April 24th, 2014
By Stephanie Choate
A long-planned and often contentious development project may be moving forward again after the Selectboard decided this week to settle with the developers instead of going to environmental court in July.
The project, a joint effort between Dana and Brenda Hood and Jeff Atwood which dates back to 2008, received final site plan approval last April to build eight units on North Williston Road, seven of which would be perpetually affordable. But Hood told the Observer last summer that multiple factors combined to make seven affordable units financially unfeasible.
Last June, the Williston Development Review Board denied a request to reduce the project’s affordable housing units from seven to three.
Hood and Atwood appealed the decision to Environmental Court last August, and the case was scheduled for trial in July.
According to a statement by the Selectboard, read at the April 21 meeting and provided to the Observer by Town Manager Rick McGuire, the board cited legal costs of going to trial—which, McGuire said would likely run into the thousands of dollars—and its desire to work toward the goal of “increasing both the diversity and affordability of housing” among its reasons for the settlement.
The settlement allows the change from seven to three units of affordable housing—two units affordable at 100 percent or less of the median area income, and one affordable at 80 percent or less. Other conditions of approval imposed by the DRB would remain in place.
The statement pointed out that the developers would have earned the same number of points in the growth management process if they had proposed three affordable units as they received with seven. Developers compete for building allocation through a point system known as growth management, and earn points for things like affordable housing.
“Reducing the number of affordable units does not impact the footprint, project, the appearance, density, setbacks or any other conditions of approval imposed by the DRB beyond the initial value of four of the homes to be built,” the statement reads.
Most neighbors, though, have opposed the project. Several neighbors urged the board against a settlement at its April 7 meeting and in letters submitted to the board.
“If the DRB made a decision and you folks could potentially just throw that in the garbage and start again, I don’t think it’s very fair,” resident Briant Hamrell said.
Thirty-two neighbors signed a document submitted to the board, outlining their reasons for urging against a settlement. They cited bylaw 126.96.36.199, which states, “all representations made by the applicant on the growth management questionnaire are binding.”
The document also warned against setting a precedent that could allow other projects to renege on affordability promises made during the earlier phases of projects.
“The issue we are dealing with today is so legally clear that we do not understand why the Selectboard is considering ignoring their DRB, ignoring the law, ignoring their own letter to the DRB, and capitulating to litigious applicants,” the document states.
In a separate letter, resident Mary Jo Childs wrote, “I believe that, aside from the fact that the Selectboard would be overriding the intent of the town plan by caving in to the pressure of this developer, that in so doing, the long-term goal of creating more affordable housing in Williston would be severely compromised.”
Much of the neighbor’s opposition to the project is based on the density of the proposed units, which would not have been allowed under the town’s current bylaws.
“The concerns raised by adjoining property owners regarding the density this project brings to the area and setbacks are important concerns but are unrelated to the issue of how many units are affordable versus market rate,” the Selectboard’s statement reads.