Putney permits housing project; opponents plan to appeal
A rendering of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust’s proposed housing project in Putney.

Putney permits housing project; opponents plan to appeal

As it urges landowners not to sell for affordable housing but to a new nonprofit that pledges to keep the space open, a group of ‘residents and friends’ charges that the town did not address concerns

PUTNEY — While Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) has received a local zoning permit from the town to move forward and build a 25-unit affordable housing complex on Alice Holway Drive adjacent to the Putney Community Gardens, opponents are appealing the decision.

The permit, issued by the Putney Development Review Board (DRB) on March 9, allows the land to be subdivided into two parcels. The southern parcel is dedicated to the new housing community with two energy-efficient, all-electric buildings with a rooftop solar array. The northern portion is dedicated to preserve the established community gardens and summer farmers' market.

The subdivision “creates the opportunity of independent ownership by the Green Commons of Vermont, a group comprised of Community Garden and farmers' market members,” reads a WWHT press release, referring to the potential for Green Commons to buy the garden plot from WWHT.

“We're thrilled to be at this important milestone,” said Elizabeth Bridgewater, WWHT executive director. “This is the culmination of 2{1/2} years of planning and collaboration on our part with community members and the Green Commons group.”

“We are also delighted to help implement a key component of Putney's town plan to increase housing opportunities in a way that preserves cherished community resources such as the community garden and farmer's market,” she said.

Zoning Administrator Karen Astley stated the WWHT application met zoning and subdivision regulation criteria for the village district.

According to the town plan, affordable housing was the biggest concern of Putney residents who attended a town outreach meeting.

The parcel lies within the town's Designated Neighborhood Development Area, a planning tool to “discourage sprawl in favor of compact growth patterns that support vital communities while protecting the rural landscape and agricultural and forest economy surrounding the downtown area.”

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, also chair of the town's Affordable Housing Committee, supported the plan.

“Our schools need students - and there is plenty of room - our businesses need patrons, and our village needs housing,” he said. “Best of all, what is being proposed is a Smart Growth approach, which is designed to reduce sprawl and create walkable communities by building near transportation and shops.”

He characterized it as “a sustainable path to the future, if you will, that includes both housing and conservation.”

Nevertheless, 157 people have already signed a petition urging the owners, Jeff Shumlin and Marcia Leader of Putney Gateway Associates, to reconsider the WWHT offer and allow the land to remain open space.

Now they are appealing the DRB decision and have 30 days from its March 9 issuance to do so.

Not in favor

“We, the interested parties, are appealing the permit that the Development Review Board issued, despite our concerns and the lack of access to the meeting room,” said Elizabeth Warner, neighbor and signer of the petition to allow an alternative purchase of the land by Earthseed Commons Org (ECO) to preserve it as a garden, market, and town park.

“Many people could not get in, and that was stated to Pip Bannister,” she said, referring to DRB Chair Philip “Pip” Bannister and a Feb. 15 second public hearing regarding the permit application held via Zoom with several technical issues. “He passed over questions and simply ignored us.”

“There are many reasons to appeal this permit issued by the DRB,” Warner said.

Warner and other project opponents contend that, in his remarks, Mrowicki - a member of the town Affordable Housing Committee - misrepresented the WWHT project as having the explicit endorsement of 350.org.

On Dec. 13, 2021, the committee welcomed Becky Jones, John Woodland, and Julia Cavicchi, members of the Brattleboro leadership team of 350.org, an environmental advocacy group launched by Vermont activist, author, and scholar Bill McKibben.

The trio talked about “village housing as climate action,” according to the meeting's agenda, and Mrowicki confirmed on Tuesday that the WWHT project was described as aligned with the values of McKibben's group - by reducing sprawl and creating walkable villages - without intending to endorse it per se.

“My public service has been, and will be, helping give voice to those who aren't being heard - in this case, those experiencing a housing shortage that has grown to crisis proportions,” Mrowicki said.

Warner also described “the overall shortsightedness of placing a 37-bedroom facility at the 'gateway of the town' where the only remaining green space is and where there is potential for so much more to benefit the entire community.”

“We believe this proposed project will be detrimental to the aesthetic, economic vibrancy, and overall safety of the town,” said Warner. “We ask that alternative sites and alternative types of affordable housing be identified and developed, with alternative developers.”

One alternative: a newly formed nonprofit

Earthseed Commons Org (ECO) was incorporated in Vermont as a nonprofit in response to the potential loss of what many see as the gateway property to town and a community green space.

Supporters mounted a petition and wrote to Shumlin and Leader, urging them to reconsider selling land to the WWHT as that organization's sixth location in town and instead accept ECO's offer to buy the tract and retain it as open space.

The nearly 4-acre site historically was part of Gov. George Aiken's wildflower nursery. Since 2010, the northern portion of the parcel has been home to the Putney Farmers' Market and the Putney Community Garden.

WWHT had two meetings with the Putney Development Review Board, the last of which was the second public hearing on Feb. 15. The board had 45 days from that date to make a decision.

“What isn't clear is if Gateway Associates will share in that vision for Putney, and if they do, whether they can extricate the property from the pending Evernorth/WWHT sale,” said petitioner Vanessa Vadim before the permit was granted.

She refers to joint ownership of the project by the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust and partner Evernorth, a nonprofit housing development company based in Burlington.

If Green Commons of Vermont is unable to purchase the entire property, “ECO will work with the town and relevant organizations in the creation of a resilient and sustainable village center, small farm-, homestead- and artisan-economy opportunities, strong foundations for food security, and establishment of a public park,” reads the letter to owners signed by “friends and residents of Putney.”

If able to buy the Gateway property, ECO has pledged to:

• Protect the land from extensive structural development in perpetuity

• Protect in perpetuity the community garden and allow for its expansion as needed

• Establish a permanent farmers' market

• Provide opportunities for environmental education, economic resilience, and community-building through shared public space, venue for events, and after-school and outdoor activities

• Create opportunities for free and affordable housing by partnering with home builders to make sliding-scale, sweat-equity, small and mobile homes. By providing space and resources for organizations working in this field, ECO said the organization “aims to strengthen access to truly affordable housing that is also adaptable to climate emergencies and job markets.”

• Protect and rebuild the Putney Meadows garden to better serve aging and disabled residents

• Expand the community garden to supply, and engage garden stewards to serve, the Putney Foodshelf.

“The desire for a thriving farmer and artist market and community park and gathering space won't disappear with this property, but it really is the best option for that space,” Vadim said. “A town without a welcoming center, without access to food security, small agricultural and arts enterprises, a park and open public gathering space is not one that attracts new residents or keeps old ones.

“ECO's vision is to grow our town in sustainable, smart and resilient ways that create an appealing and vibrant community. That includes multitudes of housing options - ones that don't destroy a town in order to grow it - and that serve all residents,” she adds.

“Affordable housing must be a piece of that puzzle, but that doesn't mean we should rush into the wrong project in the wrong place,” Vadim continues, pointing out the economic vitality and contributions of farmers' markets as “a proven investment and a smart step in reinvigorating an economy and community.”

While WWHT has said the garden will remain intact and potentially sold to Green Commons, the petitioners speculate that the farmers' market and community garden will be negatively impacted by building housing on site and “may not manage to survive in any meaningful way.”

WWHT speaks to opponents' concerns

Bridgewater has said that, contrary to the opponents' narrative, the WWHT project addresses the challenges of affordable housing while preserving green space.

“As we started to consider possible site designs, we were committed to a vision that preserved these important community resources, to offer opportunities to develop collaborative programming,” she said prior to the permit being issued.

“I most look forward to identifying resources around nutrition, food cultivation, and land stewarding,” she continued. “Food insecurity has been highlighted as a true concern during the pandemic. It's exciting to think about how households who previously paid over half their income to housing could now use that freed income to invest in healthy food available just steps away.”

Bridgewater said the site is “ideal” for housing.

“It is within walking distance to the village, and food resources are virtually onsite. It is already on town water and sewer and is consistent with development patterns called out in Putney's town plan,” she said, referring to a town visioning process that concluded that the site would be “ideal for housing.”

She said she and her colleagues “feel very proud of the process we went through to arrive at our design.”

“We engaged the community gardens and farmers' market folks before we even had site control and committed to working on a common vision for the site,” she said.

“We incorporated their feedback into our design process every step of the way. The soil conditions became a significant factor in the design, yet we kept our commitment to not displace the gardens and farmers' market.”

Bridgewater maintains that the design incorporates sidewalks extending to the property line headed toward the Co-op and that the WWHT is working with the Development Review Board (DRB) and the Vermont Agency of Transportation to make a sidewalk to the Route 5 intersection.

She cites a November 2021 traffic study that showed “virtually no impact to the traffic in the area.” Opponents object that much of this study was not done on-site but rather via industry-standard calculations, based on traffic patterns of similarly sized towns.

Still, said Bridgewater, “the direct quote from the traffic engineer was 'the number of trips projected for the project is small and no significant impacts from the project are anticipated' and 'the number of trips generated by this project at the driveway are well below the threshold required to do a full traffic impact study based on the VTrans guidelines. If those trips were distributed onto the road network, the number of trips at any one location would be even less.'”

Addressing issues of drugs and crime in WWHT properties - with claims that the problems have reached the point where elderly residents live in fear - Bridgewater has pointed out that those issues are not unique to WWHT properties.

Two recent projects - the Chalet in West Brattleboro and Great River Terrace on Putney Road - have converted motel space into small apartments designed to house vulnerable populations and provide on-site support systems.

“We're excited that the new Putney project will have a space for our staff to increase their presence in Putney and meet with residents onsite,” said Bridgewater, calling the opioid epidemic and the link of drugs and crime “a challenging issue that affects all of us.”

Bridgewater said a new team has been holding rotating office hours throughout its facilities.

“Being onsite and more visible is a great way to build relationships with residents in our apartments and build a sense of community,” she said.

“We also routinely work with law enforcement to provide information that may be helpful in their efforts to interrupt and stop drug trafficking in our communities,” Bridgewater added. “Finally, we have a strict no drug trafficking policy on our properties and we enforce this when appropriate.”

Other resident concerns

The issue of building affordable housing on the site has been contentious from the start.

Opponents claim that salient issues include lack of clarity as to the real cost to taxpayers, traffic concerns, lack of a site-specific traffic study, lack of compliance with the original deed to the Aiken Nurseries property that stated “no undue adverse affects on aesthetics and scenic beauty” would be permitted, alleged misrepresentation of project support, alleged conflicts of interest, potential storm water runoff issues, concerns about criminal activities, and a lack of storage space in the building design.

“We feel that the roads are not safe for the extra traffic this facility will add to them. The plan shows a driveway coming out in a curve and the only way to leave is to make a left turn crossing on-coming traffic,” said neighbor Deborah Lazar, adding, “I just keep hearing that Joni Mitchell song [“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”]. We can do better.”

Julie Winchester, co-owner with her husband Greg of Rod's Towing and Repairs across the road from the site, said she and her husband are “certainly opposed to it.” The garage is also not far from Putney Landing, an 18-unit complex that opened in 2018 and is administered by the WWHT after being developed with a number of other entities.

Winchester said that she has asked town officials to talk with people in Brattleboro who have experienced living near similar WWHT properties.

Rod's is in the process of rebuilding from what is believed to have been an arson fire in October 2021.

“Our concerns include that we had this fire and we went before the town and we have yet to find out who did it. We don't even have a police officer in our town after 10 o'clock at night,” she said.

“The traffic flow is going to be an issue,” said Winchester, who also described frustrations with tenants of other WWHT properties whose vehicles have been towed.

Too often, Winchester said, customers are “not picking up the vehicles because they're not running vehicles, they're using them for storage.”

Winchester said her business towed a vehicle and “two people came to pick it up and they went right back to where it had been towed from - and WWHT called us to tow it again.”

“I just think it's going to bring a lot to this community that we are not set up to handle,” she said, adding she sent a letter noting changes she'd seen before the fire, incidents of vandalism. “Things have changed right here already.”

At the Feb. 28 Affordable Housing Committee meeting, Warner also spoke up, saying she has friends who have been on the WWHT home ownership waiting list for “a very long time.”

She's been pushing the town to look at alternative housing options and home ownership that is not small apartments but predicated on other models, like co-housing.

“I think we're being shortsighted in moving forward with another facility similar to what we already have,” Warner said at that meeting. “And that we should be really looking hard at a whole housing model or something entirely different.”

“Right now we're not doing well with the housing options in this town,” she said. “At every meeting I've gone to there's someone saying teachers can't get housing, workers can't get housing; we're not housing the people who actually live in Putney.”

“We're not even offering seniors the opportunity to sell their homes and move into housing because we're not building what they need,” she said.

Explaining the floor plan of each unit in detail, Bridgewater refuted the claim of no storage.

“Basically we put a closet in any dead space area we could,” she said. “There are several closets in every unit at Putney Landing including linen closets, coat closets, and bedroom closets.”

“The assertion that there is no storage is simply not true,” she said.

What “is true” is that WWHT wait lists “are quite long, which is tangible evidence of the need for more housing in every community,” she acknowledged.

“I know from interactions with other landlords, there are virtually no apartments available anywhere and everyone is feeling the impact because it doesn't allow for the natural movement within the housing system,” Bridgewater said.

As a result, “when older folks want to downsize, there is nowhere to go because nothing is available,” she continued. “When young families want a bigger apartment, it's hard to find something. When someone new wants to move into the community, it's hard to find something.”

Bridgewater said this is also frustrating efforts to house Afghan families living at SIT.

“We're in a full-blown housing crisis so these new apartments in Putney are going to make a big difference in creating new housing opportunities in a fantastic location,” she said.

Regarding the question of teachers renting from WWHT, Bridgewater said “yes.”

“In fact, most teacher salaries would enable them to qualify to live in our homes,” she said.

Regarding the assertion of project critics who claim that WWHT wouldn't rent to Putney people, Bridgewater said, “Yes, we do.”

“It's true that fair housing guidelines do not allow us to rent exclusively to Putney residents, but any Putney resident can apply for any of our homes,” she said.

Bridgewater added that when the apartments are ready for occupancy, “we will be reaching out extensively in Putney to ensure folks know how to apply.”

She also said that residents at Putney Landing include retired older folks, young families, and some single people.

“We haven't heard any recent complaints from residents about drug activity,” she said.

“Our community engagement team is actively working with residents on building community and is planning a new community garden there for this growing season,” she said.

Bridgewater added that the team “is eager to start exploring how residents may want to connect with one another and with others in Putney.”

She pointed out the plans for “a shared community and kitchen space in our building design and the many resources within walking distance of the neighborhood [that] will make this a beautiful place to live.”

The WWHT said the property will contribute to the town's bottom line by paying annual taxes and that home affordability will be “protected in perpetuity, ensuring that local families and retired elders will have long-term housing security.”

Still smoldering concerns

“There's a lot of straw man/gaslighting going on that makes any discussion of the best options for this particular property difficult, but I'm not hearing anyone expressing real concern for existing and potential WWHT residents,” said Vadim.

“They already have five addresses in Putney - a town without jobs for existing, let alone additional, residents, without effective transportation, without affordable food options, without after-school or high school options, without dedicated police, with aging fire and highway equipment that we can barely figure out how to pay for,” she added.

“How does a sixth WWHT address benefit WWHT tenants?” Vadim continued, alleging that the nonprofit has “a terrible reputation for not managing or investing in their existing tenants.”

She added to the list of objections, citing concerns that a single corporate entity would hold a near monopoly of rental units with risk and instability for tenants, mismanagement and lack of attention and resources provided to the already existing WWHT addresses, lack of town resources to address safety concerns, strain on existing services and infrastructure, lack of adequate parking, lack of services and transportation to support tenants, distrust, existing and potential conflicts of interest and legal vulnerabilities that might arise for the town, cost to the town and domino effects on housing, and “relegating Putney to being little more than a satellite unit of Brattleboro.”

Vadim notes that by law, WWHT cannot prioritize those already living or working in Putney as tenants and asks how does that actually address Putney's affordable housing needs?

“An affordable housing project that drives other vulnerable people out of their existing homes is shortsighted and not an effective means of addressing our very real housing needs,” she said.

In their letter, opponents of the housing project believe a “positive outcome” would be for WWHT to allow Green Commons of Vermont and/or Earthseed Commons Org to buy the property, “to start paying more attention to their existing tenants, help [ensure that] sidewalks are created so that their Putney Landing tenants aren't stuck walking the highway exit shoulder in the dark with babies and toddlers in tow, and that Putney finds an alternative builder/management option to create more affordable and mix-use housing.”

Two sites that they suggested as alternatives include the Putney Inn near Exit 4 and the Basketville building in the center of town. But neither site is completely vacant and available for adaptation to apartments.

Although the adjacent restaurant has been closed for several years, the Putney Inn is still operational. Similarly, the Basketville retail operation closed in 2019 but it maintains corporate office space in the building at 8 Bellows Falls Rd. The building is also home to Oak Meadow School and Putney Mountain Winery and Spirits.

In their letter urging owners Shumlin and Leader to reconsider the sale, the “concerned citizens” expressed hope that the property owners “share in the vision of a strong community, resilient economic opportunities, and food-secure future for Putney, and will be willing to extend your many years of generosity toward the town to seeing this new venture come to fruition.”

“The heart of Putney is in your hands,” they said.

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