WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Despite working to accommodate neighborhood views, Matthew Straus, the restaurateur behind the plan to open the Heirloom Lodge, continues to meet some resistance.
The restaurant would transform the former Williamsville Inn at 286 Great Barrington Road (Route 41). The inn opened in 1952 and closed in 2014 and has since fallen into disrepair.
On June 30, the Zoning Board of Appeals met for a second time that month to review the plan. At the meeting, many expressed support for what would be called the Heirloom Lodge.
However, debate continues over the size of the project, both in scope and physical space. Several community members said they feared the board would turn down the Heirloom Lodge.
On Tuesday, members of the board visited the site. On Thursday, a continued Zoning Board of Appeals hearing will take place at 7 p.m. on Zoom.
A revised proposal
Straus and his team submitted their first proposal in January. Nearby residents voiced concerns, which led Straus to withdraw the application and initiate talks with the neighbors.
The process was praised at length by neighbors and the applicants during a hearing June 23. Jon Piasecki applauded the applicant’s level of engagement.
“This is the third proposal we’ve encountered [for the Williamsville Inn],” he said. “Unlike other applicants, they pivoted and did the hard work of incorporating themselves into our neighborhood.”
The first plan proposed adapting the main house for restaurant purposes, demolishing the old barn, and building 16 independent lodgings. The current plan has been revised to a single lodge with 14 rooms, 13 for guests and one for a manager.
The restaurant’s capacity was also downsized from 90 seats to 70 seats. Outdoor events would be limited to eight per year with a maximum capacity of 100 guests.
The main point of contention now appears to be the building’s footprint — at 12,549 square feet. Randy Thunfors, chair of the zoning board, questioned the applicants about it. “Why is it that we have such a big footprint on this property? Wouldn’t it make sense to have a second floor and a small footprint?” he asked.
The applicants said regulations allow up to 10 percent coverage of a property, and their plan covers 2.9 percent. Straus said that only having one floor was essential to his vision. “It was my desire to have people be able to step out of a room and have their feet somewhat proximate to grass,” he said in the meeting.
Thunfors said the bylaws’ preamble emphasized preservation and minimizing the “adverse effects of development on environmental and historic features.”
“The most important thing for us is, does this fit into the Williamsville community?” he asked.
Robert Harrison, the project architect, defended the design’s fit, comparing it to the dairy industry’s buildings. “The barns at Highline Farm are all single story. I think it speaks to Matt’s vision, which is the lodging on the property is not intended to be a hotel or motel,” he said. “It’s intended to be a much more experiential medium.”
Dana Bixby, chair of the Planning Board, said during the first hearing that keeping the barn would have been a good option to have a lesser impact on the area. Harrison said that was not an option “The barn is too far gone. It’s been repaired and every repair has done additional damage and there is nothing to restore,” he said.
Julie Michaels, who lives at 6 Water St., said in the public part of the meeting that she feared the proposal could be the last Williamsville gets for the property. “We’re in hard times at the moment, and I know if we turn Matt [Straus] down we’re going to have an empty inn that’s going to either fall into ruins, burn down or be turned into something we don’t want.”
Straus said that due to the amount of renovations needed, the application would have to be approved this summer for the project to be successful. “If it isn’t open as soon as spring 2023, I can’t see the project moving forward.”
At last week’s session, Jeffrey Lynch, the attorney representing the proposal, questioned a letter sent a day ahead of the meeting by Bixby, the Planning Board chair.
“I think that letter has had a chilling effect on their neighborhood and their support for Matt [Straus],” said Lynch. “I think we’ll hear tonight that the neighborhood may no longer be behind the project.”
In her letter, Bixby, an architect, put forward three parameters to evaluate if the project is “not more detrimental than the existing use or structure.” She wrote that the proposed use did not pose a problem.
However, she did not give a pass to the building’s “dimensional standards” and “appropriateness to the neighborhood.” Bixby said in the letter she hoped the project could advance.
Lynch took issue with Bixby using the board’s letterhead. “I think anything that arrives on the letterhead of the Planning Board should be the joint opinion or the consensus opinion of the Planning Board itself,” he said during the meeting.
Contacted the day after the meeting, Bixby said she has the right to use the letterhead and that she did not misconstrue her personal opinion as the board’s. “I am the chairperson of the Planning Board. I was speaking as chairperson of the Planning Board. I never said that I was speaking for the Planning Board.”
Straus, the restaurateur behind the proposal, has implied that Bixby was considered as an architect for the Heirloom project.
“I met with Ms. Bixby in March of this year and presented to her our designs at that time, and was grateful for her input then, as I am now,” he wrote in a statement. “While we decided not to hire Ms. Bixby, we worked for many months with Robert Harrison and concerned neighbors to arrive at the design of a structure that would be beautiful, traditional in style, minimally visible from the road, no larger than necessary, and that would meet the needs of our proposed operation.”
When contacted about his letter’s reference to Bixby, Straus declined to comment. “I’m afraid that’s going to have to stand on its own,” he said. “I think that sentence is fairly self-explanatory.”
Bixby characterized Straus’ letter as “misconstrued, misinterpreted, and misinformed,” she said in a phone interview. Bixby said her meeting with Straus was informal. “They never interviewed me to hire me for the project. They never communicated with me in any way whatsoever that they might consider hiring me. I never imagined wanting to be the architect for this project. I cannot legally perform architectural services when there’s a conflict of interest with zoning [board] issues,” said Bixby.
Tonight’s meeting by the Zoning Board of Appeals can be attended on Zoom. A link can be found at weststockbridge-ma.gov.