Business & Economy

Hartford Zoning Board kills Upper Valley Haven’s low-barrier homeless shelter plan

A rendering shows a proposed 18-unit Twin Pines Housing apartment building, center, and a new structure for the Haven's overnight shelter and administrative offices, right, on property subdivided from St. Paul's Episcopal Church, left, on Hartford Avenue in White River Junction. The Hartford Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected plans for the low-barrier shelter this week. Image via Studio Nexus

Editor’s Note: This story by Liz Sauchelli first appeared in the Valley News on July 27.

The Hartford Zoning Board of Adjustment has dealt the final blow to an embattled proposal from the Upper Valley Haven to build a low-barrier homeless shelter on its Hartford Avenue campus.

The decision to reject the Haven’s application — on a 3-2 vote after a public hearing Monday night — came after the proposal had been adjusted to prohibit individuals on the National Sex Offender Registry from staying at the proposed shelter in an effort to allay concerns raised by community members.

The plan called for building a 20-bed shelter open to nearly any adult, including those under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The shelter would have been built on land purchased from neighboring St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“For me, it’s the character of the area. I think I can speak for the board that none of us are opposed to a transient shelter, so-called low-barrier. Just the three of us who voted no oppose it in this location,” said Steve Lagasse, the board’s chairman. “… For me, this just isn’t the neighborhood for it, a low-barrier shelter.”

Lagasse was joined by Tom Franklin and Alice Maleski in voting against the proposal. Chris Lowe and Stephanie Gile voted in favor.

After Monday’s vote, the project, which was already in doubt because of neighborhood opposition and a Planning Board ruling earlier this month demanding a connector road between the Haven and the church, will not go forward as proposed.

“We are disappointed the Hartford Zoning Board of Adjustment denied our request to allow for a low-barrier shelter to support people who are unhoused, but we respect the review process,” Haven executive director Michael Redmond wrote in an email to the Valley News. “We are going to take some time to consider our options and will continue working with the ZBA and the Planning Commission to resolve a number of outstanding requests.”

Lagasse’s statements on Monday echoed concerns brought up by abutters and other Hartford residents, who have said that the low-barrier shelter does not fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, which is across Route 5 from Hartford High School. Since it was first proposed last December, the proposal has faced stiff opposition. Among their concerns were that shelter could increase crime and put schoolchildren at risk.

“Quite frankly, you know, we are compassionate and we do believe in the mission of the Haven, OK?” Joseph Trottier, who lives at the Advent Camp Meeting Grounds, a Christian camp in White River Junction, said during the hearing. He cited people who have trespassed on the campground and the cleanup work they’ve been required to do as a result. Five different cottages have been broken into over the years, he said, though Trottier did not indicate if all the people who trespassed were confirmed to be affiliated with the Haven.

“There’s a lot of people within the town that do not want this located here,” Trottier said, “and we are suggesting let’s think outside the box, let’s look at some other areas.”

The sale of the land from St. Paul’s to the Haven was contingent on the Haven receiving approval for the low-barrier shelter, said Leslie Black, chairwoman of the planning committee at St. Paul’s.

“We haven’t even thought that far ahead,” Black said Tuesday when asked whether the property sale would still go through if the Haven could come up with another proposal for its use. “I would certainly say we’re very disappointed. We certainly believed that it was a good program that the Haven was doing and it was a good fit for them.”

When the low-barrier shelter was proposed, it was put forward alongside a proposal from Twin Pines Housing Trust to build an 18-unit apartment building on land also owned by St. Paul’s. Black said the Twin Pines project would be able to go forward even if the low-barrier shelter does not.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome of last night’s vote. We know there were significant voices in opposition and in support of the project but at the end of the day had hoped the Zoning Board would approve this important project,” Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines, said Tuesday. “That said, we are pushing forward with the Twin Pines supported housing project. At this point, we have four out of five required approvals and have raised the necessary capital to move forward with the project.”

Winter said he hopes Twin Pines will receive the final approval for its project during a Planning Commission meeting scheduled for Aug. 1.

During Monday night’s hearing, Redmond emphasized the need for a low-barrier shelter. The Haven regularly receives calls from other organizations, including domestic violence nonprofit WISE and discharge planners at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

“We get calls every night from either individuals or from the (Hartford Police Department) (because) they’ve found somebody who needs a place to go,” Redmond said. “Can we help them right now? Right now our only option is seeing if there’s motel space available.”

Redmond reiterated the need for a low-barrier shelter in Tuesday’s statement.

“We believe we made a compelling case and developed a plan that would meet the needs of the community, show compassion to the unhoused and address our neighbors’ concerns,” Redmond said Tuesday. “Our proposed building would be a safe, compassionate way to deliver low-barrier shelter service and help people find new direction for their lives, which the ZBA Chair acknowledged is needed in town. We are proud of our mission and our staff, and we will continue the important work of serving the many people in the greater Hartford area who count on the Haven.”

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