Residents addressed the urgent need for affordable housing in Montpelier at the second of two hearings about a slate of 10 zoning changes, most of which would increase housing density in city neighborhoods. After the two public hearings on Nov. 29 and Dec. 13, Planning Commission chair Kirby Keaton said they will convene in January to deliberate and make a final decision. At both hearings, the Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity’s potential 50-unit affordable housing development on Northfield Street generated the most discussion in the long list of proposed zoning changes. The 56.8-acre, mostly undeveloped, land under consideration sits across the street from the Econolodge on the east side of Northfield Street and is also bordered by the Hill Street neighborhood. If approved, zoning would change from “Mixed Use Residential” and from “Rural” to “Residential 9000,” which would allow Habitat to move forward with a feasibility study. The change aligns with the nearby Colonial Street neighborhood, said Planning Director Mike Miller. Comments focusing on the need for workforce housing and affordable housing balanced with a desire to keep open spaces for recreational use and wildlife.“CVHH has been building housing for over 30 years; we know this is an ideal site. It’s close to services, walkable to town, out of the flood plain,” said Zack Watson, executive director of Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity at the Nov. 29 hearing. Asked how many units he expects in the development, Watson answered, “50 will be a great starting place.” Watson addressed a neighborhood concern: the property, a privately owned haven of open green space, is home to an array of wildlife and has been used by abutting residents for hiking, dog walking, and biking for years. “As part of this development, over 50 percent of the parcel would go into a “forever wild” easement,” Watson said. “It would protect land currently not protected, and we could put trails and bike paths there.” Watson also said that the goal would be to turn part of the parcel into a park, and that Habitat for Humanity may also develop market-priced housing to sell in order to subsidize the cost of the affordable housing. Residents’ comments were a bit more pointed at the second hearing on Dec. 13, with some disagreement arising between neighbors who want to preserve the open space for recreation and wildlife and those who said the city’s main priority should be developing housing. “I think everyone is concerned about housing, but you also have to look at if we have the resources to handle affordable housing,” said neighbor John Campbell. “I am concerned about the wildlife habitat. … if there are other places where we can do the housing, those are the ones the city should be looking at … not taking what wildlife habitat we do have and putting it into a residential area.” Peter Kelman, who said he lives across the street from the proposed development, expressed his support for it. He also spoke to concerns that had been voiced that the zoning change may not align with the city’s master plan. “What master plan?” Kelman said. “The master plan from today or five years ago? Our needs for affordable housing today are extreme. The master plan is not some holy grail.” Dayton Crites, an abbutter on Pleasant Street, said at both hearings that he had “wholehearted support for this type of development” but also would like to see the feasibility study come first, and a change in zoning afterward. Kelman said some of those voicing concerns about the projects had attitudes “thinly disguised as NIMBYism.” Sandy Vitzhum, a Montpelier-based architect, said that “the housing shortage is due to much larger economic forces than the size of housing lots in Montpelier. … The master plan is a critical process, not just a document, but a process of community discussion of what to do.” Vitzhum had been urging the commission to develop a process more inclusive of public participation throughout the hearing, particularly around a two-minute speaking limit. “We have a housing crisis in this state and in this country,” said Bryan Evans, who serves on the Montpelier Housing Task Force and on the board of Good Samaritan Haven. “NIMBYism will really cause a problem here. … I encourage the commissioners to make a stand, make it a priority that we want to make changes to solve a major housing crisis that is going on country-wide.” Planning Commission chair Kirby Keeton said that commissioners will deliberate after the two hearings. And when they do make a decision, he said, “It will be based on the city plan … not about what a particular project will do, but what we think is right for zoning in the city to address housing.” To read about the other nine zoning changes discussed at the hearing, go here.