Clarence Fanto: Amid battle over resort, let civility reign


LENOX -- If it’s built, the proposed Elm Court Resort, with its 112 rooms, 60-seat restaurant and 15,500 square-foot spa, would rank as the largest one-time single hospitality industry investment in county history.

That became clear at last Monday night’s often stormy, three-hour Stockbridge Select Board public hearing, where a coalition of angry Old Stockbridge Road neighbors confronted the developer’s team representing the Amstar real estate investment company of Denver and its affiliates, Travaasa Experiential Resorts and Front Yard, LLC.

When it was over, with further debate and a likely decision put off until Sept. 8, it was equally clear that Amstar’s CEO, Gabe Finke, was furious, accusing the residents of vilifying him and his company by circulating what he called false statements about the project.

He also disclosed for the first time what Amstar was planning to invest in the resort -- a cool $50 million.

Since this is all playing out as high drama, even melodrama, here’s my take on how the action unfolds from here -- noting that as a reporter, I have no dog (or pony) in this show.

The two neighborhood groups, Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association, representing residents in both Lenox and Stockbridge near the Elm Court property, and Bishop Estate Association nearby in Lenox, are lawyered-up, prepared for a long battle. They argue that a large corporate resort would destroy the peaceful character of their residentially zoned neighborhood.

Amstar and its affiliates, having spent $9.8 million in 2012 to buy the historic 1886 estate from the Berle family -- descendants of the original owners -- have been startled, to say the least, by New England grassroots democracy in overdrive. Finke acknowledged that his company is unaccustomed to public opposition, known as "entitlement risk" in corporate lingo.

When the Stockbridge Select Board turned aside his closing appeal for quick approval of a special permit, you should have seen the look on his face and the discomfort visible among members of his team.

At their May 2013 annual town meeting, voters unanimously approved an amendment to the cottage-era estate zoning bylaw as proposed by the Select Board. One of its key points, raised by Selectman Charles Gillett at Monday’s meeting, is this: "No special permit may authorize an addition or new structure that contains a gross floor area larger than that of the principal structure, as it existed on May 20, 2002."

Bear with me for some numbers: The original mansion, including 16 guest rooms and public spaces, comes to 53,538 square feet. Amstar plans a 96-room wing and a "bridge" connector to the main building, totaling 52,630 square feet. That’s within the limits of the bylaw amendment.

But the developers also propose building a 15,515-square-foot spa. According to one interpretation of the bylaw, that would make the "gross floor area" of the additional new buildings significantly larger than the main structure -- therefore not allowed. There’s another way to read the zoning amendment -- the developers contend that the spa is not subject to the limitation. The lawyers will have to sort out this key point.

Another issue, raised by Selectwoman Deborah McMenamy: The bylaw requires that amenities, such as the restaurant and spa, are intended for the use of guests predominantly on the site for the duration of their stay.

But the developers acknowledge that those two facilities will be open to the general public. After Travaasa President Adam Hawthorne responded to her question by resorting to semantics, McMenamy replied, "I guess it’s a matter of wording." The ensuing laughter prompted her to add: "I don’t think it’s amusing."

If the Stockbridge Select Board rejects the special permit, it’s game over, unless Amstar comes back with a scaled-down proposal.

If the Select Board approves the project, the curtain will go up on Act 2 as the neighborhood groups open a second front in Lenox, where the planning and zoning boards will hold hearings prior to a ZBA decision, required because the resort’s entrance and road frontage are in that town. In addition, neighborhood opponents could file an appeal of the Stockbridge approval to the Massachusetts Land Court in Boston, where cases typically are tied up for a year or two, sometimes more.

Is a compromise possible?

"Like most of our neighbors, we would welcome an intelligently conceived and properly scaled use for Elm Court that would be in harmony with the qualities of the road and neighborhood," stated a leading opponent, Gregory Whitehead, president of the Bishop Estate Association.

"Despite the emotional scare tactic used by the applicant in stating that either this huge hotel is permitted or the mansion will collapse, Wheatleigh, Blantyre, Winden Hill and Oronoque offer successful models for low-impact commercial uses within residential neighborhoods."

"As the real estate market continues to strengthen, there will be other prospective buyers, and if their ideas make sense for the neighborhood, for Lenox, and for the Berkshires, you can be sure of our enthusiastic support," he wrote in a letter to the Lenox Select Board.

For Amstar, a scaled-down resort may not produce enough revenue to justify their planned $50 million investment, unless they also reduce the amount they put in to the project. As critics have pointed out, the company stresses its goal of preserving a historic estate, but it’s not a philanthropy and it is a profit-seeking commercial enterprise.

If they sense and encounter defeat, will the developers just walk away and put the property back on the market? That’s not an outcome to be ruled out.

What’s most likely is a long, drawn-out battle involving two communities, fired-up residents, wary town leaders, argumentative attorneys, and the ever-present risk that civility will succumb to high-pitched emotions on both sides.

Looming over the Stockbridge Select Board’s meeting room is a set of Norman Rockwell portraits representing the freedoms and mutual respect that should remind all involved that sarcasm, inappropriate laughter and verbal attacks have no place in our democracy.

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