PUTNEY — An appeal of the decision by the Putney Development Review Board to approve the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) application to build a subdivision of 25 affordable housing units on Alice Holway Drive land has been denied by Vermont Superior Court's Environmental Division, spurring disappointment in opponents and giving the WWHT a green light to proceed after a 30-day waiting period.
“We were pleased to have received word that the appeal of WWHT's zoning permit for the creation of a new housing community on Alice Holway Drive in Putney was resolved,” says WWHT Executive Director Elizabeth Bridgewater.
“The Environmental Court Division found that our application was consistent with the town's zoning bylaws and that the other issues raised by the appellant were either not in the jurisdiction of the court or lacked enough merit to take the case to trial,” she adds. “The appeal was resolved by a summary judgment on all concerns raised by the appellant.”
In his decision of the appeal, filed last summer, Judge Thomas G. Walsh concluded the project “complies with the relevant PRD [project requirement document], conditional use, and site plan standards.”
“In reaching this conclusion we conclude that the Project: complies with applicable lot size and density requirements; complies with the Town Plan; will not adversely affect traffic in the area, and a traffic study is not required for the Project; will not adversely affect public health and safety; complies with parking standards; is not in a Flood Hazard Area; and complies with height standards.
“We further dismissed the remaining Questions before the Court as outside the scope of this Court's subject matter jurisdiction,” Walsh wrote.
Disappointed but hopeful still
The relatively newly formed grassroots organization Friends of Putney issued a statement from its board of directors following the decision.
“Friends of Putney, Inc. [...] is committed to using its resources for protecting and preserving the green, open space along the first half-mile of Route 5 in the village - 'the gateway to Putney' - for the benefit of its citizens, gardens, farmers market and visitors,” it reads. “We are committed to supporting the existing creative sector, including the Putney Craft Tour participants as well as other creative arts endeavors. We see an opportunity to support the creative sector, with cultural and ecological heritage tourism which will benefit the local economy.
“We fully support community-driven housing and accessibility solutions that reduce embodied construction carbon using local resources for housing development projects while considering Putney's most vulnerable residents, with Putney's diverse ecosystems, which are intertwined. We support the development of affordable housing in Putney and surrounding towns including public housing, alternative housing, and pathways to home ownership.”
Friends' Development Director Elizabeth Warner calls the environmental court decision “a blow to my core,” but says she remains “hopeful” that community members will still find “a logical, thoughtful resolution.”
“Perhaps the original design with smaller buildings, senior housing, or an option for shared-equity home ownership might prevail,” Warner says. “When abutters signed off on the removal of covenants on the land, I'm sure they were stunned by the change in design just six days later. We already have 44 units of WWHT 'affordable housing units.' We have more units of affordable housing for a town of our size [than others] in the state.
“As this beautiful, open, and precious agricultural land is 'the Gateway' to our village and the last open green space in the village, why not create a multi-use green space, expand the gardens and farmers' market, and support the entire community?
“The property will be privately owned and not for the community. The proposed project […] will forever alter the character of the land.”
She says that tenants of WWHT have posted on Facebook site about how disappointed they are with this decision.
“People are afraid that all units of affordable housing being controlled by one giant corporation is not in the best interest of tenants,” says Warner. “Many alternative locations for housing have been identified and many units are already being built. The character of our town and our identity is literally being dictated by an affordable housing organization that is growing exponentially and seemingly has limited accountability.”
Some comments on social media express fears that illegal activity, including drug dealing, an over-abundance of out-of-state renters, some with criminal records, lack of consistent property upkeep, and harassment of long-time, elderly tenants could result if the project goes forward.
Warner and the Friends group says they hope that during the 30-day waiting period, WWHT's purchase-and-sale agreement with current landowner Putney Gateway Associates, general partners of which are Jeff Shumlin and Marcia Leader, both of Putney, will be postponed.
They hope such a postponement will allow the community, through the Vermont Council of Rural Development (VCRD) visioning program now underway, to generate “a comprehensive smart growth plan that provides balance and community input for increasing our tax basis through village revitalization, and for our much needed infrastructure to be supported through more home ownership and increased business /tourism dollars, not on the backs of our already strapped families.”
Friends of Putney “will continue to support the appeal process, as recommended by the attorney,” says Warner. “An appeal of this decision has yet to be filed; however, there are 30 days in which the decision can be appealed, which will open up more opportunities for community engagement for alternative housing options and a comprehensive plan for smarter growth in the future.”
The group has also questioned the legality of the DRB's initial decision. That's because the makeup of the board, voted on by the Selectboard, has fluctuated over the years, yet not all paperwork has been located to prove the appointments were legally made. And that raised a question of whether a quorum was present when the WWHT permit was voted.
VCRD action item includes creating new, affordable housing
Meanwhile, VCRD representatives have met with residents several times this winter and issued a report, “Our Future Putney: Community Visit Report and Action Plan,” on Feb. 21.
In it, residents who attended the initial meetings have prioritized three areas for future action: to revitalize Putney's downtown, develop a community center, and develop housing solutions.
“Many residents see a need for more affordable, safe, and quality housing for seniors and people of all ages and income levels,” the report says. “A task force could come together to develop housing solutions that meet the needs and character of the Putney community.
“The group could work with regional and state partners and experts to assess current needs and explore options, including new development, co-housing models, multi-generational housing, a Community Trust, and more.
“Additionally, the group could focus on a review of zoning and other regulations to improve housing development opportunities and identify any infrastructure needs there may be to support housing solutions,” the report says.
Favorable decision, at a price
Bridgewater says that WWHT has been in touch with the nonprofit group Green Commons, whose members hope to “create a public space where all members of the community can gather and organizations can use the property,” including eventual construction of a pavilion for use by the farmers' market use, especially in winter, and for the community at other times.
Representatives of the organization “have indicated they are excited to move forward and have identified some funding sources to purchase the subdivided lot,” Bridgewater says.
However, during the time spent awaiting an environmental court decision, the cost of building materials and other construction expenses have continued to rise.
“While the impact of the effort to appeal our permit has not diminished our commitment to this project, the delay in the timing has had an impact in the cost of the project,” says Bridgewater.
“Overall, the total project cost is 14% higher than it was a year ago, with significant increases in the cost of construction, interest rates, and legal fees,” she notes. “The unfortunate impact on the community is that these funds could have been redirected to create more housing throughout Vermont.
“Putney has a tremendous need for additional rental housing that people can afford. While WWHT only owns 12% of the rental homes there, available data indicates that of the 303 rental units in Putney, 90 households (or 30% of renters) are paying more than 50% of their incomes in rent.”
Bridgewater described those housing costs as “well beyond what is considered affordable and puts significant pressure on families who are experiencing escalating food prices, fuel, and other household expenses.”
Bridgewater says the new community, co-developed by WWHT and Evernorth, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing and community investments in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is still planned to provide homes for 25 households.
Rents, she says, “will be set to meet the needs of a variety of household incomes.”
“The buildings will operate at a high level of energy efficiency and residents will have easy access to public transportation, green space, and the incredible amenities Putney has to offer, most within walking distance,” Bridgewater says.
“This is the benefit of building within downtown areas and the village setting in smart growth patterns,” she says of the project, whose plans have not changed since they were submitted to the zoning review board in 2022.
“We continue to maintain our commitment to preserving the Putney Community Gardens and Farmers' Market and building a new community of well-designed, affordable, and energy-efficient homes on the site,” she says.
“With partial funding in place and the remaining funding applications completed, we are hopeful that we will be able to break ground in spring 2024 and welcome new residents in early summer 2025,” Bridgewater says.