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Not in their backyard after all

Selectboard votes to terminate land sale agreement at the request of the buyers and the neighbors objecting to the sale

BRATTLEBORO—A plan to build four single-family homes near Morningside Cemetery, which met with neighborhood opposition, came to a resolution last week with the Selectboard’s 3–2 decision to terminate the buyers’ sale agreement.

With the vote, the town agreed to return Byron and Lee Stookeys’ $1,000 deposit, but the couple will lose the money they invested in items such as site surveys and architectural plans.

The Stookeys purchased the land, intending to construct “new, decent” starter homes, ranging from 800 to 1,100 square feet, with two shared carports, to sell for less than $200,000.

“I was mainly in it to prove it can be done,” said Stookey, a longtime advocate for local affordable housing and an associate board member of the nonprofit Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing.

But building plans came to a halt after some South Main Street neighbors protested the loss of neighborhood green and recreation space.

The designs also included a duplex constructed along South Main Street, but this plan met with strong objections from the neighbors, because it would mean cutting down trees.

Town Meeting Representatives had approved the land sale at the 2009 Representative Town Meeting. The Stookeys said that they saw the land advertised in the newspaper in January 2010.

Lee Stookey said that she and her husband had read that the land was close to downtown with access to municipal sewer and water. They thought that a small development of houses would be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

Brattleboro needs new homes, Byron Stookey said, because almost no one in the area has built them at a modest price for many years. And when housing prices are out of reach for young couples in the market for their first home, they end up in rental property. This squeezes out the groups normally looking for rentals, like young, single people, he added.

He said that there wasn’t any hint in the Town Meeting agenda, advertisements, or existing land deed that the plot was part of a cemetery — yet another concern of the neighborhood.

Compromise or bailout?

“The Stookeys got in over their heads, and we’re bailing them out,” said Selectboard member Jesse Corum, who expressed concern that the Selectboard  had played favorites.

Outgoing Selectboard members Corum and Martha O’Connor voted against the motion to release the Stookeys from the sale agreement with the town.

“In this town there’s always the NIMBYs. But to give in…to not go through with that process, I just think that’s wrong,” said Corum in a later phone interview, referring to the  “not in my backyard” acronym.

Corum said that he thought dissolving the contract through the Selectboard set a bad precedent for the town. He described it as “caving in all the time to the squeaky wheels.”

Instead, the correct body to approve or decline the 246 South Main St. project would have been the Development Review Board (DRB), Corum said.

“But, along with normal NIMBYism, too many reasonable neighbors raised reasonable objections to our plans and to the town’s decision to sell. In the end, it seemed rude and unwise to proceed,” wrote the Stookeys in a Feb. 3 letter, where they appealed to the Selectboard to release them from their contract.

“We appreciate the town’s willingness to cancel the sale of the Morningside Cemetery property,” wrote the Stookeys. “We are very sad to do that. The housing we planned to build was to be a useful demonstration that it still is possible to build good new homes that moderate-income people can afford. And, obviously, we’re extremely sad about the loss of $21,000 invested in the project!”

After neighbors raised objections to the housing development at the Oct. 18, 2010, DRB meeting, Byron Stookey initiated the compromise that he presented to the Selectboard in February.

He said he felt things “got stupid” with the whole situation. “We couldn’t see there’d be any decent outcome,” he said.

He drafted a proposal and sent it to Elizabeth Wohl, attorney at Downs Rachlin Martin, who was acting as a private citizen, and resident of the South Main Street neighborhood, who negotiated with the couple on behalf of her neighbors.

“It was nice working with her,” said Stookey.

According to the proposal, dated Jan. 4, the Stookeys would give up their plan to build houses on the land and the town would cancel the sale and return the Stookeys’ permit application fee.

The proposal also asked the town to, in some legal way, permanently protect the land from future development.

Wohl said the beauty of the Stookeys’ proposal was that everyone — the Stookeys, the neighbors, and the town — sacrificed something.

“The town has the least to lose [financially], because it hasn’t actually sold the property yet,” said Wohl.

In the end, the town did not agree to place the land into any form of conservation, said Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray.

Byron Stookey said that he thinks the neighbors’ reacted strongly because they “felt blindsided” by the sale and potential development.

Lee Stookey said that the woods were used by the neighborhood and local kids for recreation, more than anyone involved in the project had realized.

Wohl, who said that the neighbors on South Main had had varying opinions on the potential development, couldn’t think of any other green space on the South Main Street side of Canal Street.

Wohl said neighbors told her they were concerned about the potential for the steep land around the cemetery to erode after the houses went up. Other neighbors, she said, were skeptical that the houses would end up as affordable as the Stookeys claimed.

Dealing with change

People can’t assume a neighborhood will always remain the same, Corum said. This situation reminded him of the neighborhood response to the town’s attempt to sell the Chestnut Hill Reservoir last year.

“You’ve got a duty to look out [and see] what’s going on in your own neighborhood,” said Corum.

Wohl said that the near-sale of 246 South Main St. has taught her a few lessons.

One lesson is that citizens must pay attention to the town’s decisions and that Town Meeting Representatives should reach out to their districts about Town Meeting agenda items, she said.

Also, said Wohl, the town would benefit from better communication and transparency with parties, like abutters, when it is considering selling a plot of land.

Developers, too, could benefit from better outreach to the people affected by their projects, she said.

Lee Stookey, a District 3 Town Meeting Representative, thinks that one lesson learned was that everyone — herself included — should pay better attention to the Town Meeting agenda items.

Her husband noted that the Town Meeting pre-meetings end up devoted to the budget. He said it would be nice if the organizers set aside time to discuss non-budget items like land sales.

Lee Stookey said the Town Meeting Representatives unanimously, and without discussion, approved the town putting the cemetery land up for sale in 2009.

But, she added, the neighbors will probably be vigilant about the land in the future, and their vigilence will provide a form of protection, despite the Selectboard not legally placing the land into conservation.

According to Lee Stookey, some of the neighbors offered to compensate the couple for some of the money they lost. Although grateful, she said that she and Byron couldn’t accept the offer.

DeGray, who voted in favor of dissolving the sale agreement, said he also supports the town’s right to sell the 246 South Main St. plot to another party — including one who would put it into conservation, he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #90 (Wednesday, March 2, 2011).

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