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Thumbs up for zoning change

Selectboard approves zoning change to open way for Melrose Terrace replacement

BRATTLEBORO—It took much explaining and re-explaining, clarifying and re-clarifying, assuring and reassuring, and a few metaphorical packets of smelling salts, but the Selectboard approved an amendment to the town zoning ordinance for the future home of Red Clover Commons.

The Brattleboro Housing Authority sought the zoning change for 464 Canal St. from commercial to Residential Planned Unit Development (“Residential PUD”).

The board approved the measure during an Aug. 5 public hearing.

According to the Town Plan, a PUD is an alternative development designation that allows for more flexibility when a project doesn’t fit within traditional subdivisions or other zoning designations.

When using PUD, a developer needs to demonstrate that “the public benefits are greater” by favoring that designation over other zoning options.

The change allows the BHA to continue with plans to construct a 55-unit residential housing complex. The new housing serves as phase one of replacing the authority’s Melrose Terrace property in West Brattleboro.

The BHA estimates replacing all the units at Melrose will take until 2018.

The 18 buildings at Melrose, now 50 years old, are structurally sound. The development, however, sits in a flood hazard area and suffered damages from flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Federal rules prohibit funding or repairing public housing in flood zones. The BHA has received permission from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which subsidized the complex, to continue housing senior citizens and adults with disabilities at Melrose while it builds replacement housing.

Red Clover cleared the early local regulatory hurdles and received approval for its concept plan and local Act 250 permit from the Development Review Board (DRB).

Red Clover has also received a required nod from the Planning Commission and notice that the project conformed to the Town Plan.

Town policy requires that the Selectboard approve adopting the zoning amendment before the DRB can make its final decision on the project.

At the meeting, approval for a zoning amendment seemed like a done deal — except.

Except for one sentence.

BHA Executive Director Chris Hart and housing commissioners wrote a letter the the Selectboard intending to reassure the town of the BHA’s commitment to Red Clover and that any future uses of Melrose would benefit the community.

In the July 28 letter, Hart wrote that the BHA and its housing commissioners have “reaffirmed their strong commitments” to a happy outcome for the Melrose property and the community once its clientele is moved entirely to Red Clover.

Hart continued, “There are some possible future scenarios under which this site could become a burden to the town.”

While Hart went on to write that the BHA would not let that happen, that one sentence was more than the board could take.

The board, to speak plainly, freaked.

Logical gerbil wheel

In a separate interview, Hart explained to The Commons that the BHA could choose to take the easy way out with Melrose.

Once residents are rehoused, the BHA could board up Melrose and walk away, she said.

But she pledged that scenario would never happen, adding that her agency is committed to finding a new use for Melrose that benefits the entire community, she told The Commons.

But during the meeting in the Selectboard meeting room in the Municipal Center, Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein said that while he favored the project, the letter troubled him.

The town should have better assurances that Melrose will not burden the town, he said.

Vice-chair Kate O’Connor agreed, asking, “What does that sentence mean?”

Hart tried to apologize for “scaring” the board and restated the BHA’s plan for a bright future for Melrose.

But the board asked for a clear picture and concrete plans.

“At this point, it is an unknown,” said Hart.

Things can’t change at Melrose until the residents have new housing, said Hart. For there to be new housing, Red Clover needs to be built.

For Red Clover to be built, it needs all the necessary permits.

And for it to have the necessary permits, the Selectboard first had to okay the PUD, which it was reluctant to do without a more concrete plan in place.

“We don’t know all of the good possibilities that are out there,” said Hart of the early plans for Melrose.

The BHA opened a public comment process this month to collect ideas for the use of Melrose [“100 ideas to give Melrose a second life,” News, July 30]. The BHA plans to take those ideas to a group of state and federal regulators who will help the agency narrow them down and ultimately craft a plan for the site.

But, countered board members, for them to okay the PUD, they needed assurances the town wouldn’t end up holding a bag of burden.

Planning Director Roderick Francis tried to help.

He explained that since the BHA owns the Melrose property, no matter what happens to the Melrose buildings in the future, the housing authority will maintain any legal requirements of property owners, such as paying property taxes.

This seemed to ease the board.

Francis continued to explain the difficulties the BHA, or any property owner, would face if they want to use the Melrose property for housing.

“Your options are very limited,” he said.

Francis’s explanation wound through federal and state regulations governing properties like Melrose — public housing, flood-hazard zone, and the state’s historic-preservation designation, which applies because the complex was built more than 50 years ago.

In short, all those aspects require an array of different permissions, permits, and funding structures, whether the BHA continues to own the property or whether the authority sells it.

“Which is not to say there is not potential development for that site,” said Francis to a board and audience whose faces by then had taken on a faint hue of avocado.

After some further discussion, Gartenstein asked for the minutes to reflect that the board raised concerns about the future of Melrose and that the BHA had committed to rehousing people living at the property by 2018.

He noted that after the HUD public housing designation has been transferred from Melrose to Red Clover, the town will no longer have an interest in the property and that Melrose would not become a burdensome situation for the municipality.

“Sorry to put you through the wringer,” said Gartenstein to a relieved Hart.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #267 (Wednesday, August 13, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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