Fixing an unsustainable situation

Fixing an unsustainable situation

Tri-Park Housing Cooperative moves forward with a master plan and capital improvements — and finding $4 million to make it all happen

BRATTLEBORO — Planners behind a master plan for one of the town's largest affordable housing organizations hope to gather enough funding to move units out of the flood plain and complete multiple capital projects.

According to Tri-Park Cooperative Housing Corporation's 2020 Master Plan, efforts are beginning to identify funding for more than $4 million to implement recommendations that include moving vulnerable homes from potential floodwaters, necessary upgrades to water and sewer infrastructure, and work on two bridges.

Three weeks ago, members of the Tri-Park board of directors discussed with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) the cooperative's request for earmarked federal funding for capital improvement projects.

This money, if appropriated, would fund relocating the organization's maintenance building to make room for 16 homes.

At the April 20 Selectboard meeting, where the board heard an update on the project, Fire Chief Len Howard said that from a public safety standpoint, it is crucial to get people out of the flood plain.

With its 318 units in Mountain Home Park, Glen Park, and Black Mountain Park, Tri-Park is considered the largest mobile home park community in the state. Mountain Home houses nearly 7 percent of the town's population.

Many of Tri-Park's cooperative members are elderly or qualify as low-income, Fillion explained. The units are in demand, and there is a wait list.

In a memo to the Selectboard and in a presentation at the board's April 20 meeting, Planning Director Sue Fillion said an agreement with the state to move homes out of the flood plain several years ago triggered the creation of the master plan.

Fillion said that many of Tri-Park's older homes predate the federal flood maps. Moreover, subsequent studies have shown that the flood plain, which includes a portion of Mountain Home Park and all of Glen Park, is wider and deeper than initially thought.

Mountain Home Park started as a private development in 1965, Fillion said. Early on, flooding was an issue at Mountain Home and nearby Glen Park.

The parks also predated the municipality's subdivision regulations, Fillion said. Therefore, the road network and sewer systems don't comply with town regulations, which she said was “a necessary condition for the Town to assume ownership and operation.”

'Grave public health risk' led to an agreement

In the 1980s, residents formed a cooperative - the first of its kind in the state - and purchased all three parks from their original developer, Donald Record.

By 2007, the subpar water and sewer infrastructure at Mountain Home Park posed a “grave public health risk,” said Fillion, and the town and Tri-Park struck an agreement to finance new water and sewer infrastructure and connect it to the existing municipal system.

At the time, the town backed bonds totaling $5.8 million. Tri-Park has been repaying the town since.

“In the case of default by Tri-Park, [the town] becomes responsible for paying any remaining balance,” Fillion wrote in an April 13 memo. “The continued viability of Tri-Park as a business entity is critical for the retirement of this infrastructure expense.”

Before creating the development agreement, Tri-Park and the town sought the assistance of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, according to Fillion.

Part of the development agreement that came out of the process included the identification of units at risk of flooding and plans to relocate them to safer turf. At Mountain Home, 42 homes have yet to be removed; Fillion said additional homes have been tagged at Glen Street as well.

Developing a master plan

Using grant funds from the Vermont Community Development Program, the town of Brattleboro, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, engineering consulting firm Dubois & King created the master plan with the efforts of Chris Sargent, the firm's planning manager, and Isaac Wagner of Wagner Development Partners. Wagner, of Brattleboro, was formerly the director of housing development for Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

The process started in 2017, and the final plan was submitted in February.

According to the plan's financial analysis, Tri-Park's financial situation “can be best described as tenuous.” Of the organization's $1,032,742 operating budget, more than half is debt “derived from the purchase of the park and its continued operation,” Fillion wrote.

She noted that Tri-Park's board has already completed extensive financial work such as altering the rent structure, increasing lot rents, and “practicing sound budgeting.”

Despite this work, the cooperative's income inches only a little higher than what it pays on its debt. According to Fillion, the organization can't take on any more.

Furthermore, she wrote, “Replacement reserves are inadequate to cover the known capital expenses.”

At the meeting, Fillion added that most of Tri-Park's reserves were used to repair flood damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

The cooperative has increased lot rents since 2011, but given the organization's goal to serve families living with low incomes, the rents can only go so high before becoming unaffordable, Fillion said. She added that stipulations in the cooperative's bylaws also limit the amount of year-over-year increases.

The master plan identified spaces where additional units could be placed elsewhere in the parks, but it's unlikely to be enough space for all 42 units.

Removing too many units would distribute fixed costs to fewer remaining owners, tightening Tri-Park's financial belt further.

Through the planning process, the engineering company identified water and sewer needs on Glen Street and Black Mountain Road, which serve Glen Park and Black Mountain Park respectively. These parks operate private water and sewer systems that connect to the town's infrastructure.

“Both systems are in poor condition and in need of replacement,” wrote Fillion.

The Master Plan also identified that the Detman Drive bridge at Mountain Home needed repairs, and the Winding Hill Bridge must be replaced.

“Tri-Park will need grants and primary loan refinancing in order to implement the [master] plan,” wrote Fillion. “They are unable to take on more debt at this time.”

Finding a 'balanced approach'

The planning team examined three scenarios for moving forward with the capital improvement projects.

The most feasible, called the “balanced approach,” entails balancing Tri-Park's financial needs and constraints against the cooperative's agreement with the town to remove the 42 units.

“This scenario will require a lot of public financing to work,” she said.

Under this scenario, 25 homes would be relocated, creating a net loss of 17 homes.

It includes sewer upgrades at Black Mountain Road and Glen Park, demolition of the maintenance garage, and site development.

The idea of purchasing more property to accommodate the move of more units was quickly ruled out, Fillion said.

“Any site that was not under the existing ownership of the cooperative was just going to be too expensive to develop,” she said.

The good news with this approach is that the cooperative can make the plan happen without further debt, Fillion said.

The work will happen in three phases: predevelopment, design, and construction.

Fillion said that currently, the project is in predevelopment, a first phase primarily devoted to funding and finalizing a housing relocation plan.

“Many residents may not want to leave; many may not be able to afford a new home or the increased taxes that come with a newer home,” cautioned Fillion. “It is anticipated that case management will be needed to work with the residents to identify their needs and options.”

So far, Tri-Park has received up to $50,000 from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to hire a project manager and begin implementing the master plan.

The town has applied for $30,000 from the Vermont Community Development Program to fund planning of the sewer system infrastructure.

Board members said they would consider using some of the federal funds coming to the town through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), if the project qualifies.

Fillion told the Selectboard that implementing Tri-Park's master plan would serve the cooperative's members and the community.

“The human element is huge” with this project, she said.

Selectboard member Tim Wessel said it's important for the town to take care of people.

It's critical “that people without a lot of money also get supported by taxpayers and the town,” he said.

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