Planners Consider Upgrades to WRJ

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2016 12:00:41 AM
Modified: 12/13/2016 10:50:51 AM

White River Junction — Bolstered by a surge in downtown development, Hartford planners want the town to consider new bonds for a variety of upgrades ranging from better lighting to more parking.

Improvements under consideration include an extension of Currier Street from Gates Street to the town parking lot behind the former American Legion Building; new sidewalk, curbing and parking near 241 South Main St., which is the old College Cleaners building that is in the midst of a renovation by developer Mike Davidson; and lighting, stormwater and wastewater upgrades on North and South Main streets.

Cost estimates will be presented to the Selectboard on Dec. 20, according to Planning and Development Director Lori Hirshfield, who said on Monday that she was in the middle of trying to match different projects with projections of revenues generated by the town’s tax increment financing, or TIF, district.

If those projections hold up, the projects would not impact the town’s property tax rate, because bond payments would be made from TIF district revenues.

The idea of a TIF district is that a town borrows money to build infrastructure, which helps to spur development and increase tax revenues, with the increase in tax revenues used to pay off the debt.

The extension of Currier Street to South Main Street has long been a part of town plans for downtown White River Junction, and was included in the list of possible projects that the town submitted to the state in its 2011 application to form the TIF district.

If Currier Street is extended, it would run between the Northern Stage Theater and the planned site of The Village at White River Junction, a five-story, 80-unit assisted living facility being built by Byron Hathorn on a parking lot next to the United Methodist Church. Then it would wind around the back of the theater and turn right, entering South Main Street.

In Hartford, the town has taken a conservative approach of only pursuing bonds when officials feel they can rely on increased tax revenues from specific construction projects within the district.

Since 2014, Town Meeting voters have approved $1.8 million in TIF-funded bonds to reconstruct Prospect Street; address flooding issues on Church Street and the surrounding area; and to improve the parking lot behind the former American Legion building.

Hirshfield said that future projects will take the same conservative approach.

“I’m only looking at those projects that have been recently completed, ones that are underway, or ones that are fully permitted, meaning ones that have all their permits that have laid their money down on the line,” Hirshfield told the Selectboard last week, according to a CATV video of the meeting.

And this has been a very good year for new taxable growth in the district; Hirshfield presented a list of projects like Newberry Market in the Gates Building, the expansion of the Tuckerbox Restaurant and the opening of the Piecemeal Pie restaurant, and new housing at 188 South Main St., all of which have been completed.

Hartford officials are also counting on revenues from more housing at Davidson’s old College Cleaners building, and a new Taps and Tacos Restaurant, both of which are under construction. In addition, the town expects new revenues to come from developer Bill Bittinger’s mixed-use project (sited on a lot at the corner of Bridge and Main streets that has been vacant since the former White River Amusement Pub burned down in 2005), and Hathorn’s proposed facility, with both of those projects expected to complete their permitting this month.

Hathorn has planned for the Currier Street extension as he completes permitting for his own project. He has said he supports the extension, which would allow motorists to directly access parking at the facility.

Hirshfield said on Monday that she did not yet know how much revenue those projects will add to the town’s coffers.

According to the 2016 annual report on the Hartford TIF district, the base value of the properties in the 118-acre TIF district was $31.8 million in 2011, the year the district was created.

By June 2015, “the estimated assessed value after the infrastructure improvements and development is $94.2M, for a $62.5M incremental value,” according to the report.

When that additional value is taxed, over the 20-year life of the TIF district, Hartford has estimated the generation of more than $30 million in incremental property taxes, of which the town would get $22.8 million to spend on infrastructure debt.

Developer and former Selectboard member Matt Bucy, who owns the former American Legion building, said on Monday afternoon that he thinks the town should be more aggressive in pursuing infrastructure improvements, which he said would be matched by more aggressive investment from developers.

“We’re sticking our necks out on these projects with the knowledge that up to this point, we didn’t expect the town to do a whole lot,” Bucy said. “But I think the town could probably attract more intense development if it was willing to stick its neck out a little more.”

The Selectboard also took action last week to grant an easement for the Bridge and Main development, which, as planned, would encroach on the town’s right-of-way by 30 inches along the east edge of Bridge Street, and the north edge of North Main Street.

The oddly shaped, 4,600-square-foot lot sits across the railroad tracks from three buildings on Railroad Row that Bittinger has previously developed.

“I understand that this easement is the last step he needs to wrap up his permitting,” said Town Manager Leo Pullar.

Pullar said the easement was needed to accommodate the project’s foundation drain, and the encroachment would only occur underground. He said the project could not move forward without it.

Selectboard member Dennis Brown said he was concerned about the town spending money to accommodate the easement.

“What’s in it for us?” asked Brown.

“I think it is important to the downtown’s growth,” said Pullar. “And there will be tax income.”

Selectboard members expressed concerns about whether the easement would set a precedent for other businesses, and how much money the granting of the easement had cost the town, but ultimately approved it unanimously.

After presenting details, including financing options, to the Selectboard on Dec. 20, Hirshfield said she plans to bring drafted warning language for the Selectboard’s consideration on Jan. 5.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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