Downtown BF

Downtown Bellows Falls. At the Tri-Board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, the Rockingham Incremental Development Working Group has invited a representative from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency to present the findings from the Vermont Housing Needs Assessment 2020-2024.

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ROCKINGHAM — At the Tri-Board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 27, the Rockingham Incremental Development Working Group has invited a representative from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency to present the findings from the Vermont Housing Needs Assessment 2020-2024.

According to the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Corp., the Take Action Rockingham meetings determined in early 2020 that a top priority is the redevelopment and rehabilitation of Bellows Falls buildings. Forty-three interested residents joined a committee, but COVID stalled the group formation until 2021.

Sarah Lang, then of the Southern Vermont Economy Project and Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., helped bring Incremental Development Alliance to Rockingham with financial support provided by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Preservation Trust of Vermont, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Community Foundation.

IncDev provided technical assistance to the town and interested residents that included a target market analysis, educational lectures about small-scale development, spot tests, process mapping and a regulatory review.

The working group, a small grassroots group of local residents and regional organizations, was formed to carry the momentum from IncDev’s training and bring a focus to the power of small incremental improvements through beautification and collaboration. Other topics covered at the working group meeting were accessory dwelling unit feasibility, the formation of landlord groups, contractor lists and the creation of a Neighborhood Development Area. The working group even helped create a pro forma training and a multifamily home buyer course hosted by the Brattleboro Development and Credit Corp.

On Jun. 9, some members of the working group — Trustee Jeff Dunbar, Planning Commission member John Dunbar, RIDWG Administrator Sarah Lang, Development Director Gary Fox and Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance Director Betsy Thurston — led the “Reimagining Rockingham” panel at the Downtown and Historic Preservation Conference in St. Johnsbury, which was also attended by Rockingham Historic Preservation Commissioners Walter Wallace, Elijah Zimmer and Diana Jones.

Lang introduced IncDev and the technical assistance the nonprofit agency provided. Fox gave the history of the working group’s creation, starting with the first Vermont Council on Rural Development visit to Bellows Falls in 1998.

Jeff Dunbar highlighted IncDev’s training with workshops that he and member Duane Case had attended, including the Small Developer Boot Camp. He said one of the challenges was identifying the first “small but big thing” and opportunities included downtown second and third-floor spaces and the 85-plus carriage houses throughout the village that could be developed into accessory dwellings.

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Dunbar discussed zoning districts, setbacks and density requirements and shared statistics that 46 percent of Bellows Falls housing stock falls well below the requirement for lot sizes. He provided spot tests of four properties typical of those within the village of Bellows Falls.

One example showed that bylaws require a 7,000-square-foot minimum, while the subject property has 3,850 square feet. Frontage setbacks require a 70-feet minimum. The same property only had 39. The front and rear requirements at 25 and 30 feet minimum have a mere 5 and 3 feet, respectively. Dunbar said the majority of village houses if built today, would not be allowed under current Rockingham zoning bylaws.

Dunbar went on to emphasize that zoning ought to facilitate the preservation of the neighborhoods and that adding residential diversity to Bellows Falls’ walkable neighborhoods is vital to maintaining a welcoming, attractive and vibrant village.

Thurston highlighted Bellows Falls Downtown Development Corp.’s work from 2020, thanks to a Community Block Development Grant that paid for the lights in the trees, with help from Zimmer and Jesilyn Bashaw. Together they have developed the Keep BF Beautiful campaign, which meets monthly to improve and beautify the village.

On May 14, a kick-off event brought 46 volunteers to the Waypoint Center for painting, planting, cleanup and lunch. On the last Monday of each month, volunteers, including Zimmer, Bashaw and the Dunbars, have painted railings and benches and mulched the garden at Hotel Windham.

The next Keep BF Beautiful will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, where the railings will be painted, and mums will be added to the planters in the square.

The IncDev training and workshops are available online at rockinghamvt.org/inc-dev-working-group-resources.

For more information or to join the working group’s October meeting, email RockinghamIDWG@gmail.com.