Could Rose property be used for senior housing?

Housing board surprised selectmen eyeing land for different use

CONWAY — The town Housing Committee has set its sights on the former Rose property as a potential spot for affordable housing for senior citizens.

The four-member group has eyed the 11 acres of town-owned land off Shelburne Falls Road for five years, but this week, the volunteer committee was caught off guard when it learned the Board of Selectmen was on the verge of spending money for engineering studies for other uses of the property — despite being aware of the committee’s plans.

“Rick Bean was our liaison,” Housing Committee Chairwoman Pixie Holbrook said. “He came to two meetings (this year). If not, I’d send him specific meeting minutes, which is why we felt so emotional when we found Rick had been involved with a different type of project ... which is fine, but he has a moral obligation to inform a very active committee that is interested in using the land.”

The Board of Selectmen surprised many town boards and committees this week when it informed the Planning Board that along with the new Town Administrator Ed MacDonald, it brought in two engineers from Westfield to see if the property could be used for a municipal multiplex for all town offices.

Though the selectmen claimed on Monday the plans were only informational and no money was spent or contracts signed, town committees — the Housing Committee, Parks and Recreation Committee, the Friends of the South River and Planning and Health boards — were disheartened to find they had not been included in the early planning stages.

The fate of the property has become the focus of town discussions. The town exchanged a house near the Grammar School for the cornfields abutting the South River six years ago. The town has yet to decide what to do with the land.

The Housing Committee has long hoped the property would be used to address the senior housing need. The committee hired a surveyor to analyze the Rose property. And it also had a private designer create a plan for free that placed three duplexes on the land for six to 12 senior housing apartments.

In September, another use was added to the mix. The Parks and Recreation Committee wanted to use some of the land for a soccer field.

Believing the two uses were mutually exclusive, Holbrook said the two committees decided to work together.

“We made a town alliance to keep going forward with this. We didn’t want the feeling that we were competing,” Holbrook said.

While exploring the Rose property, the Housing and Recreation committees had to keep in mind several land use restrictions. These include the 200-foot buffer along the South River that prohibits the construction of any building in the area and a zoning restriction that reserves the land for agricultural use. The property is also home to an endangered species of turtle identified by the Natural Heritage program. It also is considered a floodplain by the state, which would require any building to be on raised land.

Despite these issues, Holbrook said past selectboards encouraged the Housing and Parks and Recreation committees to pursue the Rose property.

In October, at Conway’s all committees meeting, Holbrook shared the group’s plan with the new Board of Selectmen and the 13 other volunteer committees.

The Housing Committee were expecting to go to town meeting in April to seek support of residents for a senior housing development.

“We were so aghast. We planned to go through the process of town meeting in April. We were so stunned to find the new town administrator proposed this by Dec. 9,” Holbrook said.

Since the Housing Committee started to pursue affordable housing five years ago, they are finding needs are changing.

“When we first started, we were focused on making sure any senior who wanted to stay in town could stay in town,” Holbrook explained. “We are finding now the definition is changing. We’re trying to meet a continuum of needs.”

The main change is that many seniors — who many not necessarily be low-income — are seeking affordable housing because they can no longer maintain large farmhouses with the high cost of fuel and maintenance. Residents, however, do not want to leave Conway.

The Housing Committee did not have specific numbers on the need for senior housing in Conway. There are approximately 400 seniors of 1,900 residents.

According to a 2011 phone survey conducted last year by the committee, 23 percent of 96 residents surveyed expressed a strong interest in owning a smaller home. This home would be 900 square feet and include two bedrooms and single-floor living on the Rose property.

“There is a sense among people wanting to be a part of their own community and not isolated as aging seniors,” Holbrook said. “We’re hearing more people saying they hope (a Rose property housing complex) happens.”

With many proposals discussed, if senior housing is not the chosen use for the Rose property, Holbrook said the committee has contingency plans.

“We have been looking for other land or other houses that we could retrofit to add single story homes,” Holbrook said. Holbrook is looking forward to the January meeting, in which the town committees and boards with stakes in the Rose property will meet to come to a consensus.

The Housing Committee plans to express interest in the Rose property again at next Thursday’s Planning Board meeting at the Town Office.

“We will ask whether the Planning Board will back us up and let us continue to explore the land’s feasibility for senior housing,” Holbrook said.

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