HILLSDALE — The Hillsdale Housing Committee clashed with the highway department over a potential location for affordable housing.
The committee wants to look into whether affordable housing could be built on part of the department’s 16-acre parcel on Old Town Road, but Highway Superintendent Richard Briggs does not believe it is possible and was not consulted on the idea.
Ellen Levy, committee co-chairwoman, said the committee has provided “soft services” over the years, such as a housing need study, but has not provided affordable housing. The committee was formed in 2004 after the town’s strategic action plan determined a need for affordable housing, Levy said.
The committee has been searching for land to build housing on for a number of years and recently laid eyes on the 16 acres of town-owned land used by the highway department. The committee “urgently” wants support from the board to move forward to assess the land’s feasibility, Levy said.
Briggs said he was surprised and offended to see the proposition brought to the board because no one talked with him about the property use.
“What I’m offended by was there was no discussion of what your proposal might be,” Briggs said.
Laurie Winfrey, who is on the committee, said committee members did not want to overstep and bring up the idea before knowing if they had permission from the board “to even think about it.” The committee intentionally did not discuss the idea with before bringing it to the board, she said.
Briggs said the highway department building is on the only usable land on the parcel. The rest is either wetland or used for materials, he said.
Briggs also questioned the safety of constructing housing next to the highway garage.
Levy said the committee saw a small area on Old Town Road that was flat and seemed to have potential during a visit to the property.
Councilwoman Robina Ward said the property is built on a landfill and thinks the area the committee referenced is where the well is located. Ward questioned why the committee thought a spot next to the town garage, opposite a cemetery and on top of a landfill and water that is not drinkable would be a good place for housing.
Affordable housing isn’t the only idea for the property.
The highway department proposed a new salt shed for the property and has been re-surveying the land to make sure the project is feasible, Briggs said.
The committee knows a well driller and surveyor who are willing to do initial testing on the site pro bono, Levy said. She emphasized the committee is in its early stages and would love the town board to help with this site or another site to create rental units for people who work in Hillsdale.
The town has contracted with an engineering firm to survey the land as a first step in scoping out the highway department salt shed, Town Supervisor Christian Kersten said. The results of the survey will inform a discussion about the housing idea next month.
“That survey, along with legal review will help the board to determine next steps,” he said.
Kersten said the committee has been looking for property for years, but nothing has stuck. The committee attempted to partner with Habitat with Humanity but had trouble because it didn’t have accessible land near the hamlet.
“This is not the ideal, certainly, but this is what the committee has come to as a possibility at least to consider,” he said.
Briggs said he is not against affordable housing but questioned the feasibility of the idea. The parcel the committee looked at is less than the minimum of 3 acres needed to build a home.
“I’m kind of confused about how this is going about and all the guidelines that would have to be changed for them,” he said.
Levy said there would likely have to be a zoning ordinance.
Board members threw out ideas about vacant private properties in the town that could be potential spots for workforce housing.
Joanna Virello, a candidate for town board, said the town needs to think outside the box. She pointed to the now closed Roeliff Jansen School, saying there have been talks of it becoming a luxury hotel. “We need to create housing that is for the workers,” she said.
Virello suggested Hillsdale, Copake and Ancram collaborate to create housing in the school.
Committee member Shirley Bresler said the housing problem in Hillsdale has been getting worse with escalating land values. The opportunity to obtain free or inexpensive land would be a major breakthrough, she said.
“I want to stress we are just talking about exploration with a little bit of enthusiasm,” Bresler said.
Kersten said everyone on the board can agree that affordable housing in Hillsdale, the county and the country is a concern, “now more so than ever.”