$18 million city elderly housing project at risk
VERGENNES — In early July the Vergennes Development Review Board unanimously approved Charlotte residents Daniel and Rebecca Hassan’s plans for a major expansion of Vergennes Residential Care, their 34 North St. senior assisted-living home.
The future of that project, projected to be an economic boost for Vergennes, is now in question after neighbors appealed the DRB’s decision to Vermont Environmental Court. They allege the project is out of scale for the neighborhood and does not comply with all zoning laws.
Now the Hassans say their central problem is the time it takes for Environmental Court to process and rule on appeals. It is not unusual for such cases to take 18 months or longer, and that was before a backlog created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daniel Hassan said time is money, especially when he and his wife are not “a conglomerate” and legal costs are factored in.
“We have to be smart with our money,” he said. “If it took that long I don’t know what we would do, but I can tell you it’s probably not a good thing for the project.”
The Hassans, veterans of the senior living sector whose company is Grand Senior Living, in 2019 bought Vergennes Residential Care, an aging 10,000-square-foot building diagonally across North Street from the city post office. They have an option to purchase the adjacent 40 North St. and bought it with an eye on this expansion, which they are calling Vergennes Grand.
“Our goal was always to expand this, and when you think about expanding or developing a community like we’re planning, there are economies of scale,” Daniel Hassan said.
The Hassans said they hope to invest $18 million in the project. Plans call for a 40,000-square-foot building behind 34 North St., on the 40 North St. lot. That would mean removing an existing structure for the new construction, followed by a historically sensitive renovation to the current building and then a connection of the two structures.
Rebecca Hassan said their historic preservation consultant recommended they “design the building so it looks like four different buildings that are all connected with an interconnecting corridor, so it doesn’t look like one big building.”
The project would increase the maximum number of residents from the current 18 to 81 and boost the Hassans’ city employee count from 18 to 48.
And, according to estimates accepted by the DRB, the Vergennes Grand List would add about $390,000 annually of civic and commercial revenue to Vergennes, including property taxes, water/sewer fees, and visitor and staff purchases at local businesses.
“One of the things we always wanted to do was do one of these projects in a downtown location. It is so wonderful for the community, as well as for the residents and the staff and visitors,” Daniel Hassan said.
Vergennes Partnership Marketing & Development Coordinator Julie Basol said the nonprofit, which supports downtown development, worked on behalf of and welcomed the proposal.
“As an organization we are 100% behind the project,” Basol said.
The city of Vergennes was also awarded at $181,000 grant based on the project’s completion. It would fund re-paving of the streets that surround the adjacent city green and the green’s sidewalks, plus pay for new park lighting.
Residents the Hassans serve and hope to cater to in the future would be in what they described as the senior housing sector’s “forgotten middle.” Medicaid-eligible seniors receive government support for nursing-home or assisted-living care, while the well-off can afford retirement in communities such as Wake Robin in Shelburne and the Residence at Otter Creek in Middlebury.
“The forgotten middle is a target that we have been serving for years, and that’s what we are really focusing on serving here in Vergennes,” Hassan said.
Two neighboring households in August appealed the DRB’s decision to award a conditional-use permit to the Hassans.
One appeal filed by attorneys on behalf of Ed and Beverly Biello cited “adverse impacts from the size and scale of the Vergennes Residential Care expansion, traffic and parking, and development out of context with the immediate historic neighborhood and the Biellos’ historic home.” The Biellos’ home fronts North Street next to the existing care home.
Beverly Biello is a candidate for the city council in next Tuesday’s special election.
Neighbors Donald, Julianne, Heather and Rennie Peddie also appealed. Their home, screened by trees that the Hassans said would mostly remain and be enhanced with more plantings, lies behind the Biellos’ on a cul-de-sac.
The filing on the Peddies’ behalf states “they can demonstrate a physical or environmental impact under the criteria reviewed,” and the decision is “not in accord” with city zoning laws.
DRB minutes list Heather Peddie’s objections as “Building height, even though it is within limits,” “Lot coverage,” “The whole building is not historic,” and “The scale of the project does not fit in Vergennes.”
The Hassans’ permit includes a height waiver for a cupola and a lot-coverage waiver that according to DRB minutes relates to porches. The regulations for the district specify height exceptions should be considered for cupolas.
Zoning administrator Peter Garon and DRB Board Chairman Brent Rakowski said the DRB agreed the porches should stay to retain the historic character of the original building.
Rakowski, a longtime DRB member, said the board had not dealt with a lot coverage waiver previously. But he said another reason the board granted the waiver was because lot coverage restrictions are intended to help control stormwater by “limiting impervious surfaces,” and the board believed the Hassans had proposed “significant stormwater improvements.”
The Hassans said they were unhappy with the appeals after they moved the new building further from the Biellos’ property when they revised their application in June, among other concessions.
Daniel Hassan also noted the Biellos outbid them for the home while knowing of the Hassans’ plans.
“We were bidding against each other,” he said. “That’s OK. They’re good people. We’ve hung out together.”
Hassan wrote in an email he reached out to both sets of neighbors after the final DRB hearing and has been rebuffed.
“After the public hearing and prior to their filing the appeal I physically visited the Peddies and was told that they couldn’t talk. I called and texted with the Biellos and they said they canceled a meeting to talk and said they would speak with counsel,” he wrote.
“Since the appeal I had our attorney contact their attorneys to find a time to meet but their attorneys had no interest. The Peddies’ attorneys’ response was ‘buy our house,’ which prior to the hearing we were willing to do, as well as the Biellos.’”
Both the Biellos and the Peddies emailed responses to questions about the project and their willingness to speak with the Hassans. Both said they had not heard from the Hassans since the appeals.
The Peddies wrote: “Since the whole issue is in litigation we have been advised to say nothing. Julie and Donald Peddie. P.S., no one from Daniel’s group has reached out to us.”
The Biellos wrote: “We have received no phone call, email, or correspondence from Mr. Hassan since we appealed the decision. Both sides are now represented by counsel. Therefore, all communication must go through the attorneys.”
Hassan cited two options for progress. One would be design tweaks he would like to discuss with the neighbors.
“We have made the bigger changes we can make already. But there are still some design changes we can make to hopefully satisfy some of their concerns,” he said.
Or maybe buying their homes could be back on the table.
“We have always been willing and interested in buying the homes. We have never been able to make any progress nor find the best mechanism to do so as they both wish to live in them for some time,” he said. “However I am sure it could be worked out.”
“We feel like we were in the right, and it was a strong decision, and a defensible one by the DRB,” Daniel Hassan said. “It becomes an economic calculation now.”