Anti-Inn? How About 33 Homes?

Matthew Klauer
Matthew Klauer
New York Times – The former Wykeham Rise school property is a developer’s dream: 27 largely unspoiled acres with lovely views, near village shops. Off one of the many bending roads that wind through this hilly Litchfield County community, the vacant campus might well have been carved into a few ample housing lots years ago, were it not for a hidden asset that offers more profitable potential.

Underneath the site is a state-approved septic system capable of handling 10,500 gallons a day. The system was installed in the early 1990s and offers a rare opportunity for high-density development in an increasingly exclusive town known for its historic houses and refined country atmosphere.

Local resistance has stymied informal proposals for the property, brokers say, and kept it vacant for some eight years — but that’s about to change. The new owner, Matthew Klauer, is determined, with the backing of silent partners, to develop the site whether the town likes it or not.

Since the zoning commission rejected his proposal for a 44-room inn, a restaurant, a spa and a fitness center, Mr. Klauer has introduced Plan B: using the state’s affordable-housing law to circumvent local zoning regulations and build 33 one-, two- and three-bedroom housing units.

Although he still believes that an inn is the “highest and best use” of the property, and is appealing the commission’s decision in Litchfield Superior Court, the intense opposition from neighbors has left him little choice, Mr. Klauer says, but to seek an alternative designed for less affluent buyers. “Younger families have been priced out of the market,” he declared. “This is progressing to somewhat of a gated weekend community.”

Under the affordable housing law, in towns where less than 10 percent of housing is considered “affordable,” developers may build more closely together than local zoning dictates if at least 30 percent of the new units are set aside for buyers earning no more than 80 percent of the area median income. In Litchfield County, that is roughly $61,500 for a family of four.

Washington weighs in at a meager 2 percent on the “affordable housing” meter. Last year, the average sale price for a single-family home here exceeded $1 million. The son of Gerold Klauer, a New York financier, and Dr. Jana Klauer, the author of a weight-loss book called “How the Rich Get Thin,” the boyish-looking Mr. Klauer, 33, who formerly worked on Wall Street, bought the property last April for $2.75 million. It is his first development project. Some opponents have suggested that he was naïve to buy without assurance that the town would approve the inn, or anything else, on a narrow road in a residential area.

Inn supporters, on the other hand, laud Mr. Klauer for trying to bring needed jobs and tax revenue to a town whose commercial base consists almost solely of village retailing, a few lodging establishments (including the high-end Mayflower Inn and Spa) and private schools. In conversations at cocktail parties and on village sidewalks, Mr. Klauer promised residents that he would use green building techniques, hire local contractors and buy produce from local farms.

The debate over the inn was the most contentious in several years, according to Mark E. Lyon, the first selectman. It generated more than 100 letters and e-mail messages from residents. All are now part of a public record so voluminous that the paperwork fills three long cardboard boxes in the land-use office at the town hall.

“A number of people thought the inn would be a good opportunity for the town to expand its commercial tax base in a way that was appropriate,” said Mr. Lyon, a Washington native. “But people in the neighborhood didn’t see it that way.”

Wykeham Rise, a boarding school that opened in 1907, had an enrollment that at times exceeded 100 girls. After closing in 1989, the school irked some residents by renting its facilities to the Rolling Stones as rehearsal space. (“It was a very exciting moment in the town for one hour,” joked Seymour Surnow, the director of the local office of Sotheby’s International Realty.)

A Swiss hospitality training school bought the property, but sometime after installing the capacious septic system, it, too, closed. Vacant since 2000, the seven remaining clapboard buildings on the property have fallen into disrepair. Several years ago, two residents stepped in and bought the land after an inquiry was made about using it for a substance-abuse treatment center, Mr. Surnow said. They sold it to Mr. Klauer.

Neighbors who spoke out against the inn proposal cited the size of the plan, which began at 60 rooms before being scaled back, and the traffic it would add to residential roads. One neighbor, Teresa Peacocke, a New York lawyer who owns a weekend home with her husband, Christopher A. B. Peacocke, researched other country inns in the area and determined that Mr. Klauer’s would be the largest in the county south of Salisbury.

Ms. Peacocke says she finds it curious that Mr. Klauer would begin discussing plans for affordable housing on the site while still pursuing the inn application in the courts. “Some people say it’s tactical, and I think it could very well be,” she said.

But whether it is or not, under the state’s affordable-housing law, Mr. Klauer is well positioned to follow through — and seemingly intent on doing so. “Those who opposed the project have luxuriated in the fact that this has been an undeveloped, dormant property for a while,” he said.

Stacey Matthews, a real estate broker who with her husband, Pels, left Wall Street eight years ago to live in Washington full time, says that when it comes to property values, she thinks the neighbors would be better off with an inn. The most expensive Washington property now on the market, a nine-acre estate listed at $7.9 million, is next to the 30-room Mayflower, she said.

But, the fate of Wykeham Rise notwithstanding, a broader question persists, said Mr. Lyon, the selectman. “Everyone wants to see the town stay rural, with open space,” he said, “but how do you keep it going? How do you maintain the rural character and yet still allow it to grow?”

By Lisa Provost – New York Times

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