Affordable housing plan nixed10/16/08

Study: infrastructure too costly

Oct. 16, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Champlain Housing Trust has ruled out — at least for now — construction of affordable single-family homes behind Williston Town Hall.

The Burlington nonprofit recently concluded that high infrastructure costs and a soft housing market make it impractical to build nine homes on the town-owned land.

The homes would easily fit on the parcel, said Amy Demetrowitz, Champlain Housing Trust’s director of real estate development. But the need for a lengthy access road and challenging utility connections made her organization reconsider the proposal, at least until the housing market rebounds.

“It’s a great location for affordable housing,” she said. “But it’s not something we can pursue right now given the cost, given the market.”

Town and state grants funded the study of preliminary plans for the eight-acre site known as the Lyon property. The study looked at infrastructure costs associated with building nine homes, each with 1,200 to 1,300 square feet of interior space. The homes would have had three bedrooms and no garage.

To meet the goal of selling homes for no more than $200,000, the per-unit infrastructure cost should be around $50,000, Demetrowitz said. The study found the per-unit cost for the Williston project would be about $84,000.

Costs were high because water and sewer lines would have to be run from the opposite side of U.S. 2 to the site, she said. The site also required a long access road, further driving up costs.

Much of the site cannot be used because of wetlands, so Demetrowitz said it is not possible to spread out infrastructure expenses by building more units.

The idea of constructing affordable homes on the parcel grew out of efforts by the Williston Interfaith Affordable Housing Task Force. The group formed after several Williston Federated Church members discovered that none of their children could afford to buy a home in town.

Williston’s housing costs are far higher than elsewhere in Chittenden County. The median sale price for single-family homes in town was $320,000 during the first half of 2008, according to the Web site www.housingdata.org. The median sale price in the county for the same period was $238,000.

Members of the task force thought the Lyon property would be an ideal location for affordable housing, partly because it could help school and municipal employees who live in outlying towns where homes are less expensive.

The task force first tried to convince private property owners to donate land. When that effort failed, the task force turned its attention to municipal land.  

Charlie Magill, a member of the group, said he was disappointed by Champlain Housing Trust’s decision not to pursue the project based on the pre-development study. Magill, who is also a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, said his experience with that organization shows that development costs vary wildly when projects are finally put out to bid.

“It seemed premature to just decide that the numbers are cast in concrete,” Magill said.

Costs can sometimes be reduced by altering plans, he said. For example, the access road for the proposed development could have been made narrower.

Magill emphasized, however, that he appreciates Champlain Housing Trust’s efforts to create affordable housing and hopes to continue working with the organization.

The town over the past several years has considered several proposals for the Lyon property, including an agricultural museum and a community center. A report released last year concluded that the site could be a good location for a community center. But it also recommended the town wait for a few years to undertake the project because voters probably would not support more bond debt after approving new fire and police stations.

Demetrowitz said Champlain Housing Trust may still pursue the project when the housing market improves.

“The nice thing about the parcel is that it’s owned by the town,” she said. “It’s not going anywhere.”