The Lenox Club may sell off 88 acres to meet debts

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LENOX — The county's oldest surviving private social club, a 152 year-old artifact of the Gilded Age, is considering selling off most of its 114 acres to raise money in order to meet debts.

The plan under discussion by the Lenox Club is already the subject of intense debate among members and deep concern among residents in the adjoining, scenic Cliffwood Street and Undermountain Road neighborhood.

At least 26 signs have been posted along a half-mile stretch of the roadway, known as the back way "short cut" to Tanglewood from downtown Lenox that passes Undermountain Farm and Stables.

"Protect the woods, STOP! the Lenox Club," the freshly posted signs read.

In order to raise up to $450,000, the club's leadership is proposing to sell six one-acre building lots along Cliffwood and Undermountain for potential development in the one-acre residential zone.

At the club's annual meeting last Thursday, a scheduled vote was put off because members were confused about the plans, according to Cris Raymond, a longtime member. Another attempt to hold the vote is slated for Friday.

The Lenox Club property on Yokun Avenue consists of 114 acres, primarily woodland. Eighty-seven acres are exempt from most local property taxes because they were placed under the state's Chapter 61 woodlands protection provision, according to Town Hall records.

A $441,000 mortgage held by a corporation created by a group of members is due in December 2017, several members stated. The club is also running at a slight deficit.

Developer Dave Ward of LD Builders confirmed that he is interested in a potential acquisition of up to six building lots, subject to agreement on details. Ward's company has developed the Lenox Commons mixed-use area as well as condominium clusters in Dalton, Pittsfield, Lenox, Lee and Great Barrington.

"The town notes that much of the land is categorized under Chapter 61 of the General Laws, giving the town certain rights of first refusal," Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said. "The town will fully evaluate what rights, if any, it wants to exercise once official action is taken that triggers this timeline."

The first-refusal window is 120 days.

A proposal circulated to the membership by club leaders includes a map designating at least 50 acres that could be conserved by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council. The club proposes to retain 26 acres for its main building and immediate open space, tennis and croquet courts.

But the council has suspended discussions with the club, said Tad Ames, the BNRC board president, in an interview.

"Through the first part of the year we had fruitful discussions with Lenox Club leaders," Ames acknowledged. "Those talks went on hold when the club told us it planned to sell off six lots on Undermountain Road."

"If the club reconsiders, we are happy to talk about a new plan but it's going to have to deliver true conservation and recreation benefits to the people of Lenox and the public at large," he said. "We're interested in the whole pie, not the last slice."

Cliffwood Street resident Channing Gibson, a selectman and an abutter to the Lenox Club property, acknowledged that "clearly, the club has a right to pursue any legal options for their land that the membership approves."

Emphasizing that he was speaking strictly as a private citizen, Gibson expressed disappointment "that the club which has such a sizable, beautiful piece of land hasn't reached out to neighbors and the town."

In an interview, he maintained that "the club has not included the community and the neighborhood in understanding its situation and has not made conserving the land a priority."

Gibson characterized development as "the first priority for the leadership of the club." He described the neighborhood protest signs as "a pushback that the leadership should have anticipated and understood."

"It's a beautiful, valuable piece of property," he added. "People would like the opportunity to weigh in and be part of the process, but so far the club hasn't allowed it."

The president of the Lenox Club's board of governors, Raymond Casella of Suffield, Conn., did not respond to e-mails and phone requests for comment.

"It's a club that's remaining too private," Gibson said. "People who live on this street tend to be very oriented toward preserving the environment. Obviously for abutters the Lenox Club woods are a valuable part of their viewshed, so there's a personal interest. Development of the six lots and potential development of other lots will change the nature of the wetlands forever and that's why people want this decision-making process to slow down."

According to its website, the Lenox Club defines its mission as offering members "a haven that fosters social, cultural, intellectual and athletic interests and activities. It is a place to meet like-minded people from the community, form enduring friendships, and make memories that last a lifetime."

The club claims a "lively and diverse group" of members, including year-round residents and second-home owners.

Founded in 1864, it was incorporated as a Reading Club "for gentlemen" 10 years later. Originally located downtown on Walker Street, current site of the Lenox Community Center, the clubhouse on Yokun Avenue and its adjoining golf course was purchased from private owners in 1914.

"When the gentlemen found themselves the owners of a rather large house needing a woman's touch for furnishing and decorating, it was decided to open the membership to ladies (a move very advanced for its time)," the club's website said. A "Ladies Parlor" and the "Gentlemen's Library" were created, followed by expansion of the golf course in 1924.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the golf course was abandoned and the heavily wooded forest gradually developed. In the 1980s, major improvements to the clubhouse and grounds initiated by the Sprague family included the addition of two tennis courts and two croquet courts.

Currently, the main house has nine bedrooms, two dining rooms and a music room used for weddings and receptions.

For 102 years on Thursday nights, without interruption, the club has presented its most traditional offering, a buffet dinner held on "cook's night out." The venue also offers year-round dinners on Fridays and Saturdays, with Sunday brunch and Tuesday lunches during the summer.

Classified as a 501(c)(7) nonprofit social club for federal tax purposes, the organization reported a deficit of $20,971 for its fiscal year ending March 2015.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

By the numbers . . .

Lenox Club financial overview at a glance:

Total revenue: $324,480

Total expenses: $345,451

Assets: $661,836

Liabilities: $459,643

Town property assessed value: $2,576,300

Town real estate taxable value: $1,950,560

Lenox property taxes: $30,035 (FY 2016)

Employees: 11

Membership: 150 (estimated)

Sources: IRS Form 990 tax-exempt filings for 2015 via guidestar.org; Lenox Town Hall records.


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