July 23, 2024

Valley News – Housing plan for former Windsor prison property gets mixed reviews

WINDSOR — A conceptual plan to repurpose a portion of the former prison property on County Road into a housing development drew a mix of opinions at a forum attended by about 30 people last week.

While some spoke in support of the concept because of the lack of housing statewide, others criticized a dense housing development more than three miles from the downtown on land that borders the 900-acre wildlife management area established several years ago.

Rich VanDerWelt agreed that housing is needed but said this location is “not appropriate.”

“In my opinion, turn it back into a wildlife management area,” VanDerWelt said at the Dec. 20 meeting, which was held at the Welcome Center on Railroad Avenue.

Another resident said the state wants more housing but has identified developed downtowns as the best location and this plan goes against that.

Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh responded that because of the floodplain and contamination issues, finding suitable land for development in downtown Windsor is difficult. He also said it would cost about $4 million for the state to tear down the buildings on the property and do other work to return it to open space.

Marsh said even though the 118 acres of former prison property is in a rural area, it has sufficient utilities — water (200,000-gallon storage tank), public sewer and power — to support development. Its impact on the wildlife management area would have to be studied.

“They have to be able to coexist,” Marsh said.

Emily Bell, of Bell Design Studios in Woodstock, said the goals of her conceptual plan include preserving viable structures, utilities and the area’s rural character as well as protecting long-range views of the hillsides, the natural features and the wildlife area boundaries.

Bell’s conceptual plan has three distinct areas on the property: housing, institutional/light industrial, and recreation and hospitality.

“We are conceiving this as a campus with different aspects that would connect as a whole,” Bell said.

The housing concept on 34 acres would have a mix of 54 units — four to a building — 38 single-family units with shared spaces such as parking and 20 single family units on quarter-acre lots.

“It really comes down to the infrastructure of water, sewer and power,” Bell said, explaining how the land could help address the state’s housing shortage. “It makes it fairly easy to conclude housing could be a fit here.”

Rollin Rice, a County Road resident for more than 80 years, said housing density of that nature is not what people want in a rural area.

“People in the country don’t want to be 12 feet from the house next to them. They want 15 acres,” Rice said.

Marsh said density is the best way to create much-needed affordable housing so people can have ownership.

Resident Robert S. Slocum spoke in support of the housing concept.

“I think that the plan presented this evening has been carefully researched and well thought out,” Slocum said. “It’s a good overall plan that could very well gain approval from the state.”

Going forward, Slocum said he would like to see prime agricultural land on the site used for farming or community gardening.

Tom Kennedy, executive director of the Mt. Ascutney Regional Planning Commission, said with the average price of a home in Vermont at more than $400,000, the housing concept for the prison land would fill a need of the “missing middle,” or medium-priced homes.

The institutional and light industrial area of 57 acres would see a number of buildings demolished because of their condition with five others totaling 38,000 square feet renovated. Bell said there are any number of uses, such as food production, for the buildings. Some audience members suggested an educational component.

The last 27 acres would be less developed, and mostly devoted to recreation.

Bell, who presented her plan earlier this month to the Selectboard and Planning Commission, said her goal is to bring the feedback and ideas she hears from the community to the Legislature in early 2024.

Bell, Marsh and Kennedy emphasized more than once that they were presenting a concept, not a plan, and the ultimate look of any redevelopment could be completely different depending on what the Legislature of the state-owned property decides.

Marsh reminded residents the process to approve a plan and implement it could take seven to 10 years and Bell’s concept is a starting point.

Since the prison closed in 2017, the state has spent about $1.5 million maintaining the property, Marsh said. State agencies had no interest in the properties and private developers wanted too much money from the state, which led to a discussion of a mixed-use concept, Marsh said.

“There is absolutely zero predetermined idea on what those uses should be,” he emphasized. “What you see is just a concept.”

Whatever ideas residents have, Marsh urged them to contact their legislator. While he understands there is a lot more work to be done, Marsh said he hopes this process at least gets the Legislature to agree on a direction and also spend money to demolish the unsafe buildings.

Bell’s presentation can be seen on Windsor On Air, the town’s local access station, woa-tv.org.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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