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Proposed sites for homeless camp in Hartford face hurdles

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2020 9:57:52 PM
Modified: 7/30/2020 9:58:31 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A proposal to develop a permanent homeless encampment on one of three town-owned properties hit a snag this month when an evaluation showed all three spots come with environmental and legal hurdles.

“It doesn’t mean that those (hurdles) are insurmountable,” outgoing Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said at a Selectboard meeting Tuesday evening, during which he presented the evaluation findings. “But they are a major impediment to these properties.”

His presentation came just two weeks after board member Simon Dennis suggested the town look into setting up a permanent encampment with running water, storage lockers and electricity at one of the three sites: Hurricane Forest just off Wright Reservoir Road; the woods behind the Upper Valley Aquatic Center; and Maanawaka Conservation Area on Route 5 in Wilder.

But during Tuesday night’s board meeting, Godfrey said Hurricane Forest and the Maanawaka Conservation Area both had deed restrictions that wouldn’t allow for a homeless encampment, while the spot behind the aquatic center off Route 5 south of downtown White River Junction was designated Class II wetlands by the state. Godfrey said that there were camping restrictions and conservation issues connected to the sites as well.

Following his evaluation and a lengthy discussion during the Tuesday meeting, the board voted that the town manager and staff should expand their evaluation to include other town-owned properties and come up with solutions for potential restrictions those properties might have.

Despite encouragement from some board members on the proposal, Godfrey and others said an outdoor encampment was not an adequate way to address issues of affordable housing and homelessness.

“Camping is really a substandard form of housing. It should be an option that’s available only when there are no permanent housing solutions available,” Godfrey said at the meeting, adding that he was worried this project could distract from creating both affordable housing and a yearlong shelter as goals for the town.

Board members Emma Behrens and Alan Johnson also spoke to the need for a long-term solution for more affordable housing.

“Tents seem like the bare minimum we can do, and I do think we should find alternative solutions,” Behrens said.

Johnson called the proposal an “inadequate response” to the community’s homelessness issue. He added that homelessness, mental and physical health, food security and substance abuse “cost more to ignore or inadequately address” than they do to deal with properly.

He also recalled the board’s push for a $3 million bond to build a public pool, which passed a vote at Town Meeting in March.

“If we’re dedicating money to a pool while inadequately addressing these problems that cost us more, what does that say?” he said, adding that the priority of building a pool over addressing the homeless crisis “turns my stomach.”

But some members of the public who spoke via Zoom on Tuesday night urged the board to focus on both short- and long-term solutions.

“This is not an ‘either-or’ situation, this is a ‘yes and’ situation,” Hartford resident Jack Peisch said.

He suggested the town continue to look at Dennis’ three initial suggestions and find ways to “push past the logistical hurdles,” while also allocating funding for affordable housing.

Resident Ashley Andreas echoed his words, saying that town officials should not give up on sites due to zoning or deed restrictions, but rather look for ways around those hurdles.

“The lack of enthusiasm and ideas to tackle some of the obstacles that were found in that investigation was kind of disheartening to hear for me,” she added.

Hartford staff and incoming Interim Town Manager Patrick MacQueen, who will take over next week for Godfrey, who announced his resignation earlier this year, will be tasked with evaluating a wider list of town-owned sites and presenting them to the board by the end of next month.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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