Neighbors seek info on Great Barrington parcel eyed for affordable housing

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The vacant patch of land off North Plain Road is perfect for affordable housing.

It's flat and doesn't have any conservation or contamination issues. And that's why the town's Affordable Housing Trust already has a contract to buy it.

But the 7.2-acre parcel is also directly surrounded by 21 homes, and residents are worried that they won't have a say in what is built there. They also fear that a so-far "vague" plan has already gone too far through the decision pipeline with nary a consideration for their thoughts.

"It's just the unknown that is a problem," said Daniel Bailly, a former Select Board member who lives nearby, and whose parents are abutters to the lot owned by Dale and Sandra Alden. "Nobody's even talked to anyone in the neighborhood. There's a purchase and sale [agreement] and no one even knew."

The matter sparked anger directed at the Community Preservation Committee during a recent meeting, according to Eileen Mooney's NEWSletter. The town board decides which projects are worthy of funding by voters at annual town meeting through the town's Community Preservation Act money, a combination of a local tax surcharge and state funds.

The committee voted unanimously Jan. 6 to recommend projects, including $200,000 to buy the Alden lot. The town would eventually partner with a local affordable housing developer for what would likely be workforce housing targeted at those below a certain income ceiling. For example, a family of four making about $80,000 or less in annual household income would qualify, said Bill Cooke, chairman of the trust.

"That's nursing aides, teachers and police," he said.

Great Barrington is among a number of Berkshire towns trying to find ways to increase the affordability of housing, which is considered critical to maintaining and attracting workers and families, and a boost to economic development.

But land use snags like this one sometimes emerge.

"We're not trying to ruin the neighborhood," Cooke said, adding that any development there would have its own road, and not create a traffic conflict. A preliminary conceptual drawing by trust member Jonathan Hankin, an architect, had six, four-unit clusters surrounding a central green, and garden beds around the perimeter. But Cooke said this could completely change.

"We don't really know what will go there," Cooke said, adding that there is already interest from four local housing nonprofits including Construct Inc. and Community Development Corp. of Southern Berkshire. "We're going to have neighborhood development meetings as part of the request for proposal."

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Cooke said the trust jumped at this opportunity.

"It's a good price for that much land," he said. "You can't build affordable housing on expensive land."

Tempers at last week's meeting inspired a letter by Hankin, sent to news media, in part, to dispel claims that he or the real estate brokerage firm he works for would receive a commission from the sale. Hankin is acting as agent for the trust.

"As of the 2010 census, 48 percent of home owners with mortgages and 61 percent of renter households in Great Barrington are 'cost burdened' — spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing," Hankin wrote. "These numbers, which are actually higher in Housatonic, have doubled from 2000."

Hankin, who also sits on the town's Planning Board, pointed out the dangers of not selling the lot to a public entity — that current zoning regulations could allow a private developer swoop in and carve up the lot for market-rate housing with as many as a 66 units.

He also said he didn't think new housing there would send property values tumbling, given the high cost of new construction.

But Bailly said that the emotion at the meeting was a reaction to a sale underway without abutters' knowledge — not to affordable housing, or even the location of it.

"It's not a wealthy neighborhood," he said. "Most of the people would probably qualify [for affordable housing]. It's just fear of the unknown."

He said that area residents are organizing, and will come to the next CPC meeting with questions.

He also said that all town officials should be scrutinizing these plans in this early phase.

"Questions should be asked now," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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