Community members in favor of and against a local option tax (LOT) for The Valley asked organizers and community members to provide better ways to visualize how LOT funds would be used and to address underlying issues that affect economic vitality, such as restrictive zoning regulations.
Those comments came at a community conversation about a proposed Mad River Valley LOT at Lareau Farm on May 29. Almost two dozen community members gathered for a facilitated conversation about the proposal as well as American Flatbread served by George Schenk and his wife, George Schenk.
A subcommittee of the Mad River Valley Planning District has proposed that planning district member towns, Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston, adopt a 1 percent LOT and use those funds to invest in housing, transportation, recreation, community projects and marketing. The tax would be on rooms, meals, alcohol and retail sales that are currently subject to the state sales tax. It would raise about $1 million, of which $700,000 would be retained by the towns.
Last month, the three Valley select boards voted to enter into negotiations to craft a tri-town memorandum of understanding (MOU) to create, collect and administer an LOT. A tri-town MOU negotiating committee is working on that currently.
At last week’s meeting, which was facilitated by Patricia Floyd, Warren, and Jack Sharry, Warren, Mad River Chamber of Commerce board members explained the work that had gone into this current proposal, noting that the issues it is designed to help were identified as early as the 1980s. He explained that the proposal would set up a Mad River Valley LOT Commission that would include two people appointed by each select board plus a chairperson appointed by the Mad River Valley Planning District steering committee.
Floyd opened up the floor for opinions, thoughts and concerns and many were offered. Some were structural. Drew Simmons, Waitsfield, had questions about the specifics of how LOT grants would be awarded to specific projects and also asked what would happen if funds were not spent in a given year. Steering committee chair and Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland explained that a reserve fund will be created. Ackland is also on the subcommittee that is proposing the LOT as well as the tri-town MOU negotiating committee.
Penny LaRock, Warren, asked whether Sugarbush lift tickets would be subject to the 1 percent tax and was told that they would.
“So, every town is going to bring in a good share,” LaRock said in response. Ted LaRock raised the issue of vacation rentals by owner, asking if those short-term rentals would be taxed along with AirBnB. Ackland said yes but that it was complicated. The group discussed the impact of short-term rentals on year-round rental housing, noting that some towns ban or restrict short-term rentals.
Peter Forbes, Fayston, asked how funds would be prioritized, beyond housing, which the subcommittee is suggesting should receive an annual allocation of $300,000. Ackland explained that transportation would be funded at $35,000 to $40,000 annually, recreation at $45,000 a year and marketing The Valley at $60,000 to $70,000 a year.
BEYOND THE MIDDLE CLASS
The question was raised of whether the subcommittee’s work and proposal had taken into account the things that impacted all sectors of The Valley beyond the middle class.
“Other parts of the community are concerned with the environment, the school board and low-income issues. When I see what Harwood has done with the merger, it’s been a little choppy. We’ve all seen the fallout. I’m afraid this effort is falling prey to that,” Rebecca Baruzzi, Fayston, said.
She questioned whether the commitment to housing was large enough to make an impact.
Jared Cadwell, chair of the Fayston Select Board and the MRVPD LOT subcommittee, acknowledged that $300,000 won’t make a dent in the actual number of housing units, but said that over seven to 10 years, the opportunities for public/private investment in housing is significant.
“We’re not looking at one house at a time. We’re looking at 10 to 20 unit projects. To date our three communities have been unable to dedicate any revenue to that problem,” Cadwell said and went on to explain that the Waitsfield and Fayston Planning Commissions were working on zoning changes that allow smaller lot sizes to reduce the cost of construction.
Bruce Hyde Jr., Waitsfield, said that the most pressing concern for him at Mehuron’s is affordable housing for his employees, but said he wonders about a multiyear plan to get 10 to 20 units.
“What’s the first thing you need to build 100 units of housing?” Ackland asked.
“The most important thing I need is money. And I need wastewater. I can’t do anything without it. That’s been the biggest hang-up in this community. How are you going to provide the money to do the things we’re talking about? Either with this type of tax or the property tax?” Ackland continued.
“Incentivize private industry,” Hyde suggested. Ackland asked how the community could incentivize private industry without money.
“Let’s assume that my wife and I build 400 units of affordable housing tomorrow. Who is going to live there?” asked Ted LaRock. He was met with a chorus of answers from Baruzzi, Hyde, Ashley Woods, Matt Lillard and Kevin Begin who all said that they had people who’d live there.
Troy Kingsbury, owner of Village Grocery, Waitsfield, said that what he was hearing about the LOT proposal most often is that “This is the Mad River Valley and until we can think that this is all of us together and sell it as ‘This is us and we’re all going to benefit,’ it’s going to be heard. We’re all into it together. That’s what’s got to be sold for this LOT to be successful in each town.”
Tom Mehuron, Waitsfield, owner of Mehuron’s, said he disagrees with the basic philosophy and doesn’t see lack of money as an issue.
“We’re the victim of the planning that the towns in The Valley have set up. It limits commercial opportunities with strict zoning. Waitsfield made a commercial district that is too restrictive and it’s up against a wetland. I want to see the zoning problem fixed before you fix the housing problem. You’re not going to get this housing problem solved unless you get housing hamlets,” Mehuron said, noting that he had at least 12 employees coming in from out of town who need housing.
NEED A MODEL
Begin, owner of Tucker Hill Lodge in Fayston, said that he has concerns about lack of a plan and suggested that someone create a model that shows “this is what we will look like when we grow up.”
“We need a model,” he said.
Devin Klein, Warren, owner of Corrigan & Klein Artisan Builders, supports towns stepping up to regulate short-term rentals and also explained how financial help with infrastructure or land costs could help building companies such as hers build affordable housing.
“The cost to build in The Valley is high. If we had a fund that could provide money to locals who want to invest in housing for the community, that grant might offset the cost of a project enough to make it viable. It’s the cost of the land. I can build a house so that it can be rented by people who work here if we did have a way to reduce some costs, water, wastewater,” Klein said.
Ackland reported that a Middlebury College study on AirBnB and VRBO rentals in The Valley found almost 500 rental units were participating.
“That takes a lot of housing out of the rental pool. There’s really nothing to rent. People who come here to work have nothing to rent and there are no choices for older people who want to downsize. I disagree with Ted that building 400 homes makes sense, but I think you’d find those homes would be taken if you build them in 10 to 20 unit projects. It would change the whole dynamics of The Valley because younger people would work and live here,” Ackland said.
NOT ON RETAIL SALES
Floyd asked the group what it would take for them to support the idea. Hyde said he could support it if it were not on retail sales. Mehuron said he felt a need to protect his customers who had been shopping at the store for 50 years from a tax on one-third of the items he sells.
Bob Cook, Waitsfield, said that the planning and zoning bylaws in The Valley are from the 1970s when the ski areas were growing and said that the vision had changed. He too suggested that a model for what it would look like to spend that money would help.
“To sell it, you’ve got to get to bricks and mortar,” he said.
Warren architect and former select board member Mac Rood expressed support for the LOT and said that while not all may agree on the details of the priorities, the bigger challenge is selling the idea to the voters in all three towns.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation where we’re trying to convince people to vote for it, but they don’t know what the money will be spent on. I wonder if there’s some way to have a grant application process happen now so that the first projects to be funded are on the table as an example of what we’d do in the first year if we had money, so there are concrete examples,” he said.
“That’s it – a model,” Begin said.
Ashley Woods, Warren, offered support for helping people visualize what investing LOT funds could do and suggested mock projects. Julie Burns, owner of Three Mountain Cafe, said she had attended an event in Stowe and walked into the venue to see pictures and story boards of what the town was doing with its LOT funds. She said it was really helpful and stimulated a lot of interest.
“One of my gurus said to me, ‘If you can’t draw a picture of it, you don’t understand it.’ I’m hearing that we have to make this visual and give people things they can see to understand it,” Floyd said at the end of the conversation.