Stockbridge – It was a decent show for the democratic process – a public hearing in three sessions in the span of 10 weeks — but in the end it was pre-ordained that the three-member Board of Selectmen would approve a special permit for the $50 million redevelopment of the Gilded Age icon, Elm Court, that would transform it into a resort, spa and restaurant, despite the vigorous opposition of the rural neighborhood along Old Stockbridge Road.
And so they did, unanimously, brushing aside both expert testimony from University of Massachusetts professor of regional planning John Mullin, who predicted an irreversible change to the Old Stockbridge Road residential neighborhood, and a new study, prepared by MDM Transportation Consultants, that found an unacceptable level of increased traffic.
Front Yard LLC, the front for Amstar, the Denver-base real estate management and investment firm, had purchased the moribund Gilded Age “cottage” in 2012 for $9.8 million from Robert and Sonya Berle, descendants of the Vanderbilt and Sloan family fortunes that had built the 114-year-old, 96-room mansion and estate. Front Yard proposed to convert Elm Court into their “Travaasa” brand upscale resort, with a 60-seat restaurant and spa, and a new wing that would nearly double the size of the 53,000 square-foot Elm Court mansion, and make it into a quasi-public attraction rather than a private – albeit extravagant — residence.
The Berle family still holds an $8 million mortgage on the property.
But the Gilded Age bylaw also stipulates that the Board of Selectmen must determine that the development would not alter the character of the neighborhood. Nor can the total floor space of any addition to the mansion be greater than the total floor space of Elm Court in 2012.
The Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association challenged the development on both these points.
Mullin testified that “a hotel of this magnitude appears to be diametrically out of scale” with the environment that exists, and further, that the developer had failed to “define the neighborhood.”
He also cautioned that this proposal could well be just the beginning of Elm Court expansion.
“Every major project like this is pregnant, as we say. This is possibly not the end of it, for the developer has to maximize profits,” he observed.
“Based on my findings, I can only conclude that the provisions for a special permit… have not been met. It is my recommendation that the Board delay its decision until the applicant provides a detailed assessment of these impacts for community review,” he said.
A similar request was made by attorney Alexander Glover, representing David and Jane Bloomgarden who live next to Elm Court. She asserted that the total size of the proposed expansion exceeded the restrictions of the bylaw. Noting that the application contained “nondiscretionary defects,” she asked Adam Hawthorne, Front Court project manager, to withdraw the application until the “defects” could be corrected.
Once the opposition had had its say, the floor was opened to proponents.
Chief among them was Jim Balfanz of Interlaken Road who had collected 300 signatures in favor of the project. He had presented them to the board last week. A similar number of signatures opposing the Elm Court redevelopment from the Old Stockbridge Road neighborhood had been submitted to selectmen last month.
But this chapter in the history of Elm Court is far from over.
The selectmen’s decision will more than likely be appealed in Land Court, according to one spokesperson for those who oppose the development.
“We believe that issues of fact have not been addressed, as required by the bylaw,” noted Bishop Estate Association attorney Elizabeth Goodman in a prepared statement. “From their conduct over the course of its hearing, the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen does not appear to understand their legal obligations as the Special Permit Granting Authority. Serious matters of consequence to abutters and other concerned parties were dismissed or ignored without detailed, impartial consideration of the relevant facts, against both the spirit and the letter of the Zoning Bylaw. Given such serious defects, we are certain that parties of interest will be exploring their options regarding a higher level of judicial review.”
The board announced its decision before an audience of 150 assembled in the Town Hall gymnasium where in 2013 voters had endorsed a Gilded Age Cottage Era bylaw that established preservation of old-wealth properties as a town priority. That bylaw specifically applied to Elm Court, altering previous building size and height restrictions by permitting a 50-foot high, 4-story addition.
Board Chairman Stephen Shatz, who had prepared a memorandum of findings in anticipation of approval, declared that he found “no detrimental effect” to the proposed expansion and adaptive reuse to the venerable property along the narrow, hilly Old Stockbridge Road where a rural residential neighborhood has developed in what had been, at the time of the construction of Elm Court, woods and pasture.
“We want to prevent further deterioration and to preserve this historic structure,” he said. “The traffic impacts are negligible.”
And no doubt the board was satisfied, as well, by the estimates of tax revenues proffered by Finance Committee Chair Jean Rousseau.
“By my calculations,” he told the board, by way of urging their approval of the Front Yard plan, “this $50 million development will bring in $180,000 to $200,000 a year in property taxes, and another $150,000 in building permit fees.”
He also pointed out that the resort/spa/restaurant, with its 40 to 60 part-time employees and 60 to 80 full-time workers would likely generate a $3 million payroll.
All this was good news for Robert Berle, who had come home to the Berkshires from his current residence in South Carolina, to witness this, the final public hearing, on the modernization of Elm Court, a rehabilitation that he and his wife had tried and failed to do on their own.
“Amstar and Front Yard have been extremely transparent,” he told the audience and the Board of Selectmen. “The plan itself is the only way to preserve the original house. It needs an economic engine to preserve it. This way, after being vacant for 48 years, it will become part of the neighborhood again. The people from Front Yard aren’t here to ravage the lifestyle of the people of Stockbridge.”
So it was that the preservation of Elm Court and the prospect of revenues for Stockbridge coffers prevailed over arguments on behalf of the residents of Old Stockbridge Road.