NORTH BENNINGTON - A 21-bed elderly care facility, the Prospect Nursing Home in North Bennington operated for the better part of a century before closing its doors in January 2012 because of changes in the health care system. The building has since remained vacant despite interested parties and a signed purchase agreement.
Its owner, Peter Morris, believes that sale was stymied by village officials because of who he would have sold to: Bennington College. The college had expressed interest in the 5,500square-foot building for use as off-campus housing.
"We had a handshake agreement probably within two weeks after we closed (the nursing home)," Morris said earlier this week. A signed purchase and sale agreement came in May 2012. "I would have never guessed there would have been an issue."
A nursing home for some 75 years, Morris purchased the home in 1986 along with the adjacent Watson House assisted-living facility, which remains in operation. But the 18 Prospect St. property was a nonconforming use in the neighborhood zoned residential under current village bylaws, which similarly disallow apartment housing for students.
Morris said he brought a request to the North Bennington Planning Commission last year in August to change that zoning to allow the new use, and, amid a packed audience, the majority expressed concerns but supported the notion. In an emailed followup to that August meeting, Morris said he received a reply from the commission that a change wouldn't be entertained "because it's not in the best interests of the community.
Acknowledging his own concerns with the possible reuse, "I'm a neighbor too," Morris said Tuesday, via the Watson House. "I know there's a legitimate debate; but they never, never debated. ... What I would have liked is for the community to debate the facts."
With a year-and-a-half timespan since the nursing home closed, Morris said there is a better argument today to allow the college proposal. He describes "contempt" on the part of some village officials toward the college that led to the deal never coming together. "It's my absolute belief that's why I didn't get due process."
Matthew Patterson, a member of the Planning Commission and chair of the village Board of Trustees who coincidentally lives nearby on Prospect Street, called that a "manufactured notion."
"He has been informed by officials in the village that he needs to follow along due process," Patterson said, "and that involves putting in a request for a variance with the zoning administrator."
A June 4 letter from Zoning Administrator Daniel Taub, who also sits on the Planning Commission, to Morris explains the procedure for a zoning change. In his letter, Taub stated he would have no recourse but to reject the application for student housing as "such use is outside the scope of uses allowed in a residential district."
The applicant could then appeal to the Development Review Board for a variance, but Taub said that board would similarly be prohibited because of bylaws that state "no new nonconforming use shall be created under the variance provisions."
Alternatively, the Planning Commission could look at revisions to the village's bylaws. Taub said the discussion last August was not on the board's agenda for that meeting. "The Planning Commission has authority to change bylaws," a lengthy process, he said Tuesday, but last year "decided not to take any action."
"The Planning Commission has no direct role in zoning law," Ta u b continued, saying bylaws governed his role as zoning administrator.
Morris said village officials told him to attempt to sell it as zoned, which allows single or multiple family housing. Independent studies by the Regional Affordable H ousing Corporation and seven private developers determined that private apartments were not tenable. In a Nov. 8, 2012, letter to Morris, RAHC Executive Director John Broderick said both senior and family housing "would not be suitable at this time."
Single families that have viewed the large building have also passed.
During a second meeting March 14 with the Planning Committee, Morris said board members appeared willing to allow use of the site as a medical office building. But no buyers came forward for that use either.
In June, Morris sent an open letter to village trustees asking them to allow public hearings on the matter. Speaking with neighbors and other residents, "I feel like the community as a whole would support it," he said.
Meanwhile, the college has stepped back from the proposal. Media Relations Associate Brian Davidson said the college had worked with the property owner and village but the "zoning committee felt it wasn't the best use for the property, so the college has moved on to considering other projects."
The college's offer was in the ballpark of the property's current assessed value, Morris said - $379,300 according to the town of Bennington's 2013 grand list.
For the time being, the former nursing home sits vacant.
Have a large family with 10 children? "I have the house for you," Morris said.