elm Court, where an approved resort is in development.

Patrick Sheehan, the owner of the 37 Interlaken property, and his team then withdrew plans to take their proposed Cottage Era Estate bylaw revision to voters at the annual town meeting.

Managing Partner Tony Guthrie and the 37 Interlaken team's attorney, Jonathan Silverstein, told The Eagle last Friday that other options for the property are now on the table, including a potential single-family housing subdivision at the front of the property, and a large solar farm and logging operation at the rear of the 320-acre site.

During last week's meeting, Stuart Hirshfield, a neighbor and outspoken opponent of the 37 Interlaken resort project, congratulated the committee for its findings and its plan, noting that the developers and the neighbors had agreed to a review of zoning bylaws.

He saluted the group for "the honesty which they have taken on this course and the result they have achieved. They deserve a great deal of gratitude from the town for what they have done."

Select Board members expressed support for the recommendation of hiring an outside planner.

"Your persistence and tenacity is much appreciated and very commendable," Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon said. "I want to thank you for sticking it out, I know it was tough and there were ups and downs, especially with the Cottage Era thing. There were strong feelings and pressures on many sides."

Chabon, described the committee as "the voice of the town of Stockbridge. You've certainly had enough hearings, feedback and commentary,"

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


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