Woodstock Complex Breaks Ground

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Woodstock — After almost a decade of legal wrangling, ground will officially be broken today on a 28-unit mixed-income housing development on eight acres of land across from Woodstock Union High School.

Organizers say the ceremony marks a turning point in the beleaguered project, which faced stiff opposition from abutters expressing concerns that the project off Route 4 could overcrowd the neighborhood, which is dominated by single-family homes.

Kenn Sassorossi, an executive with Housing Vermont, one of the nonprofit organizations behind the development, said the groundbreaking is a time “to take a pause and celebrate the point that will lead up to folks living there in September of next year.”

The name of the development has changed repeatedly, from Grange Hill for most of the past decade to Westfield Meadow last year, to its current name, Safford Commons.

The previous names sounded too generic, Sassorossi said.

The current name is a nod to a former member of the Vermont General Assembly, Joseph Safford, who bought 300 acres in Woodstock in 1776 and became one of the first settlers of “the flats” along the Ottauquechee River in what is today West Woodstock. Safford, a Hardwick, Mass., native, was a framer of the Vermont state constitution in Windsor.

“He’s a forgotten part of Vermont history,” Sassorossi said. “We’re honoring his work way back in the late 1700s.”

Because of the chilly weather, the groundbreaking will take place indoors at the Thompson Senior Center on Senior Lane, just up the street from the actual project site at 473 Woodstock Road.

A house-sized pile of cleared brush and trees sits near the center of the work site, a physical reminder of the obstacles that had to be cleared before the new project could begin.

In this case, the actual thicket on the work site was far less of an obstacle than the figurative thicket of regulatory and legal challenges driven largely by a group of neighbors opposed to the idea of a slew of duplexes and triplexes filling up what had previously been a view of unspoiled natural growth.

Since 2005, when Housing Vermont, Twin Pines Housing Trust and the Woodstock Community Trust first purchased the land, the groups have met opposition from abutters before the Woodstock Development Review Board, the Vermont Environmental Court, voters in the Woodstock Central Supervisory Union, the district’s school board and, ultimately, the Vermont Supreme Court, which finally affirmed in January its ruling that the project didn’t infringe on neighbor property rights, ending the legal battle.

Many of the make-or-break rulings along the way have been marked by split decisions, reversals and appeals, which fueled continued opposition and created more delays.

Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines, said he hasn’t seen such a delay in his 19 years in the industry.

“This is one of the longest delayed affordable housing projects in the state, if not the longest in the state,” he said.

Now, the developers hope to put all of the controversy behind them.

“It’s not about the past,” said Sassorossi. “It’s about what’s coming up.”

Winter said the project will help to address a critical shortage of affordable housing in the Upper Valley, which he said has created wait lists that can keep would-be renters on hold for years.

“The reality is that the housing market in the Upper Valley is incredibly tight with vacancy rates of less than 5 percent, and for affordable units 1 to 2 percent.”

The project, once built, will help to alleviate a bit of that strain, he said.

“Being able to bring new units to a town like Woodstock is incredibly exciting because it helps people, reduces commute times and gets people into safe, attractive, energy-efficient housing,” he said.

The project has morphed slightly from its original concept; rather than 36 units in 14 buildings as first conceived, there will be 24 units in 10 new buildings, plus four more in the renovated former Grange Hall.

Despite scaling down the units, the price tag has also risen slightly, from $8.5 million in 2007 to $9 million today. Sassorossi said the additional funding was raised from existing project backers.

Winter said the scaling back was necessary because the long delays resulted in increased costs. He said the groups still hope to build an additional four buildings containing eight units in the future, when additional financing becomes available.

He said the plan is for the contractor, Williston-based DEW Construction, to have the foundations poured and the framework begun on all 10 buildings this season.

The neighbors who opposed the project said they have no continued plans to fight the development, and that their motivations have been misconstrued.

One neighbor, Michael Hirschbuhl , declined comment, while another, Richard Roy, said the issue was always about preserving a way of life in Woodstock.

“We just thought it was too big,” he said. “It’s a large commercial construction project that was being proposed for the little village of West Woodstock. We just think it’s going to overpower the village.”

He said he has continued concerns about the impact on traffic levels, but that he has never had concerns about living next to people from a different socioeconomic background.

“We’ve been accused of that,” he said. “That’s not the issue.”

Now that the project is moving forward, he said he won’t let his history of opposition to the development taint his view of the people who move in.

“I’ll have a lot of new neighbors to meet,” he said. “I’ll have to see if my wife can bake that many cakes.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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