Town hears case for apart­ments

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT WING­FIELD AND ROGER PIANTADOSI Rap­pa­han­nock News Staff

The Wash­ing­ton Town Coun­cil Mon­day night (Nov. 12) post­poned any ac­tion on a pro­posal to re­pur­pose the Old Wash­ing­ton School as af­ford­able hous­ing, pend­ing a mar­ket study by Peo­ple, Inc., the community ac­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion that would buy the prop­erty from the Child Care & Learn­ing Cen­ter (CCLC) to add up to nine apart­ments to the four ex­ist­ing units that front on Mount Salem Av­enue.

“We think this a good idea,” Peo­ple, Inc. lead ar­chi­tect Michael Rush told the coun­cil and the 30 cit­i­zens who at­tended the coun­cil’s monthly meet­ing – which was about two dozen more cit­i­zens than usual. “But we will only pro­ceed with it if it’s some­thing the town also wants to do.”

The old school, part of which CCLC con­verted to apart­ment units, has been largely empty for at least that long, its large cen­tral hall oc­ca­sion­ally rented for spe­cial events. Rush told the coun­cil the or­ga­ni­za­tion would turn the site into an af­ford­able-hous­ing de­vel­op­ment for county res­i­dents.

The coun­cil’s hear­ing Mon­day was meant to al­low mem­bers of the community, and the coun­cil (mi­nus ab­sent mem­bers Alice But­ler and Patrick O’Connell) to ask ques­tions and voice opin­ions on the pro­posal. Mayor John Sul­li­van re­peat­edly re­minded the crowd that the coun­cil hadn’t reached a fi­nal de­ci­sion and likely wouldn’t for months.

“This will not be the last hear­ing on the mat­ter,” Sul­li­van as­sured those present.

Rush be­gan the nearly three-hour talk by ex­plain­ing that Peo­ple, Inc. is a “mis­sion-based community de­vel­op­ment agency.” It is a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion with about 300 em­ploy­ees and spe­cial­izes in community ser­vice.

Ac­cord­ing to Rush, who had agreed Peo­ple, Inc. would con­duct the mar­ket sur­vey be­fore the coun­cil voted to ta­ble the mat­ter, the community or­ga­ni­za­tion is ap­peal­ing to the coun­cil for a spe­cial-use per­mit for “adap­tive re­pur­pos­ing of an ex­ist­ing struc­ture.” The trans­fer of own­er­ship from CCLC to Peo­ple, Inc. is con­tin­gent on the is­suance of the per­mit. Rush said Peo­ple, Inc. has con­verted sev­eral struc­tures into low- in­come hous­ing in other ar­eas of the state; its largest apart­ment block con­sists of 85 apart­ments and is lo­cated in Woodstock.

If is­sued, the per­mit would al­low the in­stal­la­tion of nine new apart­ments; they would be an as-yet-un­de­ter­mined com­bi­na­tion of one-, two- and three­bed­room units. The apart­ments would likely be avail­able, Rush said, to any­one mak­ing less than half of the county’s area me­dian in­come, which is $74,300. So po­ten­tial ten­ants would need to make less than $37,150 an­nu­ally to qual­ify for the hous­ing, he said, though the ex­act qual­i­fy­ing thresh­old on who is el­i­gi­ble to rent is not set in stone.

“There’s not a lot of profit here,” Rush said. “But there is a lot of good.”

John Lesin­ski, speak­ing on be­half of CCLC, said CCLC sought out Peo­ple, Inc. and that this po­ten­tial ar­range­ment with them was in “keep­ing with [ pre­vi­ous owner Wil­liam] Car­ri­gan’s spirit.” Car­ri­gan left the school prop­erty to CCLC, and his ad­ja­cent Avon Hall es­tate ( also still empty) to the town.

When the floor was opened to pub­lic com­ment, Jen­nie Fitzhugh, of Old Hol­low Road, asked if there was a need for such hous­ing in Rap­pa­han­nock County. Ac­cord­ing to County Ad­min­is­tra­tor John McCarthy, the “de­mand [for af­ford­able hous­ing] is dra­matic,” though he ad­mit­ted most of the ev­i­dence for it is “opin­ion-driven and . . . anec­do­tal.”

Rush said even Peo­ple, Inc. was un­sure of the need, which is why they were will­ing to do a mar­ket study to de­ter­mine, in con­crete fig­ures, whether there was a need for low- or mid­dle- in­come hous­ing. It would also de­ter­mine whether the project was worth Peo­ple, Inc.’s time; in essence, if not enough peo­ple needed or wanted it, the or­ga­ni­za­tion would likely spend its re­sources else­where.

Coun­cil mem­ber Daniel Speth­mann agreed that a mar­ket study was a good idea, but ex­pressed some con­cern about the up­keep of the build­ing, and ques­tioned how pre­vi­ous Peo­ple, Inc. projects “fit” with the neigh­bor­hoods in which they’re lo­cated.

“We have to make sure this is con­sis­tent with the town’s di­rec­tion,” Speth­mann said.

Rush re­sponded by say­ing that while Peo­ple, Inc. is a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, they need to make money in or­der to continue run­ning their var­i­ous projects, and po­ten­tial ten­ants would have to meet min­i­mum- as well as max­i­mum-in­come re­quire­ments.

“We’d be look­ing for peo­ple who work hard but don’t make as much money as other peo­ple,” Rush said. “Peo­ple housed there [ in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s other projects] are all wellac­cepted by the community.”

Con­cern­ing the up­keep of the prop­erty, Rush stressed that such agen­cies as the Vir­ginia Hous­ing De­vel­op­ment Author­ity (VHDA) would be care­fully mon­i­tor­ing the build­ing to en­sure it’s well- main­tained. There would also likely be a part-time prop­erty man­ager, though he said that its small size meant the po­si­tion would never be full-time.

Speth­mann also raised the is­sue of a po­ten­tially in­creased crime- rate, not­ing that in­creased pop­u­la­tions usu­ally re­sult in a higher crime rate.

The town’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion is 133.

Lesin­ski said he be­lieved the town could use some growth. “Pop­u­la­tion growth isn’t al­ways a bad thing,” he said.

Sul­li­van agreed with Speth­mann, not­ing that he thought the main is­sue was the num­ber of peo­ple po­ten­tially mov­ing into these apart­ments, not the apart­ments them­selves. (Though plans call for a max­i­mum of nine new apart­ments, pos­si­ble con­fig­u­ra­tions could house any­where from nine to 27 peo­ple.)

Sev­eral at the hear­ing, in­clud­ing McCarthy, noted that con­tin­ued non-use of the build­ing could turn it into a “drag . . . and an is­sue for the town.”

“This is al­most as golden an op­por­tu­nity as we’ll get,” McCarthy said. “The univer­sal re­sponse I re­ceived [ when look­ing into Peo­ple, Inc.] is that they haven’t promised any­thing they couldn’t de­liver . . . They will be there for the long haul.”

Coun­cil mem­ber Gary Schwartz also noted that the hous­ing seemed to be a good fit.

“Based on the town’s com­pre­hen­sive plan, this seems to be a good fit,” Schwartz said. “It’s a good use of [the school] and the zon­ing fits well, too.”

The coun­cil de­bated the idea of adding re­stric­tions to the spe­cial- use per­mit to ad­dress pos­si­ble is­sues like ten­ants park­ing in the street, and noise or light dis­tur­bances. Many ques­tions were left unan­swered at the end of the night – whether there’s truly a mar­ket in Rap­pa­han­nock County for such hous­ing, ex­actly who would be el­i­gi­ble to rent and how the old school’s im­me­di­ate Mount Salem Av­enue neigh­bors (who in­clude the coun­cil’s new­est mem­ber, Speth­mann) feel about the project. By the end of the night, the coun­cil, the pub­lic and the ap­pli­cant seemed to agree that there were still plenty of de­tails to iron out.

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