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Heath looks to convert development from elderly to workforce housing

August 25, 2009
ALTON — Just over a year after he received approval from the planning board for an elderly housing development on Route 140, Ryan Heath appeared before the board again last week with a proposal to convert the project to workforce housing.

Explaining during the board's Aug. 18 meeting that her client hoped to amend the existing site plan for the development, attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, who represents Heath, said he felt the conversion to workforce housing was a logical step given the economic downturn over the past year and the passage in July of RSA 674 (the new state statute mandating that communities provide reasonable accommodations for work force housing within their zoning ordinances).

Providing the board with background information on the statute, Guldbrandsen explained that it originated with a 1985 Supreme Court case in which the town of Chester was ordered to permit the construction of a multi-family housing development.

In its ruling on that case, she said, the Supreme Court stated that Chester's zoning ordinance was invalid because it did not allow for the construction of affordable housing.

In light of the fact that Alton has not established a formal set of criteria for workforce housing, Guldbrandsen suggested that the elderly housing section of the town's zoning ordinance be adopted as the "reasonable standard."

Noting that the structural components of the site plan (such as the driveway and the footprints of the buildings) had not changed, she said the only significant change would be the addition of a second floor to the apartment buildings, each of which would house five units.

Town Planner Sharon Penney provided the members of the board with a list of the conditions placed on the approval of the elderly housing project that she felt would be helpful in guiding them through their review of the amended site plan.

Asked by selectmen's representative Dave Hussey whether she and Heath felt ready to respond to the concerns outlined in Penney's memo, Guldbrandsen said she did feel comfortable responding, but was frustrated that she had not been made aware of Penney's concerns until the day before the meeting, when she claimed to have received the memo.

Board member Tom Hoopes commented that as he understood it, RSA 674 allowed for reasonable accommodations to be judged on a regional basis, meaning that each individual town within a given area is not obligated to adopt workforce housing standards as long as a sufficient amount of housing is available nearby.

Stating that he felt workforce housing would be "desirable" for the local community, Hoopes clarified, for the benefit of the audience, that the term "workforce housing" does not mean "poor housing."

In order to qualify for the type of housing depicted in Heath's proposal, he said, renters would have to make two thirds of the county-wide median income, which currently stands at around $67,000.

Providing background information on the project itself, Heath explained that it was first presented to the board in February of last year as a 57-unit elderly housing complex.

In response to abutters' concerns about the density of use depicted on the original plan, he said, one of the residential buildings (each of which was designed to house four units) and a proposed community center were removed, reducing the number of units to 53.

During the state permitting process that followed the board's final approval of the site plan last year, he said, two more residential buildings were removed in order to make room for storm water treatment swales, reducing the total number of units to 45.

The amended site plan Heath presented last week for the workforce housing development depicted the same number of residential buildings (11) with a second floor added to each building in order to increase the total number of units to 55 (56, counting the house that currently sits on the property).

By adding a second story to each building and reducing the size of the apartments, Heath felt that he would be able to make construction of the facility more cost-effective, and the units therefore more affordable.

Responding to Hoopes' concerns about the validity of his alteration of terrain permit given the change of use, Heath said he had discussed his plans with officials at the Department of Environmental Services who felt that it would not be necessary for him to apply for a new permit since he would be disturbing the same amount of land.

Addressing the concerns outlined in Penney's memo, Guldbrandsen explained that the residential units would be two-bedroom apartments measuring 1,344 square feet.

With regard to possible phasing of the project, she said that although it will "realistically" have to be completed in phases due to the current state of the economy, Heath had not mapped out a formal plan.

Heath added that he has already secured funding for the first phase of construction, which he said will include the infrastructure and two of the apartment buildings.

On the issue of parking, Guldbrandsen said that although the original site plan for the elderly housing development called for 1.5 spaces per unit, there would be ample room available for Heath to add an additional space for each apartment.

The configuration of the driveway would remain the same, she said, explaining that it would accommodate two-way traffic at the entrance to the development, then loop around in a one-way cul-de-sac.

There would be no change in the visual buffering requested by the board in order to screen the development from view along Route 140, she said.

Asked whether the town's engineer would have oversight on the site plan, Guldbrandsen said she and Heath had met with him, and felt that they were all "on the same wavelength."

Abutters react

Ruth Messier, who lives across the road from what she described as "this monstrosity [Heath] wants to put up," asked how many students the project could potentially add to Alton's school system.

A similar project in Laconia, she said, has already attracted more families with school-age children than the developer anticipated.

Messier also asked whether Heath planned to apply for federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or stimulus funding, adding that different rules apply to each of those funding sources.

Board Chairman Bill Curtin said it sounded to him like Heath planned to solicit private funding for the project, which would place less restrictions on his management of the property.

Asked by Messier to confirm whether or not there would be an age restriction attached to the project, Hoopes re-iterated that the only restriction on workforce housing is the economic one mandating that renters make two-thirds of the county-wide median income (in this case, $44,000 a year).

"I'm as opposed to this as I was to the other one," Messier said, adding that she was deeply concerned about its potential impact on the school system, particularly in light of the fact that a recent study showed Alton to be the only town in the region whose school-age population has increased in recent years.

Randy Glines, whose property abuts the proposed site of the development, said he was also opposed to the project, and felt that the board had made contradictory statements about its obligations under RSA 674.

Under the new statute, Glines said, the board has the right to decide, based on the local availability of affordable housing, whether or not the town needs a development like the one proposed by Heath, and is not required to "rubber stamp" any project that comes forward.

It is then up to the developer to demonstrate the need for the project in court, he added.

When the board approved the elderly housing proposal last year, Glines recalled three of its members voicing concerns that it did not fit in with the rural character of the community, and voting in favor of it despite their misgivings.

"I can't express how disappointed I was," he said, adding that he felt the change of use and the change in the number of units merited a new site plan review application and a new round of hearings under the revised elderly housing regulations adopted by voters earlier this year.

Approval of the amended site plan presented to the board that evening, he said, would be a "discredit" to abutters and nearby property owners.

While he agreed with Glines' understanding of RSA 674, Hoopes felt there would be a risk involved in the decision to reject Heath's application.

While board members "try to do the best thing we can for the town" based on their own knowledge of local and statewide regulations, he explained, none of them are legal experts.

Historically, he added, petitioners have won the "vast majority" of workforce housing cases that made it to court.

Penney stated for the record that the planning office had run the new proposal by Town Attorney James Sessler, who felt that it did not warrant a new application.

Glines' wife, Elaine, asked how many people the proposed development could potentially hold, voicing concerns about the additional traffic flow on Route 140 and about whether school buses would be able to enter the driveway, or would have to stop in front of the development, at the crest of a blind hill.

She and her husband, she said, were also concerned about the idea of children crossing onto their heavily-wooded property.

Heath explained that the apartments would have to be rented according to "reasonable" standards (for example, he said, he would not be permitted to rent a two-bedroom apartment to a family with six children).

Elaine replied that she had grown up in a family of 10 children who shared a limited number of bedrooms.

"I know what can be done, and it is done," she said, adding that she had seen "quite a bit" of low-cost housing available in Alton.

Hoopes explained that the type of housing proposed by Heath would be geared toward nurses, teachers, and other young professionals who cannot yet afford their own homes.

"These are people who are already a part of the community," he said.

"So are we," Elaine replied, adding that she felt the development would negatively affect abutters' property values.

Abutter Glen Niewola asked what sort of stationary noise the proposed development would produce.

Noting that the average soccer game produces 110 decibels of noise, he commented that multiple games could be going on within the development at any one time.

Heath said he did not feel qualified to answer Niewola's question.

Niewola also voiced his concern that the development could potentially "double" the traffic flow on that particular stretch of Route 140.

Stating that he was confused by what he saw as a rush on the board's part to rubber-stamp the amended site plan, even in the face of significant changes, Bob Bergeron echoed Glines' opinion that Heath's application should be re-submitted as a new site plan.

The site plan approved last year for the elderly housing development, he said, "just has nothing to do with the new changes it's not the same project."

Describing Heath's amended plan as something that would "drastically change the rural character of the community it's in," an issue that he said was a major concern for the board when it approved the elderly housing proposal, Bergeron suggested that the board let the case go to court if necessary, and leave the burden on Heath to prove that a workforce housing development is needed in Alton.

"Where's something like this in Alton?" he asked, adding that he felt it was "a stretch" to call Alton a "bedroom community" for young professionals given its distance from any major urban areas.

Responding to comments made by Hoopes (who tried to explain that Heath would be restricted by law in terms of who he could rent to), Bergeron said he had grown up in North Cambridge, Mass., and had first-hand experience with housing projects.

"I know what I'm talking about when I say what it's going to bring in," he said.

Urging the board once again to reject the amended site plan and direct Heath to submit a new application, Bergeron said he felt that the town brought in enough tax revenue from himself and his neighbors each year to make the risk of a court case worthwhile.

"Dig down, grow some, and do what's the right thing for the people," he said.

Town engineering consultant Peter Julia said that while he hadn't seen the site plan since before the elderly housing complex was approved, he felt that the change of use would have an impact on the flow of traffic in the area.

After learning from Heath that the plan was last viewed by DES officials in April, Julia stated that the regulations governing alteration of terrain permits were "completely re-vamped" in July.

Due to those changes and the proposed change of use at the site, he said, Heath will have to re-submit his application for an alteration permit.

The additional state permitting, he said, should provide an added layer of protection for abutters.

Bergeron's wife, Virginia, asked whether Heath had any plans for recreational facilities for children in order to keep abutters from finding "unwanted company" on their property.

Bergeron himself then approached the board a second time, asking whether there were any density requirements written into the town's zoning ordinance or into RSA 674 that could be brought to bear on the project, and questioning why the board would have no input on aspects such as recreation facilities for children.

Hoopes explained that RSA 674 was written in such a way as to ensure housing that is "as affordable as possible," which sometimes means higher-density developments.

Responding to Bergeron's comments about what he saw as the board's reluctance to challenge Heath's proposal, Hoopes assured him that board members do the best they can with the knowledge they have.

With many of them never having seen an application for a workforce housing project before last week, however, "there is a learning curve for everyone involved," he said.

Zoning regulations, he added, cannot be changed mid-stream to suit the wishes of abutters, and can only be changed by a majority ballot vote during the annual town election.

Planning secretary Stacy Ames informed Bergeron that Heath's proposed development was "well within" the density requirements outlined in the zoning ordinance (under which he would be permitted to put as many as 15 buildings on the property).

In response to the comments regarding recreation facilities, Heath commented that the abutters requesting them were some of the same people who forced him into the decision to drop the community center from the elderly housing proposal.

On a motion from Curtin (who felt that the board needed time to process the information presented by Heath and the abutters), the board voted unanimously to continue the hearing on Heath's application to its next monthly business meeting, which has been scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

Martin Lord Osman
Coos County Commissioners
Tilton School
Town & Country
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