Housing Forum addresses crisis, ways communities can meet new construction needs | Local News
ARLINGTON – From general state policies to decisions and discussions in small towns, housing – specifically, its absence – has been an urgent issue in Vermont, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A forum hosted by two state lawmakers on Wednesday sought to address those challenges, as speakers addressed the need to innovate and take risks to resolve the state’s housing crisis.
The forum was hosted by State Representatives Kathleen James and Seth Bongartz, both of whom represent Arlington as part of the Bennington-4 District. It took place at Arlington Common, the former St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church.
The afternoon panels featured officials from Northshire, including Manchester Planning and Zoning Director Janet Hurley, Arlington City Administrator Nick Zaiac, and City Director of Manchester, John O’Keefe, as they discussed housing initiatives and challenges.
Many have aligned themselves with the principles of “smart growth” which Jacob Hemmerick, head of community planning and policy at the State Department of Housing and Community Development, and Jim Sullivan, of the Bennington County Regional Commission, have discussed at a roundtable earlier today.
These included promoting higher density mixed-use development in city and village centers, updating local zoning plans for the last time after a complete overhaul in the 1970s and 1980s, and encouraging housing growth in the workforce that addresses the “missing link” in the state’s housing stock.
But as Hurley, Zaiac and O’Keefe have pointed out, there are challenges as well as opportunities.
Hurley described Manchester’s multi-year efforts to revamp its land use ordinance, which had become outdated and overly complicated since its first enactment in the early 1970s. But she also noted that neither of the two potential sites chosen for a pro forma study of housing conditions in Manchester “did not indicate” as allowing developers to recoup the cost of construction.
Of those two sites, one – a plot across from the Hampton Inn and Suites on Main Street – is currently looking for a microbrewery. But the second, the city-owned property at 301 Depot Street, is looking for potential mixed-use housing once its lease ends in 2023. The Manchester Select Board voted on Tuesday to appropriate $ 100,000 in dollars from federal COVID relief efforts to study this potential.
O’Keefe said the city is considering nine housing units in existing commercial buildings and additional construction of 40 units further on the plot, which extends to Center Hill Road.
Hurley also said that a revamped zoning plan provision allowing adaptive reuse of hotels had, in its first test case, encountered a frustrating hurdle. The Inn at Willow Pond has been designed for 40 housing units for the workforce. But O’Keefe and Hurley said a law 250 allowing problems with the site focused on the location of the well left the project in limbo.
Zaiac said Arlington was “in many ways … at the start of the process” of overhauling its land use regulations. And one of Arlington’s first challenges is “highly political,” he said: whether to extend a sewer line so that homes in the Arlington Memorial High School area can use the station water treatment plant built for school use.
Arlington is seeking a state grant that would help the city update its land use rules, Zaiac said.
“We need to keep the conversation going and recognize that this is a political process,” he said. The desired end product of this process – more housing – is “urgently needed by all of us,” he said.
Hurley also said Manchester needs to review their short-term rental policy, but do so with the understanding that short-term rentals such as AirBNB play an important role in the city’s tourist market.
“I think it’s something that we have to study and something as a resort destination that we have to be careful about,” said Hurley. “Can we do this in a way that doesn’t put pressure on the housing market? “
About 60 people attended the forum from across the state. Other speakers included State Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford and Dominic Cloud, Saint Albans City Manager.
Cloud touted a strategy he said worked for Saint Albans – purchasing buildings and sites to exercise control over the development process and lower costs for developers, so that mixed-use housing projects and of labor operate economically.
The payoff on such investments in Saint Albans, Cloud said, has been that new construction has increased the city’s tax rolls without adding to residents’ tax bills.