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Possible Housing for Washington County Mental Health Clients Prompts Planning Proposal for Denser Zoning

Photo of city hall.
Montpelier City Hall. File photo.
If a pending zoning proposal passes, Washington County Mental Health Services could one day build housing for its clients on a 2.4-acre parcel of land on Heaton Street in Montpelier where it now has an office building, but any development there needs further analysis and is a long way off, according to project consultant Michael Curtis. 

“We haven’t thought it out,” he said.

A Nov. 1 memo by Montpelier Planning Director Mike Miller about several proposed zoning changes says of the proposal to switch Heaton Street from the College Street North neighborhood into a new, denser Residential-3000 district that “[The] request is initiated by WCMH who would like to add additional housing for their employees to the property but lack necessary density at Res-6.” However, there may have been some confusion about the intentions of Washington County Mental Health.

Curtis told The Bridge that the organization did not ask for the proposed change to Residential-3000, has no employee housing on the site currently, and would only consider possibly adding limited employee housing as part of a larger project to primarily house its clients on the Heaton Street property.

Although Washington County Mental Health had an architect sketch out plans for a client-focused housing project, Curtis declined to say how many buildings or how many units might be built if the zoning is changed, and if they move forward, or whether client housing would be for temporary housing or permanent residences.

Curtis said the architect who drew up the plans thought the district where the office building is located was denser than it actually is, and that the existing density level “would not give us enough units to make it financially feasible.”

Washington County Mental Health mentioned to the city planning department it had investigated possible development and was informed that the planning commission was already looking at doubling the density on Harrison Avenue, among other changes, and might be able to do the same on Heaton Street, according to Curtis. “We asked them to let us know how their discussions went, and the next thing I knew there was a proposal that said we had requested additional employee housing, but that is not what we told them,” he said.

Any housing development would “serve the people we serve,” Curtis said. Washington County Mental Health’s website states: “We serve all individuals and families coping with the challenges of developmental and intellectual disabilities, mental health, and substance use by providing trauma-informed services to support them as they achieve their highest potential and best possible quality of life.” Curtis stressed that WCMHS is not sure what it wants to do about Heaton Street housing or if it can make it happen. “It is an idea we are not totally committed to,” he said.

The Heaton Street zoning proposal would also affect Heaton Woods, an assisted-living facility located on an 11.2-acre parcel across the street from Washington County Mental Health and runs to the west above Fuller Street and Liberty Street and abuts Harrison Avenue. However, some of the Heaton Woods parcel, including a playing field on Harrison Avenue, is subject to a conservation easement and could not be developed.

If the Heaton Street zoning does change and the development plans move forward, the first step would be to request a $70,000 planning grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Curtis said. Although the board has expressed interest in the project in the past, many people are looking to do projects now, so there is strong competition for those funds, he noted. 

“It is a long way off, if we do anything,” Curtis said. “We are trying to see if this is something we can do that is legal and that benefits the community and benefits our own community.”

The Heaton Street zoning change is one of several that are the subject of a public hearing before the planning commission at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 29. Any changes to zoning ultimately have to be approved by the city council. 

For more details about the public hearing, including the Zoom meeting link, go to this web page: https://www.montpelier-vt.org/129/Agendas-Minutes