Former Bennington High School redevelopment project exempt from Bill 250

The Bennington Selectboard is discussing funding for the proposed mixed-use development at the former Bennington High School in October. CAT-TV screenshot

The proposed redevelopment of the former Bennington High School is exempt from Vermont Law 250 approval, a decision made just days after Bennington officials earmarked $2 million for the project.

As part of the proposal, the City of Bennington plans to partner with a private developer to convert the 1913 building into a mixed-use property. The city is looking to create community space for offices and recreation, while developer Hale Resources plans to build about 40 accommodations.

Since the housing proposal includes more than nine units, it would generally have required a permit under Act 250, the law on land use planning and state land use planning. But the Vermont Natural Resources Board waived that requirement last week, believing the proposal met the state’s criteria for a “priority housing project.”

He checks the boxes on the location, the number of units and whether it is a mixed-use or mixed-income housing project, depending on the council decisionwhich was released on October 27.

Project organizers said the Bill 250 exemption would speed up construction work and funding. The city estimates that community space could cost up to $9 million. Hale Resources plans to spend about $10 million on housing.

“It makes it a much more competitive project, I think, in terms of applying for grants and such, because we’re ready to go,” said Zak Hale, co-partner at Hale Resources, who requested the review. Law 250. “We don’t have this uncertainty of being held up in environmental court or something and not understanding how long it will take for us to be able to actually innovate.”

The Main Street building, included in the National Register of Historic Places, sits in a designated downtown development district. It would offer residences for different income levels, including 15 units that Hale Resources said will be permanently classified as affordable housing.

The design of the mixed-use property is also key to becoming a priority housing project. Some 70,000 square feet would constitute the residential portion. The remaining 30,000 square feet would go to community space in the city: new homes for the Bennington Senior Center and the county’s Meals on Wheels program, as well as the location of a YMCA gymnasium and some work out rooms.

There is no limit to the number of residential units that could be created under this priority housing project, as the population of Bennington has exceeded 10,000.

The Vermont Natural Resources Council, which backed Bill 250’s priority housing project exemption, said the program is a way to accelerate the construction of affordable housing in target locations.

“We tend to be very suspicious of the exemptions in Law 250, because Law 250, we don’t see it as an obstacle to development. We see it as a barrier to bad development,” said Brian Shupe, executive director of the council. “In this case, there is a clear public interest in having redevelopment in these areas.”

Hale Resources said construction of the old high school could begin between June and September 2023, with work being carried out simultaneously on residence halls and community space.

But first, the Bennington Selectboard should give the go-ahead for the town’s participation. In a meeting on October 24The seven-member council voted unanimously to allocate $2 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to the first phase of community space construction.

But council members said no money would be spent until the city finds an additional $1.2 million to complete the first phase, creating new space for the Bennington Senior Center and the Meals on Wheels program of the county.

“I think it’s important to make sure people are aware that committing that funding is not the same as spending that funding,” Selectboard member Tom Haley said at the meeting. “We can always disengage him.”

Over the next four months, designated municipal employees expect to seek additional funds, such as tax credits, loans, rebates, grants and donations. They plan to report to the board every 45 days or when there is an important update to share.

Bennington Community Development Manager Shannon Barsotti said the city is working with partners such as Goldstone Architecture and Engelberth Construction to find ways to cut costs. She thinks the total cost of the community space will be somewhere in the middle of the current estimate of $9 million and the first estimate of $4 million.

Hale Resources is responsible for financing housing construction and is considering a combination of grants, tax credits, private investors and bank financing.

The private developer said Bennington’s $2 million allocation for the redevelopment of the high school, which has been largely vacant since 2004, is a critical step in securing further funding.

The proposed project received mixed reviews from local residents.

Some welcomed the plan to create more housing units at a time when Vermont’s residential market is becoming increasingly tight, while others worried about project costs that could be passed on to ratepayers.

Several spoke at the October 24 Selectboard meeting about the parking issues mixed-use ownership could create in the Main Street area. City officials said there is already an additional parking plan if on-site parking spaces are full.

Some citizens want more public discussion of the project, including suggesting it should be put to a municipal vote.

Selection committee chair Jeannie Jenkins said that because the funding schemes currently being explored do not involve spending local taxpayers’ money and will not affect residents’ tax bills, the council is not required to put it on the ballot.

The old high school building is now owned by Christopher Gilbert, a resident of Dorset and Red Hook, New York, who purchased the property in 2020 for $146,000. The city has an ongoing lease-purchase agreement with Gilbert, but it has the option to terminate that agreement.

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