Affordable Housing Helps Create a Sustainable Community

We at Sustainable Woodstock are very pleased by the news that construction may begin this year on the affordable housing project at Westview Meadow (formerly called Grange Hill) in West Woodstock. After a legal struggle of many years was finally resolved by the Vermont Supreme Court, we can now get to work building a more welcoming, diverse and vibrant community.

To summarize a very long story: A group of concerned citizens formed the nonprofit Woodstock Community Trust in the mid-1980s, at first attempting to purchase East End property to promote local business development over the introduction of a chain drug store. The group, eventually led by Patsy Highberg, Mimi Baird and Jim Pierce, then turned its attention to the need for affordable housing.

In 2004, Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission published a study of potential sites for affordable housing which recommended the Grange Hill location. The community responded positively. According to Rev. Daniel Jantos, “several community evenings of meals and discussions about the need for housing, the implications, and so on were organized.  They were well attended and represented a broad coalition of people from the town and area.”

An organization called Interfaith Housing, involving all the churches in town, promoted the project. The planning group brought in experienced partners, such as Housing Vermont to help with financing and Twin Pines Housing Trust to manage the development.

Then, as often happens with developments that introduce significant change into a community, neighboring landowners started to raise objections. They expressed fears about property values, environmental and scenic damage, flooding and other concerns. In order for the project to be affordable it required a density of housing that is unusual in our area, and this was threatening.

The planning group modified the project design several times to accommodate these worries, but the development became embroiled in an ongoing, costly legal battle. Some organizers quit and the Interfaith Housing group dissolved, but Highberg, Baird and Pierce persevered and ultimately succeeded.

From the viewpoint of sustainability, a major land development like this should receive careful scrutiny to minimize or eliminate negative impacts. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves what kind of community we want to create together. A town whose population is aging, or one struggling to support healthy local businesses and strong public schools, needs to welcome young families, young entrepreneurs, and people who provide vital but not highly paid skills and services (such as teachers, public safety personnel, restaurant and retail workers). When housing is priced out of their reach, a community can stagnate.

In a changing world where the global economy and ecosystem are becoming unpredictable, we need to build inclusive, diverse communities where we can thrive on our differences and support each other. As ecology shows, a fixed and closed system is not resilient. And resilience is what we are going to need most in the years ahead.

The East Central Vermont Sustainability Consortium recognizes affordable housing as one of the critical needs in our region and has produced an eye-opening report explaining why we ought to devote attention and resources to this issue. Its vision statement calls for a “diverse mix of housing options that support the economy and contribute to our sense of community.” (See it here.)

Woodstock’s town plan draft also recognizes this need, acknowledging that housing costs have spiraled out of reach for much of the workforce. “A broader diversity of housing values is needed,” it states, “to maintain a viable, healthy community.”

Patsy Highberg says that “our long struggle has shown that there has to be a way to address housing needs that does not take eight years to go through court after court.” Town planners have begun working toward this goal, allowing higher density housing in some locations and providing zoning bonuses for affordable options.

Let’s work together as a community to meet critical housing needs while improving the quality of life for all.

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