Vt. Supreme Court rejects challenge to Putney housing

Campbell says she will take her appeal against the proposed affordable housing plan at Alice Holway Drive to the full panel of five judges

PUTNEY — A three-judge panel of the Vermont Supreme Court has rejected the latest appeal by opponents of a proposed affordable housing community on Alice Holway Drive in Putney, but despite a new construction start date of spring 2024, appellant Laura Campbell says she will take steps to request a re-argument of the appeal in front of the full court.

The July 21 ruling by the state's highest court affirms the Environmental Court's decision earlier this year to reject an appeal to the project's zoning permit.

It marks the latest chapter of a 16-month legal process that began in March 2022, when an appeal was filed contesting the building permit. That halted all work on the 25-unit, mixed-income development.

"We are grateful to the Vermont Supreme Court for supporting affordable housing and reinforcing the importance of the town of Putney's vision to provide diverse housing opportunities to its community," said Elizabeth Bridgewater, Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) executive director.

"This is the second ruling upholding our permit and the town's zoning and planning process and we're excited to focus on moving forward with developing much-needed affordable housing," she said.

On behalf of the WWHT, Bridgewater offered thanks to members of the community "who again and again voice their excitement for this project and their understanding of the importance of creating homes that are permanently affordable and held in the community land trust model."

Why the challenge?

Campbell says she filed the appeal to the Environmental Court division of Vermont Superior Court on March 21–22, 2022 "in regard to the Putney [Development] Review Board's (DRB) and Selectboard's approval of WWHT's Dec. 14, 2021 application to build a 25-unit housing development on 0.91 acres south of Putney Community Garden."

Campbell says that prior to approval of WWHT's application, a Feb. 15, 2022 hybrid hearing was held and "limited to 100 attendees on Zoom."

Many people could not access the Zoom after the 100-person cutoff and Town Hall was very crowded, discouraging those attending in person, she says.

Campbell says "few questions were heard or answered," and alleges that "those from women were dismissed with a promise to get back to the questions later on."

"'Later on' never came," she says.

Following the meeting, in a letter sent to Town Manager Karen Astley, DRB Chair Phillip Bannister, and WWHT Director of Housing Development Peter Paggi, "I enumerated omissions, discrepancies, misrepresentations, and contradictions in the WWHT Narrative Master Plan, Exhibit 3," Campbell says, referencing the component of the WWHT's zoning permit application, submitted in 2021.

In her reading, that document "accurately sets forth the 2.76 acre minimum requirement for a 25-unit development on page 2," yet revealed on page 1 that their 25-unit development would occupy 0.91 acres, "a mere {1/3} of that minimum required."

Another example, she says, was WWHT's "startling" characterization of lots on opposite sides of Carol Brown Way as "'contiguous,' when they touch at no point; rather, the lots are separated by a busy thoroughfare owned and maintained by the town of Putney."

"It was clear to me that calculations to achieve adequate acreage for their project could succeed only by counting the undevelopable 2.02 acres across what is already a dangerous roadway," Campbell says. "The plan, as I see it, is a setup for unlimited adverse affects."

In describing the history of the case, the Supreme Court recounted the Environmental Court's decision, which "concluded that the project lots need not be contiguous, and the fact that a road bisected two of the lots was not fatal. It granted summary judgment to WWHT on this and related issues, and ultimately entered a judgment order in WWHT's favor."

The decision goes on to note the recent appeal followed and that the "neighbor [Campbell] essentially reiterates the same arguments on appeal."

In Campbell's view, the three-justice panel that ruled to reject her appeal without merit on July 21 "failed to address both the matter of insufficient acreage [density] and the lack of contiguity by definition."

Now, she says, she plans to move for a "re-argument" in front of a full panel of five justices.

She expressed support for Friends of Putney, a nonprofit that on its website describes itself as "committed to using its resources for protecting and preserving the green, open space along the first {1/2} mile of Route 5 in the village - 'the gateway to Putney' - for the benefit of its citizens, gardens, farmers market, and visitors."

"Although being the appellant on a still-active case precludes my membership in Friends of Putney for the time being, their mission is precious to me," Campbell says. "Making community-oriented, eco-friendly, and welcoming uses of the 0.91 acres south of the Community Garden, as well as the 2.02 acres which has been assessed as 'undevelopable' on the other side of Alice Holway drive, is a shared purpose."

Campbell says that access to all, wheelchair-friendly pathways, shade trees and native plants, spots to sit down and socialize, a pavilion or timber-frame gazebo for outdoor events, and history of Putney reference plaques are all needed to bring the green space fully to life.

She says to start, all that's needed is to "mow the fields a few times a year so kids can throw Frisbees and play there, adults can bring a chair and read or converse, and the Community Gardens and Farmers' Market can expand."

Support for WWHT

Despite the protests of some neighbors to the proposed housing project, state elected officials have stepped up with support for the project.

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, says he is "glad to see the Supreme Court affirm the original decision in Environmental Court that the proposal is sound and the process followed the letter of the law."

The housing is "also greatly needed, now more than ever," said Mrowicki, who has been a member of the Putney Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. That committee is dormant as it awaits a new charge from the Selectboard, he says.

"All housing will help take pressure off the statewide, county, and town need for housing of all sorts," he says. "And I'm glad WWHT has committed to working together with the Putney Farmers' Market and Community Garden to preserve those spaces."

Mrowicki says when WWHT first showed interest in the property, he arranged a meeting among them and representatives of the two organizations to ask the prospective buyers to commit to keeping those spaces open for these community activities, "even though they had no legal obligation to."

"To their credit, they agreed, and the Farmers' Market and Community Garden can now start fundraising to buy that land and WWHT will hold onto it until they can raise the funds to buy," he says. "A win-win-win situation."

Mrowicki says that in Vermont, the Legislature created the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) 30 years ago "to be the funnel for housing funds from federal, state, and private sources."

That board, he says, then relies on the statewide system of nonprofit housing trusts "that have developed track records of making sure funds are used effectively and efficiently."

"Their oversight makes sure monies don't go to fly-by-night operators with no track record of success in development," Mrowicki says.

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust is the local part of that statewide system, he says, working on VHCB's mission to provide housing and conserve land, such as the hundreds of acres conserved locally through the Putney Mountain Association and Pinnacle/Windmill Hill Association.

"This will help address what was a critical need a few years ago and has evolved into a crisis that threatens to stagnate our economy and inhibit employers from hiring new staff," Mrowicki says. "Staff that are critical to address the workforce crisis left over from Covid with many retiring and many parents with young children unable to get childcare. This project will help, especially for people starting out."

The legislator says the project also adds an option to the current limited housing landscape.

"When my wife and I first came to Putney, we started in a mobile home/trailer with the plan to buy some land and build," he says. "There were options like that then - especially if you could swing a hammer - including financing through the Farmers' Home [Administration's] Rural Housing [Service] program. There aren't as many options now. And housing costs have risen exponentially."

State Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, also supports the project, charging that "some people in Putney have been downright nasty and NIMBY ["not in my backyard"] to the highest degree."

"I'm pleased to learn that WWHT will be able to move forward on the new housing project after a long period of delays," she says. "We need more housing in many different forms in our communities."

She described mixed-income housing, like what is proposed for Putney, as "a valuable model and one that will benefit individuals and businesses."

"There are not enough places for people to live and, without residences close to work, our businesses can't operate well and serve the public, either," Bos-Lun said. "More housing is beneficial for everyone."

Time equals money

According to Bridgewater, the delay in timing caused by the lengthy appeals process has increased the cost of the project by 14%, from $10.3 million to $11.7 million.

Despite the increase, the proposal has received funding from both state and federal sources, including Vermont Housing Finance Agency's Tax Credit Allocation, leveraging public-private-partnership funding.

WWHT is working in partnership with Burlington-based Evernorth on the Putney development, "tapping into Evernorth's decades of experience and access to private equity funds." The two organizations have a successful history together in Putney, having co-developed new townhouses on Neumann Lane as well as the historic Noyes House.

"This is a victory for the 25 households who will be able to move into their new homes in Putney," says Kathy Beyer, Evernorth's senior vice president for real estate development. "We look forward to starting construction in early 2024."

The Alice Holway Drive development is planned as two new buildings providing 25 mixed-income, highly energy-efficient, and accessible apartments in Putney village.

The development is to provide community space for residents and has been designed not to impact existing community gardens and the Putney Farmers' Market.

The proposed community, says WWHT, "meets smart-growth principles by creating more homes in the designated neighborhood development area, is immediately accessible to public transportation, connects with the walkable infrastructure of the town, and preserves the cherished community garden and farmers' market, while also providing homes at an accessible rent."

For more information and updates about Alice Holway Drive, visit WWHT's web page on the project at

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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