The rise and fall of a housing boom (10/8/09)

New report outlines development trends

Oct. 8, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

What a difference a decade makes.

In 1998, Williston was coping with a court settlement made a year earlier that cleared the way for the town’s largest subdivision. Classrooms were bulging as school enrollment shot up. Jeff Davis, the developer who brought Wal-Mart to town, was planning more big-box stores.

Flash forward to 2008. Only a handful of new homes were built in Williston. The school district was moving toward closing temporary classrooms amid flat enrollment. Two of the town’s once thriving big-box stores, Linens ‘n Things and Circuit City, were closing, their corporate owners bankrupt.

Ten years ago, Williston hotly debated how to get a grip on all the new residents and businesses moving to Williston. But like a once-wild teenager reaching comfortable middle age, a town that was once one of Vermont’s fastest-growing communities has now settled down.

The recently released annual growth report prepared by Planning Director Ken Belliveau tells the statistical story of changing times and reveals that the former flood of residential development has slowed to a trickle.

During the ’90s, Williston’s population increased by 57 percent, making it the fastest growing town of its size in Vermont, according to Census data. In this decade, the boom went bust with an average annual population increase of just 1.2 percent.

Housing numbers are even starker. In the 2000-2001 fiscal year, the town handed out 114 permits for new housing, according to the report. Only 17 permits were issued in the fiscal year ending this June.

School enrollment followed a similar trajectory. From the mid-’90s to 2003-2004, the town’s K-8 schools added 70 to 90 students each year, the report said. By 2008-2009, K-8 enrollment had fallen below the level it was at five years earlier.

What slowed growth? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Of course, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has dampened demand for housing. Far fewer developers are seeking permits in Williston and elsewhere than they were a few years ago.

Jeff Carr, president of Economic & Policy Resources in Williston and a former member of the village of Essex Junction’s governing board, said in a tough economy, homebuilders may be choosing the path of least resistance, picking towns with less stringent growth controls.

The availability of financing and the economic outlook also play a role in new home construction, Carr said, so growth controls are one of the “cumulative” factors developers consider in deciding when and where to build.

Belliveau theorized that the lack of job creation has stymied demand for new housing. As evidence, he noted that the number of permits issued in recent years has never approached the town’s annual 80-unit limit.

Though the economy is likely a factor, the report’s numbers show that Williston’s growth spurt ended long before the recession started. The slowdown instead roughly tracks the era during which the town stiffened growth controls.

During the last decade, the town imposed the annual quota on new home construction and restricted where and when new residential units could be built. Williston also greatly increased impact fees, which now total more than $12,000 per unit for single-family homes, which developers say are among the highest in Chittenden County.

 The permit gamble

It often takes a project years to make its way through the permitting process, which includes clearing municipal reviews and the state’s Act 250 land-use process.

Joe Sinagra, executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont, said the lengthy and uncertain permitting process is one of the biggest obstacles to new home construction.

“The amount of money you have to invest in a piece of land and the payback for that continues to get longer and longer,” he said. Sometimes, he said, developers never try because winning a permit is too much of a gamble.

Chris Snyder, executive vice president for The Snyder Companies, which built Williston’s largest subdivisions, Brennan Woods and Southridge, said it is nearly impossible to know what the market will be like by the time a permit is approved.

“You can’t really fathom the time it takes to get through the permit process,” he said. “Who would design something today that they will be selling in nine years?”

A primary consideration is whether the developer will recoup costs when homes are finally sold, Snyder said. Costs for land acquisition, engineering, legal advice and permitting all must be paid before a project is completed.

There may be little sympathy for what the general public perceives as deep-pocketed developers. But Sinagra said the public should care about the current lack of home construction, a business he said supplies 20 percent of the state’s jobs.

 From go-go to no go?

Back in 1998, it was a very different situation in Williston. There was a feeling that growth needed to be reined in lest it swamp municipal services and destroy Williston’s character.

“There was a uniform sense among some people that we were growing too fast,” said Ginny Lyons, chairwoman of the Selectboard at the time and now a state senator. “But that’s not to say there wasn’t this other half of town that said we should let people develop their land and do want they want to do. So there was this huge split in town at the time.”

Mike Munson, Williston’s planner from the late ’90s until 2004, said every town department was “feeling the strain” of growth at the time. Though some controls were in place, he said permitting decisions were made on an “ad-hoc basis” that failed to account for the cumulative impact of development.

In the years that followed, the town would tighten rules. The ceiling on annual residential growth was established and later refined to steer development away from rural areas. The town changed the way it doled out sewer capacity, required subdivisions to be built over time, and hiked impact fees to pay for growth-driven infrastructure improvements.

 Future prospects

Though there’s a pronounced lull, residential development hasn’t halted altogether. Units are being built in small subdivisions in and around Williston Village. Belliveau said a permit will soon be issued for the first new apartment building in years, a 31-unit structure in the Hamlet, a subdivision off Vermont 2A.

Another growth spurt could be on the horizon. Finney Crossing, a mixed-use development containing 356 housing units just northeast of Taft Corners, could finally begin construction years after winning a town permit. Snyder, whose company is building the residential portion of the project, said he is hopeful of receiving an Act 250 permit in time to start construction next spring.

The growth report forecasts that growth will quicken in future years because the town’s quality schools and recreational facilities, as well as proximity to jobs and transportation, are bound to attract newcomers.

“Despite the relatively subdued levels of growth and change observed in Williston recently, it is difficult to imagine the current picture will become the new long-term norm,” the report said, later adding, “For all these reasons, it seems likely that Williston will emerge once again as the target of people seeking new development opportunities.”