Project continues to draw heavy opposition
BENNINGTON -- A proposed $5.5 million housing project off Silver Street continues to draw heavy public opposition, mainly from residents in that neighborhood, but also local landlords and politicians.
A group of about 70 people showed up at the Select Board meeting Monday, ahead of a Development Review Board meeting where details about the project will be heard. That meeting is Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at 130 River St., third floor of the Bennington Fire Facility.
The project is being headed up by Shires Housing, a non-profit housing corporation which wants to build 24-rental units on the undeveloped portion of the Appleridge Condominiums. Shires Housing, formerly known as the Regional Affordable Housing Corporation has built units off North Branch Street and refurbished many other existing structures.
The board is involved in the discussion because for Shires Housing to receive a $700,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the town must act as the recipient. The board has agreed to do this, but it can opt to reject the grant should it be awarded.
Shires Housing intends to sell tax credits to make up the rest of the project cost.
To be built, the project, dubbed "Monument View Apartments," would need approval from the Development Review Board, which already approved the site years ago for development by Applejack Real Estate, the current owner of the property. Applejack sought to develop the area into condominiums but only a few were built.
Introducing many of the people who spoke against the project Monday was David Fredrickson, who repeated many points he raised in a guest column printed in the Banner and accused Shires Housing Director John Broderick of blackmailing him.
According to Fredrickson, Planning Director Dan Monks suggested he speak with Broderick about the project in much the same way that had been done with Applejack Real Estate in 2006.
"He said he would be willing to make an written agreement regarding fences, lighting, et cetera, if I would not actively oppose the project," said Fredrickson. "I kind of paused and said, ‘That sounds like blackmail.'"
In an interview, Broderick said that was not how he remembered the conversation. "I recall asking if there was anything we could do to get him not to oppose the development, but it was not blackmail," said Broderick.
Fredrickson said that according to a statement release by board Chairman Greg Van Houten, the board can reject the grant if the project creates "burdensome" conditions. He said the project will unfairly compete with local landlords, increase the tax burden on the schools, harm property values, and increase traffic.
Ken Swierad, chairman of the Bennington School Board, said the schools in the district are full. He said the state is projected to raise the local school tax rate by eight cents, and given that the last budget failed twice there is little room for expansion.
"I don't think it's a good thing for the community to attract another group of people who are going to be a cost," he said.
He said he feels there are people in the community who do not wish to work, or can not pass drug tests to get jobs.
House Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington 2-2, took issue with a number of procedural issues the board had undertaken. She criticized Van Houten for signing his name on the released statement as "Board Chairman," saying it made it look like the statement was from the full board. She asked a number of questions of board members along the lines of if they supported the project given the community backlash.
Two board members oppose the project, John McFadden and Justin Corcoran. McFadden said he found the release insulting, while board member Thomas Jacobs said he was opposed it because he did not think it was strongly worded enough.
The one person who spoke in favor of the project was Amelia Silver, who is on the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board but recused herself when the application was heard. "These are not the low-income housing units you are all thinking about," she said, saying that the people living in these types of places are in the workforce, or elderly. "I probably couldn't afford to live in some of these units."
The meeting had to be adjourned for five minutes because Silver and Morrissey got into an argument. When Silver got up to speak, Morrissey announced that Silver is on the VHCB and took issue with her speaking. Silver began to talk and said Morrissey had told the VHCB that her "husband" David Silver, is on the Shires Housing Board. She then explained her recusal.
David Silver and Amelia Silver are divorced.
Morrissey denied saying anything, and Silver said it had been something she was told from a person she had little reason to doubt.
The meeting was fairly calm after that, with many opponents of the project generating applause.
A few who spoke said they were not in favor of the condominium project to begin with, and said the town had caught "Appleman fever" in 2006, letting the owner of Applejack Real Estate move ahead with a number of projects that were never realized.
Many said they were in favor of Shires Housing's rehabilitation projects, but that this proposed development would drastically change the character of the neighborhood.
"There was a tremendous amount of frustration expressed about a huge range of issues including plant closures, stores that are closing, property taxes, heroin addiction, all over a housing development," said Broderick in an interview. "While there are serious concerns, tonight seemed like a vent session about a lot of important issue."
He said Shires Housing is committed to "being part of the solution and finding a way to improve our community and strengthen our housing stock."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.
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