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Vt. Housing Project Wins Key Ruling

Woodstock — The proposed Grange Hill affordable housing development, which has languished for years in the face of neighborhood opposition, recently won a significant victory at the Vermont Supreme Court.

In a unanimous decision issued last week, the high court rejected the neighbors’ appeal of an environmental court decision, ruling that Grange Hill’s developers had addressed environmental concerns highlighted by regulators that caused earlier setbacks.

The ruling means that a plan that would greatly expand affordable housing options in well-to-do Woodstock is only one step away after nearly seven years of legal wrangling.

“Our hope is this is a significant step forward,” said Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines Housing Trust, one of the non-profits behind the Grange Hill project. “This was an important step in getting the project up and going. This has been as lengthy a project as I’ve seen anywhere in my experience.” Kaveh Shahi, the attorney for the 10 neighbors who have opposed the Grange Hill project, said he was disappointed that their concerns that water runoff from Grange Hill could lead to increased flooding on Route 4 were not heeded.

The courts, Shahi said, wrongly relied on testimony from experts — offered before Tropical Storm Irene hit the area — who said that neighbors concerns about flooding were overblown.

“Irene proved that wrong,” Shahi said in an interview. “There was a horrendous amount of water that came up, and we think that will continue to be a concern. We think flooding is a key concern that we just don’t think is going to go away.” Grange Hill’s developers cannot yet declare victory: The Vermont Supreme Court is still considering another appeal on the project, centering on property rights issues that were previously heard in Windsor Superior Court.

Oral arguments in that case were held in September, and a decision could be released at any time. Grange Hill developers, however, said they were encouraged by last week’s “strongly worded” decision, and would be ready to begin construction in 2013 if justices side with them again.

The 36-unit project on Route 4 near Woodstock Union High School, would contain mostly affordable housing with some market-priced units. It has been a source of contention in town since developers first submitted an application in 2006.

“The key problem from day one has been the lack of inclusion of the neighbors in a meaningful way in the planning process,” Shahi said. “It has been the developers way or the highway, and there has been no give and take, no consideration on a human level (of), “ ‘You folks have been living here for years and we’re intending to double the size of this neighborhood, what are your thoughts?’ ” The nonprofit Woodstock Community Trust bought the eight-acre parcel on Route 4 and banded together with two other nonprofits, Twin Pines Housing Trust and Housing Vermont.

The Woodstock Development Review Board approved the plan, but a group of neighbors appealed to the Environmental Court and won, touching off a tangled string of legal battles.

Following the setback in environmental court, project developers redrew some plans, and this time won approval at both the review board and the Environmental Court.

The neighbors did not surrender: They appealed those decisions to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Among the neighbors many complaints, they argued that the Environmental Court should have ruled that the development lacked adequate parking spaces and a storm water disposal system.

But the high court justices upheld the Environmental Court’s work on Oct. 26, saying all concerns had been met.

“It is a strong decision which puts us closer to our goal of providing attractive, affordable housing for families in our town,” Woodstock Community Trust President Patsy Highberg said.

But Shahi said the neighbors hope that the other pending Vermont Supreme Court case — which centers on property right claims — will keep Grange Hill from going forward.

“The people I represent are working class people and they are all for affordable housing — they want their children to be able to afford to live here,” Shahi said. “But at the same time, they want to preserve the sense of community, and doubling the size of the neighborhood is not something they are agreeable to.”

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.

CORRECTION

This story has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Friday, Nov. 2 edition of the Valley News:

Twin Pines Housing Trust Executive Director Andrew Winter’s last name was misspelled in a story in yesterday’s Valley News.