In West Cornwall, one development offers insight into the barriers to expanding new housing in Vermont –

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Sep 18 2022, 12:06 PMSeptember 18, 2022
Eric Blair has a vision for West Cornwall — a town green, business space, housing at all price points. But when trying to build in Vermont, a vision goes only so far. 
In this case, his proposal for a 19-unit planned community didn’t make it past an initial presentation with the Cornwall Development Review Board in 2018. But Blair is no typical property developer and he hasn’t given up. 
Blair, a former town planner in Middlebury who moved to Vermont almost a decade ago, is the first to admit he’s an idealist. Planning for him holds utopian potential. Not just in its ability to ease Vermont’s housing crisis, but also the climate crisis and the fraying ties between neighbors.
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Real estate investor Matt Bonner saw the difference immediately when he began working with Blair to design a development for land Bonner owned at the corner of Route 74 and North Bingham Street in West Cornwall, a small village in the town of Cornwall.
“There are people in roles like that, that are just there to broker compromises between engineers and townspeople and whatever, but he has an authentic vision,” Bonner said. “He’s a refreshingly true believer in what he does.”
That vision is why Bonner’s interested to see what will happen next. In August, Blair closed on the property, now fully permitted for 10 residential units, purchasing it from Bonner at a discount.
For now, limited by his own budget, Blair will start small, with a duplex, the construction of two single-family homes for sale and a house for him and his family. But he hopes to bring the community around.
He sees his experience in this Addison County town, population 1,200, as emblematic of the challenges creating denser, walkable developments in the more rural parts of Vermont. 
With its pride in local governance, Vermont makes planning a democratic process. Volunteer officials weigh the input of neighbors and the advice of planning professionals. They hire consultants and lean on the expertise of their regional planning commission. Development happens by committee, often just a few housing units at a time.
That development process is inhospitable to “sound urban design,” as Blair calls it, and he believes it is ill-equipped to tackle Vermont’s biggest issues. But he’s hopeful that if more people are exposed to well-designed communities, they’ll quit clinging to what he sees as “exurban sprawl.” 
“I’ve been trying to do this for 20-something years,” Blair said, eyes cast over his newly-purchased plots, his slight southern drawl nodding to his Georgia roots. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this to happen.”
When Blair began designing the hamlet at the intersection of Route 74 and North Bingham Street in November 2017, he and Bonner dreamed big. 
At the time, a 200 year-old farmhouse sat on the corner, and a similarly historic Greek revival church lay adjacent to the north. The rest of the more than 160 acres was primarily undeveloped fields, dotted with occasional oaks and maples. 
The vision involved a diversity of forms, all inspired by the walkable New England villages that first attracted Blair to Vermont. On the corner, he planned a town green. Three 1,400-square foot homes would abut the common space, each to be listed for under $300,000. To the north, the 19th-century church would be renovated into a multi-use business and apartment building, maintaining its facade. Single-family homes at a range of prices would fill out another four town blocks, and the plan featured space for a community garden and pedestrian trails. 
Cornwall’s zoning laws did not explicitly permit such dense and diverse development. What Blair and the developer were asking for was approval of a planned unit development, often called a PUD. Rather than permit a development one parcel at a time, a PUD allows for the creation of an entirely new community. 
Seen as a whole, a well-designed PUD can be easier to swallow for a construction-wary municipality. And building at a larger scale consolidates infrastructure and lowers development costs. Cornwall had used the same system to approve a 22-lot subdivision known as the Foote Farm — one of the largest recent housing developments in town. 
But Bonner and Blair’s dream of a PUD faded fast after they appeared before the Cornwall Development Review Board in March 2018.
This was Blair’s first major planning project in Vermont, he told the board. His vision — a walkable mixed-use hamlet — had proliferated centuries prior before everyone had cars. Forty-four acres would be developed, 123 conserved. They planned to build affordable housing.
Barbara Greenwood, chair of the Cornwall development review board, remembers she and her colleagues needed more information. “We probably had a whole lot of questions,” she said in an interview, also recalling a slew of concerns raised by Cornwall residents.
At least 14 members of the public offered feedback on the proposal, most fearing its effects on wildlife and water supply; only one spoke out in support. The meeting adjourned with the board requesting more information from Blair and Bonner. 
By the time they returned to the board in June, they’d reduced their plan to nine developed lots. They were no longer asking for a PUD; the lot sizes had increased, and the density decreased.
Bonner told the board that the decreased scope of the project was in direct response to community feedback. Responding to the community’s sensitivity was a business decision, he said. He imagined construction could begin in a year’s time. 
Still, with 22 members of the public in attendance, the feedback was harsh. Why couldn’t the lots be cheaper? Would more houses run the neighborhood’s wells dry? A few Cornwall residents questioned the need for a community green, Blair’s original community hub for the hamlet. 
To whom is a green so important, resident Mike Broughton asked. Others suggested the space would put people too close to the busy intersection at the corner of Route 74.
Blair explained that Cornwall’s town plan praised community open spaces. A new green could serve that need, with trees along the road as a buffer from traffic. 
West Cornwall had gone 200 years without a green, ventured resident Tom Keefe, so why now? Another audience member spoke up about how getting rid of that common space from the plan would be a great relief. The audience concurred with an informal show of hands — no green on the corner of 74 and Bingham. 
Bonner first hoped to break ground in spring 2019. He ultimately received approval from the development review board in July 2020, granting him permission to develop nine lots, conserving 124 acres. It took nearly two more years to file and receive an Act 250 permit from the state.
About a year after his planned development was reduced by half, Blair bailed on the project in May 2019. In order for any development to get built, his vision needed to be abandoned.
Bonner, not a first-time developer, was prepared for the changes to the West Cornwall hamlet, and for the extended timeline needed to receive permits, he told VTDigger. He compared Blair to a painter. A painter has a vision. What happens if people start telling the painter what brushes and colors to use?
“Your vision as a painter, as a designer, of what’s going to be the artwork — it’s not going to endure that reductive, group contribution,” he said.
Blair originally worked as a municipal planner, imagining he could shape towns’ futures better in the public rather than private sector. Like with West Cornwall, that vision proved too hopeful. He left the town planning gig in Middlebury after a year, frustrated with the weight placed on his administrative duties. 
Blair’s experience in Vermont highlights the slow, bureaucratic slog often necessary to create new housing. And with people turning down jobs in the state due to lack of housing, politicians from Republican Gov. Phil Scott to high-profile Democrats have made housing a legislative and campaign priority. 
Home prices in Vermont shot up 19% in the first two years of the pandemic, pricing out many would-be buyers. Rental vacancy rates below the national average — and as low as 1% in Chittenden County — force lower-income Vermonters out-of-state, or worse, onto the streets. 
According to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency’s 2020 Housing Needs Assessment, homeownership among Vermonters ages 25-34 slipped seven percentage points between 2007 and 2017. By 2025, the agency predicts homeownership will rise among those 65 and older and decline for those 35-64. Home ownership in Vermont has increasingly slipped out of reach, in no small part due to the lack of supply. 
Across the state, the decisions that determine the future of housing play out in front of volunteer municipal boards like Cornwall’s.
According to Kevin Geiger, head planner for Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, towns use volunteers to create zoning laws and administer those rules through development review boards. That process “is a good idea in theory, in that it is the most local way to administer things,” he said in an email. “However, administering zoning is also a complex task that takes training and then experience, and is done by great folks that often don’t have that.” 
Municipal boards weigh neighbors’ wishes and the towns’ planning goals. When citizens speak up, they have the power to prevent denser development and to make affordable housing more expensive to build
In the case of West Cornwall, neighbors’ feedback decreased the proposed number of new homes. To an experienced developer like Bonner, that process comes with the territory. To an idealist like Blair, it is almost a moral affront. 
More than four years since the proposal’s inception, Bonner had received all his permits. Blair got back involved this year. 
“One day it could be a town,” Blair said. “But if we don’t get the development patterns established right to begin with, it becomes just this gnarly mess of sprawl that you can’t fix.”
Blair decided to riff on the idea of a “gentleman’s farm,” an agricultural estate serving as a wealthy man’s pastoral getaway, in designing the new houses. The visual concept, or “vernacular,” will blend well into Addison County’s rural landscape, he contends. There is already a big farmhouse on the corner. The idea is to add a smaller caretaker’s quarters, and two barns. 
Yet what might look like a playground for the wealthy would feature a diversity of housing forms. The farmhouse is already a duplex. The smaller caretaker’s quarters would be a more modest single-family home. Resembling barns from the outside, each of the two other buildings would serve as residences. 
To a passerby, the properties would look like a single, regal manor. In reality, the grounds would be several plots of mixed-level housing. 
“We’re gonna end up with either houses in the field, or a sleight-of-hand that looks like an old farm that has a road network that will still allow for infill around those over time,” Blair said.
To fund his purchase, Blair is selling his family’s current home in Cornwall. He’s gone all-in on West Cornwall, and plans to show his neighbors his commitment by building a new, smaller home for his family on the land.
“I don’t want to be perceived as the guy who’s developing land down the road to make money. I want to be the guy that’s the first one in, because I believe in what I’m doing,” he said.
Ever hopeful, he imagines that once the town sees his first round of development, it will allow something closer to his original PUD in West Cornwall. He has not given up the town green on the corner, the small cottages lining it, the church-turned business space abutting its northern edge. 
To an outside observer, Blair’s hope might appear misguided. After all, he’s relying on the approval of the same folks whose input first downsized his planned community. But Blair’s an optimist, and he moved to Vermont — and Cornwall — for a reason: Change here is still possible. 
“I haven’t given up. I don’t think I ever will give up,” he said. “I do have some days of frustration, but I’m going to try to make this a beautiful village even if it kills me. And it may kill me, but I’m gonna do my darndest.”
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Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.
Email: [email protected]
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