Town Hall land could host affordable housing

Homes may fill need for entry-level workers

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Affordable housing advocates want to build homes behind Williston Town Hall that can be purchased by people now priced out of the market.

The Burlington-based Champlain Housing Trust and the Williston Interfaith Affordable Housing Task Force seek to construct as many as 20 units on the town-owned property. The groups hope the town will donate land for the project.

Members of the groups spoke with the Selectboard last week about the proposal for the 8-acre parcel called the Lyon property. The Champlain Housing Trust seeks grants to fund a study of the site, but the town must be the grant applicant.

The groups “have concluded that the town-owned Lyon property may offer a suitable location to create new and permanently affordable homes that could be sold to town employees, as a priority, and to others who live, work or have grown up in Williston but cannot afford to purchase a home here,” wrote Liz Curry, project developer for the Champlain Housing Trust, in a letter to the town.

Ruth Painter, a member of the Williston Interfaith Affordable Housing Task Force, said the goal is to build single-family homes priced between $160,000 and $180,000. That would be roughly half what the average Williston home sold for in 2006.

“We want to have houses in town that will be affordable for people with entry-level jobs,” Painter said. “We don’t just want to have a town for people who are wealthy.”

The proposal would have to navigate an extensive planning and approval process, so it is too soon to determine the precise number and price of the homes, Curry said in an interview.

The prices would in part depend on how many homes can be built at the site, as determined by the study. Curry said the project would include both market-rate and lower-priced homes.

Painter said some of the homes could be reserved for town employees, particularly firefighters, police officers and teachers earning entry-level salaries. That would create a “win-win” situation for the town, she said, providing nearby homes for municipal workers and potentially reducing employee turnover.

Starter homes are in increasingly short supply in Williston. Though prices recently leveled off, home values have seen annual double-digit percentage increases over the past several years.

Jan Lawson, a veteran real estate agent who works for RE/MAX North Professionals, said recent Multiple Listing Service data indicate homes in Williston sold for an average of $353,000 in 2006. The Web site shows the median sale price for single-family homes in town was $306,000 in 2005, still out of reach for many.

“There’s an awful lot of people who have lived in Williston for a long time who wouldn’t be able to afford the house they live in now,” Lawson said.

The Williston Interfaith Affordable Housing Task Force grew out of a small group formed at Williston Federation Church a few years ago. During monthly discussions, group members learned that none of their children could afford a home in Williston, Painter said.

The group set out to change that. Group member George Gerecke sent out letters to each property owner with more than 10 acres asking them to donate, or offer at a reduced price, land where affordable homes could be built.

There were some responses, but nothing concrete came of the effort. Then the group looked at town-owned land and found the Lyon property.

Over the years, the town has considered several proposals for the land, including an agricultural museum. Most recently, residents suggested a community center be built at the location.

A group has been formed to study that proposal. Town Manager Rick McGuire said the study is still in its early stages and the group has yet to determine if a community center should be built, let alone its location.

But even if a community center is built at the site, he said it would not preclude affordable housing.

“This use is not inconsistent with what the housing group has proposed,” McGuire said. “They might even complement each other.”

He said no matter what happens, a study will be helpful because it will allow the town to find out how much of the land can be developed.

Curry said Williston residents will have ample opportunity to learn more about and comment on the affordable housing proposal. If the project is deemed feasible, it would be subject to the town’s development review process.

A public hearing on the proposal will be held Monday, March 12 at Williston Town Hall. The hearing begins at 8 p.m.