Stockbridge – If one were so inclined, the history of the Berkshires – past and present — could be written as the narrative of how the rich and ultra-rich have used the Berkshires as their personal playground – and made sure they had local officials under their thumb to protect their interests.
But sometimes, local officials can have the last word.
Case in point is the Elm Court Estate on Old Stockbridge Road, on the Lenox –Stockbridge line. Elm Court is a 114-year-old, 50,000 square feet, 96-room relic of the Gilded Age, one of the signature so-called “cottages” of the Berkshires perched on 90-acres atop a rise above Stockbridge Bowl. It was the family home – the third home, actually — of William Douglas and Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane, whose descendants, Robert and Sonya Berle, sold the property in 2012 to Front Yard LLC for $9.8 million.
The Berle’s retain an interest in Elm Court by holding an $8 million mortgage on the property. They had restored a wing of the main building which they had operated as a boutique inn. That venture could not be sustained, however, leading to the sale of the estate.
Front Yard, a subsidiary of the Denver-based real estate management and investment firm Amstar, has proposed to convert Elm Court into a high-end resort and spa, adding 80 guest rooms and a wing off the northern wing of the building that would nearly double the size of Elm Court. Amstar’s brand for its Elm Court development is “Travaasa,” or “Experiential Journey,” from a faux Sanskrit phrase.
This week, Amstar, represented by a contingent of its top executives, including CEO Gabe Finke, encountered an unexpected detour on its otherwise smooth path to recreate a Gilded Age institution that would both preserve the grandeur of the original and add to it.
Before a standing-room only crowd in Meeting Room A at Town Hall, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to postpone until August 4 a decision on granting a special permit to Amstar to proceed with the redevelopment of Elm Court.
“We want to restore Elm Court to its previous stature as an inspirational real estate that would provide a unique experience for our guests,” Finke had explained to the board before their vote.
Local Amstar attorney David Hellman noted that Elm Court was in “complete and total disrepair” and that it would be “impossible for an individual to take this restoration on. It needs the deep pockets of Amstar. If Elm Court is to be saved, this is what has to happen. We could lose a major piece of history.”
The roadblock to approval of the special permit was provided by Old Stockbridge Road residents who presented the board with a petition signed by 79 neighbors of Elm Court who objected to the transformation of their residential neighborhood into a resort zone. Many of the signatories were present at the meeting.
“I didn’t expect this much turnout,” observed board member Deborah McMenamy, after listening to 45 minutes of opposition to the Front Yard plan. “It affects my understanding of this proposed project.”
“Your bylaws address precisely this situation,” declared Lenox resident Gregory Whitehead who lives across from Elm Court. “You must determine that this project will not affect the current or future character of this rural residential neighborhood. At the scale that it’s proposed, it will irreversibly change the character. Among other things, it’s a matter of safety. Old Stockbridge Road is one of the great roads in the Berkshires. We walk and run along it every day. The increased traffic will be dangerous. There is not enough information on the traffic impact. This is not Route 7A.”
Jon Dietrich of Fuss & O’Neill defended the traffic study that, he said, determined the Travaasa development would have an “minimal impact” on traffic on Old Stockbridge Road, and would provide an “insignificant risk” to pedestrians.
Whitehead insisted that the traffic study conducted by Fuss & O’Neill of Springfield did not take into account the pedestrian and bicycle activities along the hilly road that has limited lines of sight, nor did the study consider the affects of increased traffic on intersections with access roads to Wyndham Estates and Bishop Estates.
And he added: “How did this project get this far. It’s like dropping the Red Lion Inn into a country neighborhood. How could this happen in Stockbridge, of all places?”
Board Chairman Stephen Shatz seemed to agree: “I think we need more time, for there is sufficient evidence that it would be wise to look at the traffic impact a little bit more, and to consider the pedestrian issues. I don’t think we’re prepared to make findings this evening.”
But how did the Travaasa concept make it to this point? It happened in 2013 when the town residents approved a Gilded Age-era estates bylaw, allowing alterations to the historic structures and specifically designed to allow Travaasa to append a 50-foot high, 4-story wing to Elm Court. But the bylaw also gave the Board of Selectmen authority to grant a special permit for such alterations.
“Passage of the bylaw does not mean the town approved this project,” argued attorney Elizabeth Goodman, representing Old Stockbridge road residents Barney and Julie Edmonds. “A 112-room hotel is not in keeping with a quiet residential neighborhood. It’s the scale of the project we object to. This would become more of a Marriott than a cottage. It needs to be less intrusive. And the traffic increase would have a permanent impact on the neighborhood. It’s a dramatic change in your town, and you have the authority to examine alternatives, to suggest this project become something more harmonious with the neighborhood.”
Eugene Talbot, a member of the Planning Board, approached the table where the three selectmen were sitting, and with his hands on the table, put it this way: “I live quite far from the property we’re speaking about. And it is important to preserve old estates. But we also have to consider size. This is a slippery slope that could lead to larger and larger projects. Stockbridge is a model, small New England town, and we’ve maintained it character for 250 years. You can put your stamp on preserving the character of Stockbridge. The intent of the bylaw was to save these properties, but is was also assumed it could be adapted so that we would not be creating a Club Med North.”