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City building project has focus on seniors

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — A major and long-awaited Vergennes project on a 12-acre parcel off Monkton Road that would include 25 senior housing units, a childcare center and 24 affordable single-family condominiums is beginning to wind its way through the city permit process.

The developers of the project — the first phase of which would be a 25,000-square-foot, $5.8-million elderly housing complex that would provide a community center and services as well 25 living units — are Addison County Community Trust, Housing Vermont Inc. of Burlington, Habitat for Humanity and Mary Johnson Children’s Center of Middlebury.

The site is accessed from the north side of Monkton Road by Armory Lane, and lies directly west of American Legion Post 14. Housing Vermont bought the land several years ago, and the project has been on the drawing boards since.

It has now almost completed a site plan review before the Vergennes Development Review Board, and Zoning Administrator and Interim City Manager Mel Hawley said a public hearing could be called as early as December.

Hawley said a hearing could have been called in November, but developers wanted to clarify the elderly housing “density bonus” the area’s Medium Density Residential zoning allows.

That zoning allows more units per acre than otherwise permitted if a project exclusively offers elderly housing. In Hawley’s opinion, that means the elderly housing component may need to be separated from the other parts of the larger Planned Unit Development (PUD).

“It’s my opinion to qualify for the bonus, the senior housing complex needs to sit on its own 4 acres ... so that it is not part of a PUD,” he said.

Hawley said the board could have a different interpretation, and a DRB discussion scheduled in November will focus at least in part on that issue.

Hawley said that other issues that have been discussed in the site plan review phase have focused on pedestrian access within the project — from the project to Monkton Road, with a separate sidewalk being suggested, and from the project to the Shaw’s plaza; drainage; and the size and location of retention ponds have also been looked at.

Hawley and other city officials agree there is a need for elderly housing. Hawley said he understands there is already a waiting list, and Mayor Michael Daniels said on Tuesday that he and other aldermen support the concept.

Housing Vermont Vice President Ken Sassorossi said the $5.8 million cost of elderly housing phase includes everything: land purchase, design and engineering, permits, landscaping and construction.

The complex will include 20 one-bedroom and five two-bedroom units, community dining and meeting facilities, shared garden space, and a medical room, Sassorossi said.

Project funding sources include:

• A little more than $3.4 million of the funding from the sale of Low Income Housing Tax Credits.

• $1.12 million from a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) loan developers hope to earn this year or next.

• A $470,000 Vermont Housing and Conservation Board loan.

• A $300,000 loan from another HUD program.

• $126,000 in Vermont tax credits.

• $325,000 in a Vermont Community Development Program block grant.

If all the grants, loans and permits fall into place perfectly, Sassorossi said ground could be broken on the senior center this coming spring, with completion about a year later.

If the HUD loan does not come through in this round — and he said officials know competition for them is fierce — the timetable is less certain.

Mary Johnson Children’s Center officials are handling the funding and design of the childcare center, Sassorossi said, which is expected to be the second phase on the ground. The two-dozen condos will be 12 duplexes of 1,500 square feet each, each with two bedrooms and two baths.

Sassorossi said they will be intended to be affordable for families with between 80 and 120 percent of median incomes. At present, he said, that would mean incomes falling a range of $45,500 to $68,000 for a family of three. Their construction is not imminent.

“It’s a couple years away,” he said. “We hope the markets are all corrected by then.”

COUNCIL GRANT ISSUE

Aldermen may have a say on one component of the funding, the community development block grant. They are on record, despite their support for elderly housing, as refusing to endorse any block grant applications as long as affordable or elderly housing units may be taxed at a lower rate that privately owned property.

A Vermont law passed in recent years allows affordable and elderly housing to be taxed based on their cash flow, not on their cost to build. That approach, because most renters pay less than market value, produces a lower assessment and less taxes to host communities. Aldermen believe that the tax burden should be shared on a wider basis, not unlike the current use program that helps protect farm and forest land.

Aldermen on Oct. 23, 2007, passed a resolution to that effect, and have declined to change that position since. On Tuesday Addison County Community Trust Executive Director Terry McKnight met with them to talk about the $325,000 block grant that the project developers are seeking as part of the funding for the elderly housing component.

Aldermen favored the project, but not the law.

“I encourage the elderly housing,” said Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau. “But Vergennes is really only 2,800 people ... It seems like were already doing more than our share.”

McKnight suggested that Housing Vermont and ACCT could agree to pay taxes at a higher rate, as they have done elsewhere.

“A binding agreement to assess the property can be entered into,” McKnight said.

But Deputy Mayor Randy Ouellette said that such agreements might be difficult to enforce down the road.

“Good will and good intentions pave the road to hell,” Ouellette said. “You might agree to this, but a future board might come along (and not).”

But McKnight said he was confident that the sides could write an “enforceable agreement that will be there when people change,” and he also pledged to work with aldermen to lobby to have the law changed.

Alderman David Austin said he and McKnight had discussed the issue, and that Austin thought that aldermen should consider such an agreement.

“It lends a lot of credibility to our position when you have someone in the business agree with us,” Austin said. “If they can come to the table and say this is what we’re willing to pay, and help us change the law, we ought to at least hear what he has to say.”

McKnight offered to bring a proposal to the council’s Oct. 28 meeting, and ultimately aldermen agreed unanimously to accept that offer.

“We need more affordable housing ... but we need to know they’re paying their fair share,” said Alderwoman Diane Lanphear said. “I would think something could be worked out.”

Lanphear, who recently attended a Vermont League of Cities and Towns meeting on the council’s behalf, also said the VLCT planned a major effort to change the assessment law.

Outside the meeting, McKnight said the sides should be able to reach an agreement that could duplicate the tax revenue the city would receive from a project assessed without the income approach.

“We pay about the same in taxes (elsewhere) ... I think we can,” McKnight said.

If no deal can be reached with the city and the block grant is lost, the project would probably not be halted, however.

“We can probably fund the project without the grant ... if push comes to shove,” McKnight said. “But you can make a better building with that kind of money.”

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