BELLOWS FALLS – Since 2020, a group of Bellows Falls area residents has been meeting almost monthly to discuss how to create more and better housing in the Village of Bellows Falls.
Specifically, to develop new housing.
So it seemed only natural that the Rockingham Additional Development Working Group, known as RIDWG, would apply to be part of a new government housing pilot project – Homes for All.
With the country in the midst of a housing crisis, lawmakers passed Law No. 47 to encourage different approaches to resolving the crisis.
One such different approach is to encourage new construction within village boundaries or already established neighborhoods, where new housing can be supported by existing water and sewer services, and be part of a “walkable” community.
Last month, the Commerce and Community Development Agency visited Bellows Falls with a list of potential developable properties. Bellows Falls was one of five Vermont communities selected for the pilot project, according to the agency’s Amy Tommaso. Eventually, a small-scale developer toolkit will be produced through the project, providing young developers with a how-to guide on how to do this.
Other communities selected for the pilot project include Arlington, Rutland City, Vergennes and Middlesex, she said.
On Oct. 18, state and local officials, along with a state consultant, Boston architectural firm Utile Architecture and Planning, joined by the curious, toured five potential sites in Bellows Falls identified on GIS maps that would be Prime area for “fill” or additional “intermediate” housing.
One goal is to build new accessory structures on existing lots, which would create new housing and also provide income for current homeowners, she said.
Only landowners sympathetic to or interested in the project’s goals were included, Tommaso said.
The sites the group visited included the site of the former Oona’s restaurant in downtown Bellows Falls, a house on Greene Street with a large lot, and vacant lots that previously contained a house, according to Gary Fox, Rockingham’s development director.
The toolkit, which the state is expected to complete early next year, will be extremely helpful to local developers like them, said John Dunbar, a Rockingham resident who has been heavily involved in RIDWG and, along with his twin brother Jeff, consider themselves small-scale developers.
Dunbar said RIDWG was the result of a community visit from the Vermont Rural Development Council, which came to Bellows Falls in the fall of 2019 to bring the community together to brainstorm key issues facing the city.
The various work groups kind of collapsed due to the COVID pandemic, but the housing group continued to work, Dunbar said.
Fox, the Rockingham development director, said RIDWG wanted to educate city residents about different housing options and issues, and would arrange presentations quarterly, usually before each regular three-board meeting of the Rockingham Select Board, Bellows Falls Village and Saxton River Trustees. Village trustees.
The goal is to create more housing in the village, both as an economic boost and also to create more of a tax base, Fox said. Some of the comprehensive plans would require a zoning change in Rockingham and Bellows Falls to allow five residential units per acre, Tommaso said.
Fox said 47 percent of all housing lots in Bellows Falls do not meet current zoning requirements. He said the city, with help from Brattleboro Development Credit, is trying to determine “what are the things in Rockingham that make it difficult” for such a small-scale residential development.
Rockingham’s new city plan encourages such density, he said. Bellows Falls, which at one time had a population of 3,500, is now home to just 2,780 people, he said, citing the 2020 Census.
Housing surveys show that 70 percent of Rockingham/Bellows Falls households have between one and two people, while 70 percent of residences have between three and five bedrooms.
“It affects the vitality of the community,” he said, referring to the declining population.
Rockingham Select Board Chairman Peter Gulick, who was on the walking tour, said the architectural firm hired by the state had some unrealistic plans for some of the proposed lots, and they said they would have to rework some of their proposals.
In recent years, the town ended up owning vacant lots where homes once stood, but fire destroyed them and the owners didn’t have the money to tear down the damaged buildings and clean up the site, he said.
Some of these lots were on the tour, but redevelopment won’t be easy, he said.
Gulick said the goals were laudable, but he was a bit skeptical about whether they were achievable.
“I think it’s a noble effort,” he said.