By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Local planners and developers joined the Douglas administration last week in panning a House-passed affordable housing bill they said was more of an anti-sprawl measure that would not substantially boost the state’s stock of low-cost homes.
The bill, which received final approval in the House on Wednesday by a 79-61 tally, proposes to create economic incentives and streamline the Act 250 permitting process for developers proposing projects containing at least 20-percent affordable housing in and around designated downtowns and villages.
The bill also amends criterion 9L of Act 250 in a manner that opponents believe will make it harder to develop housing in rural areas and communities that don’t yet have designated downtowns and villages.
“I don’t doubt that the intentions of the bill are worthy, but the unintended consequences will be just the opposite of what it’s hoping to accomplish,” said Bill Sayre, a Bristol resident and leader of Associated Industries of Vermont, an organization that advocates for public policy that protects the “private enterprise economy” in the state.
Sayre and other opponents of the bill argue that it may actually make it harder for developers to build affordable housing — even at the monetary threshold prescribed by the legislation. That threshold is 80 percent of Vermont Housing Finance Agency’s limit for new homes, which translates to $219,200 in Addison County — an amount that many argue is too high to be considered affordable. The legislation calls for the units to remain ‘affordable’ for at least 15 years.
Officials in communities that have designated downtowns or villages note there is little room left in, or around, those areas in which to create new housing, let alone at an affordable price.
Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington, who has been following the progress of H.863 on behalf of the Vermont Planners’ Association, noted the bill would allow for towns to create a “neighborhood” zone in which developers could cash in on the affordable housing incentives. That neighborhood zone would be limited to the designated downtown or village and an equal amount of acreage surrounding it. Specifically, it would include the downtown; the industrial park off Exchange Street; Buttolph Acres; the Middle Road neighborhood, which will soon host the Lodge at Otter Creek retirement community and a major residential subdivision; the Porter Medical Center campus off South Street and the adjacent 30-acre parcel that has received approval for the Eastview retirement community; and much of the Middlebury College campus.
“There is already stuff on that land,” Dunnington said of property outside Middlebury’s designated downtown, adding it would “drive up the price of property” within growth centers.
“This bill was introduced initially to advance the cause of affordable housing,” Dunnington said. “I think it is fair to say that the bill has become more of a land-use bill than a housing bill. Some would say it more strongly; that it has been hijacked to that.”
Middlebury’s neighborhood zone, according to H.863’s specifications, would be roughly 300 acres. It’s a zone that — unless crudely gerrymandered — would not have encompassed two already-permitted residential neighborhoods under construction off Court Street (Middlebury South Village) and Middle Road (Middle Road Ventures). Middlebury South Village (MSV) neighborhood, now taking shape, includes an apartment building with 30 affordable rental units.
Jeffry Glassberg is one of the developers of MSV.
“It’s encouraging that the Legislature is considering ways to encourage appropriate development, including the construction of more work force housing,” Glassberg said. “Similar efforts with which I’ve been involved in the past, such as the downtown program, have achieved meaningful results.
“Perhaps the exclusion of a location such as Middlebury South Village is comment enough about how useful (H.863), as currently drafted, may be in actually encouraging development of work force housing at a meaningful scale in a well-suited location,” Glassberg added. “Maybe that will change in the Senate.”
Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC), also has doubts about H.863.
“I don’t think this is a good bill,” Lougee said, speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the ACRPC board, which has yet to weigh in on the subject. “I don’t believe it will do much of anything for affordable housing.”
Lougee said he was apprehensive about seeing another planning boundary — “neighborhood zone” — lumped on top of the designated downtown and village designations that already exist to encourage smart growth.
“They all have their distinct purposes,” Lougee said, noting potential headaches in coordinating those districts.
Dunnington also noted a legal drawback in that H.863 provides for citizen appeals of the new neighborhood zones.
“On the one hand they are trying to remove appeal obstacles (for Act 250), but on the other hand they are creating more opportunities for appeal.”
Dunnington said H.863 eliminates the rural growth section of Act 250 and substitutes new language that establishes smart-growth principals and stronger safeguards against strip development.
“This is very daunting,” Dunnington said of the impact on many home developers.
He also took issue with the timing of the legislation.
“The people who are most involved with this, and proponents of this bill, are more interested in tightening up Act 250 and incorporating ‘smart growth’ principles, and they are doing this at the occasion when people are really desperate for an affordable housing bill,” Dunnington said. “Just relaxing permitting isn’t necessarily going to make more affordable housing.”
Such housing will depend, in large part, on infusions of cash and subsidies, according to Dunnington.
“There is no silver bullet for affordable housing, other than actual money,” Dunnington said. “It takes money to buy down the costs of it to make it accessible.”
Ironically, lawmakers are considering a proposed fiscal year 2009 state budget pitched by Gov. James Douglas that proposes cutting more than $5 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board budget.
Douglas has been an advocate of building more homes in the $200,000-range to provide larger houses into which middle-income Vermonters could transition, thereby opening up more starter homes for those making lower wages.
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, vice chairman of the House Human Service Committee, disagreed with that strategy.
“I think that’s fantasy,” Fisher said, adding “we’re not going to solve the housing crisis unless we make some investments. To be able to create housing that low-income, working Vermonters are going to be able to afford, it’s going to take more than regulatory breaks.”
H.863 has drawn a lot of criticism, but it has also drawn some praise.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect bill, but it does balance two agendas: Creating more affordable housing and protecting our landscape,” said Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Bray added he believes the changes to criterion 9L of Act 250 are not intended to make the law more stringent, “but to give clarity to what was meant. It reflects, for the most part, current practice, spelling out more clearly what current practices are.”
H.863 in essence, Bray said, eases restrictions in towns that have already done planning.
Al Karnatz, a New Haven planning commission member and regional co-director of the Vermont Land Trust’s Champlain Valley office, said he looks forward to learning more about the bill. But he likes the bill’s emphasis on where to build new homes.
“I think it does make sense to concentrate our development in areas where services are already available,” Karnatz said. “I think the concept is good.”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, has heard a lot of pros and cons voiced about the bill.
SOME THINGS TO DISLIKE
“On the one hand, you have people interested in conserving land and not having a lot of development saying these giveaways in the downtown areas are maybe not such a good idea, and on the other hand, you have people saying the permit process is a problem and Act 250 is onerous, and there ought to be more of a loosening of the Act 250 process,” Sharpe said. “There’s something in this bill for everyone to dislike.”
Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Monday he had “serious reservations” about H.863. He was one of five area lawmakers who voted against the bill, according to the state’s legislative Web site. Voting ‘no’ with Sharpe were Rep. Joseph Acinapura, R-Brandon; Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes; Rep. Kitty Oxholm, R-Vergennes; and Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham.
Casting ballots in favor of the measure were Fisher; Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton; Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury; Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury; and Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven.
The bill next goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain fate. Gov. Douglas is unlikely to sign the bill in its current form.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said she would study the bill. She anticipates the Senate will take action on it before the end of this session.
“I don’t know every detail (about H.863), but from what I know, it looks like a modest, sincere effort to put affordable housing where it is smart, in terms of the environment and commuting distance to schools,” she said.