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Editorial: Deerfield still needs affordable housing

  • Deerfield Town Meeting accepted the gift of the South Deerfield Congregational Church, with the idea of converting it into a senior center and creating potential space for affordable senior housing. RECORDER FILE PHOTO


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

After much discussion over the years about the need for more elder housing in Deerfield, the town has approved a large condominium development for seniors off Sugarloaf Street.

But the 70-dwelling project on 22.8 acres at the foot of Mount Sugarloaf isn’t exactly what many people imagined: high-end, 1,500-square-foot homes for people over 55, many of whom may move here from out of town.

Discussions in Deerfield over the years often involved talk about more affordable, smaller apartments for local residents who perhaps cannot afford a two-bedroom condo for $300,000 to $400,000.

Nonetheless, the Sugarloaf condominiums likely will sell well, given the setting in the shadow of a scenic landmark and near Interstate 91 and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Mark Wightman’s projects passed muster with the local Planning Board over the objections of neighbors and others in town. Early interest is coming from empty-nesters and from elderly looking to downsize, Planning Board Chairman John Waite said.

Many in town aren’t happy that such a large field in the village of South Deerfield will be developed. But the privately owned land wasn’t shielded from development, and without that kind of protection it was probably just a matter of time before it was lost as open space.

Planners expect the project will increase traffic in the area, but will also boost business for downtown merchants and add property taxes to the town’s coffers without burdening the schools as an apartment project catering to families might. The planners were also assured by experts that the neighbors were wrong to think the project will cause water runoff to flood their basements and yards and make traffic hazardous.

The Planning Board, which considered this proposal over many months with several meetings and hearings, did its job thoughtfully, even if the neighbors — who may still appeal this decision — would have preferred a simple, probably unlawful, outright rejection.

As to Deerfield satisfying the need for more affordable housing for local seniors, town officials are still working on that problem.

An hour after the Planning Board approved the condominiums late last month, Town Meeting voters accepted the gift of the South Deerfield Congregational Church, with the idea of converting it into a senior center and creating potential space for affordable senior housing.

Waite said the board tries to balance affordable housing and higher-market housing, like Wightman’s project will be for the town, and that the Planning Board is still looking into ways to bring more affordable housing to the community.

That’s encouraging to hear because while the market for higher-end housing has apparently been served by approval of Wightman’s project, there’s still a need for less expensive, smaller apartments for others in town. Such lower-income developments historically have been helped along with state or federal grants or subsidies, which are in short supply these days due to tighter budgets and smaller thinking at the federal level.

So town officials will probably have to work harder than ever to satisfy the need for senior housing, especially if such development isn’t necessarily the most lucrative or obvious options in the marketplace.