Proposed residential care facility in Castleton faces local hurdles, despite critical need
Vermont is one of the oldest states in the country, and the shortage of memory care statewide has been well-documented.
But a proposed senior housing facility in Castleton illustrates just how difficult it can be to add more.
Sand Hill Road
Castleton Town Manager Mike Jones stands on the Sand Hill Road property where developers want to build a 99-unit residential care facility. It's about a mile from Castleton’s village center, with a smattering of nearby houses and a farm off in the distance.
“So it’s 18 acres, a little over, mostly wooded," Jones says. "We’re walking through a field right now that’s been cleared by the town to make it more marketable.”
The property sweeps uphill from the road.
"If we kept walking up and over the ridgeline, we'd come to Castleton University, which is on the other side," Jones says.
In fact in 2009, the college deeded this property to the town, with the caveat that it be used to generate economic development, jobs, educational opportunities and public good.
Zak Hale, CFO of Bennington based Hale Resources, thinks senior housing would be a good fit. He wants to build independent living, assisted living and memory care apartments on the site.
Besides providing needed housing options, he said nursing students could get practical experience in geriatric care.
“We could have clinicals here, and kids could be learning,” Hale says. “And it's in a residential neighborhood, so it can only be residential, because of the zoning. And, like, it has to have some educational opportunity to it. So it's, like, what else could be built here?”
Town officials liked the idea and believed it would help alleviate a critical housing shortage. They signed a purchase and sale agreement with Hale in 2020. Records from planning commission meetings show local zoning rules were changed to accommodate the size of the proposal.
Members of the select board, regional business organizations and former Castleton University President Dave Wolk all expressed support for the plan as did Jones, the town manager.
“I’m hopeful that this does go through," Jones says. "In the long run, I think it's overwhelmingly a good project for this community.”
"It doesn't fit"
But property owners on Sand Hill Road, like Katy Culpo, who lives next door to the proposed building site, disagree.
“I'm not opposed to senior living or a senior facility on that property… But it’s too big,” Culpo says.
"You can say NIMBY, or whatever you like," Emilio Rosario says. "But I don't believe that, because we bought our houses on this road because we love this road, and they are a huge investment."
He said the four-story building Hale is proposing doesn't fit here.
"I used to work as a corrections officer, and it looks like a jail," Rosario says. "It's gigantic."
Laura Desjardins and Brenda Fleming also own property on the road and are upset by the proposal.
“It's a very city-looking box that belongs next to a strip mall of similar boxes,” Fleming says.
She owns property that abuts the building site, and says a potential buyer who had given a lowball offer pulled out after hearing about the senior housing.
“They said, ‘Just kidding, changed my mind. We heard there's going to be a 99-unit facility right next door to you, and we don't want to live there.’ And so yeah," Fleming says, "there is a little bit of NIMBY, because it's real, you know, if your property values go down by 50%, that's real. And that's disappointing.”
But developer Zak Hale says to make the plan affordable, it needs to be big. And rather than reinvent the wheel, they’re going to model the facility on one that already exists in Berlin, called Chestnut Place. Dousevicz, Inc., the Essex-based company that created Chestnut Place, will construct and operate the proposed Sand Hill facility.
The complex would be well-landscaped, Hale says, and if approved, would provide much-needed independent living, assisted living and memory care apartments.
Zoning and bylaws
But that approval has been stymied by the local development review board, which ruled last month that the proposed complex could not include the memory care units.
“It came down to our zoning and town bylaws,” explains Dan Forcier, vice chair of Castleton’s five-member development review board.
Forcier says town officials changed local zoning rules to allow larger projects like Hale’s. But for a residential Planned Unit Development, or PUD permit, the apartments all need to have kitchens, according to the DRB's October ruling.
“One thing they [town officials] didn't consider was nursing home, memory care... how that language comes together with a PUD. And with our bylaws and zoning, you can't have both in the same building," Forcier says. "Basically all the powers that be, they're trying to push this project in a way and push that PUD section way ahead, like we're going to pass this, so we can get our project. And we're going to put all the pressure on the DRB and lean on them to try and push this through, and insinuate that it should happen. But they missed this language."
That’s why the board only approved the independent living and assisted living units, but not those assigned to memory care, Forcier says.
But Hale says that defeats the facility's purpose.
“If you’re going from independent living and now assisted living and then all of a sudden... you’re starting to not be able to think for yourself. We’re not going to send people… like, 'Oh hey, you have to find someplace else to go, 'cause we’re not going to take care of you,'" Hale says. "We’re not trying to create a business model like that. It doesn’t achieve our mission.”
Conflict of interest?
Hale says their project isn’t feasible without memory care, and he believes the Development Review Board knew that.
He says three of the five members live on Sand Hill Road, including Forcier, who voted against the proposal.
“You know, the conflict of interest policy for Castleton is really on them, whether they think they can be objective or not,” Hale says.
But Daniel Forcier bristles at the allegation of bias. He says during their lengthy hearings, no one came forward with an official complaint. He says he’s served on the board for three years, adding, “You know, the select board knew who they were appointing, when they knew this project was… the ball was already rolling on it… In fact, several of us on the board said, 'If you can’t present factual evidence, then stop bringing it up, ‘cause it’s disruptive to the meetings.”
Forcier says he voted against the residential care facility because of local bylaws, and because he felt it did not preserve the town’s rural character.
Older residents say they need options
But at the Castleton Community Center, Cheri Raymond and others who were meeting for lunch on a recent Wednesday say there’s more at stake.
Raymond says older Vermonters like her need more options when it comes to housing, and rural communities need to step up.
“I mean, we're losing people from Castleton that have to go to Rutland, and it's wrong," she says.
Jo Ann Riley, the Community Center’s executive director, says at least four local families, who had been active at the center, have moved to assisted living in Rutland, leaving friends behind.
Riley’s 80, and she says her husband recently broke his hip.
“This has been an eye-opener, seeing my husband and thinking to myself, OK, if that were to happen to me, I couldn't live in my house anymore. Where would I go? What would I do?” she says.
Those questions may take a while to answer.
Attorney Chris Roy, who is representing the developers, says they have appealed the development review board’s ruling to Vermont Superior Court’s Environmental Division. Roy says that process could take six to nine months.
But even if the court approves it, the senior housing proposal will still need to go through Act 250, Vermont's development review process.
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