Does Thetford have the capacity, and the will, for housing growth?

As the town experienced, public approval — or opposition — is key to allowing change.

Does Thetford have the capacity, and the will, for housing growth?
Thetford, as depicted on VT Parcel Viewer

This million-dollar (literally) question has surfaced repeatedly, even in the last decade or so before the words "housing crisis" entered into common parlance. 

We all acknowledge that the economy is being crippled by the shortage of workforce housing and, therefore, workers. The housing shortage always comes near the top of the list of concerns in surveys of Thetford residents, such as that pertaining to the American Rescue Plan money or the call for ideas for Selectboard priorities for 2024. Yet time and again, initiatives to develop workforce and senior housing, spearheaded by the dedicated volunteers of the Senior and Affordable Housing Committee (SAHC), have been stymied. 

Around 2010, the SAHC investigated the site of the condemned Malmquist Mill in Post Mills as a possible site for senior housing. There were concerns about soil contaminants at the site, and talks with the owner eventually fell through.

In 2017-2018, the Osgood property in East Thetford became the object of discussion between SAHC and Twin Pines Housing, the leading developer of affordable housing for low-to-moderate-income people in the Upper Valley. Drainage of the 5-acre parcel was an issue that would cost over $100,000 (at that time) to rectify. In addition, the abutters were strongly opposed to development on the site. This project was abandoned.

Another potential site in East Thetford was the old railway station, which was considered in 2018-2019. However, its assessed value of over $94,000 (at that time) for 0.71 acres was deemed unduly expensive. There was also no place for a septic system, though this could have been built on abutting land across the tracks. However, the railroad company was not cooperative, and this project too was abandoned. Lack of space for septic also defeated another initiative to develop a small parcel near Longwind Farm.

In 2020, after much research by the SAHC, the Town purchased 7.6 acres on Rt 244 in Post Mills. A study by Pathways Engineering indicated that this site would support sufficient septic for a number of workforce housing units. A preliminary design of low-rise buildings with gardens and green space was drawn up and presented to the public. However, a neighborhood petition succeeded in inciting vocal opposition to the project, and this project too was abandoned.

In the last couple of years, with the transition to Town Manager governance, the approach to housing is assuming a new life. Taking cues from other communities, the Town sent out a call for proposals to perform a Build-out Analysis of the entire Town, also known as a Capacity for Growth Study (aka Capacity Study). 

So what, exactly, is a Capacity Study? 

In essence, it is an evaluation of the capacity of the land, the soils and the Town's infrastructure to support new development. A key item in the study is a hard look at water supply and wastewater disposal — key town infrastructure that supports growth. In general, such public infrastructure projects are what drives private investment in housing and commercial development. Present and future traffic patterns are another area that will be reviewed. The Capacity Study would also integrate the State planning goal to have development undertaken in accordance with smart growth principles. These include strengthening and directing development towards existing communities, creating walkable neighborhoods with a range of housing opportunities, minimizing sprawl, and preserving open space, farmland, natural beauty, and environmentally critical areas.  

After evaluating existing conditions in and around Thetford's villages, the Capacity Study will project locations where there is potential for future development. Also included will be an appraisal of how well the Town's ordinances and bylaws support development. The base of data provided by the Capacity Study will assist future Town planning work to accommodate growth. The data will also be very useful for leveraging funding for in-depth analyses of specific topics.

A critical aspect of the study will be to focus on building consensus in the community, while acknowledging the diverse viewpoints, needs, and experiences of residents. Ideally, there should be robust evidence of a community's desire for growth and change, even a public vote on a development master plan. As the SAHC (disbanded in 2000  and replaced with the Housing Committee) experienced, public approval — or opposition — is key to allowing change.

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