Groundworks Collaborative's 'larger vision' approved

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BRATTLEBORO — Groundworks Collaborative is getting ready to exercise its option to buy property on Frost Street.

"We have an option that is set to expire at the end of this month," said Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks. "We have our financing worked out then we are also going to be doing a capital campaign to be able to pay for the new building."

On Monday, the Development Review Board approved a site plan for 39 and 45 Frost Street that Davis called "a larger vision for the property." This winter, his group hopes to have the overflow shelter operating on the location in an old garage.

Once the property is purchased, Groundworks plans to make the repairs necessary to have overflow-shelter occupancy by November. A new building on the land will take a bit longer to be ready. That will be determined by fundraising that Groundworks is on the verge of starting, Davis said.

Groundworks was established in 2015 when the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center and Morningside Shelter merged. The group offers food, daytime shelter and supportive services at 60 South Main St. The shelter currently has 30 beds and seasonal overflow has been handled at First Baptist Church on Main Street.

In 2014, the group identified that more space was needed to meet the local demand. Ultimately, Davis said, Frost Street was the choice. In addition to its size and ability to meet the need, the location was close enough to the downtown and the price was right, he said.

Engineer Bob Stevens, of Stevens & Associates, said the current facilities on South Main Street and at the church are not adequate. Hearing a list of concerns from abutters and neighbors, slight revisions to the site plan were mentioned Monday along with the creation of a community outreach committee.

"We will have the opportunity to shape this," Davis said at the hearing.

Coming out of deliberative session, DRB members unanimously agreed to approve the application with conditions. Sidewalk lighting sconces and a designated area for smoking must be approved by the zoning administrator. Sound levels must be kept under 70 decibels and lighting must be turned off by 10 p.m. A catch basin for stormwater mitigation and rose bushes near the fencing must be maintained. Ivy or vine should cover a chain link or similar type of fencing to prevent climbing. Trees, a bike rack, and signage pointing to overflow parking and directing no one to enter other properties must be provided. The original fencing proposal was extended.

The DRB now has 45 days to issue a written decision. After the decision is signed, there is a 30-day window for appeals.

Cory Frehsee, engineer at Stevens & Associates, said the existing garage and workshop are set back on 39 Frost St.

"There's gravel parking to the side then paved parking in front. There's an existing small vacant former residence also on the property," he said, referring to a home that is not part of any of the plans right now. "We're proposing that the facilities on South Main would be relocated to the old garage and that building would be rehabilitated. The new building would become the shelter and office space."

Adjacent to the building, Frehsee said, will be a 14-spot parking lot including one space for handicapped people. A six-foot fence and landscaping would screen out the parking garage and dumpster. A retaining wall also was part of the plan.

Another aspect of the project involves adding fill to the floodplain. The new building will need to be one foot above the base flood elevation.

"This use is not conditional use. It is permitted use. We're in conditional use criteria because of the floodplain and steep slopes," said Stevens, referring to the permit application. "But we were paying attention to the character of this."

The new building was designed to look like "a large house," he told the board.

"It's got a stoop and a staircase, but that's not the entrance," Stevens said, pointing to the facade of the building in a drawing. "The entrance is out back. It all kind of happens behind the building. There's a gathering area back behind. We're trying to create a streetscape that's appropriate."

Most of the auto traffic would be for food-pantry programming offered by Groundworks, Davis said. The majority of the foot traffic would be associated with the day shelter. On a busy day, the food pantry could see up to 40 cars.

Terry Slate voiced concerns about the project, saying he felt compassion for homeless people but worried about his family.

"What is going to be done or what can be done to protect my mother and her property, and that the people won't be sleeping out behind her shed and doing whatever they do?" he said.

Neighbor Robyn Flatley wondered how increased traffic would affect nearby residences.

"When you're uphill, you get all the noise. It's amazing," she said, adding that people were already trespassing in properties by cutting through yards. "I feel like this is pitting our neighborhood against a really good organization. It feels uncomfortable saying this."

Stevens admitted there would be some adverse effects, citing delivery trucks and vehicles coming on days when the food-pantry services were available. An overall increase in activity "will certainly happen," he said.

"We're trying to do the best we can to mitigate that," he said. "It's appropriate for people to have concerns."

Having been a neighbor of the Drop In Center on South Main Street and walking past it every day for eight years, Stevens said the new facility would be more contained and Groundworks' intent is to be a good neighbor. Issues around management could be taken up with officials from the group.

Neighbor Don Brown, formerly homeless, took issue with the shelter being "wet" rather than "dry," meaning Groundworks will accept clients who appear to be under the influence. The term used by Groundworks is "low barrier."

"The population you serve does not all have untreated substance abuse or alcohol abuse. That's a concern for noise, litter, pollution and inebriation," Brown said. "Wet shelters in residential neighborhoods don't work well. It's not a good mix. That's my argument."

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust Asset Manager Deb Zak said her group supported the project. The housing trust owns several properties on Elliott and Frost streets.

"We welcome this positive contribution. It only strengthens the potential for positive outcomes," Zak said. "The Drop-In Center needs to be located by the downtown."

Building Bright Futures Southeast Vermont Regional Coordinator Chad Simmons said he thought it was important for the community to "shift" the language being used to avoid stigmatization and to ensure adequate facilities were available to prevent toxic stress situations.

Neighbor Dora Bouboulis said she was asked by several other residents to come to the hearing. She blamed the Groundworks' board of directors for a lack of community outreach.

"The reason it became antagonistic is because the neighborhood feels like it was sprung on them," she said. "There is a level of mistrust now of the organization and it's going to take a lot to rebuild trust with the neighbors. So you need to take that in as an organization."

Bouboulis also worried whether the section of town, which already "has a high drug dealing rate," would see an increase in that activity.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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