How one Vermont town is building new housing
Turning off Route 100 on a recent spring day, Morristown’s main roads were dominated by buildings in various stages of construction. The town lies along the Lamoille River midway between St. Johnsbury and Burlington. And with just under 5,500 people, it’s becoming a residential center.
While it’s not a perfect proxy, over the last five years, Morristown has, on average, registered the most new addresses of anywhere in Vermont outside of Chittenden County.
Todd Thomas is Morristown’s planner and zoning administrator. He said last year, construction began on 134 new units – the fastest housing growth the town has ever seen.
“I probably have about 400 units in the pipeline right now, too,” Thomas said. “So that 134 is not going to be an outlier. I think it's going to be the new normal, at least for a while here.”
Thomas was hired in 2010. He says at the time, the select board directed him to grow the town by the same rate as inflation in a bid to keep taxes from rising.
“I probably have about 400 units in the pipeline right now ... I think it's going to be the new normal, at least for a while here.”
Growth can be by businesses, residential or a mix of both.
Initially, retail growth was strong. Tractor Supply, CVS, and other box stores moved in. And the town's long-running nickname — “Movegas,” a tongue-in-cheek way to poke fun at the growth and sprawl — became even more relevant.
Morristown encompasses the village of Morrisville. And when it came to building more housing, Thomas says a review of downtown buildings and zoning regulations showed that existing rules for things like setbacks — the distance a home must be from a road property line — building height, and even parking, ruled out the kind of dense, mixed-use, multi-story construction that would fit in with Morrisville’s original buildings.
“After doing that kind of exercise, I got permission to really make radical changes to the downtown zoning, allowing it to be much more developer-friendly,” Thomas said.
For example, loosening parking requirements allowed the previously unoccupied upper floors of downtown buildings to become apartments again. That made room for new construction where there previously wouldn’t have been enough space.
Thomas says so far, there haven’t been any major hurdles to development. For instance, the town's sewage treatment plant is still only running at half capacity.
Nick Donza grew up in Morristown and nearby Stowe, and is one of the main players in the recent housing boom. He just finished a 14-unit project downtown, and is building 54 more units along the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
“It's a really nice community, and there's, I think, a lot of opportunity there,” Donza said. “It's a pro-growth community. The zoning requirements tend to be allowable, you know, and reasonable.”
There is also a lot of demand.
Grant Wieler is with Element Real Estate in Stowe. Even with all the development, he said the market is “tight.”
“It's been a little bit of a perfect storm between the largest home-buying generation ever to advance into the marketplace, climate migration, and, you know, remote work enabling people to push out further and still maintain their careers,” Wieler said.
And, he says, Morristown is a good place to live.
“There's a lot to like in Lamoille County, right? We have, we've got grocery stores, we've got a hospital, we've got some light industrial and commercial activity happening," Wieler said. "So it is a pretty large hub, and people are drawn to those services.”
“There's a lot to like in Lamoille County, right? We have, we've got grocery stores, we've got a hospital, we've got some light industrial and commercial activity happening. So it is a pretty large hub, and people are drawn to those services.”
Morristown is positioned between three ski resorts, and it boasts industrial jobs. The sporting equipment maker Concept Two and Manufacturing Solutions Incorporated are both nearby.
Thomas said from talking to developers, it appears that about a third of new residents are out-of-state transplants.
Another third are folks who commute to Burlington but are priced out of housing in Chittenden County.
And the final third tends to be moving down from the Northeast Kingdom for the opportunities and jobs found in a more populated area, though many of these people are relatively new Vermonters as well.
Jim Lovinsky is executive director of the nonprofit Lamoille Housing Partnership, which provides affordable housing in Lamoille County and Hardwick. His organization is building a 24-unit affordable housing complex in downtown Morrisville, the only affordable — non-market rate — construction at the moment.
Lovinsky says there has been increasing demand for affordable rentals.
“Last month, we went over 500 active applications, and still only I think we had seven turnovers,” he said.
So, there’s more supply. But also more demand.
With inflation at record highs, can Morristown’s housing boom continue?
The Federal Reserve has begun hiking interest rates in a bid to tamp down inflation. But, Wieler said, with what he’s been seeing, rate increases aren't likely to deter buyers any time soon.
And Thomas says inflated materials prices have also not slowed developers, but rising interest rates could. Still, he thinks construction will continue.
Moving forward, many are asking what Morristown should look like in the future. That includes Caleb Magoon, who owns the sporting goods store Power Play Sports in Morrisville, and chairs the Lamoille County Planning Commission.
The commission is in charge of regional planning. He says the town’s growth is largely aligned with the goals agreed upon by communities in the area.
Pushback has been minimal, but he says he has heard some question the speed and type of change.
“The side effect of some people sort of either being in opposition and or, you know, saying maybe we should pump the brakes, is good in terms of starting a conversation and maintaining a conversation about what we want our communities to look like,” Magoon said.
In the end, Magoon says, economic development and planning go hand in hand. And the more people engage in the process of deciding how development looks in their town, the better.
This story was brought to us through a partnership with the Community News Service, a project of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
Editor's note: This story was assigned and reported this spring.