Randolph Senior Complex Gets Board OK

Randolph Center — A senior housing complex planned for Randolph has received a key approval from state environmental officials, leaving just one more regulatory hurdle before the project can break ground.

On Tuesday, the state issued an Act 250 permit for the first two phases of a project known as the Hillside Senior Living Community, including a 30-bed nursing home and 40-unit independent living facility off Route 66 in Randolph Center.

The approval from the District 3 Environmental Commission is a milestone for a project that Gifford Medical Center has been planning since 2006. The only thing remaining is for Gifford to obtain a “certificate of need” from state regulators before construction can begin.

Joe Woodin, Gifford’s administrator, said Tuesday’s decision was “exciting” and moved the hospital a step closer toward a larger reorganization of its campus in Randolph.

“This whole project and a lot of what we’re doing really is part of long-term facility planning to improve costs and ensure quality,” Woodin said Wednesday.

The nursing home would be the first of potentially five buildings at Hillside, which is intended for a 30-acre site just off Route 66 in Randolph Center. Estimated to cost a total of $25 million, the project includes 30 nursing home beds, 20 assisted living units and 100 units for independent living space, although there is some flexibility on the proportion of assisted living to independent living, Woodin said. The entire project would be built over 15 to 20 years.

Gifford plans to move residents at the Menig Extended Care Facility out of the main hospital and into the new nursing home at Hillside, clearing the way to reorganize its main campus, Woodin said. Many Gifford services are sprinkled among smaller buildings around the hospital, and paying to heat and maintain those separate buildings is costly, Woodin said. By bringing those services inside the hospital, it would cut expenses for Gifford. The nursing home and renovations to the hospital alone are expected to cost around $12 million, Woodin said.

“We are trying to address the inefficiencies of our campus. It’s very expensive,” Woodin said. “I call our campus somewhat like a Christmas village. ... It’s a very cute campus. However, it’s not cost effective and we really need to be aware of the cost issues.”

Beyond making Gifford more efficient, however, the senior living development would also address a significant need for more elderly housing in the area.

The number of Vermonters over the age of 85 is expected to grow 23 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to a 2008 report from the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. The housing options for seniors in Randolph are limited. Often, seniors have to move as far away as Burlington or Lebanon to find housing where meals, housekeeping and nursing care is provided.

Lincoln Clark, a 76-year-old Royalton resident who is on Gifford’s board, said he gets asked weekly when Hillside will begin taking reservations.

“Vermont is an older population and a lot of people are facing the decision to downsize,” Clark said. “There’s no place around here to go. There are no places to stay.”

Gifford’s project has the backing of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, both because it would help meet the demand for senior housing and also because of its compact design and proximity to Randolph Center, reducing sprawl.

“It fits very well, in terms of both filling the need for additional elderly housing, which is inarguable, we need a lot of it,” said Chris Sargent, a senior planner with Two Rivers. “But it also fits well with the regional plan because it is near an existing center.”

The project sits on a site that is a little more than 30 acres not far from Vermont Technical College. However, only about 14.4 acres will be impacted, with the rest of the land left as open space.

A major sticking point with state environmental officials had been the impact to “primary agricultural soils,” or land that can be used for growing food, feed and forage crops. State law calls for mitigating the impact to highly valued farmland by clustering development, by paying to preserve land elsewhere, or some combination of the two.

Throughout the Act 250 approval process, Gifford made revisions to squeeze the buildings closer together and leave more open space. It also signed a mitigation agreement to pay $42,480 to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to preserve land elsewhere in the state, preferably somewhere in Randolph, said Linda Matteson, District 3 coordinator.

“Hopefully, it’s in the same area,” she said.

Not everybody was happy with the environmental commission’s decision. Bill DeFlorio, who lives next to the proposed site, said the development will ruin his view and likely hurt his property value. The Act 250 permit requires Gifford to consult with DeFlorio and his wife about the final landscape plantings “in order to minimize obstructing their view of the mountains.”

DeFlorio has 30 days to appeal, but said he was resigned to the idea that the project is going forward and had no intention of fighting it in court.

“Hopefully, if (Gifford) works with us like they say they will, we’ll be able to keep what we can,” he said. “We know it’s going to change the value of our property.”

Gifford still must get a certificate of need, a process that oversees new health care projects in the state and is intended to prevent unnecessary duplication of facilities and services. This year, that process came under the purview of the newly established Green Mountain Care Board.

Gifford started the process for its certificate of need last year, Woodin said.

“This is one of the first sets of CONs that (the Green Mountain Care Board) has dealt with, so they’re trying to be very careful and cautious in how they make decisions and any precedents they might be setting,” Woodin said. “It’s taking them a little bit longer because this is the first time they’ve had that responsibility.”

The Green Mountain Care Board also oversees hospital budgets. It has asked Gifford to address the nursing home project during the next budget hearing on Aug. 28, an “encouraging” sign, Woodin said. The fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Woodin hoped to begin site work before winter but did not anticipate starting construction on the buildings before next spring.

“If we just stay focused and not get too discouraged, this will be a really nice project for a number of people,” Woodin said.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.