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Jim Kenyon: Same Affordable Housing Debate in Norwich

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Published: 2/5/2017 12:51:45 AM
Modified: 2/6/2017 11:48:25 AM

How apropos that the Norwich Planning Commission held its affordable housing forum last Thursday — Groundhog Day. If only Bill Murray could have served as moderator.

For 20 years, Norwich residents — good liberals that they are — have periodically feigned interest in tackling the town’s lack of economic diversity. After much public hand-wringing, however, the powers that be invariably conclude that affordable housing initiatives just aren’t a good fit for Vermont’s richest community.

A shortage of suitable building sites. The price of land is too steep. Not close enough to public transportation. The list of excuses goes on.

But I applaud the seven-member Planning Commission for trying — again. I worry, though, that its proposal — despite its merits — will never get past the PowerPoint phase.

The Norwich Selectboard must give its approval, and over the years it’s had difficulty agreeing on much of anything. Remember the great bandstand debate?

If by some miracle the Selectboard did sign off, the proposal’s opponents could quickly apply the brakes by petitioning for a town vote. Dan & Whit’s General Store will become a Wal-Mart before residents OK the proposed zoning changes.

The commission is talking about creating a high-density district along Route 5 South and River Road (north of Ledyard Bridge) that, with hope, would spur private development. In exchange for permission to build commercial space and market-priced homes, developers would have to make 25 percent of their housing units “affordable.”

In this case, affordable means homes starting at about $180,000 for families earning at least $45,000 or so a year. In other words, Norwich residents need not worry that the town could become home to Shady Lawn Motel II.

If nothing else, Thursday’s public forum, which was attended by 75 residents, made for good theater. The issue seems to have divided the town’s liberal guard.

Some folks want to “do the right thing” to make Norwich more inclusive. Others worry that “mega developments” could damage the town’s rural character.

To win over naysayers, the Planning Commission is trying a new tack: appealing to residents’ pocketbooks.

Since school tax rates in Vermont hinge largely on enrollment, bringing in more families could reduce property taxes. Norwich’s K-6 Marion Cross School has seen its enrollment plunge from 478 students in 1995 to 302 last year.

“When you have more kids, you have a better opportunity to bring down that per pupil spending and therefore really bring down your taxes,” said Planning Commission member Jeff Lubell, a former official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the commission’s presentation, Lubell pointed out that Norwich’s population is also in slight decline. After peaking at 3,544 in 2000, it’s now under 3,400.

Meanwhile, the trend shows wealthier families ($150,000 or more in annual income) moving in and middle-income families (under $75,000 a year) moving out. Which helps explain how Norwich came to have a median family income of $136,600, the highest in the state.

“Income inequality has increased so much because of home costs,” Lubell said. A 2012 state study put median sales prices in Norwich that year at $382,000 — more than double the Windsor County median of $173,000.

After the commission finished its pitch, residents lined up to speak.

“If we are losing people in the middle income range because they can no longer afford the taxes in town, this is diminishing all of us,” said Irv Thomae, who once served on the town’s finance committee. “I don’t want to live in a museum where all I can see is beautiful houses.”

Others didn’t see it that way. Opponents included former state Rep. Ann Seibert and her husband, Dean, who argued the plan would “compromise the well-being of those who do live in the affected zones.”

The Seiberts are longtime residents of Main Street, which isn’t part of the district that would be re-zoned. They also own rental property on 34 acres that’s assessed for $463,700, just off Route 5 South.

Colin Calloway, a Dartmouth history professor who lives in the neighborhood of Route 5, compared the proposal to land grabs the U.S. government made from Native Americans. “A common tactic to get land is to persuade people who don’t live on that land to acquiesce to the taking of that land,” he said.

I understand that neighbors might be nervous. Inviting private developers to bid on pieces of valuable landscape could lead to unintended consequences.

But the claim by opponents that the Route 5 corridor is a “greenbelt” in need of protecting?

I’m not sure how many wheat fields are in danger of being paved over. I did notice a for sale sign in a large open field across from Fogg’s Hardware. So whether or not the proposed zoning changes become reality, a changing landscape could already be on the way.

Intentional or not, the Planning Commission is making many Norwich liberals (Hillary Clinton won 88 percent of the town’s presidential vote) a bit uncomfortable by playing the good-for-the-environment card.

The environmental benefits of high-density housing are hard to ignore. “From a planning perspective, you want to put housing close to where the jobs are,” Lubell said, referring to the Hanover-Lebanon-Hartford area. “Shorter commutes and less traffic means less greenhouse gases.”

But if the last 20 years have proved anything, it doesn’t matter how strong a case affordable-housing proponents make. The good liberals of Norwich are quite comfortable in their enclave.

Jim Kenyon can be reached
at 603-727-3212 or

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


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