Hanover community gives feedback on Mink Brook housing plan

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-19-2023 2:03 PM

HANOVER — Residents shared a mix of views about town plans to develop workforce housing on 5 acres of land, which has been subdivided from the conserved Mink Brook Community Forest, at a public forum on Monday.

While many participants voiced support for the initiative to create affordable housing options, others — including neighbors of the proposed site — criticized town officials for a perceived lack of communication and public transparency about the project.

Over 30 people attended Monday’s Selectboard meeting for a discussion of the proposed workforce housing project near the Mink Brook Community Forest, which is 265 acres of woods and old farmland that the town acquired in 2020 after town voters authorized the funding for the purchase at Town Meeting.

The town’s plan is to develop as many as 29 housing units that are affordable for people earning up to 120% of the area median income. In Grafton County, the median income for a family of four is $115,000.

To be designated as workforce housing, at least half of the created housing units must be affordable to people earning 80% or less of the area median income — or $80,000 or less for a family of four in Grafton County.

Town voters in 2020 also approved a warrant article provision that four acres would be “transferred to Twin Pines Housing Trust for future development of a small cluster of cottage homes for workforce housing.” A revised article, passed in May by town voters, increased this lot size to five acres and expanded the potential land recipient to include any nonprofit housing developer.

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The Selectboard, which is currently negotiating an options agreement with Twin Pines to acquire the property, held Monday’s forum to solicit community feedback about the project and to hear the public’s questions and concerns.

“We are still in closed-door negotiations with the parties involved and we are not at liberty to give a whole lot of back and forth,” said Selectboard Chairman Athos Rassias, who explained that Joe Driscoll, attorney for the town, was in attendance to counsel the board on what members could discuss publicly.

Several residents and business owners noted the regional need for affordable housing options in the Upper Valley.

“My wife’s a physician and I own a small business, yet we are struggling to live in Hanover,” said resident Will Kearney, who rents a condominium at Berrill Farms, a residential community on Greensboro Road.

Kearney, who moved with his wife to Hanover last year, said that rents in town are not sustainable for most people.

According to a new rental housing study from New Hampshire Housing, a public housing corporation, Grafton County’s median rate for rents — $1,135 for a one-bedroom or $2,081 for a two-bedroom unit — are the highest in the state.

“If we can’t get workforce housing to succeed in Hanover, it’s not going to succeed in the Upper Valley,” Kearney said, adding that Hanover should be a leader in the region to address the ongoing housing crisis.

Representatives of local businesses said the lack of affordable housing is a strain on both employers and workers, many of whom have to commute long distances or are unable to accept positions at companies.

Allan Reetz, of the Hanover Food Co-op stores, said the co-op employs a combined 340 workers at its grocery stores in Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction, but 40 positions are unfilled — which Reetz believes is due in part to a lack of housing.

“Many of our employees are desperate for places to live close to work, most travel upwards to an hour away and (only) one-tenth of a percent of the Hanover Coop’s total employees live in Hanover,” Reetz told the Selectboard.

But other residents expressed concern about the project’s impact on traffic, neighbors and the surrounding conservation area.

Conservation Commission Chairman Whit Spaulding said that two ecologically sensitive areas identified in Mink Brook Community Forest abut the proposed development site.

“Those cannot be replaced,” Spaulding said. “To increase the density (of this housing project) puts the corridors at significant risk.”

A 2021 conceptual design proposed the creation of 14 housing units in a cottage court, a cluster of detached homes that share a common green space.

However, a recent zoning change to the allowable density, combined with a land survey that measured the proposed site at five acres instead of four, has enabled the parcel to contain more housing units than previously estimated.

Spaulding also questioned why the Selectboard has been negotiating with Twin Pines in nonpublic sessions.

Driscoll explained that state statute permits governing bodies to discuss real estate transactions in nonpublic settings to prevent the release of information that would be disadvantageous to the town during negotiations.

“If you discuss it in public, then it is all public — which means the people you are bargaining against have full access to that information as well,” Driscoll said.

Resident Jeff Acker, who lives on Greensboro Road near the proposed site, said that neighbors are mostly upset because the project has changed considerably from what they were told in 2020.

“The deed said, ‘The parcel should be used for … a small cluster of cottage homes for workforce housing,’ ” Acker said. “That was in the language in 2020; that is what was said in public at the meeting in 2020 when we voted.”

Acker, along with other residents, also asked why the town entered discussions with Twin Pines without considering other developers.

Town Planning and Zoning Director Rob Houseman explained that the town vote in May limits the property’s transfer to a nonprofit developer. Only two nonprofit housing organizations serve the Upper Valley, Twin Pines and Evernorth, a Burlington company. Hanover has only partnered on projects with Twin Pines.

Houseman stressed that there will be additional public meetings before a housing project is approved. The options agreement currently being discussed is not a final sales agreement, Houseman explained, but a document was needed so Twin Pines can begin designing a project and pursue financing options.

Once an options agreement is finalized, there will be at least two public workshops with the Selectboard and Twin Pines to discuss a project design, as well as public hearings at the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Planning Board, Houseman said.

Houseman also noted that the land will only be transferred to Twin Pines when town permits are approved and the Selectboard greenlights the final design proposal.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

CORRECTION: The 5-acre parcel of land that Hanover is considering for workforce housing was subdivided from a larger conserved parcel in Mink Brook Community Forest. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the parcel's classification.