Town residents still upset over housing project, board process
BENNINGTON -- Residents are not happy with the Select Board's support of a grant application by Shires Housing, nor are they pleased with the process that went into voting for it.
Shires Housing wants to build a $5.5 million housing development aimed at working-class families in the area of Silver Street on land the town already approved for a condominium development left incomplete by Applejack Real Estate.
To fund the 24-unit project, Shires Housing has applied for a $700,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. It will make up the rest by selling tax credits to investors. No town money is involved.
The grant requires the town must accept the money on Shires Housing's behalf. The board voted to do this twice already. At the first public hearing, board members, and later members of the public, expressed concerns about not having enough time to mull information presented by Shires Housing Executive Director John Broderick.
A second hearing was held because of a clerical error in the public warning, and it was there that residents of that neighborhood and local landlords expressed their misgivings about the project as well as how the board was handling public comments.
At Monday's board meeting, 30 to 40 people showed up with about half a dozen speaking, telling the board they still have concerns over information Broderick presented. They also were upset they had not been able to get on the board's agenda to discuss their issues.
Board Chairman Greg Van Houten asked those present to inform the board what their issues are so he could determine if it would go on the agenda. He said it was not clear what the public was asking the board to do since the public hearings had been closed and the matter voted on.
This upset a number of people who felt they should not be required to provide extra information.
Van Houten said near the end of the discussion that people are free to bring issues before the board during the public comments section, and that their concerns do not weigh less than an agenda item.
State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, chastised the board for taking information and not giving people enough time to consider it or respond. She said there is a petition being circulated asking that the board do better.
Through a series of questions put to the board by citizens, and responses, both from Van Houten and Town Manager Stuart Hurd, it was made known that there are many questions left unanswered as to the board's legal position should it go back on its agreement to funnel the grant money.
Hurd said he does think the board can reopen the public hearing, but since the board did not follow its normal procedure of taking information at one meeting and making a decision the next, he will have to ask the town's attorney what can be done.
He will also ask if the board can choose not to accept the money when the time comes. Morrissey pressed him for a timeline on when those answers would be forthcoming, and Hurd said not next week but likely before the board's next meeting.
Van Houten said if Shires Housing is awarded the grant, the project will have to go before the town's Development Review Board, which holds hearings of its own where the public can comment. The DRB, he said, determines what impacts a building project will have on a neighborhood and decides on what restrictions are to be placed to mitigate them.
Town Planner Dan Monks said Shires Housing has submitted an application to the town, but since he has not reviewed it and deemed it complete it has not officially been placed on the DRB's July agenda.
In the past, issues against the project have largely been raised by private landlords who feel Shires Housing has an unfair advantage against them by being able to get grant money, and is thus able to offer lower rents. Others have said there is no need for more housing in Bennington, but more jobs. A few residents have also brought up concerns about traffic.
According to Broderick, who was not at Monday's meeting, the project will be limited to those with incomes of between $25,000 and $36,000. Those numbers are based on percentages of the current federal median income for this area.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.
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