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Saturday, January 28, 2012

For-profit bad, nonprofit good

Planning Commission Chair Ruth Platner started off Wednesday night’s mastication of permit applications by informing Larry LeBlanc that he’d have to wait till after the Edwards Lane project was discussed for his Greenock Village preapplication.

By Linda Felaco

An older woman’s family has owned property bordering on Burlingame State Park for generations. She doesn’t want the property to fall into the hands of the evil greedy developers. She wants to keep it the way it is as much as possible, keep the woods intact. You’d think she was Ruth Platner’s own mother. She wants to leave her children a decent inheritance and tries to sell the property to Burlingame, but at 37 acres it isn’t big enough to interest them and doesn’t offer pond frontage.

So she hires developers and gives them strict instructions to minimally develop the property in such a way that has the least possible impact on the neighbors. They come up with a plan under a fairly new and relatively unused zoning classification called a residential compound, where they’ll create half the number of lots they’d normally be allowed and have no paved roads, only private gravel roads. They’re developing the subdivision according to the state’s new Low-Impact Development (LID) criteria and will not only not increase stormwater runoff but will in fact improve drainage in the area to accommodate even the dreaded 100-year storm.

And still the master plan ended up being chewed over for an hour and forty-five minutes by both the planning commissioners and the neighbors.

Seriously, the Rehill subdivision had to be Ruth Platner’s wet dream of an application. They were speaking her language. The only impervious surfaces will be the roofs of the houses! I didn’t once see her take out her calculator to tell us how many of the dreaded children will end up living there. As she ruefully explained, if applicants comply with all the applicable codes, we can’t turn them down just because we don’t like development (as much as we’d like to, I could hear her thinking). Linda Fabre made a point of expressing her pleasure with the LID compliance.

But the public still had concerns and questions. Why do there have to be so many driveways leading out onto Buckeye Brook Road? Okay, we’ll move one of them onto the side road. The gentlemen from A.R.M. engineering were accommodating to a fault (and had the patience of saints, IMO). What about the runoff? What if people start cutting down trees? Interestingly enough, apparently the difference in the amount of erosion from forested land versus an open field with grass and brush is negligible. Another new thing I learned that night. Never let me say that listening in on Planning Commission meetings is a complete waste of time.

One gentleman in the audience expressed concerns about the private roads and the fact that the town would not be maintaining them. I have to agree; I would not want to have to maintain my portion of Biscuit City Road myself either. It always makes me very happy when I see the DPW folks out there clearing the culvert or whatever else needs to be done. If any DPW folks are reading this, kudos, and please tell Tom Gentz I’m being “constructive, not destructive.”

Platner explained that the residential compound is a tradeoff: The developer creates fewer lots than would otherwise be permitted but is spared the expense of building roads. Because of course from the town’s standpoint, or Ruth’s at any rate, fewer houses is always better. I’m still trying to figure out why that is. Seems to me it’d be better to have housing clustered in smaller, denser areas rather than spread out all over town. In fact, the proposed Rehill subdivision is zoned R40, meaning minimum lot sizes of only 1 acre, despite being surrounded by areas zoned R3A and Burlingame, which even Town Planner Ashley Hahn Morris found inexplicable. If we don’t want a lot of houses, why is 3 acres the largest minimum lot size? Why not have 5-acre zoning?

Whoops, don’t want to go giving Ruth any ideas. Don’t tell her I said that.
Geoff Marchant of Washington County CDC is trying to
bring the Edwards Lane affordable housing project
back from the dead.

On to the Edwards Lane affordable housing project, which is back on track after some setbacks. Since the market has changed in the meantime, the plan has been changed and now the houses will be for people earning 80% of area median income. So even though it won’t be rental property, the houses will be affordable for people who would normally have to rent. There will be a total of seven 3-bedroom houses, some owned by Habitat for Humanity and some by Church Community Housing. The buyers of the houses will actually be leasing the land, they won’t own it, so the homes will be safe from foreclosure. The Habitat houses will follow the Habitat model whereby when the owner decides to sell, Habitat buys the house back from them at cost. (Habitat provides zero-interest loans, so the unpaid mortgage interest serves as the owner’s “profit” when they sell the house.) The CCH homes will be deed-restricted such that owners can only sell to buyers at 80% AMI.

It all sounded great to me, but you know the old saying, once burned, twice shy. The commissioners wanted assurances from Geoff Marchant of Washington County CDC, which he of course couldn’t provide, that this time it would work and we’d actually get some affordable housing. Here’s hoping the stars have finally aligned.

Last but not least, the Greenock Village preapplication for a comp permit, a Larry LeBlanc production. The mood in the room shifted abruptly. Ruth informed the applicant that as they were running out of time, they might not be able to get through the whole thing. The presenter, Eric Prive of DiPrete Engineering, promised to be brief. “We have a lot of questions,” Ruth informed him. Though LeBlanc and his engineer were hardly to blame for Ruth’s poor time management skills in letting the master plan review run so long. One could, if one were being uncharitable, call it a passive-aggressive move on Ruth's part to put LeBlanc in his place.

This being one of those adversarial situations where the developer is seeking the dreaded density bonus by promising to include affordable housing in the project, Ruth did not give an inch.

Ruth also seems to have developed a new code by which she telegraphs her antichild bias. Rather than try to reduce the number of bedrooms per housing unit to keep kids out, she confined herself to pointing out that three bedrooms is too much house for people to afford if it’s just two people and that the house prices would have to be lowered on the affordable units because the price is based on income and family size. Turns out the houses won’t all necessarily be three bedrooms, that was just a default for calculating the septic needs. Whew, what a relief.

They didn’t get any love for their LID compliance, though. And at a quarter to 10, Ruth rather unceremoniously informed them that they would have to come back next month because she had other more pressing matters to attend to (i.e., dark skies and the advisory on the Y camp). Here’s your hat; what’s your hurry?