Category Archives: Traffic

No Other Recourse

Many people have asked us over the past several months why residents in the Old Stockbridge Road neighborhood did not appeal the sham process conducted by the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen. The answer is simple: we had every confidence that the process in Lenox would be held to a far higher standard, and that the letter and spirit of the Lenox Zoning Bylaw would be vigorously upheld.

Alas, such confidence was misplaced. Over the course of several confused and chaotic meetings, conducted with little direction or focus on verifiable facts, the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) appeared not to comprehend what it was supposed to be doing, namely, evaluating the Amstar/Front Yard LLC proposal with strict reference to the Lenox Zoning Bylaw. In fact, references to the Bylaw were few and far between, crowded out by grandstanding and cheerleading in favor of Front Yard’s ludicrous scheme to “save” the derelict mansion by building a second massive pile right next door.

Supporters of the project were permitted long, rambling and irrelevant riffs on the vast riches that would instantly flow into every Lenox pocket from the Elm Court gold mine, while opponents were chastised and dismissed. Meanwhile, throughout this sad spectacle, serious safety questions regarding the profoundly inadequate traffic study submitted by the applicant, as well as a host of other issues, remained unanswered and unexamined. The representatives from Amstar/Front Yard would simply object that even minor restraints on activity would dig into their profit margins (extracted at the expense of many lifelong residents) and the ZBA would instantly cave in.

Numerous invitations from the neighborhood to sit down with the applicant and the town to try to find some reasonable common ground were ignored. In addition, several attempts from residents to point out how the application did not meet the high standard appropriate for a project of this size were suppressed.

From the beginning, the neighborhood has sought reasonable compromise and moderation, with countless suggestions for intelligent and thoughtful checks and balances. The neighborhood would openly welcome any proposal that respected our own history and interests. Dropping a huge resort with spa and restaurant into the very heart of a long-standing historic residential neighborhood in One Big Dump is EXTREME — unprecedented in the Berkshires.  Smart Growth criteria, to which Lenox has long paid lip service, were thrown under the Amstar/Front Yard bulldozer. The result? A project that would bring the most Dumb Growth imaginable, bringing profit to a handful of speculative investors while negatively impacting one of the town’s most distinctive and established residential neighborhoods.

With no other recourse, in defense of their rights to the safe enjoyment of their own properties, a number of residents in the neighborhood decided to file an appeal with state Land Court.

The promoters for a project of this massive scale in a neighborhood where the vast majority of residents are opposed should at least be obliged to obey the law. Have they? With the filing of a broad-reaching appeal that challenges numerous aspects of the ZBA’s decision and conditions, that is now for the Land Court to decide. We look forward to the forthcoming process. At the very least, we should be able to answer a number of questions that have haunted this process from the very start, questions that town officials in both Stockbridge and Lenox appeared determined never to ask.

Round Two

As reported by the Berkshire Eagle, Front Yard LLC recently submitted its application for a Special Permit to the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals. The Lenox Zoning Bylaw identifies conditions for approval that are strikingly similar to the Stockbridge criteria, though they were largely  ignored or trivialized by the Stockbridge Selectmen.

Those six specific areas of concern are highlighted below, in bold. We trust that the Lenox ZBA, with input from the Planning Board, and from truly independent consultants, will carefully consider the long list of questions that went unanswered in Stockbridge.

1. Community needs served by the proposal.

Has the applicant persuasively demonstrated the need for yet another spa resort in our community? What market analysis and demographic projections have they submitted to substantiate the need for this resort? What is their business model, and how does it compare to other large resorts such as the recently permitted Spring Lawn development? What impact will this massive development have on our B & Bs and existing inns and resorts?

As for claims of new jobs: have they submitted detailed information as to the wage and salary structure of their proposed staff? Will these wages and salaries permit employees to actually live in Lenox, with their children attending Lenox schools?

Does this proposal meet the statewide criteria for “Smart Growth”? The answer to that would be an obvious “NO”, in stark contrast to the Spring Lawn development, which does in fact meet most of those criteria. Numerous young (21 and under) Berkshire residents stated during the Stockbridge “hearing” that their vision of the future Berkshire economy centers on local food production, small creative businesses and sustainable enterprises, NOT on franchise-style resorts such as the proposed big-box annex at Elm Court. Such testimony fell on deaf ears. While many will pay lip service to the “needs of Berkshire young people”, very few ever listen to what they have to say.

We urge everyone within the process to keep in mind that the parent company Amstar is not in the resort or hospitality business; they make their money on the exit from properties. There is no guarantee that the “Travaasa” brand will be around in five years from now, let alone a generation or two. What happens when they flip the property to Hilton, who then flips to Holiday Inn, and onwards down the food chain?

2. Traffic flow and safety, including parking and loading.

The materials submitted by the applicant are restricted to idiotic “level of service” traffic studies, using a methodology that is truly in the dark ages of pseudo-science. Our position from the start has been that this methodology may be fine for evaluating whether to put another Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown Pittsfield, but is wholly irrelevant to evaluating the impact of dropping a 112 room mega-resort into an historic, residential neighborhood. Our concerns center around safety, having to do with the road topography and alignment characteristics, as well as with speeding and other driving behaviors that suggest that adding a major new category of traffic will end in tragedy.

Beyond those “big picture” concerns: how will staff be trained to arrive and depart work? How will large commercial service vehicles be routed, to mitigate safety and noise concerns in the neighborhood? How will guests be directed to arrive to the resort?

Much has been written about the idea of a sidewalk; it should be clear that while there are some neighborhood residents who favor a sidewalk, there are many others who believe that such an “amenity” will further destroy the character of our neighborhood. Surely, such a major project can only be pursued on the basis of solid consensus. At present, there is no such consensus – far from it!

3. Adequacy of utilities and other public services.

We are aware that there is adequate capacity at present to serve the water and waste needs of the proposed development. However, large projects inevitably carry unforeseen consequences, and thus it is prudent to make sure that the town is protected should the sewage hit the proverbial fan in the future. To build new town infrastructure just because because a single corporate land owner promises to pay for it (short term) represents a terrible way to conduct local planning. It’s the sort of impulsive money-grabbing that invariably creates major headaches down the road.

4. Neighborhood character and social structures.

The most respected neighborhood character expert in New England expressed dismay that such a massive project would ever be considered in a low-key, family oriented neighborhood such as Old Stockbridge Road. His detailed report is available here, and summarized here. For a general description of existing neighborhood character from the point of view of those who live here, see this post.

There is a persistent rumor that the applicant intends to market the Elm Court facility as a regional Wedding Mill, with multiple weddings scheduled every day of the wedding season. Such intensive use (particularly on weekends) would have massive impacts on the ability of residents to enjoy their properties in peace and quiet, as well as raising serious safety concerns of alcohol use and driving on our hilly, winding road. Reasonable limits must be placed on the hosting of weddings and other such events, e.g. one per weekend.

Similarly, the restaurant should not be open to the public; does the town of Lenox truly suffer from a dearth of restaurant options? We think not.

5. Impacts on the natural environment.

Much has been said about how this proposal protects “open space”; yet there is presently no guarantee that this is not merely Phase A of a far more intensive development yet to come in Phase B and Phase C, via townhouses, condos, mansion “units” and other amenities such as tennis courts, stables, etc. Will the applicant agree to placing a Conservation Restriction on the rest of the property, held by the Lenox Land Trust, or by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council?

6. Potential economic and fiscal impact to the Town, including impact on town services, tax base, and employment.

We do not know what the impact will be; and in the absence of a professional, independent study and analysis based on hard data from the hospitality industry, neither does anybody else. It is easy to say that “all development is positive”, but what happens if, over the long term, as this resort slides down the hospitality industry food chain, the value of adjacent properties (most of which are in Lenox) depreciates by 30%, or even 50%? What happens to the tax base then? Or: what happens if this resort is the final blow to our B & Bs, most of which are already struggling to sustain themselves? Lenox could well end up with a net fiscal loss to the Town, a loss that will make any short-term fee revenues appear like fool’s gold.

———-

Following the one-sided and unfair process that unfolded in Stockbridge, we trust that the Lenox Planning Board and ZBA will consider all issues objectively, with particular attention to the legitimate and deeply held concerns of abutters and other directly impacted neighbors and longstanding town citizens, concerns that were summarily dismissed during the sham process in Stockbridge.

We urge that Town Manager Chris Ketchen, Town Planner Gwen Miller and members of both the Planning Board and ZBA walk (not just drive) down Old Stockbridge Road, and get a sense for the neighborhood and the character of the road, from ground level. We extended this same invitation to the Stockbridge Selectmen, though it seems they were only willing to attend tea & champagne parties at Elm Court.

Neighborhood Character

The applicant’s website makes the following statement regarding “neighborhood character”:

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 10.03.14 AM

Strangely, the above seems to imply that neighborhood character is something to be seen but not lived; that character is just a series of snap shots or postcards. That is not how our neighborhood understands character.

At the moment, Old Stockbridge Road remains a quiet, family-oriented, pedestrian-friendly low-key neighborhood with a balanced mix of year-round and seasonal residents. The onset of construction chaos and excavators, followed by headlights at night, round the clock commercial and service vehicles, hotel and restaurant staff shift changes, endless streams of transient guests speeding back and forth to various events, parking lots for 160 cars, and a general continuous year-round commercialized buzz at the heart of the historic landscape would have severe detrimental impacts to the existing character of the neighborhood, both in the present and in the future.

Both the applicant and town officials should listen more carefully to residents who have lived in the neighborhood, in some cases for many decades. We know the quality of life that we now have; and we know what we stand to lose. The commercial footprint for this proposed giant step commercial expansion would be extremely heavy, forever changing the human ecology and balance of the neighborhood. With regards to the road itself, both Stockbridge and Lenox would lose one of the Berkshire’s priceless historic assets. A pedestrian-friendly and compellingly beautiful former Gilded Age carriage path would be transformed into just another run-of-the-mill commercial thoroughfare. Pedestrians, children and bicyclists will be driven off our road, to find safer rural byways.

As for their statement that this massive resort represents the “smallest possible development”: that one defies all reason. Where are the marketing studies that back this statement up? Where is the business plan? Where is the analysis, or the rational argument? More than doubling the size of an enormous existing mansion is the “smallest possible development”?

As for the statement about historic preservation, we reply that history is more than views and mansions. The fastest way we can think of to destroy the gracious historic character of our scenic former carriage path and revolutionary-era post road would be to build a massive commercial resort.

sprawl

NOTHING SMALL ABOUT THIS

What About Traffic?

On the developer’s own website, we find the following highly misleading statement:

traffictravaasa

Their study centers on a purely quantitative analysis called “level of service”. For example, they ask if the increase in hundreds of cars and trucks per day will delay a resident on Bean Hill Road from turning left onto Old Stockbridge Road. Then they generate reams of data taken over a few sample hours during the week to cook up the inevitable answer: No Impact.

Though in our view such studies represent the most crass form of pseudo-science, let’s assume there are no problems on the quantitative side of the street. The problem is, we live on the qualitative side of the street. And there is simply no way to argue that the noise and safety impacts of hundreds of service trucks and cars will not detract from the quality of life on our quiet, residential and pedestrian-friendly street. There is also no way to argue that hundreds of trucks and cars will not change the qualitative experience of the road for visiting pedestrians and bicyclists. In fact, they will soon be erased from the scene, and will seek quiet by-ways elsewhere.

While there may be no impact regarding level of service, the impact on our quality of life will be dramatic. As an illustration, let’s imagine the pool at the proposed 15,000 square foot Travaasa spa. Now in terms of it’s “level of service”, it is likely to be able to accommodate hundreds of human bodies, and perhaps even a shark or two. But is this really the quality of a “memorable journey” that the brand “Travaasa” is meant to represent? We doubt it.

DON'T WORRY: NO IMPACT ON LEVEL OF SERVICE!

DON’T WORRY: NO IMPACT ON LEVEL OF SERVICE!

Finally, Amstar/Travaasa references having made a “commitment” to a sidewalk. But have they asked all residents who actually live on the street if we want a sidewalk? Many of us absolutely reject such a “gift”. A sidewalk will destroy any last vestige of Old Stockbridge Road as a historic, scenic by-way through the Gilded Age estate area. Build a sidewalk, and Old Stockbridge Road may as well be renamed Route 7B.

Have they approached the Town of Lenox with the idea of a sidewalk, since the roadway is in Lenox? Not that we know of. What we do know is that they need a sewer line extension that would carve up the road for months on end, for the benefit of one corporate customer, with unknown and unmeasured impacts on Lenox infrastructure. Maybe the sidewalk is just a spray of perfume to cover up the stink?

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.

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