Op/Ed

Editorial: Exciting news, needed changes

ANGELO LYNN

News that Middlebury College has purchased 35 acres in the heart of Middlebury’s residential area to turn into 100 units of affordable housing is exciting and most welcome. For the past decade area home prices have been on the rise and within the past few years they’ve become beyond the reach of most middleclass income earners.

When starter homes are $300,000 and above, if not more, and even those require some repair, you’ve a big problem. And Middlebury has one.

Nor is there a good or quick solution. Local economics work against what could be affordable: labor is scarce, material costs are high, housing stock is scant, demand is through the roof. The market, in short, is good for sellers and tough on buyers.

Leadership at Middlebury College, working with the town, did what private developers hadn’t been able to do with this one 35-acre parcel that is seemingly ideal for residential development — reach a deal with the landowner to create housing for an estimated 250-350 people. That’s huge. Estimated as a $40 million project when completed, it will be a game-changer for many families — and for the businesses and local enterprises that employ those income-earners.

The college’s role in the development is as the intermediary. It was able to purchase the land for $1.5 million, and will in turn sell it in pieces to Summit Properties, a South Burlington developer who will sell some units and rent others. Construction is expected to begin this summer and occur over the next five to six years. (See story on Page 1A.)

That the college was able, and willing, to play such a substantial role is wonderful, but town residents and leadership should also question why it took the college’s intervention to do what the market should do on its own.

We have long looked at this ideally situated parcel, which has been for sale for quite a while, and wondered why a private developer didn’t snap it up and reap the profits. The answers are complex, some of which are noted above in basic economics — but that’s not the whole picture. Area developers we’ve talked with have said profits aren’t guaranteed, blaming some of it on high costs and tight labor, but also on town regulators and regulations that are difficult to work with.

Whether the latter is just criticism or not is difficult to determine, but it’s definitely a widely held belief among area builders. Sticky town regulations and stickier regulators add dollars, and time, and unexpected issues — all reasons for builders to look elsewhere when deciding what projects to build where; and because there are so many other options, it’s easy to choose elsewhere.

Those issues should be the easiest to address. It’s not rocket science. What’s needed is a leadership team willing to admit the problem and make the changes needed.

The town is currently undergoing a revision to its town plan that should make higher-density development in the town’s core more possible. That’s essential. So are ideas like mother-in-law apartments, apartments over garages, and other measures that can help homeowners make the cost of building more affordable by driving extra revenue to the homeowner.

And because the economics of supply and demand are working against first-time buyers, town leaders need to be proactive, to make things happen through changes and even subsidies, if needed. Much of the development over the past decade in St. Albans has been prompted by town leadership taking proactive measures to spark growth in its downtown, including buying real estate and renting it out to retail businesses. That may be extreme for Middlebury, but just the prospect of taking that type of initiative is an indication of how passive Middlebury has been for far too long.

In short, if the town is to thrive, someone has to drive that initiative. And if it’s not town leadership, then who? The college can’t always be expected to step in with its magic wand.

As for those who worry about too much growth, get real. We have ample road, water, sewer and school capacity. What Middlebury needs is more young families, more youthful activities, more liveliness, more visible energy, more — in a word — pizzazz. Once there’s a traffic slowdown in the downtown at 7 p.m., let alone 9 p.m., then we can start to worry about too much growth — but trust us, that’ll be a while.

Angelo Lynn

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