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Housing and Land Conservation: Community Needs Both

Kristen Sharpless and Jim Lovinsky

Housing and Land Conservation: Community Needs Both

By Kristen Sharpless and Jim Lovinsky, published on 12/30/2021 in the Stowe Reporter

Did you know that the Champlain Housing Trust, founded in 1984, was one of the earliest and most influential community land trusts in the United States? Today, more than 6,000 people live in 3,000 apartments and shared-equity homes that are maintained as permanently affordable by the Burlington-based nonprofit.

The concept of a community land trust is old and global. Communities holding equity in land —rather than land being owned entirely by individuals—has roots in indigenous American, pre-colonial African and ancient Chinese models of land tenure.

In the United States, the modern model of a community land trust was born out of the civil rights movement and was inspired by the Moshavim, a form of Israeli cooperative agricultural community. Founded in 1969 on 5,735 acres in rural Georgia, the New Communities Land Trust was a farm collective intended to serve as a refuge for black families who were being driven from their land for participating in the movement.

New Communities’ vision was to combine community ownership of land with individual ownership of houses to create a cooperatively managed and self-sufficient agricultural settlement. Unfortunately, the success of the venture was short-lived. Following a severe drought in 1985, the community lost their land after black farmers were denied emergency federal loans granted to their white neighbors. But the New Communities legacy survived, and today there are more than 200 community land trusts across the United States.

Currently, there is no dedicated community land trust in Lamoille County. However, we do have a conservation land trust—Stowe Land Trust—and a nonprofit affordable housing developer—Lamoille Housing Partnership—that use a similar approach of holding equity in land in trust to meet community needs. Between our organizations, we have used this approach to maintain 4,300 acres of productive farm and forestland, provide access to nearly 40 miles of public trails, and create 282 of affordable housing with 40 additional units currently under construction.

In January 2022, the Lamoille Housing Partnership is scheduled to close on the $5.6 million River Bend Apartments project, which will provide 14 units of affordable housing on Maple Street in Stowe Village and two additional units in Morrisville. The income eligible apartments will be rented to households who earn 30% to 120% of the area median income, or about $12 to $15 at an hourly wage. Six of the apartments will be designated for households that have endured homelessness. This will be the first affordable housing project completed in Stowe since Lamoille Housing partnered with Housing Vermont nearly 15 years ago to build Sylvan Woods: a 36-unit affordable housing development along Sylvan Drive.

At the same time, Stowe Land Trust and Vermont Land Trust are in the midst of a $2.5 million effort to conserve the Ricketson Farm, one of Stowe’s few remaining farms and the centerpiece of the town’s northern scenic gateway. Pending the completion of a private fundraising campaign and the receipt of $200,000 from the Town of Stowe, the project is on track to close by the end of March 2022.

At first glance, these ambitious projects may seem unrelated or even like competing land uses. However, new multi-family affordable housing developments like River Bend Apartments are best sited in locally designated growth areas that are along public transportation lines; served by town water and sewer; and close to schools and other amenities. Here they can build community, not sprawl. Prime farmland like the Ricketson Farm that is actively managed and with established farm infrastructure is best conserved for future food production and its associated benefits. This is especially true when farms are located on the outskirts of town and adjacent to other working lands. Both the Ricketson Farm and River Bend Apartments projects support the development of compact settlement patterns—a key, cross-cutting climate mitigation and adaptation strategy identified in Vermont’s recently released Climate Action Plan.

Since collaborating with the Lamoille Regional Planning Commission on a county-wide housing needs assessment in 2018, Stowe Land Trust and the Lamoille Housing Partnership have been pursuing options for supporting each other’s missions and working together on specific projects.

We are optimistic that there are opportunities to meet conservation and housing goals on a single piece of property. Although there are challenges, we are actively exploring ways to get creative and make a housing-conservation project happen. Possibilities could include integrating public parks, trails, community gardens, or other outdoors spaces into affordable housing developments, or dedicating a portion of new conservation land acquisitions—where feasible and appropriate—to affordable housing.

Holding equity in land in trust for public benefit–rather than private–will continue to be one of the variety of tools we need to use to address community needs for housing, health, economic vitality, and environmental stewardship in the years ahead. Our organizations will continue working together and with other partners to help create a healthy, equitable, and sustainable future for Stowe and Lamoille County–work which is possible only with ongoing, widespread support and significant investments from our community.

About Kristen Sharpless and Stowe Land Trust

Kristen is a Vermont ecologist and Stowe resident who became Stowe Land Trust’s Executive Director in 2018 after a four-year tenure as SLT's conservation program manager. Kristen leads the land trust’s land protection work and oversees a talented team to achieve strategic financial, land stewardship, and community conservation results. Stowe Land Trust is a local, member-supported, non-profit 501(c)(3) land conservation organization dedicated to the conservation of scenic, recreational, and productive farm and forest lands for the benefit of the greater Stowe, Vermont community.  

About Jim Lovinsky and the Lamoille Housing Partnership

Jim has been leading Lamoille Housing Partnership since 2010 and has been involved in 6 major developments bringing over 100 units of affordable housing to Lamoille County and Hardwick. Lamoille Housing Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit affordable housing developer dedicated to developing, rehabilitating, and maintaining safe, decent, energy efficient affordable housing to low and moderate-income families within Lamoille County and the Town of Hardwick without discrimination or prejudice using a combination of private and public funding partnerships. Jim lives in Hardwick.