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Affordable housing: Dresser donates land parcel in Salisbury

SALISBURY — A five-acre parcel of land situated 200 yards from Salisbury village is being donated by former selectman and longtime resident Jim Dresser to the nonprofit Salisbury Housing Committee (SHC) as a potential site for affordable housing.

The property is situated on East Railroad Street along the Rail Trail, about 200 yards northeast of LaBonne’s Market.

The  donation was announced by Peter Halle, copresident of SHC, on Friday, May 20, and hailed as an “amazing expression of generosity,” by Jocelyn Ayer, director of the Litchfield County Center for Housing Opportunity (LCCHO) and a volunteer board member of SHC.

“Having folks like Jim, who are able to donate property, is amazing. It’s something that gets talked about a lot, but we don’t see it often,” said Ayer. “Access to land is the number one most critical issue.”

‘It is time to build the needed rentals’

Dresser recalled that at the time he purchased the property he “did not have specific plans” for its use. “I bought the 5-acre East Railroad Street parcel in 1997 when I purchased 1 East Main St. after my retirement and return to my hometown.” The seller, he said, was leaving the area and was looking to unload both sites.

According to Dresser, the secluded East Railroad Street parcel is served by town water and sewer, making it “an ideal location for a modest number of affordable rental units.

“The need for affordable housing in Salisbury is steadily becoming more urgent for all ages and occupations, particularly in the wake of the COVID-related influx of new residents, which has driven real estate prices even higher.”

Dresser explained that building affordable rentals on the property is a designated development in the Town of Salisbury Affordable Housing Plan approved by the Board of Selectmen in 2018. “It is time to build the needed rentals.”

He pointed to the Sarum Village expansion, which recently received $1.5 million in federal funding for the addition of 10 new affordable housing rental units in town. “Every month we don’t have these 10 units at Sarum Village III means there are 10 families that aren’t living here, working here,” he said.

Will second time be the charm?

If the East Railroad Street property rings a bell, it’s because it was the subject of a contentious town meeting more than seven years ago, when the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development applied to the town for access to build a 30-unit housing complex on the site.

That proposal was voted down at town meeting over fears of a significant encroachment on the Rail Trail.

This time around, SHC representatives said they are considering reducing the number of affordable rental units on the site, which would require a smaller driveway corridor on the Rail Trail.

But should a viable affordable housing plan not earn local support, the property will likely end up in the hands of a private developer, said Halle, who noted that the proposed development does not remove the need for more affordable rental housing elsewhere in Salisbury.

“We need to develop all the properties specified in the Affordable Housing Plan, approved by the town in 2018. Even if we meet the plan’s goal,” noted Halle, “we will remain short of state-mandated goals.

“Accordingly, if the East Railroad Street plan cannot be realized, SHC will sell this property to a private developer to fund other projects.”

Next step
in the process

Once the title transfer takes place, said Halle, SHC members will come up with a proposal, hold a series of public information meetings and have a town meeting vote.

Halle said while the exact number of rental units has not yet been determined, proponents of the plan will present “a simpler path to get to the property.”

“I think we will have a better chance than the last go-around.

“It was an unhappy moment in town,” he said.

Halle noted that the land donor is giving the property to SHC without restrictions for the purpose of bringing affordable housing units to Salisbury.

“If that’s impossible we will be sitting on an asset that is worth a lot of money and just like any other nonprofit we need money and we would convert that to cash.”

Buildable, affordable land is hard to come by

Small communities throughout the Northwest Corner, said Ayer, are grappling with similar issues when it comes to adding to their stock of affordable housing.

“One of the hardest parts is finding land. Buildable, affordable land is the key issue.”

For that reason, raising awareness among property owners who may be in a position to give land to a nonprofit group is one of her goals, said Ayer.

It is also important for landowners to remember that numerous existing affordable housing units were built on former homeowner properties “donated by generous people,” including Kugeman Village and Bonney Brook apartments, both in Cornwall, Ayer noted.

A perfect example of ‘YIMBY’

“We are hoping that as we bring this to the community from the Salisbury Housing Committee, that folks can see what we have accomplished with Sarum Village,” said Ayer. “If not, there will be market-rate housing there.”

“This is literally a ‘Yes In My Back Yard’ project. It is literally in Jim’s back yard,” said Ayer.

“He’s talking the talk and walking the walk. He’s saying, ‘This is my neighborhood, and I am committed to creating housing opportunities here.’ I hope his actions inspire other folks to do the same thing.”

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