Clarence Fanto: 37 Interlaken dangling a mighty big carrot in front of Stockbridge townsfolk

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LENOX — At least $2 million in new tax revenue for Stockbridge. As many as 150 to 200 well-paying year-round jobs, with more in the prime tourism season. A $150 million investment.

That's the mighty big carrot being dangled in front of townsfolk by the development team at 37 Interlaken, which seeks to restore the now decrepit DeSisto Mansion off Route183 and expand it into a 40- to 50-room high-end hotel. Elsewhere on the property — though 210 of the 320 acres would remain open space — six buildings would house 139 condo units that owners could rent out.

And the icing on the cake proposed by property owner Patrick Sheehan and his partner, Cape Cod resort developer Tony Guthrie: 34 single-family homes and a working farm to supply guests and property residents.

These details were restated when the developers hosted two "open houses" for invited guests last weekend. If approved by the town, it would dwarf Hyatt-Miraval's $80 million reboot of the Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort in Lenox and the $50 million Travaasa resort at Elm Court in Stockbridge, still awaiting resolution of a court appeal by three neighbors opposing the project first presented in 2012.

It has been nearly a year since the 37 Interlaken plan was unveiled informally. Under the town's current zoning bylaw for Cottage Era Estates, the resort, as proposed, cannot be permitted. The Planning Board has formed a working group to explore possible revisions to the bylaw, but the outcome of the yearslong review is far from assured.

So the development team is hoping a best-case scenario will allow shovels in the ground in late 2019 or early 2020 for a five- or six-year build-out depending on market demand.

Municipal law specialist Jonathan Silverstein, from the Boston firm KP Law, has been hired to help win approval of the required zoning revision through a residents petition at next May's annual town meeting. A two-thirds supermajority would be needed, as well as Select Board approval of a special permit.

At the Nov. 3 on-site event, the team stressed that the key to victory is marshaling overwhelming support from residents. How to do that?

- Talk up the benefits of the resort for the town with neighbors.

- Encourage project supporters to vote at the town meeting.

- Write supportive letters to Select Board and Planning Board members, other town leaders and to local newspapers.

- Inform the developers of any meetings or other gatherings "where we may share information about the project."

In other words, a full-throttle political campaign to prevail over a determined group of neighbors who oppose the proposal, primarily because of its scale and impact on a scenic rural setting.

The developers are playing the long game, as Guthrie, the managing partner, explained to the invited townspeople: "We've been very transparent from the beginning with what we want to do. This isn't a today or tomorrow thing, this is something for the future well-being of Stockbridge and the people who are going to enjoy it long after we're all gone. We can't do it on our own, we need your help."

A prominent leader of the neighborhood opposition, attorney Stuart Hirshfield, told The Eagle that "we weren't invited to attend the open house, which is another commercial occurrence in a residentially zoned area, but I did see a copy of their presentation."

In his view, the developers "have come into our town with the intent to rewrite our zoning ordinances solely for their own benefit to suit their own grandiose scheme. In a town that struggles with solving the problem of a heavily congested traffic intersection in its downtown, it is hard to imagine that it will approve the creation of an enormous resort development that may rival in size its full-time population."

Hirshfield decries "the scale of their project with its numerous closely packed interconnected buildings, as depicted on their own plot plan. The approval of their self-serving zoning bylaws will destroy the long-held view of Stockbridge as an idyllic, open space-loving, environmentally friendly community. I hope we don't get taken in by these hucksters."

At the open house, resident Carl Bradford asked what would happen if the project fails to win approval, The answer: single-family housing on 3-acre plots, an automatic "by-right" use of the land, or a carved-out subdivision requiring a Planning Board permit.

But the developers seem optimistic as they prepare an official project application to the Select Board while the neighborhood group remains strongly committed to the fight.

The stakes are high, and residents are engaged. But even longtime observers of Stockbridge politics find it difficult to predict the outcome of this one.

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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