Year after roll-out of plan for ex-DeSisto Estate, developers in it 'for the long haul'

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STOCKBRIDGE — Approaching the one-year anniversary of the project's informal roll-out, developers of a proposal to build a $150 million resort, condo complex and single-family homes at the former DeSisto Estate are shifting into high gear to push the plan forward.

The aim is to win public backing and to unveil a proposed Cottage Era Estate zoning bylaw revision to the Select and Planning boards within a month so it can gain their support and come before annual town meeting voters in May for an up-or-down decision. Unlike the current bylaw, it would allow clustered development in a residential-agricultural neighborhood.

A two-thirds majority approval would allow groundbreaking for the resort in late 2019 or early 2020, the development team told residents invited to two open houses over the weekend.

To prepare the zoning revision, property owner Patrick Sheehan and Managing Partner Tony Guthrie hired Jonathan M. Silverstein, an experienced municipal attorney from KP Law in Boston.

The town's current zoning bylaw does not permit the proposed resort complex, Silverstein said.

He was hired "to keep this project moving," Guthrie told The Eagle. "We thought having someone like Jonathan on the team would be really helpful. With the town being involved in bylaw revisions, this would be a good partnership for us."

"We will present our zoning bylaw proposals to the Select Board and the Planning Board, and our hope is that they'll work with us," Guthrie said. "We're here for the long haul."

"Let's face it, nobody's getting any younger," he said. "This can't be a six-year or 10-year plan; we want to get a shovel in the ground; best-case scenario if all stars align, we're talking about winter 2019-20."

"I'm not surprised at where we are at this point in a small community," Guthrie said. "If someone asked me a year ago, because I've done this in other towns on the Cape, it's the same. It's getting people to understand the project, to know who we are as a group and getting them to like us and to understand that we're people of our word."

"We're comfortable with the process to this point," Sheehan said.

Project Manager Rob Akroyd agreed that the team is playing a long game, like running a marathon. "Going long is the way it has to be done," he said, "because it's a project of some complexity. We know it's going to take some time amending the bylaw so it can support the project, and it takes time to build consensus."

No changes are planned for the overall five- to six-year development, which includes:

- 40 to 50 hotel rooms and suites in the restored and expanded mansion, an 18- to 24-month project;

- 139 condo units in six new buildings, based on market demand, which could be rented out by owners through the hotel management;

- 34 clustered single-family homes in the rear section of the property;

- A restaurant, event space for 200 to 300 people, and amenities such as a pool and tennis courts in a full-service resort open to the public;

- A 15- to 20-acre working farm "agri-hood" to provide garden and farm products for the restaurant and property residents.

- An investment of $150 million, yielding more than $2 million in tax revenues to the town.

- At least 150 to 200 "well-paying" year-round jobs.

Guthrie said "it's very expensive to keep moving at a snail's pace. We've spent this past year doing open houses, being collaborative with people, listening to feedback, reaching out and engaging with people to show we're really interested in doing a good project that will be the pride of Stockbridge."

Referring to strong opposition by some neighbors, he conceded that "not everyone's going to be on board, and we've listened to those people and, to the best of our ability, made changes that we think are substantial."

According to Guthrie, "the word on the street is that there are a lot of people in support of this project. There are a few who are not, we get that, there always will be."

"We think that, over time, we'll be able to work together to get this resolved," Sheehan said. "We have a very good relationship with the vast majority of our neighbors and abutters. For the small handful that have concerns, we'll continue to work with them to resolve those concerns."

The guest list for the weekend open houses was assembled from voter registration lists as a strategic measure to promote the project to residents likely to attend the annual town meeting.

"We're being very strategic," Guthrie said. "If they're out on the streets, they are educated enough to hear what we're telling them, not hearsay, not scuttlebutt."

Residents at the open houses were urged to promote the resort complex as part of the development team's plan to marshal support ahead of the May town meeting.

"It's important for us to have these meetings, get townspeople who can make a difference with the officials," Guthrie said. "We want to be collaborative with them, but at some point we need to step forward, because it's a lot of time, money and effort we're putting into this and, at some point, we want to see some movement and collaboration on both sides."

Silverstein, the KB Law attorney, said he was approached by Sheehan, who bought the property at auction in 2009 for $1.35 million. "Pat doesn't want this to be adversarial," Silverstein said. "He wanted someone who would be able to tell him, `If you want to have a cooperative relationship with the town, this is what they'll be looking for,' and that's really my role; to work with the town and help Pat and his team come up with something that, in my experience, most towns would be receptive to."

"What I've been tasked with is a commitment to being sensitive to the town, not trying to plow this through and shove it down anyone's throats," he said. The bylaw amendment he's crafting "would allow a path forward, to understand what the town is going to want to see reasonably in terms of protections and permitting."

Noting that the town's current bylaw is "very limited" in what's allowed at a Cottage Era estate, the proposal "would broaden what can be permitted to allow a project along the lines of what's being proposed," Silverstein said. He noted that a Planning Board review still would be required, along with site layout, traffic and parking studies.

The scenic, 320-acre site on Route 183, 2 miles south of Tanglewood's Main Gate, was known in its early years as the Beckwith Estate and the Bonnie Briar Estate. The mansion, vacant since 2004 when the DeSisto School closed, was built in 1892 and requires major renovation. Over 200 acres of the property would remain untouched, the developers stated.

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


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