Affordability at issue for Sykes Mountain Ave housing project


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-12-2023 4:09 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A plan to build over 200 apartments off Sykes Mountain Avenue moved closer to approval last week, though members of the town Planning Commission expressed concerns about the proposal to separate affordable units from the rest of the project.  

A partnership of Simpson Development Corp. of White River Junction and the Pering Group, a Venezuela-based firm, is proposing a five-building complex on a 25-acre parcel between Hickory Ridge and Lily Pond roads. The development would include four buildings containing 192 market rate apartments on one lot, and on a smaller adjoining lot, there would be a single building with 48 apartments with rents that are affordable to people with moderate to low incomes.

On Dec. 4, the Planning Commission approved a boundary line adjustment to divide the parcel into a 21-acre lot and a 4-acre. 

But members of the Commission, as well as residents, expressed dismay that the affordable apartments would be in a separate building rather than being mixed in with the market rate units. 

“Philosophically, I have a problem with concentrating all of the affordable units in one building,” Commissioner Colin Butler said. “It just strikes me as segregation of the people who can afford (market rate rents) from the people who can’t. And I don’t think that’s a message I want to subscribe to.” 

“Why are we singling out low-income Vermonters as different or less than?” asked resident Elizabeth Feinberg. “Is this really a Vermont value?”

Adding to the concern of commissioners, Dennis Marquise, of Simpson Development, said that planners intend to transfer ownership of the standalone apartment building to an organization that specializes in affordable housing projects. 

Marquise explained that the housing was separated for financing purposes. A standalone affordable housing project is eligible for funding from federal programs that award grants or tax credits to residential developments where over 50% of the units are affordable to people with moderate to low incomes.

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If the affordable apartments were mixed into the other buildings, those funding resources would be unavailable, he said. 

“That said, there is going to be a diversity of units (in the main complex) … efficiencies, small one-bedroom, larger one-bedroom, small two-bedroom (apartments),” Marquise said. “So there is going to be a range of affordability there.” 

Of the 192 market rate units, there will be nine studio, seven junior one-bedroom, 20 one-bedroom, six larger one-bedroom and seven two-bedroom apartments. The developers have not announced a price range for these units.

With the projects being separated, Butler said he worried that the anticipated affordable apartments might never be built. 

“What if the owner of the (affordable housing) property never gains financing, or goes bankrupt or decides to spend their resources on a project somewhere else — and this parcel just stands empty for the foreseeable future?” Butler asked. 

Notably, the developers are seeking town approval of a “density bonus” — an incentive that permits a project to exceed the allowable number of residential units in a town zone on the condition that a percentage of the total units are affordable to moderate or low incomes. 

Vermont law allows an affordable housing development to increase its density limitation by 40%. This provision would allow the developers to add up to 16 additional units to the affordable housing building. 

In Vermont, affordable housing rents must be affordable to people earning 80% or less of the area median income. In Windsor County, the annual median income is $97,600. 

Marquise said that a condition could be added to the permit that requires affordable housing to be built on the smaller lot.

“The land will have to be burdened with a commitment that, at some point, somebody will have to step up and do an affordable housing project there.”

Butler sought to require the developers to amend their plan to include affordable apartments in their main complex but was informed by Chairman John Reid that the Planning Commission does not have purview over how a developer prices its rents. 

Selectboard member Kim Souza, who sits on the Planning Commission as a liaison, expressed disappointment in the Commission’s limited scope. 

“I think it’s a bit ironic that the Planning Commission can scrutinize the slope of a dog area, a type of barbecue or what the view looks like from a certain (location) but the affordability of housing is something that can’t be scrutinized.”

Reid indicated the Planning Commission could have that discussion during its upcoming review of the town zoning regulations. 

In addition to approving the boundary line adjustment, the Planning Commission granted preliminary approval to the 192-unit apartment complex, which is required because the complex will be built in a zone where housing requires approval from the planning and zoning boards. 

The Zoning Board of Adjustment plans to consider approval of the 192-unit project at a meeting in February. 

The standalone building for affordable apartments will be in a zone where approval for housing is not required. 

The Planning Commission also continued public hearings to review the project site plans to Feb 5. 

“I appreciate the staggering investment that you are proposing to make in the community,” said Planning Commission Vice Chairman Bruce Riddle. “This is a game changer in a variety of ways. I know that we have a long way to go and that it will take (years) before it is all done. But this is a giant first step.”

Patrick Adrian may be reached at or 603-727-3216.