By Jim Boylan
I was heartened to read Pete Mooney’s piece “A complex issue in the January 28 issue of The Valley Reporter. Peter is correct to “not support a commitment of funds this year for the Wait House.”
Over the years Waitsfield’s leaders have shown a propensity to remove taxable property from the tax rolls and spend taxpayers’ dollars on projects of dubious return.
Let us look at where we are as a town. We have abandoned houses, trash piles, empty store fronts and shuttered farms all along our Main Street.
Our drug store has gone away as well as one bank and now a second bank is closing. Regional chains do not close their outlets in economically thriving and growing communities.
I have lived here for over 30 years and have seen job-creating firms such as Mad River Canoe and Small Dog leave. Mad River Canoes are still being made and employing folks in South Carolina.
A couple of years ago our town pitched in to fund the purchase of the only industrial-zoned land in The Valley; thus, taking it off the Waitsfield tax rolls and turning it into playing fields. At the same time SunCommon, a growing cutting-edge solar energy firm was building a large facility on industrially-zoned land in Waterbury. This development brought more than70 well-paying jobs to Waterbury.
Mad River towns now have line items in our town budgets for the housing problem in The Valley.
The Valley housing problem has been studied to death. My firm, Mad River Research (MRR), conducted a Valley housing study a few years ago. One of the practice areas of MRR over the past 20 years has been housing feasibility studies. A feasibility study is different from a needs study.
Feasibility studies are conducted for the developer of a planned housing development. Feasibility studies are conducted according to guidelines promulgated by the financing entities of a potential project. These guidelines look at the projected rents (both subsidized and market) and direct the examination of the market, including employment, wages and population characteristics. In some cases, especially in small markets, there is not statistical evidence to support the carrying cost of a planned development. These are the cases where perception comes up against the fiscal reality of developing housing.
I have conducted feasibility studies in communities that feel they have a housing problem but do not have the market ability to support the carrying costs of the planned development. In those cases, the development cannot get financing and does not move forward.
There are folks in The Valley who feel there is a housing problem here. Until an actual development proposal is identified, the feasibility of a successful affordable housing project in The Valley cannot be determined.
There are also folks who want to put taxpayer money into rebuilding the Wait House. Before I came to Vermont, I was the executive director of Stop Wasting Abandoned property (SWAP), https://swapinc.org/ a nonprofit housing program in Providence, RI. We facilitated the restoration of abandoned property in the city into housing. I have been at many meetings inside the Wait House and while it is quaint it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to save it and then it is not clear what purpose it would serve.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
The town of Waitsfield owns both the Wait House and the Flemer Field (behind the town office). The Flemer field is only used for an occasional polo match and the Wait House is essentially empty so nothing is being displaced. (Editor’s Note: The town accepted the donation of the Flemer Field with covenants that prohibit permanent structures on it.)
Together these two parcels are 8 acres +/-. Depending on density and available financing, this size parcel could accommodate 20 to 30 units.
This site is ideal for housing, it is downtown within walking distance to shopping, school, health center, fire and ambulance. It is on the water system and could even contain some office or retail space.
The only limitation would be sewage. The Wait House parcel could be used for a septic field similar to how Lawson’s wastewater is treated off site.
It is time for the Waitsfield Select Board to step up, take a leadership position, create economic development and add to the tax rolls. It is time to get off the pot and put together a creative development package combining the Flemer Field with the Wait House and market the package out to the world of housing developers.
This plan would address the dual problems of housing need and put nontax-producing land back onto the tax rolls and give Waitsfield’s taxpayers some relief.
Jim Boylan, lives in Waitsfield.