Lenox — Judges in Massachusetts Land Court have handed developers and the town of Lenox a victory in the controversial proposal to turn Elm Court into an upscale resort and spa.
The court dismissed a lawsuit that sought to reverse a June 29, 2015, decision of the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals to grant developer Front Yard LLC, a special permit to rebuild the historic 19th-century Gilded Age mansion into a hotel and spa of more than 100 rooms.
All but three acres of the 90-acre property are in the town of Stockbridge, which approved the project in 2014 after an exhaustive process that lasted in the neighborhood of two years.
No appeals were filed in Stockbridge. But Barney Edmonds, a leading resort opponent in Stockbridge and resident of Old Stockbridge Road a mile from Elm Court,, presented an unsuccessful petition at the Stockbridge 2014 annual town meeting that would have banned new permits to sell alcohol in residential zones, a move many saw as a shot across the bow at Elm Court.
However, the project still needed the approval of Lenox officials because the entrance and access road are in their town.
The estate is situated in a residential district at 310 Old Stockbridge Rd. The developers plan to add a large wing, a restaurant and a spa that will more than double Elm Court’s size. Front Yard LLC is a subsidiary of Amstar, the Denver-based global real estate management firm.
“We are thrilled to have land court uphold a very vigorous ZBA decision,” Lenox town planner Gwen Miller said in an Edge interview. “We are glad there will be activity on a long dormant site and we will be able to achieve our goal of historic preservation.”
“We are very excited to welcome this well known and respected brand to town and cannot wait to work with them to market Lenox and the Berkshires,” added Kameron Spaulding, who heads the Lenox Chamber of Commerce.
In a 26-page decision written by associate Justice Karyn F. Scheier on July 17, the court found that the Lenox ZBA decision to grant the special permit “was not arbitrary or capricious, nor was it based on legally untenable grounds.”
The nine-page suit was originally filed in land court by Saul Ewing, a Philadelphia law firm with offices in Boston. There were eight plaintiffs, all of them listed as Lenox residents, though that was the subject of some dispute. Chief among them was David Bloomgarden, who did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The suit did not explicitly seek cash damages but, in addition to the annulment of the ZBA decision, it asked the court to “grant such other and further relief as it deems just and appropriate.” It specifically challenged the validity of separate traffic studies conducted both by the town and the developer.
A one-day trial was held Aug. 16, 2016, in Pittsfield. But original plaintiffs Barney and Julie Edmonds and Richard and Susan Grausman, who had joined in the original complaint, “failed to appear and participate at trial” and were defaulted. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it is dismissed permanently.
When contacted by The Edge, Edmonds said he had just received a copy of the suit, so he declined to comment until he had time to digest it. He also said the Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association, of which he is a member, would be issuing a statement soon. Adam Hawthorne, president of Travaasa Experiential Resorts, an Amstar subsidiary, could not be reached for comment.
The judges’ decision recounted the story of how – on Sept. 8, 2014 – the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen granted Front Yard a special permit to operate the resort in accordance with the Cottage-Era Adaptive Reuse or Rehabilitation provision in the town’s zoning bylaws.
That permit allowed renovation of the existing main house and an addition comprising 96 guest rooms and a spa facility. In total the permit will allow 112 guest rooms. The permit also allows the use of a portion of the renovated main house as a new 96-seat restaurant within the existing first floor.
During a hearing for the special permit before the Lenox ZBA in February 2015, Old Stockbridge Road resident Gregory Whitehead, president of the Bishop Estate Association, described the Elm Court restoration as “embalming a corpse.”
“The proposal has been dumped on the table in one big slushy pile, and thus there is no depth to the review,” Whitehead wrote in a prepared statement he submitted at the hearing. “This sort of confused process, with major questions unanswered, sets the stage for massive unforeseen consequences down the road.”
“We have rights, too,” added Edmonds. “Col. Wilde and the Vanderbilts left Elm Court abandoned. That is shameful. They should come back with a scaled-down plan.”
In an email to The Edge, Lenox town manager Christopher Ketchen strongly defended the actions of town officials, both elected and appointed, whom he described as a “so smart, so diligent and perform their duties out of the purest sense of public service.”
“I am particularly gratified to see that the Land Court upheld the board’s interpretation of the ‘resort’ definition in our bylaws, despite the contrarian viewpoint advanced by critics of the proposal,” Ketchen said. “That one was sort of bizarre.”
As for why the town went to such lengths to defend itself, Ketchen said, “It is also important that we preserve and defend our permitting process – and, by extension, our credibility as a governing institution. We cannot do that if we cower in the face of an appeal. The entire business community ought to read this decision and walk away with a very clear understanding that the town will defend its ability to make these and other decisions.”