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Solar panels may go on town-owned parcel in Thetford after housing plan falls apart

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2020 10:46:34 PM
Modified: 10/21/2020 10:46:26 PM

THETFORD — Thetford officials are considering the idea of allowing a private firm to erect solar panels on a Post Mills hayfield the town purchased earlier this year for workforce housing as a means to generate revenue for an affordable housing fund in town.

But several members of a committee that has long sought to build affordable housing in town, especially for seniors, have resigned, after their plan to build 16 units of workforce housing in the 8-acre hayfield near Lake Fairlee failed in the face of vociferous opposition from neighbors.

The proposal for the site along Route 244 between Cross Road and Lakeshore Road in Post Mills was withdrawn by the Thetford Senior and Affordable Housing Committee last month after receiving pushback from residents who do not want the land developed.

At an Oct. 1 Selectboard meeting, Selectboard Chairman Nick Clark said a solar array was proposed for the property as a way to generate revenue to pay back the money the town received from the Farm Trust to buy the Post Mills site and to create a new trust for future housing projects, according to meeting minutes.

By having their own housing fund, the town would not have to adhere to federal regulations and grant money in order to build workforce housing.

The $120,000 the town spent on the Post Mills property was funded by a $20,000 community development grant, with the remainder from the Poore Farm Trust, a private fund for Thetford residents.

The solar array would take up 3 acres.

“There is no interest in placing housing on any part of the property,” the minute meetings read. “The idea would be to conserve the land.”

Asked for comment on the solar proposal this week, Clark said by email on Wednesday, “The Senior and Affordable Housing Committee made a recommendation that didn’t pan out. The last thing we want to do is make any rash decisions.”

About a week after the meeting where solar was discussed, four members of the housing committee — David Fisk, Manny Grewal, Scott Hesser and long-serving chairman Mark McMahon — resigned.

McMahon, who previously served on the Selectboard, said he primarily resigned for personal reasons and to spend more time visiting his family in other parts of the country and Canada.

However, he acknowledged that the way the Post Mills proposal was handled played a role in his decision.

“We were under the impression that if it didn’t go through with housing they would put it back on the market,” McMahon said. “The Senior and Affordable Housing Committee was a little surprised, a little insulted. If the Selectboard had reached out and just talked to us, we would have been a little more understanding, but the way it was presented and the way it happened was enough.”

The pushback from residents, and the way those comments were delivered, also weighed on some of the committee members.

“We certainly welcome disagreement and different ideas… it was the way they handled that disagreement that was unfortunate,” McMahon said.

Hesser, who is leaving the committee after serving for six years, said he had no opinion about the proposed solar array.

“With Mark leaving, with a fairly heavy turnover of other members, I think it was time for some new blood to come in,” he said. “We had tried to achieve the mandate of the Senior and Affordable Housing Committee that was given to us by the town many years ago. We had pursued a couple different tactics, or methods to facilitate affordable housing. I think we ran into several roadblocks along the way.”

The committee has worked for more than 15 years to find a site in town to build workforce and senior housing, and initially concentrated their efforts on East Thetford, but were unable to find a property at a price point that would work

In a Sunday post on the Thetford listserv, housing committee member Heinz Trebitz wrote that only two of the remaining four members have been long-time volunteers.

“No explanations were offered to connect them to the recent rejection of a proposed housing project site in Post Mills, although the hostility expressed by some of the residents (quote: “I don’t trust you!”) provides reason enough to quit,” Trebitz wrote. “In general the resignations can be seen as a direct result of the divide in Thetford between community minded residents, and property owners and interest groups concerned only about their personal life style, effectively subscribing to the /not in my backyard/(NIMBY) policy.”

Both Hesser and McMahon spoke of the importance of the housing committee, Selectboard and Planning Commission to work together with residents to come up with a plan to bring workforce housing to town.

“I truly believe that most people think it’s important. I think most people think the only way we’re going to continue offering a diverse community like we have, with the opportunities we have, is we’re going to have to address affordable housing,” McMahon said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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