Housing project moves forward in Shaftsbury

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SHAFTSBURY — Voices spoke for and against Shires Housing's planned 22-unit development near Lake Paran last week, as the Select Board debated whether to act as a conduit for part of the project's funding.

After more than two hours of questions and public input in the Shaftsbury Elementary's gymnasium, the board voted 4-1 in favor of doing so, despite calls from some members of the public for them to vote no, with one citizen calling this "the best opportunity to kill this project." Board member Ken Harrington was the dissenting vote.

"I think it's important that everybody understand that is all we're doing," said board member Art Whitman. "We're not approving or disapproving the entire project, we're only to answer whether or not the town is a conduit for the money to pass through. All your concerns will be handled at (Development Review Board) meetings and Act 250 meetings. We're only concerned about the pass-through of money at this juncture."

The process is similar to what Shires went through in 2014 prior to beginning the $5.5 million project on Silver Street in Bennington. After over two dozen residents, many of them neighbors of the proposed development, spoke out against the project at a public forum, then-board chairman Greg Van Houten released a statement in which he said there was no legal or procedural reason for the town to not act as a conduit for the housing grant Shires was seeking, despite calls from Bennington residents to revisit the decision.

Shaftsbury Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins organized Wednesday's public hearing so that the first half was comprised of informational presentations from Shires Housing's executive director, Stephanie Lane, project architect Jeff Goldstone, project engineer Jason Dolmetsch, and Jonathan Cooper of the Bennington County Regional Commission. This was follow by public comment and debate among the board.

The Lake Paran project is a 22-unit, mixed income development, said Lane. The project includes the construction of four new buildings, and will take up four acres of the seven acre property. Units will range from one to three bedrooms. A portion of the site will have a land conservation easement, adjacent to the existing conservation easement that borders the lake.

Lane said that Shires has commissioned two market studies. "It has been determined that there is a highly supported market need and demand, but that the Shaftsbury area has been highly under-served historically in having its housing needs met," she said. "There has been very little development here and very little investment in Shaftsbury to date."

Cooper said that this project addresses all of the housing needs his organization identified in a 2015 study. "First and foremost," he said, "as we heard, the cost of housing relative to income is an issue here in Bennington County. Over 65 percent of people spend more than 30 percent of their income (on rent), sometimes as high as 50 percent.

"Shaftsbury is no exception to the rule. Energy costs are an issue, up to $300 per unit per month. This is something new builds, with Energy Star ratings, can really help families with."

Many of the comments against the project were from residents of nearby McCarthy Acres. The current site design includes an outlet onto McCarthy Acres, although the main entrance and exit is on Paran Road. "It's very quiet," said one resident. "We like the quiet, that's why we bought the house there. I'm concerned about the traffic, noise, and as someone said, the roads."

"I think it's a right," said another. "People deserve to have a place to live. But I feel like the placement of this development isn't right, and not just because it's abutting my property. This area, this section of Shaftsbury doesn't really contain rentals, it's privately owned property, and we care for our properties, and we've invested in our properties... I think a downtown location would be more suitable."

The Select Board has acknowledged that the condition of Paran Road is not good, and has not been for some time. Paving the portion of the road between the proposed development and North Bennington would cost about $100,000, and paving the whole road would cost about $500,000, which Scoggins called "prohibitive" at a meeting in March. As part of the project, Shires has offered to fund a traffic study that would consider what impact the development could have on the road and what improvements could be made.

Scoggins has also said that additional municipal taxes from the development (which he estimated at $23,400 annually) could go toward improving the road, and that the Shires development's presence on the road might better allow the town to seek state grants to fund the improvements, be it paving, sidewalks, or something else that the study determines is necessary.

Board member Joe Barber said that he was concerned with how the project would affect the quality of life for people already living there. "They are life-long residents, most of them, and the people that moved there moved there for sole purpose of having peace and tranquility. I think when they raise concerns about the traffic and the quality of life being disrupted, it's concerning. We can't forget about these people that live there, we have to try and accommodate them as well."

"I would very, very much encourage the board to act as a conduit to provide the funds and take the next step," said former Select Board member Carl Korman, speaking from the audience. "I would be a little bit hesitant, but from this evening we see that we're dealing with a very responsible, respectable company, something that possibly could be a jumping-off point for Shaftsbury to build on in the future."

"Shires Housing," reads the organization's website, "(formerly Regional Affordable Housing Corporation, or RAHC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit housing development corporation serving Bennington County and headquartered in Bennington. Shires Housing's mission is to provide safe, decent and perpetually affordable housing options for limited income residents of Bennington County. Shires Housing has a staff of fourteen and a nine member Board of Trustees consisting of local volunteers."

The video footage of the public hearing is available on Catamount Access Television's YouTube page.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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