Officials answer town’s questions on Pope plans

SALISBURY — The Pope Land Design Committee held an information meeting Thursday, June 6.

A planned visit to the Pope property site at 5 p.m. was rained out, but the meeting itself convened as scheduled at 6:30 p.m., at Town Hall and on Zoom.

Committee Chair Ray McGuire opened by asking First Selectman Curtis Rand to explain what the committee is and how it was formed.

Rand said the current committee, and its predecessor, the Pope Committee, were both appointed by the Board of Selectmen and both committees report to the selectmen.

The first committee, Rand explained, was appointed in 2017 with representatives from the Affordable Housing Commission, Recreation Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission, the Conservation Commission (which at the time included Inland Wetlands), and the Board of Finance.

Tom Callahan from the Historic District Commission chaired the Pope Committee.

The committee’s report concluded that the best uses for the property were: affordable housing, recreation, and conservation.

At that point the first committee was disbanded and the current Pope Land Design Committee was formed, again by the selectmen, to look at concepts to meet the three goals set by the first committee.

Asked if the committees have or had any regulatory authority, Rand said no, they are advisory bodies. The authority on what to do with the Pope property rests with the selectmen and, ultimately with the town meeting.

Asked about funding, Rand said consultant fees, some $52,000, were paid from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

McGuire said the land design committee decided they needed a consultant and chose Phil Barlow of FHI Studio in Hartford. McGuire said the committee didn’t want large apartment buildings or a driveway next to the Rail Trail.

The consultants put together a series of concept plans, culminating in what is called Concept 6, which calls for 64 dwelling units in 23 buildings.

Asked where the 64 unit figure came from, Vivian Garfein of the land design committee said it was the result of suggestions from affordable housing groups in town.

Asked about paving the Rail Trail, Elizabeth Slotnick of the land design committee said none of the concepts the committee considered called for paving the Rail Trail.

The concept also includes several recreation components, including pickleball courts. Lisa McAuliffe, the town’s recreation director and the only person to serve on both Pope committees, said there are no plans for lights and that the sounds of pickleball being played can be mitigated with acoustic screening.

She pointed out that the nearest home is 200 yards from the location of the courts.

McGuire asked Peter Halle of the Salisbury Housing Committee, a private non-profit group that owns rental units in town, who the tenants are.

Halle said that most applicants have some connection to Salisbury.

McGuire referred to critics complaining that the land design committee has “evaded” regulatory bodies such as the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Slotnick said the committee’s charge from the selectmen was to come up with uses as defined by the original committee: affordable housing, recreation and conservation. She said all the committee’s meetings are held in public, and that the purpose of the June 6 meeting was to start getting public input to improve on Concept 6.

Garfein said an actual plan, not a concept, is ready to go. The next step is to ask the P&Z for an “8-24 review,” which is a determination if the concept is in line with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.

The application then must go through the town’s land use boards: Historic District Commission, Inland Wetlands, and P&Z. And then, because the Pope property is owned by the town, the final plan must go to town meeting.

Loch Johnson of the Salisbury Village Improvement Coalition, the group responsible for the “Save the Rail Trail” signs, said his group is not against affordable housing, but thinks there are better locations.

Someone asked what the total population of 64 dwelling units would be. Barlow, the consultant, said between 120 and 150 people in a mix of one, two and three bedroom rentals and condominiums.

Someone asked how the Pope housing development would help the town meet its housing goals. Slotnick said the town’s Affordable Housing Plan calls for creating 100 units, and the town is now at 57.

Getting to 100 units would represent roughly 5% of the town’s housing stock, she continued. The state goal is 10%.

Michael Klemens, P&Z chair, said P&Z was given a “series of concepts” to look at and preferred Concept 6 to the others, but that does not constitute endorsement or approval.

He also said he had heard a lot about housing and recreation but very little about conservation, adding that there will certainly be a problem with the Wood turtle. He suggested having the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection conduct a study of the nearby wetlands.

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