Deerfield considers adding senior housing to proposed municipal campus

  • VHB Massachusetts Land Planning Team Leader Luke Mitchell presents conceptual drawings of a potential senior housing development to Deerfield residents on Sept. 14 STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2023 9:51:46 AM
Modified: 9/19/2023 9:51:05 AM

DEERFIELD — With consultants on hand, residents got a chance to view some early conceptual designs last week and share their vision for the town’s proposed municipal campus.

While the municipal campus includes the Town Hall/Police Station, Tilton Library, 1888 Building and South Deerfield Congregational Church, the main focus of the Sept. 14 meeting with planners from engineering firm VHB was to get residents thinking about what a subsidized senior housing project could look like on the campus. Work with VHB was funded by a Complete Neighborhoods grant awarded through the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

Ad hoc Senior Housing Committee Chair Lili Dwight borrowed a term from The Walt Disney Co., saying the meeting was a chance for residents to engage in some “imagineering” about what they’d like to see in town.

“By placing senior housing in the heart of this campus, the residents of this housing can walk to the pharmacy, walk to the library, they can walk to the Post Office,” Dwight said. “It keeps our older adults in the center of our community, where so many of us are already.”

VHB planners Luke Mitchell and Jenny Nelson walked residents through three potential designs for senior housing on the campus, which would be placed where Town Hall is currently. The most likely future destination for Town Hall is the 1888 Building, which would be renovated and have an addition built, according to discussions at Select Board meetings over the last year.

“You already have a great space,” Mitchell said. “The question is, what can be done for it to continue to be great and expand what it can provide to the community?”

The current campus plan encompasses four town-owned parcels that are spread out over 7 acres. Wetlands around Bloody Brook, according to Nelson, are the “greatest constraints.”

Mitchell and Nelson presented three potential ideas for senior housing, which would each provide at least 36 housing units for older adults in the middle of South Deerfield. Alongside those designs, they showed what the campus could look like, with walking paths connecting each building and trails along Bloody Brook for recreation.

Mitchell emphasized nothing in these designs is final, and their presentation was intended as a “yield assessment and exploration of what can realistically” be done.

“Our finding is that you could create a senior housing project here that would be appealing to a developer,” he said. “We think it’s a great location for housing for older adults because there’s so many great amenities in the community that are walkable from the site.”

Because there are high-level conceptual designs and any decisions on what will be built are far down the line, discussions on funding the project were limited Thursday, although Dwight suggested they’d like to explore a funding path similar to what Sunderland did with its senior housing project, Sanderson Place.

In that process, Sunderland worked with Rural Development Inc., a non-profit developer, which paid for the development of the site and then became the primary taxpayer of the property.

Prior to the unveiling of the designs, an abutter to the campus raised concerns about what he said was a lack of communication between the town and residents when it comes to such a large project.

Jason Clark, a North Main Street resident, said he had heard little information about the campus plans, particularly when it comes to ideas to place walking trails on properties leading to Bloody Brook. He added he’d like to see more effort from town officials to gather more community outreach to ensure everyone is included in these discussions.

“I literally just found out about this project three days ago,” he said. “My concern is ... are we really involved in this, or is this a small group of people in this room setting the future for Deerfield?”

Dwight said all ad hoc Senior Housing Committee meetings are public and anyone is welcome to attend, but she agreed “there’s a challenge about communication” in small towns.

Fellow North Main Street resident Peter Thomas suggested the town find alternative ways to ensure everyone is notified, such as knocking on doors to have a face-to-face conversation “rather than count on people to come to public meetings because most people don’t.”

“Don’t leave it to chance, don’t leave it to discovery,” Thomas said.

Select Board Chairwoman Carolyn Shores Ness said discussions about the municipal campus and senior housing projects will continue at ad hoc Senior Housing Committee, Select Board and Connecting Community Initiative meetings in the coming months as funding sources are identified.

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