BENNINGTON — Planning Commission members agreed during a wide-ranging discussion that they’ve “generally heard good things” about plans for a luxury resort on the former Southern Vermont College campus.
The commission met Thursday, a few days after representatives from Alfred Weissman Real Estate described their intention to purchase most of the 371-acre campus and the historic Everett Mansion and develop a multi-building resort with approximately 130 rooms and high-end resort facilities.
Planning Commission Chairman Michael McDonough, who attended the developer’s presentation at the mansion, said he was pleased with what he’d heard from the Harrison, New York-based developers, including their apparent knowledge and sensitivity to the history of the estate and their intention to become involved with the Bennington community.
McDonough said it’s his impression that those attending the presentation “generally heard good things,” and that “the developers understand what they are purchasing.”
He added, “I think their vision includes our vision, to a certain extent,” referring to zoning changes the commission drafted in anticipation of a new use for the property following the closure of the college in 2019.
Those changes, which were adopted in May 2022 by the Select Board, allowed hospitality/lodging development in part of the former campus, which had been zoned for educational uses.
The developers propose redeveloping the 27-room mansion and other buildings on the campus to create 130 high-end to luxury rooms. Restaurants and fitness or spa facilities are also planned, mostly in the existing buildings. They said they expect to primarily attract visitors from New York, Boston and other areas of the region.
The resort is expected to employ about 150 and move the former campus from nonprofit status onto the property tax rolls.
Town Planning Director Dan Monks said he thought the developers had “done their homework” about the property and permitting and had consulted with the Vermont Land Trust and the Preservation Trust of Vermont, both of which will have a voice in any redevelopment plans.
The Land Trust holds a conservation easement on about 214 mountainside acres of the former campus, and there are preservation easements regarding the mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The property was once the summer home of wealthy industrialist Edward Everett and his family, and the sprawling stone-walled home was completed in 1914. The property was acquired from the family estate during the 1970s by Southern Vermont College, which added dormitories, a sports center and other structures.
In 2019, however, the college closed after struggling with mounting debt. The campus was acquired in a foreclosure auction in 2020 by Southwestern Vermont Health Care – the medical center’s corporate parent – with the stated intent of finding a firm to redevelop the property in a manner that would benefit the town and the area.
Commissioners also discussed potential roadblocks the developers might face and considered what role the commission might take during upcoming permitting – which will include an Act 250 review.
The successful completion of that review is a requirement of the purchase and sale agreement between Weissman and SVHC trustees.
Monks said Act 250 delays could represent a hurdle in the form of extensive delays of the kind that could cause developers to reconsider their commitment.
The sometimes lengthy review process would present “more of a timing issue rather than whether or not they will get a permit,” he said, adding, “That could be their biggest challenge.”
Monks said Act 250 is likely not something the New York-based developer has dealt with on past projects.
For years, he said, the regionally based Act 250 process was routinely blamed for lengthy delays in project approval. But Monks said the more likely cause was that the several separate approvals from state agencies are required as part of the overall review.
There have been revisions to streamline that process, he said, but the effects of the pandemic created a backlog of cases, so that Act 250 itself is now causing delays.
McDonough said another potential sticking point could involve the sections of the property considered prime agricultural land.
“There are established limitations when it comes to prime agricultural land on the property,” he said, meaning sections would be considered “hands off when it comes to development.”
However, he noted that the developers have focused on redeveloping existing buildings rather than new construction on open areas that might include prime agricultural land.
He also praised the firm’s stated intention to plant new fruit trees in some of the areas where Edward Everett had established extensive orchards.
Alan Weissman, the firm’s CEO, said that reviving the estate’s original name, The Orchards, is being considered.
“I found that intriguing,” McDonough said. “Just one of those little tidbits that makes me feel good about all of that.”
Planners also said they were impressed with the selection of both an international architectural firm with experience in luxury resort development along with Bennington-based firm, Centerline Architects & Planners.
Centerline, they said, has done work on the campus, including designing Hunter Hall, and has knowledge of the Act 250 process.
Planners also said they were pleased to learn that the developer has a history of purchasing, renovating and then keeping and operating properties, rather than merely redeveloping a resort or other facility before turning it over to another company.
They are expected, however, to have a managing company to operate the resort, possibly a high-end brand firm, Monks said.
The developers likewise said they’ll maintain and/or improve the system of hiking trails along Mount Anthony and the Taconic Range – and plan to market those as a prime feature of the resort – and will continue to provide access to the trails to be public.
Discussing what role the commission might take in the Act 250 process, members decided that providing comment about the plan would be the proper role.
They noted that the commission already has played an important role by developing and passing along to the Select Board for approval zoning changes that will allow lodging development.
Both SVHC officials and Alan Weissman praised that move as a key toward moving the ambitious proposal to this point.
Asked about the firm’s timetable for the project, Weissman said they hope to reach the construction stage in about a year. He said they will announce details of the overall cost and purchase price when they close on the property, which is dependent upon completion of the Act 250 process.