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Thetford affordable housing proposal unlikely to go forward after opposition from neighbors

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2020 9:53:05 PM
Modified: 8/21/2020 10:40:24 PM

THETFORD — A plan to locate up to 16 units of workforce housing on a hayfield in Post Mills may be reconsidered after drawing strong opposition from neighbors during two public forums, according to a key housing official in town.

“Based on the information and the concerns that the neighbors have, it doesn’t appear that we’ll move forward with this site,” Mark McMahon, a former selectman who chairs the Thetford Senior and Affordable Housing Committee, said in an interview.

“It would be a challenge to secure funding from the state and work with the housing trust knowing you have a large portion of the neighborhood not being in favor of this site,” said McMahon, who emphasized that he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the whole committee.

The proposal calls for a housing development of no more than 16 units to be built on a eight-acre parcel of land located on Route 244 near Lake Fairlee in Post Mills. The housing committee has been asked to submit a report to the Selectboard with community feedback about the project next month. At forums held in the past two weeks, many residents spoke out in opposition of using the site for workforce housing.

Cathy Roberts, whose parents had put a covenant on the land 16 years ago, said the town is showing “total disregard” for their intentions.

“As I walk by our family land I struggle to visualize what this proposed project would look like and what impact it will have aesthetically and environmentally to everything around it,” she said in a letter to the housing committee.

McMahon said after the forums that “the majority of people were concerned that they didn’t feel that piece of property was appropriate for housing.”

The committee has also put the pause on the next step of the project, which would typically be applying for planning grants for the property, which the town purchased earlier this year for $120,000.

The property had a 10-year covenant put in place 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 town contacted covenant owner Frederick Peterson asking him to sign it over and allow it to be used for workforce housing. Peterson, who lives in Post Mills about five months of the year, since regrets that decision.

“I thought it was the right thing to do to support what I thought was a well thought-through project,” Peterson, who was unaware that he owned a covenant for a property that was not his own, said this week.

He owns a nearby home on Lakeshore Road.

“I’ve since come to believe that this was not a well thought-out process.”

The housing committee is attracted to the property in part because it is large and flat, meaning there would be space to put in a water and septic system, McMahon said. The town asked the property owner, Lise Carter, for a yearlong option to assess its feasibility, but she granted them 2½ months. After doing an engineering assessment, the town asked Carter for a month extension to do more research and outreach, which she declined. The town sent out notices to abutters before closing on the property in mid-June.

“This is kind of where the committee fell short of our responsibilities communicating with our fellow community members,” McMahon said. “We should have entered into discussion a lot sooner and it should have been a wider-spread outreach to the community as soon as we started doing the engineering assessment.”

For more than 15 years, the committee has worked to find a site to build workforce and senior housing. They initially concentrated their efforts on East Thetford, but were unable to find a property at a price point that would work. The $120,000 the town spent on the Post Mills property was funded by a $20,000 community development grant, with the remainder from the Poore Farm Trust, a private fund for Thetford residents.

Selectboard Chairman Nick Clark said it is premature to give up on the site.

“I’m reserving judgment until the housing committee gives us their report. I definitely know where a lot of those residents are. No one wants to force anything on a community. We’re not trying to cause problems. We’re trying to solve problems,” said Clark. “If Post Mills doesn’t work out my biggest thought is ‘What do we do? How do we find land?’ After 16 years of looking at properties over and over again, where do we go from here?”

The challenges Thetford faces in developing workforce housing are not unique in rural communities. There’s a lot of competition for a limited amount of federal and state funding.

“The land may be less expensive, but you’re going to spend more money putting in septic, putting in a water system,” said Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines Housing Trust, who spoke in general terms and not about the Post Mills project directly. “Those costs can sometimes add significantly to development costs.”

Another challenge smaller communities face is the economy of scale, Winter said. A proposal for 10 units would have a more difficult route than one with 30 due to costs.

As a result, Thetford, Fairlee and West Fairlee have been discussing the possibility of putting in scattered sites. Each town would have 10 units, but would treat them as one project when applying for funding.

“It’s very, very difficult to put projects together once they get too small,” Winter said. “By aggregating those two or three smaller projects you’re able to get a scale that is competitive and ultimately able to get financing.”

“The idea here is we keep being told is the scale of the projects we have in each of the towns is too small for any developer to be interested,” said Chris Brimmer, the zoning administrator in Fairlee. “We’re running out of new ways to look enticing so this just kind of bubbled up to the surface. What if we got some towns together?”

But that creates its own set of challenges.

“On average that still leaves Thetford on the hook for finding 10 units somewhere,” Clark said. “How do we develop responsibly? Some people might say don’t and just leave it that way. But we have that affordable housing question. We have people who grew up here and can’t afford to stay here and people who want to move here and can’t afford to. How do we find that balance?”

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

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