WILDER — After hours of public testimony over two nights, Twin Pines Housing Trust cleared two key hurdles in its effort to build an 18-unit apartment complex at 747 Hartford Ave. in Wilder.
First, on Monday, Twin Pines received preliminary approval for a planned development from the Planning Commission on property currently owned by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The commission approved the request on a vote of 5-2.
The next night, Twin Pines received conditional use approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment for the proposed project. That vote was 4-0, with one member of the board absent.
Both public hearings were continued from April and little new ground was covered as the majority of opposition echoed points previously expressed, focusing largely on the safety of the area, a lack of parking and the contention that the development was too big for the location and out of character with the neighborhood.
One thing that was a little different is the number of people opposing the plan who began their statements with support for the mission of Twin Pines but didn’t believe the location was the right spot for an 18-unit apartment complex.
Several people spoke to the safety issue and expressed concern for their children.
The apartment complex, proposed to be located next to the Haven to allow for close proximity of services, will only bring more people with mental health issues and addiction problems, neighbors argued.
Many in opposition said concentrating this population near schools and single-family homes was a dangerous decision.
Jess Bowen spoke passionately about experiences her 13-year-old daughter has faced.
Bowen said her daughter has had crude comments said to her as she walked home from school and once had a man spit and yell at her and her friends.
“She hasn’t walked to school since,” Bowen said. “I am angry, I am frustrated and I am exhausted. I believe we are better as a community when we come together to find solutions. I also believe that if you allow a no-barrier shelter or 18 single-person apartments to be built on Hartford Avenue, someone, potentially a child, is going to get hurt, and as a community we will have to live with that forever.”
Several others shared similar stories or said that the tales they had heard had changed their mind about supporting the project.
Lori Dickerson said it’s not about housing, it’s about helping people dealing with mental illness and addiction.
She referenced the experience of Bowen’s daughter.
“If any of you are parents or were parents, I don’t know how you can turn your back,” Dickerson said. “Her child has lived with this and will live with this memory for the rest of her life.”
That opposition from neighbors led to Commissioner Robin Adair Logan’s decision to oppose the application: “I was very moved by the opinions of the people who actually live in the neighborhood. I’m a mother and grandmother of high school kids, and I really was unhappy for the parents who spoke up.
Logan said she had never seen the public turn out the way it has. In excess of 80 participants logged on for both public hearings.
“I have to believe the public that has come forth in this application,” Logan said. “I have never seen this many letters and discussion and participation, which I think should impress us. I like that the community that is around the neighborhood has come forth. We don’t get that very often. We have to listen to them.”
But supporters suggested thinking about the people who need housing and pointed out that residents at the proposed apartments will be undergo background checks and cannot have convictions for sex crimes or drugs.
Leslie Black is a neighbor and member of St. Paul’s church.
“For some, it might be the first time they’ve ever had a home of their own,” Black said. “For others, it may be their first time having working plumbing or electricity. I say good luck and welcome to the neighborhood.”
Planning Commission members expressed some concerns but were prepared to let the project move forward.
Chairman John Reid echoed several commissioners who said that he didn’t foresee the Twin Pines project contributing to the safety issues in the neighborhood.
“I don’t see how putting up the proposed building and putting 18 people in it and giving them the services they need will decrease the security of the neighbors, and it may increase security,” Reid said. “I’m feeling optimistic that the building will have a beneficial effect.”
At Tuesday’s Zoning Board meeting, Michael Redmond, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, said he was taking the community’s concerns about safety seriously.
“We need to move toward action,” Redmond said. “How can we make the community safer? I think this project does make the community safer.”
And Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines, also addressed the issue.
“As a parent, I know how hard it is to keep our kids safe in a world that, at times, feels increasingly unsafe,” Winter said.
The two approvals this week are just the first steps for the proposal.
The Hartford Zoning Board will consider two other applications that were continued until 6 p.m. on June 8.
The first application is from The Upper Valley Haven and St. Paul’s Episcpopal Church for a conditional use permit for shared use parking between lots 713 and 749 Hartford Ave., in Wilder, and the Hartford Planning Commission will take up a site development plan approval application when it next meets at 6 p.m. June 13.
The Haven also has applications on both agendas.
Darren Marcy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-291-4992.