Monthly Archives: July 2014

Front Yard vrs. Spring Lawn

Spring Lawn

SPRING LAWN: WHERE VERY DIFFERENT CONDITIONS APPLY

The town of Lenox recently permitted a development of the former Spring Lawn mansion that will eventually be similar in size to the resort proposed by Front Yard LLC for Elm Court. From a town planning point of view,  the Spring Lawn proposal had a number of obvious strengths:

1. The entrance is on a major state road, Route 7A, with sidewalks, clear sight lines and a bicycle lane. The road is also engineered to state specifications, able to absorb high levels of commercial traffic.

2. Spring Lawn is located at the edge of town, meaning that key infrastructure already exists to support the development; it also means that guests are likely to walk at least some of the time, to access restaurants and cultural attractions in Lenox.

3. The development strategy is incremental, meaning that the owners will begin with renovations of the existing mansion and carriage house, and then assess impacts and economics prior to proceeding to the next stage. We see this incrementalism as both prudent and sound not just for the owner/developers, but also for the town and for neighbors.

4. The owner/developers worked hard, over the course of many years, to build consensus and address the concerns of key stakeholders. They also have history and roots in Berkshire County, and we take them at their word that they will be accountable and responsible regarding neighborhood impacts.

Now let’s look at the Front Lawn LLC proposal for Elm Court, where not a single one of these positive qualities applies:

1. The entrance is on Old Stockbridge Road, a narrow country lane that was formerly an estate carriage path, a road with no shoulders and many blind spots. The road carries an existing commercial traffic exclusion, meaning that it has not been engineered to absorb large numbers of service vehicles.

2. Elm Court is located over a mile from Lenox town, meaning that guests are likely to drive up and down the road, with multiple trips per day. Elm Court also has no existing sewage tie-in; the Lenox line would have to be extended south for at least a half mile. The impact of this construction will be huge, and potentially damaging to Gilded Age storm drains, architectural features and legacy trees.

3. The Front Lawn application represents one of the largest expansions of commercial use in the hospitality sector ever proposed in Berkshire County, from the existing 19 rooms to 112 rooms, all in one giant step. This means that there will be no checks nor balances along the way. It also means that once the Annex is built, there will no longer be any flexibility within the use for the property in the future; for example, it will never be able to be converted back to a private residence, nor to a luxury Country Inn like Blantyre or Wheatleigh.

4. Front Lawn LLC is an investment vehicle affiliated with a Denver-based real estate fund that specializes in flipping properties. They are accountable to their investors, not to the towns, and not to neighbors. Yes, we know all about “Travaasa”, but there is no guarantee that these branded resorts will not eventually be sold. Amstar generates most of their profits on exiting properties, in a strategy they call  “Cradle to Grave”.

Conclusion:

Maybe Spring Lawn will have problems with sustainability through time, but at least the project makes some sense from a planning point of view. The Front Yard project makes no sense whatsoever, will have massive negative impacts, and should be rejected in favor of a use that will be in harmony with the residential character of the existing neighborhood.

Cradle to Grave

From the applicant’s own website:

amstarctog

And here is a bird’s eye view of our neighborhood, whose interests are not at all aligned with Amstar’s “seamless transition”:

NOT A GRAVEYARD; REAL FAMILIES LIVE HERE.

OLD STOCKBRIDGE ROAD IS ON THE LEFT OF THIS PHOTO, CONCEALED BY THE FOLIAGE OF LEGACY TREES. OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IS NOT A GRAVEYARD FOR FLIPPED REAL ESTATE; REAL FAMILIES LIVE HERE!

Finally, here are a few properties that are now in the Amstar “grave” (or exited) category.

amstarexits

Amstar is a commercial real estate fund, and they have the right to pursue whatever strategy they wish. But we will not let them destroy our neighborhood while they wait for the most profitable time to exit Elm Court!

Protect the Berkshires

As the CEO of a group of companies that employs a large number of Berkshire residents in high quality jobs, Annie Selke is very concerned about the long term health of our local economy.  In large part, our economic health depends on retaining the special landscape and aesthetic qualities of the Berkshires. Once these qualities are gone, they are very difficult to get back — thus we need to be extremely careful before permitting massive commercial uses in historic, residential neighborhoods such as Old Stockbridge Road.

PLAQUE FROM REVOLUTIONARY WAR

PLAQUE FROM REVOLUTIONARY WAR

In a letter presented during a recent informational meeting with the Lenox Board of Selectmen, Annie writes:

as2

photo

MORE NEIGHBORHOOD HISTORY: ONE MILE TO TOWN

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Accidents Waiting to Happen

Old Stockbridge Road is a former carriage way and postal road that was never conceived nor engineered as a thruway for heavy commercial traffic. The road already poses significant safety risks for walkers, joggers, bicycles and babysitters with strollers, at present levels of traffic.

What happens if we add hundreds more vehicles per day, including a huge increase in commercial and service vehicles? And who will be responsible for the inevitable accidents and injuries?

SIGN SAYS SLOW CHILDREN; CARS NEVER REDUCE SPEED

SIGN SAYS SLOW CHILDREN; CARS NEVER REDUCE SPEED

DIPSY DOODLE: WITH A DRIVEWAY IN THE DIP

DIPSY DOODLE: WITH A DRIVEWAY IN THE DIP

HMM, WHAT'S OVER THE HILL? OOPS , A PRIVATE ROAD!

HMM, WHAT’S OVER THE HILL? OOPS , A PRIVATE ROAD!

TRICKY "S" CURVE: BUT WHEN LATE FOR WORK, YOU DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO

TRICKY “S” CURVE: BUT WHEN LATE FOR WORK, YOU DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO

 

A Monumental Mistake

The below photos were sent to us by a neighbor who lives near the town monument, with the note:

These photos were taken last night about 5:00pm. No Tanglewood, just regular traffic pattern. It gets busier every year. 

This important intersection for the town of Lenox, an intersection that includes access to the parking lot for the Lenox Police Department, is already under significant stress. Do we really want to add hundreds of cars more per day into these pictures? That would indeed be a monumental mistake.

WE ARE ALREADY AT A TIPPING POINT

WE ARE ALREADY AT A TIPPING POINT

LET'S NOT MAKE IT WORSE!

LET’S NOT MAKE IT WORSE!

A Neighborhood In Danger

COMMERCIAL TRAFFIC PROHIBITED: MEGA-RESORT PERMITTED?COMMERCIAL TRAFFIC PROHIBITED: MEGA-RESORT PERMITTED?

“Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require.” – Theodore Roosevelt

A Denver-based real estate corporation named Amstar (aka Green Tea LLC, Travaasa Resorts or Front Yard LLC) is proposing to transform the Elm Court Estate into a major commercial resort with 112 rooms, a sixty-seat public restaurant and a 15,500 square foot spa that will also be open to the public. Together with the enormous four-story hotel Annex, this additional building complex more than doubles the square footage of an already very large existing mansion (one of many tramplings upon the Stockbridge zoning by-law), bringing the total square footage to over 115,000 square feet!

The Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association strongly opposes this huge project in our quiet residential neighborhood, and urges the Lenox Board of Selectmen to reject Amstar’s application for a special permit, since Stockbridge made a mockery of their own public hearing. Please note that everyone who lives in the neighborhood – full-time or part-time, year-round or seasonally, as an owner or as a tenant, in Stockbridge or Lenox – has the right to oppose this Special Permit.

EC

THE AMSTAR RESORT WOULD DOUBLE THE SIZE OF THIS MASSIVE EDIFACE WHILE DESTROYING THE CHARACTER OF THE EXISTING NEIGHBORHOOD

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Why do you oppose this proposal?

We believe that a project of this scale, essentially the same size as the Cranwell Resort on Route 7, will make a very substantial and negative impact on our quiet residential neighborhood. The Amstar proposal represents one of the largest expansions of commercial use ever proposed in Berkshire County — on a narrow, hilly road, in a family-oriented established neighborhood. Bad for the Berkshires, bad for the two towns, and of course bad for the neighborhood. We also oppose the unwillingness of the applicant to share information critical to evaluating the public interest, and their repeated “bait & switch” changes in the definition of what they intend to do.

But hasn’t Amstar presented a traffic study that shows very little impact?

First, this sort of purely quantitative study, paid for by the applicant, is not appropriate for assessing changes in quality of life and in the residential character of our neighborhood.  Second, Old Stockbridge Road is not Route 7 or 7a. We are a narrow, hilly road with many houses quite close to the street. That means that even relatively small numbers of cars and trucks will have a very significant impact on our right to enjoy our own property in peace and quiet, in our residential zone.

exclusion

Why should we object since the Annex as proposed won’t be visible from Old Stockbridge Road?

That remains to be seen.  But we will definitely see hundreds and hundreds of guest and employee cars as well as delivery trucks and day visitors going in and out of Elm Court day and night.  During the day we’ll see and hear guests using the property.  At night we’ll see lights from 112 guest-rooms and music and noise from parties, banquets and weddings, together with endless headlights from cars arriving and departing Elm Court. Permitting a public restaurant and spa also sets a dangerous precedent, allowing more and more commercial enterprises on our scenic road, and others like it.

Yes, but if this does not go forward, won’t Elm Court become a ruin?

No. Their argument that we must accept this out-of-scale proposal or Elm Court will revert to how it was in 1999 is a scare tactic, and is absolutely false. There are many viable options for the sustainable use of the property that have not been explored, options that will be in keeping with the rest of our neighborhood.  In fact, we do support the preservation of the original mansion but not with a huge commercial Annex, which nearly doubles its size.  To argue that the only way to “save Elm Court” is to destroy the neighborhood is utter nonsense. The neighborhood is wide open to reasonable proposals; this huge mega-resort is not reasonable. We believe it is also illegal.

What do you mean by that?

According to the Bylaws, a special permit can only be approved if certain conditions are met, both within the general zoning bylaws, and within the special bylaw governing the former Berkshire “cottages”.  After consultation with leading land use experts and attorneys, we do not believe these conditions have been met. The bylaws are there to protect the community from inappropriate development schemes, such as the one proposed by Amstar. We will insist that the law be upheld.

What is your biggest worry?

We are particularly concerned with the detrimental impact on the established and future character of Old Stockbridge Road as a neighborhood for a diverse mix of year-round and seasonal residents. At the proposed scale, Elm Court threatens to destroy our quiet, family-friendly residential street. Will we become a “resort neighborhood”, as year-round families move elsewhere? We understand that they intend to transform Elm Court into a “wedding mill”; will these events be alcohol free? We doubt it. Families with young children will not move to a neighborhood with such a huge year-round party house right next door.

Do we really want even want more traffic on Old Stockbridge Road, including large numbers of trucks and delivery vehicles? Does Lenox truly think it is appropriate to have a business the size of Cranwell dropped by outside investors into the middle of an existing, long-established quiet residential neighborhood? Do we want a public restaurant, serving wine and liquor, located on a winding rural road, with its low lighting, and many hills? Do we want even more chaos at the difficult intersection by the monument? Do those who love Berkshire history think that it is appropriate that the existing Elm Court mansion will be used as a fig leaf for the 96-room “annex” that to us looks very similar to a franchise-style big-box hotel?

Aren’t you just being NIMBYs?

No. We would welcome a proposal that makes sense: for the neighborhood, for the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, and for the Berkshires. Yet this proposal makes no planning sense whatsoever. There is no Master Plan, no Gateway Study, and no Green Belt evaluation that indicates that yes, this is a reasonable location for a major commercial development. How can we make a decision of this consequence without the necessary tools? Do we really want intensive commercial use at the heart of one of our most historic and scenic neighborhoods? What kind of precedent will this set for major commercial developments elsewhere in the Berkshires?

But isn’t this good for the economy?

No. Our economy depends on protecting the special historic and aesthetic qualities of Lenox and the Berkshires. If we turn beautiful, quiet and historic neighborhoods like Old Stockbridge Road into commercial thoroughfares, we are undermining the very foundation of our future. Further, there is substantial evidence that suggests we already have too much hotel capacity in the county. Will this mid-market franchise-style hotel be the final blow to our struggling B & Bs? Finally, most of the jobs created by this resort will be low-paying service jobs, not the sort of creative economy growth we are trying to attract, for long-term vitality and growth. In any event, it is impossible to know what economic impact the resort would have, since the applicant refuses to divulge any details about its business plan. We believe that this refusal raises serious questions about their commitment to the Berkshires, and to the local economy. They intend to make their money on the EXIT from this property, not in its sustainable operation.

Where do things stand right now?

The Board of Selectmen, in their role as the Special Permitting Granting Authority, gave permission to Front Yard LLC to proceed with their plans. We believe the process was extremely flawed, and was essentially a sham, or a sort of kangaroo hearing, but the standard of proof for corruption essentially requires cancelled checks delivered from developers to officials, and such evidence we do not have. We presume the applicant will now move on to Lenox, where they also will require a separate special permit from the Lenox ZBA as well as a sewerage permit from the Lenox Board of Selectmen. We can only hope and trust that Lenox will subject the deeply flawed proposal to a higher standard of review, and think long term, beyond the quick fix of fees.

Note: Unfortunately, the Lenox ZBA declined to do their job, and caved in to speculative cheerleading from various commercial interests. 

osrna1 OK, so what can I do to help?

Lenox residents: Let the Lenox Board of Selectmen know that traffic is already at a tipping point on Old Stockbridge Road, and that the road is already becoming unsafe for pedestrians, children and bicyclists. Let them know how much we all value our quiet neighborhood, and that an enormous commercial entity would have very negative impacts. They want to hear from you — in writing, or in the open comment session that begins each meeting.

Sign our petition, which is available at the Edmonds residence, at 316 Old Stockbridge Road, and now numbers close to one hundred signatures.

Talk to your neighbors, and carefully consider what this supersized resort will mean to all of us who have lived here for many years and even decades, and who love the special qualities of Old Stockbridge Road as a non-commercial residential scenic and historic road. Join our email list, and come to our meetings.

Call 637-2676 or email info(at)osrna.org. osrna3 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”        – Margaret Mead