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Attitudes must change in NWC

Of the many needs we have in the Northwest Corner — and contrary to our image, we do have many — none is more pressing than affordable housing for working families and facilities to house our growing population of senior citizens. But it’s getting harder and harder to do anything about either one.

In this day and age in most Northwest Corner towns, just about anyone who dares to propose a project to address those issues immediately faces opposition from neighbors or from boards and commissions determined to make life miserable for the developer. A recent example of this phenomenon came to light last week in The Journal’s front page story about a group of nearby residents opposed to the plans of Noble Horizons to build 32 cottages for the elderly, expanding their current facility.

To be sure, all developers should be required to obey local zoning regulations. From the construction of one single-family home to large-scale commercial development, builders must adhere to regulations designed to ensure public safety and consistency with the vision for the town’s future set forth by its citizens and planners.

Noble has a track record of good citizenship in the community. It’s one of the largest employers in the town. The retirement community and nursing facilities meet a critical demand, especially in Salisbury, which has the highest percentage of elderly of any municipality in the state. The proposal to hook the new cottages up to the town sewer lines required running a line across the sensitive Moore Brook wetlands, so the nonprofit Noble took the unusual (and much more expensive) step of drilling laterally under the wetlands so as to leave them virtually unscathed. By almost all accounts, both Noble and town officials have acted in good faith.

But as surely as day lilies bloom in July, opposition to the proposed development has surfaced in the form of neighbors concerned about the possibility of precedent-setting density, increased traffic, endangered species and intrusive lighting for parking lots. The opposition group, Citizens For Undermountain Road, has taken the unusual and perhaps premature step of initiating a lawsuit against the town’s Conservation Commission, which merely decided to allow the drilling for the sewer line, well in advance of any discussion by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which must hold public hearings on the proposed development.

And consider the recent case in Sharon, where Robert DePretis tried to obtain approval for a 28-unit condominium complex for the 55-and-older set on Jackson Hill. Members of the Sharon’s Planning and Zoning Commission were so intent on stopping DePretis that they ignored their own conflicts of interest and mishandled his application to such an extent as to invite a federal civil rights lawsuit from the applicant.

Concepts for affordable housing from groups such as the Salisbury Housing Trust attract a surprising amount of opposition. A housing trust proposal last year to build four or five houses on about 2.5 acres of the land behind Town Hall drew such resistance that one neighbor organized an online petition that falsely stated the land was on a town park. An even more modest proposal to put up two homes on Route 41 has attracted some passionate opposition as well.

What is going on here? Part of it is the times in which we live. When Sarum Village in Salisbury was built barely a generation ago in 1988, there was no significant opposition to the 16-unit low-to-moderate income public housing complex off Route 41. It’s hard to imagine a facility like that being built today — at least not without hiring an army of expensive lawyers to fend off a well-organized opposition.

There was a hue and cry when the maintenance-free Lions Head condominiums were first proposed in Salisbury in the 1980s. But how have they been bad for the town?

Attitudes toward housing for the elderly and working-class residents of the Northwest Corner have to change soon or we run the risk of becoming like Nantucket or The Hamptons. Perhaps this mindset will change among the more fortunate when there is no one to mow their lawns or jump in a fire truck to respond to an emergency. Perhaps opposition to such projects will soften only when boards, commissions and the fire and ambulance crews must be staffed by paid employees, resulting in property taxes that are double or triple what they are now. After all, money talks.

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