BRATTLEBORO—After more than 4 1/2 hours of comment and response on Monday night, the Development Review Board (DRB) unanimously affirmed designs for the Groundworks Collaborative’s shelter and office space at 39 and 45 Frost St.
Groundworks is planning to establish an emergency shelter on the former automotive repair property to replace the seasonal shelter hosted at the First Baptist Church on Main Street.
The emergency shelter, approved by the DRB in 2015, plans to open this winter. Over time, the organization intends to move its day shelter and program staff to the property.
While a handful of people spoke in favor of the project at the June 20 meeting, a large contingent of residents from the Frost/Elliot/Elm neighborhood spoke against it.
Some residents stressed that while they supported helping people who are homeless, they just didn’t feel a shelter is suited to the neighborhood, which is zoned for mixed use.
Residents raised concerns around traffic safety, to public drunkenness, to trespassing, to threats of violence. Speakers also raised multiple quality-of-life issues like smoking, urination, and noise pollution.
Conditions under discussion
Groundworks staff appeared before the DRB to outline design features dealing with flood mitigation and site plan approval.
The DRB agenda read: “request for Flood Hazard, Conditional Use & Major Site Plan Approval to partially demolish and renovate existing buildings; construct a new building elevated on fill; rebuild retaining wall, and associated site work at 39 & 45 Frost Street.”
While the hearing was often referred to throughout the evening as a “conditional use” hearing, the actual conditions under consideration pertained only to site work around flood mitigation, lighting, fencing, landscaping, and constructing a new building.
The hearing was not about investigating whether Groundworks should be allowed to open a shelter on Frost Street, DRB Chair James Valente explained to some frustrated and confused audience members.
Groundworks received the right to open a shelter on the site last year, Valente said.
According to Valente and Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon, under the town’s zoning regulations, human service organizations are allowed to operate in districts classified as Mixed Use, as is the case with the Groundworks property.
Valente repeatedly cautioned audience members that while the board supported their right to speak, many of the concerns expressed reached beyond what the DRB has the authority to regulate.
“It can be a moral use, it can be an immoral use — we don’t decide that,” Valente said of what businesses operated within zoning districts.
Neighbors express concerns
Don Brown said he had concerns about how Groundworks manages its day shelter on South Main Street.
According to Brown, who identified himself as once having been homeless, people have set up tents in the backyard there. After hours, he claimed, there is alcohol consumption, drug dealing, and prostitution.
Brown also raised concerns about the behaviors of Groundworks clients who might arrive at the proposed Frost Street “wet shelter,” meaning they are allowed to show up drunk.
Groundworks staff said that the shelter is planned as a “low barrier” shelter, meaning that, yes, people could arrive drunk, but that staff would also have the right to ask people to leave.
Brown told the audience members that if the shelter was going into their respective backyards, they’d share his strong concerns.
“Those in support [of the shelter] do not have to deal with it,” he said.
Dora Bouboulis said she attended the meeting at the request of fellow neighborhood residents.
Residents are always expected to take the lead on dealing with issues in their neighborhood, she said.
Instead, Bouboulis said, the town should take more responsibility to support the residents. She said the town must change how it takes testimony and its public process to allow neighbors more recourse regarding what happens on nearby property.
Resident Iishana Artra spoke multiple times during the meeting and raised multiple safety concerns. She left the meeting room visibly upset.
Artra expressed dismay and frustration that a project could be changed “so dramatically without the possibility of the neighbor’s input.”
After the meeting, she pointed out that as a result of changes to the town’s land-use and development regulations approved by the Selectboard in late 2015, the zoning designation of the site changed from commercial-industrial to mixed-use.
Consequently, she said, some of the original conditions and safeguards of the DRB’s Aug. 31, 2015 ruling in favor of the shelter have been superseded by the new allowed uses of the new zoning.
At the hearing, Artra described the distance between Groundworks’ original permit for a winter shelter and the “wet shelter” as a “10,000 mile leap.”
“It feels like a violation of my freedom to have a say in what is going to directly impact my everyday life, and my family’s life,” she said before Bouboulis ushered her from the building.
Engineering and technical issues
Bob Stevens, principal of Stevens & Associates, the firm that has managed the architectural design for the shelter, did most of the speaking at the meeting on behalf of Groundworks.
Stevens, who spoke mostly to the engineering and technical issues that were the purview of the DRB, also said that Groundworks was trying to be a good neighbor with some of the features it put in its design, like screening (trees and fences).
Based on some feedback from residents like Terry Slate and Mary White — adult children of an elderly abutter — about such concerns as trespassing, Groundworks staff and Stevens agreed to changes in some screening features, including extending some fencing.
Groundworks staff mostly listened but did try to clarify some terms people were using and tried to assuage people’s worries.
Tom Finnell, Deb Zak, and Chad Simmons spoke in favor of the project.
The seven-member DRB has 45 days to submit its official written ruling, said Valente.
That written ruling triggers the timeline for an appeals process, said Valente in his customary opening comments.