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Gilded Age mansion owner moves to renew permits for $75 million resort project in Lenox and Stockbridge

STOCKBRIDGE — Ten years on, the future of a Gilded Age mansion known as Elm Court remains in limbo.

Front Yard LLC purchased the property in 2012 from the Berle family, descendants of the original owners, for $9.8 million. After a long legal battle with neighbors, the company secured the permits it needed to transform the property into a resort. But then came the pandemic, and the project unraveled.

Now, the company seeks a two-year extension of the special permits granted for the project, which called for 112-room resort, including a 96-room annex, on what once was the estate of Emily Vanderbilt.

The request has been submitted to boards in both Stockbridge and Lenox. Eighty-seven of the site’s 90 acres are in Stockbridge; three acres of frontage, including the entrance to the 310 Old Stockbridge Road site, lie in Lenox.

THE BACKSTORY

The mansion was constructed in 1886 for the Vanderbilt and Sloane families of Gilded Age fame. In 1958, after 10 years of operating it as an inn, their descendants closed Elm Court and the property was abandoned, left to decay for the next 40 years.

Members of the Berle family restored and reopened it in 2002 as a high-end boutique resort, but closed it in 2009 during the Great Recession.

In the summer of 2014, Amstar’s affiliates, Front Yard and Travaasa Experiential Resorts, filed for a special permit in Stockbridge, with plans to renovate the mansion’s bedrooms and add the 96-room hotel wing.

Following permit approval by the Stockbridge Select Board, the company was granted a special permit by the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals in July 2015.

But neighbors, concerned about traffic, noise and lighting impacts, stopped the potential project in its tracks, appealing the approved Lenox permit in Massachusetts Land Court.

A legal battle followed. After the Land Court rejected the appeal and upheld the Lenox permit in July 2017, a smaller group of neighbors took the fight to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, but their case was dismissed four months later following a private settlement between the neighborhood group and Front Yard/Travaasa.

Both towns approved permit extensions while the developer sought financing to begin renovations on the mansion and construction of the hotel wing. Also planned: A 15,000-square-foot spa and a 60-seat restaurant.

The cost of the project had ballooned from an original $50 million 10 years ago to an estimated $75 million in 2020 because of construction costs and legal expenses.

THE BOTTOM LINE — PLAN B

But in October 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Front Yard/Travaasa shelved plans for a resort buildout, opting to list the property for sale as a historic Berkshire estate suitable for a country retreat.

At the time, Tim Lovett, co-founder of Berkshire Property Agents, described the property as “an incredible opportunity, and we hope to draw someone interested in its history and in finishing it.”

He told The Eagle that a major investment would be needed on top of the $12.5 million asking price, since renovations remain to be completed. “But, it’s one of the most renowned estates in the country,” he said, adding that “it’s always a possibility that it could be bought as a resort, but our major thrust is for a residential buyer.”

The Lenox special permit runs with the property, according to the town’s Land Use department. If new owners wanted to pursue a resort project, they would have to return to the ZBA to present any proposed changes and to review special conditions attached to the current permit.

No buyers have emerged to close a deal, and there are reports that the need for renovations has become more urgent.

WHAT’S AT STAKE NOW

In his petition to the Lenox ZBA on behalf of Front Yard LLC, Great Barrington attorney Nicholas Arienti pointed out that special permits normally require construction to begin in order to qualify for extensions, except for “good cause,” which is undefined. The state Legislature recently extended the duration of permit extensions to three years.

Arienti stated that for the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to severely impact the availability of loans for commercial construction because “until recently, there remained limited ability to generate business income.”

To make matters even worse, Arienti argued, the pandemic has intensified the “already exorbitantly high cost of construction materials to levels that were never imagined, further delaying the ability to secure project financing.”

Making his case for an extension of the Lenox special permit for the Elm Court hospitality project until November 2024, Arienti wrote that “while there is no indication at this time when the market will ease, there is hope that a reduction of inflation will reduce construction costs somewhat in the near term.”

In his petition to the Stockbridge Select Board, he pointed out that the prolonged appeal of the Lenox permit by neighborhood residents denied access to the property for the developer, since the entrances are on the Lenox side of the town line.

In both petitions, Arienti asserted that Front Yard is pursuing various forms of project financing in order to plan, coordinate and secure funding for construction by 2024.

Adam Hawthorne, a senior vice president at Amstar, also listed as president of Green Tea, the company’s hospitality management and asset management organization and of Travaasa Experiential Resorts, could not be reached for comment.

The 55,000-square-foot property is still listed as on sale by Compass Real Estate with an asking price of $12.5 million.

NEXT STEPS

The Lenox ZBA will hold a public hearing on the special permit extension request at 7 p.m. Aug. 17, in Town Hall.

In Stockbridge, the Select Board has scheduled its public hearing at the Town Offices and via Zoom at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 25.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto.

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