Bi-town study sought

The Wilmington Planning Commission is proposing zoning changes to encourage developers to add senior housing.

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{child_flags:featured}Senior housing proposal addresses needs

{child_byline}By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer{/child_byline}

WILMINGTON — A new zoning proposal seeks to make senior housing easier to develop and more affordable, allowing older residents to “age in place” and opening up other residences for younger families or individuals.

“As seniors maybe downsize into a smaller unit or efficiency apartment, that does free up housing for other people to move in,” said Meg Staloff, chairwoman of the Planning Commission. “Whether that’s their family can be near them in their old house or that house gets sold to a newer family or gets rented out, it’s allowing development to happen that meets needs.”

Staloff recalled searching unsuccessfully for senior housing for her father-in-law, saying that it would have been “great” for him to be able to be near his family. She said that in the Deerfield Valley, there’s none in Wilmington, but Dover and Readsboro have some.

The Planning Commission “determined that: Establishing standards for development of senior housing serves an important inclusionary purpose in addressing the need for senior housing,” states a report from the commission. “Housing for seniors, located near services, shopping, transportation and support networks, is beneficial to the general welfare and health of seniors and the public. Encouraging the development of market-priced and affordable multiple dwelling units for seniors provides a range of housing choices that can enable seniors of various abilities and income levels to live without leaving established networks of nearby family and friends.”

The proposal calls for adding a section to town zoning ordinances that has to do with specific standards for senior/Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant housing/adult living community housing, allowing those housing types to be considered conditional use therefore requiring approval from the Wilmington Development Review Board, and establishing related definitions.

“This plan, it is hoped, will increase the development of safe and affordable housing in Wilmington, particularly for individuals over the age of 62,” the report states.

The commission is warning a hearing on the proposal for 5 p.m., Monday, Aug. 23. Final approval would require Select Board approval.

Staloff said the housing envisioned in the proposal would normally fall under planned unit development or PUD, which is set out in Vermont statute to allow construction with density outside of what is normally allowed. She pointed to a “pretty stringent” rule in the town’s zoning for PUDs that says at least 40 percent of the total area of the property needs to be dedicated to or reserved as usable common outdoor living space and open land.

That rule could be expensive for a developer, Staloff said.

“I don’t understand why it was done,” she said.

The conditional use covers housing units for those who are 62 and older. If someone wants to convert the property to something without the age-restricted housing, it would need to conform with zoning, helping to ensure the properties stay as senior housing.

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Projects are envisioned for small cottages and bigger buildings. They could include as many as 20 units per acre, “which seems crazy but we’re talking about units being small,” Staloff said.

“We looked at a lot of pictures of buildings and development around our area, things that Shires Housing has done in Arlington and Bennington specifically for senior housing and the density of those buildings,” she said. “We picked a number. Twenty units an acre didn’t look too scary.”

If someone is adapting the use of an existing building, they could have as many as 25 units per acre.

For senior housing projects, there would need to be one parking space per dwelling unit or lower if it’s near public transit and other facilities. The DRB would consider such factors before issuing a decision.

Staloff noted that in Arlington, Shires Housing purchased land with some older buildings which they refurbished and built senior housing behind. The commission’s proposal is not necessarily aimed at getting people to build projects in a hayfield but to purchase existing properties with room to add another building without too much effect on the streetscape, she said, thinking in particular about the rural residential areas along Route 9.

With the proposal, Staloff sees the potential to add “quite a bit of housing” in town as part of a ripple effect.

“We all know workforce housing is an issue,” she said. “Having affordable housing for workers is really creating problems.”

Senior housing was tackled by the commission because the need for it was stated in the town plan. Staloff said the commission is considering applying for a municipal planning grant to help modernize the zoning code related to housing to allow for more flexibility around development to make more residences available for prices those in the local workforce can pay.

Staloff spoke of a need to have smaller units closer to downtown. The hope is to make zoning code “more amendable to what the housing needs are,” she said.

A lot of short-term rentals can be found in Wilmington, which hosts the private ski resort at Haystack Mountain and neighbors the Mount Snow ski resort in West Dover. Those properties act as “a double-edge sword,” Staloff said, because the community wants visitors who drive the economy but it ties up housing for workers in the tourism economy.

So far, the senior housing proposal hasn’t received much support or pushback. Staloff said the commission doesn’t tend to get a lot of public input.

“We have worked hard and long on this,” she said. “It will be interesting to see what happens. We looked at what other towns have done and other towns have similar things. We might have gone a little further with specificity.”