Home News In West Cornwall, one development offers insight into the barriers to expanding new housing in Vermont

In West Cornwall, one development offers insight into the barriers to expanding new housing in Vermont

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Aerial view of the corner of N. Bingham Street and Route 74, which the developer plans to build. Courtesy of Eric Blair.

Eric Blair has a vision for West Cornwall. It’s city greenery, business space, and housing at every price point. But the vision only goes so far when trying to build in Vermont.

In this case, his proposal for a planned community of 19 units did not pass initial presentation to the Cornwall Development Review Board in 2018. But Blair isn’t your typical real estate developer, and he’s not giving up.

Blair, a former city planner from Middlebury who moved to Vermont nearly a decade ago, was the first to admit he’s an idealist. Planning for him has utopian potential. Not only will it ease Vermont’s housing crisis, but it will also ease the climate change crisis and fraying ties between neighbors.

Real estate investor Matt Bonner began working with Blair to design a development of land owned by Bonner on the corner of Route 74 and North Bingham Street in West Cornwall, a small village in the town of Cornish. I noticed the difference immediately.

“There’s someone in that role. He’s just there to broker a compromise between the engineers and the townspeople, but he has real vision,” Bonner said. “He believes in what he does fresh.”

That vision is why Bonner wants to see what happens next. In August, Blair closed the property and now he’s fully licensed for ten homes, purchased from Bonner at a discounted price.

For now, Blair is constrained by his own budget, so he will start building a duplex, two single-family homes for sale, and a home for him and his family. But he wants to keep the community moving.

He sees his experience in this Addison County town of 1,200 people as emblematic of the challenges of creating denser, walkable development in Vermont’s more rural areas.

Proud of its local autonomy, Vermont plans a democratic process. Volunteer staff will weigh the opinions of neighbors against the advice of planning experts. They hire consultants and rely on the expertise of local planning boards. Developments are carried out by commissions and often several homes are developed at a time.

Blair believes that development process, as Blair puts it, is unsuitable for “sound urban design” and inadequate to address Vermont’s biggest problems. But he hopes that more people exposed to well-designed communities will stop adhering to what he calls “suburban sprawl.”

“I’ve been trying to do this for about 20 years now,” says Blair, looking to his newly purchased lot and a slight Southern drawing that nods to his Georgian roots. I was waiting.”

plan and practice

When Blair began designing the hamlet at the intersection of Highway 74 and North Bingham Street in November 2017, Blair and Bonner dreamed big.

At that time, a 200-year-old farmhouse stood on the corner, and a Greek Revival church of similar history bordered to the north. The rest of the 160+ acres were mostly undeveloped fields, occasionally dotted with oak and maple.

The vision included a variety of shapes, all inspired by the walkable New England villages that first attracted Blair to Vermont. A town green is planned on the corner. Three of his 1,400-square-foot homes adjoin shared spaces, each listed for less than his $300,000. On the north side, a 19th-century church has been renovated into a multi-use business and apartment building, preserving its façade. Single-family homes of varying prices would fill four more city blocks, and the plan included space for community gardens and pedestrian paths.

Cornwall’s zoning laws did not expressly permit such dense and diverse development. What Blair and the developers wanted was approval for a planned unit development called PUD. PUD allows him to create a whole new community instead of developing one lot at a time.

Taken as a whole, a well-designed PUD can be easy to swallow for local governments that are wary of construction. Building at scale also consolidates infrastructure and reduces development costs. Cornwall used the same system to approve a 22-plot parcel known as Foot Farm. This is he one of the largest residential developments recently developed in town.

But Bonner and Blair’s PUD dreams quickly faded after it was submitted to the Cornwall Development Review Board in March 2018.

This was Blair’s first major planned project in Vermont, he told the board. spread before. 44 acres will be developed and 123 acres will be preserved. They planned to build affordable housing.

Barbara Greenwood, chairman of the Cornwall Development Review Board, remembers that she and her colleagues needed more information. “There were probably a lot of questions,” she said in an interview, recalling many concerns raised by Cornish residents.

At least 14 members of the public provided feedback on the proposal, most of whom feared the impact on wildlife and water supplies. Only one expressed support. The board asked Blair and Bonner for more information, and the meeting was adjourned.

By the time they returned to the board in June, they had reduced their plans to nine development lots. They were no longer asking for PUD. Lot size increased and density decreased.

Bonner told the board that the reduced scope of the project was a direct response to feedback from the community. Responding to community sensitivities is a business decision, he said. He envisioned that construction could begin within a year.

Still, with 22 members of the public in attendance, the feedback was harsh. Why couldn’t the lot be cheaper? Will more homes dry up their neighborhood wells? Some Cornwall residents questioned the need for a community green, the community he hub of Blair’s first settlement.

Resident Mike Broughton asked who the green is so important to. Some people wondered if people were getting too close to the busy intersection at the corner of Route 74.

Blair explained that Cornwall’s city planner praised open spaces in the community.

West Cornwall didn’t have the green, venture-minded Tom Keef, why now? The audience agreed with an unofficial show of hands that there was no green at the corner of 74 and Bingham.

A sketch of the original idea of ​​a settlement in West Cornwall. Courtesy of Eric Blair.

Permit slogs and the housing crisis

Bonner originally hoped to break ground in the spring of 2019. Ultimately, he received approval from the Development Review Board in July 2020, giving him permission to save 124 acres and develop his 9 parcels. It took him nearly two more years before he applied for and received an Act 250 permit from the state.

About a year after the development plan was cut in half, Blair embarked on the project in May 2019.

Bonner, a non-first-time developer, told VTDigger that he was ready for the change to West Cornwall Settlement and the extended timeline needed to get the permit. He likened Blair to a painter. A painter has a vision. What if people started telling painters what brushes and colors to use?

“As a painter, as a designer, your vision of what the artwork will be is reductive and does not stand up to group contributions,” he said.

Blair originally worked as a local government planner and imagined that the public sector could better shape the future of the town than the private sector. As with West Cornwall, that vision turned out to be too hopeful. He quit his city planning job in Middlebury a year later.

Blair’s experience in Vermont highlights the slow, bureaucratic struggle often required to build new homes.and with people refuse a job Due to the lack of housing in the state, politicians Republican Governor Phil Scott To prominent democrat Made housing a legislative and campaign priority.

home prices in vermont 19% up During the first two years of the pandemic, many potential buyers lowered their prices.rental Vacancy rate below national average — only 1% in Chittenden County — drive low-income Vermonters out of state, or worse, onto the streets.

According to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency’s 2020 Housing Needs Assessment, Vermont’s homeownership rate among 25- to 34-year-olds declined 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2017. The agency projects that by 2025, homeownership rates for those 65 and older will rise and homeownership rates for those aged 35 to 64 will decline. Homeownership in Vermont is getting more and more out of hand, due in no small part to a shortage of supply.

Across the state, decisions that determine the future of housing are played out before volunteer local councils like Cornwall’s.

According to Kevin Geiger, head planner of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Committee, the town uses volunteers to develop zoning laws and manage those rules through a development review board. The process is “a good idea in theory in that it’s the most local way to manage things,” he said in an email. It’s also a complex task, often done by smart people who don’t have it.”

A local council committee considers the wishes of neighbors and the town’s planning goals.When citizens speak up, they have power Prevent denser development and make it costs more to build affordable housing.

For West Cornwall, neighborhood feedback has reduced the number of proposed new homes. For an experienced developer like Bonner, the process involves territory. For an idealist like Blair, it amounts to a moral insult.

returned the canvas

More than four years after the proposal began, Bonner had obtained all permits. Blair participated again this year.

“It might become a town one day,” said Blair. “But if you don’t establish your development patterns right from the start, this horrible mess of sprawl is the only thing that can’t be fixed.”

In designing his new home, Blair decided to reference the idea of ​​a “gentleman’s farm,” an agricultural estate that served as an idyllic getaway for wealthy men. Visual His concept, or “slang,” he argues, would fit nicely into the Addison County countryside. There is already a large farmhouse on the corner. The idea is to add a small janitor’s quarters and his two barns.

But what looks like a playground for the wealthy features diverse housing forms. Farmers are already duplex. A small janitor’s office becomes a more modest single-family home. From the outside it resembles a barn, with his two other buildings each serving as residences.

To a passer-by, these properties look like one stately mansion. In reality, the site will be several lots of mixed-level housing.

“The end result will either be houses left in the fields, or sleight of hand that will look like old farms, with a network of roads that can be filled in around them over time,” says Blair. Told.

To finance the purchase, Blair is selling her family’s current home in Cornwall. He has set his sights on West Cornwall and plans to show his commitment to his neighbors by building a new small house for his family on the land.

“I don’t want people to think I’m developing land to make money in the future. I believe in what I do, so I want to be the first,” he said.

Full of hope, he imagines that something close to his original PUD in West Cornwall will be possible once the town sees his first round of development. He hasn’t given up on the town greenery in the corner, the small cottages that line it, the business space repurposed into the church that adjoins it at its northern end.

To an outside observer, Blair’s hopes may seem misplaced. Ultimately, he’s relying on the approval of the same people who scaled back his planned community in the first place. there is. Changes here are still possible.

“I haven’t given up. I don’t think I will ever give up,” he said. “There are days when I get frustrated, but I will try to make this village beautiful even if it means risking my life. It may kill me, but I will do my best.”

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