The Champlain Housing Trust’s plan to renovate three Fort Ethan Allen buildings into recovery housing apartments cleared an important hurdle earlier this fall after the town of Essex agreed to apply for a grant on its behalf.
This summer, CHT announced plans to convert three buildings on the Essex side of the fort – 1005, 1006 and 1007 Ethan Allen Ave. – into recovery housing. The project would be carried out in partnership with the Vermont Foundation of Recovery, which runs six other recovery homes in Vermont.
The town’s agreement to serve as CHT’s local partner means the housing trust can seek a $700,000 grant from the Vermont Community Development program. At more than a third of the $1.8 million in funding CHT says it needs for the project, the grant help pay off existing debts, cover the costs of renovating the apartments and relocating the current tenants, and help make stormwater improvements on-site.
Officials from both agencies say the project not only provides much-needed support for a segment of the population that often struggles to reintegrate into the community, but it also makes fiscal sense, giving CHT a chance to pay off some debt and FOR the opportunity to centralize its Chittenden County operation and find efficiencies that will allow it to expand throughout the state.
But neighbors of the site have repeatedly questioned the impact on their quality of life, arguing that the scale of the project would threaten the budding community they’ve built over at the fort. They have urged the selectboard to support the residents who already live there, framing it as a question of morality.
“They’re not pawns in a housing game,” said Ann Laberge of her neighbors during the selectboard’s Sept. 23 meeting. “I just want to know who judges which population is more deserving?”
Other residents have called on the board to do more research, accusing the housing trust and VFOR of mistakenly filing their concerns as simply a “not in my backyard” mentality.
“That is not the case,” wrote resident Johnathan Hodgkinin a letter to the board. “Most of us are not against recovery housing in the neighborhood; many of us have friends or family members who have been affected by the opioid crisis and are supportive on efforts to address it. We are trying to support some of our existing neighbors and maintain the character of the neighborhood as a community.”
But while some board members shared similar concerns, others saw the request as a chance to make a small difference in the fight against the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis, especially given how the project will allow VFOR to start offering family units, where parents can reintegrate back into their children’s lives.
“This seems like an excellent way for us to kind of put up or shut up,” said selectman Patrick Murray. “I see so many positives about this, and I think at some point we, as leaders of this community, need to say, ‘What are our values?’”
The selectboard voted 5-0 in favor of applying for the grant, which is one of several CHT is seeking as part of the project, and the trust expects to hear back about the funding in the coming months.
Moral questions aside, CHT’s ask of the town forced officials here to confront what they call municipal growing pains, in which the community needs to decide how it wishes to finance desired levels of service.
Public works director Dennis Lutz didn’t say whether he supported the project, instead focusing on the $50,000 portion of the grant that would be spent on improving the stormwater drainage in the area, where lines are anywhere between 50 to 120 years old.
He said his department was assisting CHT to design the proposed water system and has talked with the trust about getting easements to better manage the system. It’s also working with the trust on a related sewer issue, but does not support using public funds to fix or replace these private lines, Lutz said.
Emergency officials, meanwhile, took varied stances on the project.
Police Chief Rick Garey said he was initially concerned about the “impacts on the community,” including the potential increased demand for already-stretched-thin services.
“Specifically, we were concerned with the potential for increased crime, illicit drug activity and calls for service these types of facilities can bring to a community if not planned, placed and run well,” Garey wrote. He also had concerns over the displacement of other low income housing units to make way for the recovery units.
But after several meetings and conversations with “subject matter professionals,” Garey said most of his concerns have been alleviated.
Still, he offered two recommendations, however: First, that the project be phased in, with no more than half of the proposed beds approved in the first stage. Then, after six months or a year of evaluating how the project has impacted the community, the town could approve the remainder of the beds. Second, Garey recommended the town enter an agreement with CHT and VFOR that would set conditions of future growth.
Fire Chief Charles Cole, meanwhile, opposed the project, believing it will push his volunteer department beyond its capacity, but said if the project does move forward, he too supports a phased-in approach.
With the project’s scale a frequent point of tension, VFOR and CHT officials penned a response that said the benefit of recovery residences is peer-to-peer support, meaning “in reality, bigger is actually better.”
“Many recovery residences throughout the USA (and some in VT) have upwards of 20 people per home,” reads the agencies’ responses. “At VFOR, we believe we have struck a good balance with 6 so there are enough to create connections and a family like atmosphere but not so many that people fall between the cracks.”
Even so, the agencies said they considering a transition period so that not all three buildings would become occupied at once. Under such a scenario, VFOR says the highest priority would be moving in women and the transitional apartments, which are both gaps in the state’s current recovery housing offerings.
Town staff reached out to nearby communities to see their experience with transitional housing. Some towns, like Shelburne and Middlebury, said that recovery housing proposals have seen difficulties in the approval process, with the latter recalling a contentious process through which it denied an application a year ago because it was in a zoning district that did not allow “social service facilities,” according to an Essex town staff memo.
Others, like South Burlington, which has a home for homeless individuals to live for a year, told town staff that neighbors have widely supported the project, and while it does see a higher-than-average police call volume, the department has said its involvement is substantially less than when the individuals were homeless.
For the development department, the proposal represents an “exceptionally good and needed project” for the town, especially since it conforms with the current town plan and housing needs assessment.
Still, the department recommended the town conduct cross-departmentmental impact fee studies so that “Essex can take care of its own house.”