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Housing proposal raises concerns

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2020 8:37:26 PM
Modified: 8/17/2020 1:32:45 PM

POST MILLS — After about 15 years of searching, town officials say they’ve purchased a suitable piece of land to build workforce housing they say is needed to help offset the Upper Valley housing crunch.

But a group of Thetford residents is raising objections to the plan to build up to 16 units on a hayfield in Post Mills for agricultural and environmental reasons. They’ re asking the town to take a second look at other areas, including sites in East Thetford.

“Our concern with this one is it’s desecrating prime agricultural soil, animal habitat and potentially impacting Lake Fairlee and people’s many shallow wells in the area,” said Post Mills resident Alissa Southworth, who said she’s one of about 100 people who have signed a petition objecting to the plans.

Southworth argued there’s a “good compromise” to be found closer to infrastructure such as a highways, grocery stores, pediatricians and child care.

“We want to insure that the folks living in this new community would have access to all this and at the same time we want to preserve what’s left of our agricultural fields,” she said.

The town bought the nearly eight-acre parcel located on Route 244 between Cross Road and Lakeshore Road in Post Mills in May from Lise Carter for $120,000 after signing a two-month purchase option, Selectboard Chairman Nick Clark said.

In that two-month period, the town contracted with Lebanon-based Pathways Consulting to conduct a feasibility study, which confirmed the land would be well-suited for 16 workforce housing units, he said, calling the results “very optimistic” in part because the land is level and there is room for water and septic systems.

“With Thetford zoning, you can put a duplex on each lot and then each unit on that lot can have an accessory unit,” he said. 

Taxpayers would not pay for the development, he said.

“The town would not be paying for it. We wouldn’t pay for the development and we wouldn’t manage the property,” Clark said, adding that it would be managed by Twin Pines.

Once they got the results, only a couple weeks remained on the option, and some notices sent out to residents and abutters arrived after the sale.

“We’re playing catchup on the public outreach,” Clark said, attributing that to some bad feelings about the project.

The Thetford Senior and Affordable Housing Commission held a forum outside last Thursday and have another planned for this Wednesday to discuss the project.

\Around 75 people attended the forum Thursday night, Clark said. Registration for the Wednesday forum is open at the town website. Attendees were split up into group of 25 attendees in order to comply with COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

“I do think they heard our concerns (Thursday) night and they understand us better now,” said Southworth, who attended the forum.

The property also had a 10-year covenant put on it in 2004 by Verna and Henry Estes that stipulated the land could not be subdivided during that timeframe. Afterward, it could only be subdivided into two lots. The covenant is owned by a neighbor, Frederick Peterson, who owns a nearby home on Lakeshore Road and released the land from the covenant for the town to use, Clark said.

“The intent was to not develop it into multi-unit housing,” said Southworth, who previously worked in an affordable housing community in Boston. “I want to be very clear that if this was a multi-million (dollar) condo complex we’d be equally upset because that’s not what was intended for the land.”

Pathways’ feasibility report acknowledged the covenant could create a barrier for putting multi-unit housing on the site.

“We recommend that the Town consult with legal counsel regarding whether it is possible to amend or remove the deed restrictions, or whether a multi-unit development could be created in compliance with the existing restrictions,” the report stated.

The Thetford Senior and Affordable Housing Committee has spent around 15 years looking for a place to build senior and/or workforce housing in town. Initially, their efforts were focused on East Thetford, but they could not find a site that would work.

Messages left last week for commission chairman Mark McMahon were not returned.

“If you do find a property, the next problem is price point. If it’s not affordable to build the actual units you don’t get the grant money,” Clark said, adding that East Thetford also has issues with water quality. “It’s complicated because obviou sly land is hard to come by, there’s so many considerations when you’re developing from zoning to water quality to having enough room for the septic.”

Southworth and other residents are now looking at properties in East Thetford that might not have been available in years past that could work in place of Post Mills.

A down side of COVID-19, she said, is that small businesses are struggling, but there may be “opportunities now to help these folks out of a hard spot, buy their land, buy their building, revamp is and put some nice workforce housing in and have it be a real win-win for the community.”

So far, they’ve identified three potential sites, but Southworth declined to specify where they are other than to say they are in East Thetford close to Route 5.

Town officials are still in the wait-and-see stage to see if the Post Mills property will be suitable for development, Clark said.

“Right now the Selectboard’s plan is to see what the housing committee recommend,” Clark said. “Even if the neighbors love it there so still so much work to do. Even in best case scenario it would still be up in the air.”

If housing isn’t built there, Clark said he’s not sure what would become of the property.

“The sentiment is that we could resell it and put the covenant back on the property,” Clark said.

The town has agreed to reinstate the covenant if the housing project falls apart, he said.

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

Correction

Frederick Peterson owns a home on Lakeshore Road in Thetford, more than 100 yards southeast of a proposed workforce housing development in Post Mills. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the location of his property.




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