Putney can thrive with new residents, businesses, energy

To make the difference between a bedroom hamlet and a real rural downtown, we need more working families in the village. The proposed WWHT affordable housing project can bring positive change, but NIMBY-ism is right back at center stage.

PUTNEY — Running the Putney General Store has taught me that we are a small community that cares about each other - especially in the village.

The diverse community in the village is made up of people who support and care for one another in ways that the larger town can't. Historically, the kindness and generosity in the village has embraced all kinds of people, including those who need help and those who can give it.

It saddens me to see this breaking down now over opposition to the affordable housing project proposed for Alice Holway Drive. Despite the approval by the Development Review Board (DRB) for this project, there is already an appeal to that decision and a petition full of alarmism and disinformation circulating trying to undermine it.

I am writing not only to express my strong support for the project, but also because I am concerned that some candidates who are running for Selectboard seats may be motivated by their opposition to this issue.

I look forward to hearing them speak for themselves at the candidate forum on Sunday, April 10 at 6 p.m. via Zoom, but I want to explain why I think this should be a concern for the town.

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This is about the future of Putney Village. In recent years, more people, including young families, have moved into the village, and this makes the town richer.

However, even with the influx of new residents, the business community in the village continues to struggle.

As a former business owner in downtown Putney, I saw that village residents were the core customer base that supported local businesses. We enjoyed patronage from a variety of people during the high seasons, but during the low seasons the village community kept us afloat.

These days, more and more Putney residents drive right through downtown without stopping. The town has the capacity to invite more people to live downtown and restore activity and vibrancy to the businesses that serve the whole town.

Increasing the number of people living downtown represents a change. Change does not go over very well in this town. But in order to make the difference between a bedroom hamlet and a real rural downtown, we need a transformation of the village that saves businesses and gathering places.

We have a few wonderful anchor businesses and organizations, but they need more people and more density to thrive. We need the working families that the proposed housing project would bring to town.

When our businesses and organizations are strong, so is the rest of the town. So are our many schools, our recreational opportunities, our ability to accommodate tourists and travelers.

Putney should welcome new residents, new businesses, and new energy if we want to thrive - as a community and as a state. How many people opposed to this housing project were once newcomers to town?

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Opposition to affordable housing is not new here. Fifteen years ago, the town opposed the Basketville housing project, which got very ugly and put Putney on the statewide map as a town that rejects the concept.

Despite the experience of that failed project, the developer, Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT), was willing to come back to this town and to help address the very real need for housing with other projects.

And yet, here we are again, cementing our town's statewide reputation. We are the Vermont capital of “I support affordable housing but....” There is a level of not-in-my-backyard-ism (NIMBY-ism) here that is unworthy of Putney.

This proposed project - exactly like the two successful projects WWHT has brought to Putney in recent years and like the Basketville project 15 years ago - meets all the town plan goals and aspirations. WWHT has answered every question raised by the DRB and the town, has invested in many professional studies and re-designs to do so, and has offered a way to protect and preserve the community garden and market green space.

And yet here we are - again. NIMBY-ism is right back at center stage. It's still ugly, and I am ashamed of my town once again.

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We still have many people who work in Putney but can't afford to live in this town. They are teachers, artists, people who take care of our buildings and roads, who provide administrative support, who work in the industries and stores as clerks, operators, managers, and supervisors.

This project would increase opportunities for them to be a part of the community. It also gives a wonderful opportunity for Green Commons of Vermont to finally own the community garden and secure this resource for the future.

Expanding housing opportunities for working people is incredibly expensive, and WWHT has done an amazing job putting together the many funding pieces and partnerships that support it.

They are the main developer of housing in this region because they have the capacity and skill to make complex projects a reality. They are the main landlord of workforce housing because they make sure the projects are successful in the long term by managing their properties and working closely with their tenants.

As a historic preservation consultant, I have worked with affordable-housing organizations all over Vermont, and WWHT is one of the best in the state. Once again, we are lucky they are still willing to work in Putney to help address a housing need that persists here.

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I have invested a great deal of my time over the last two decades in efforts to revitalize the village downtown. I believe in it.

But I have learned that - despite the best efforts of community organizations creating opportunities like Next Stage and a reconstructed G-store - the only way to really have a richer, more vibrant village is by having more people downtown to support these enterprises.

Many people remember the center of Putney as a great little downtown. I believe the way to bring this back is to transform the village and make it a place where more people are actually living, working, shopping, gathering, and recreating.

I urge Putney to be its best self and embrace change gracefully. Look past disinformation. Attend the candidate forum and vote for candidates who support the future of Putney.

I, for one, will not be voting for anyone wielding a pitchfork.

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