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Posted December 29, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Board to take up Woodstock housing project

By Alex Bridges

An affordable-housing project in Woodstock could pick up steam and open for tenants in 2015, says non-profit People Inc.

But some Shenandoah County leaders question the effort because it no longer includes renovating the old Woodstock School and they fear the building would fall into disrepair.

The Board of Supervisors plans to hold a work session Thursday to continue their ongoing discussion of plans by People Inc. to build 11 apartments for low-income, elderly residents on part of the Woodstock School property owned currently by the county. Supervisors may consider setting a public hearing for late January to receive comments on People Inc.'s proposal.

Abingdon-based People Inc. only last week received word from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that it could use grant money previously awarded to the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging for a similar, albeit larger-scale effort.

People Inc. Vice President for Development Bryan Phipps called the transfer a milestone in the project, now referred to as Woodstock Gardens.

"It wasn't necessarily indicative of anything being wrong with the project; it was a matter of our navigating through the bureaucracy of getting that grant transferred," Phipps said Friday. "There really shouldn't be any additional bureaucratic issues that we'll have to worry about."

The discussion and public hearing will focus on an agreement between the county and People Inc. to transfer the smaller of the two Woodstock School lots. But it's been almost a year since county officials and People Inc. fully discussed the project and asked for input from the public.

"Frankly, due to the issues we experienced with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, our hands were tied in that we really couldn't move forward," Phipps said. "We need to go back and redo that agreement with the county and make sure it's still in full force and effect so we can move forward with the project."

Supervisor-elect Cindy Bailey said Friday she looks forward to talking with other board members at the work session about the proposed transfer of the county's Woodstock School property. Moreover, Bailey said she wants to raise the question of why the county wants to give only the smaller tract that doesn't include the school.

Bailey said she didn't realize until after seeing information provided to board members for the upcoming work session that the plans no longer included the school tract. The school itself has sat mostly unused since it closed in 2000.

"Now the county's still going to be responsible for the building," Bailey said. "It's been years since I've been in that building but it's in pretty sad shape inside."

Information on how much the county has spent to maintain and repair the school was not available Friday.

Bailey also questioned whether or not the county had looked at possible reuses for the school. While the county did not do any studies into the reuses, People Inc. hired a consultant, as it does for other projects, to determine if the need and a market exist for such housing, Phipps said. The organization took similar steps with its Toms Brook School apartments project. In both cases, People Inc. saw a benefit in spending the money to renovate vacant school buildings.

"In looking at it, we're very confident that there's a pretty significant need for this type of housing in the community especially given that it's targeted toward elderly people," Phipps said.

Phipps noted that the current project doesn't address the existing school building. The upcoming discussions will focus on the new construction.

"We've had some conversations with the county in the past," Phipps said. "I know there seems to be a very strong desire within the community to see something worthwhile come from the old school and I think that we have certainly been open to thinking about different types of uses there, things that would be viable to put in there.

"But at this point I don't think that we have, as an organization, any firm plans for it," Phipps added. "We would certainly want to leave that door open to evaluate different types of uses."

When asked about the possible use of the old school, Phipps stated in an email that concerns over the cost associated with adaptive reuse exist. The Woodstock Gardens project remains fully funded, thanks to the efforts of the SAAA in securing the initial grants, Phipps said in the email. People Inc. also secured additional money from the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional HOME Consortium. Woodstock Gardens, Phipps said, was always seen as a new, standalone project. Rehabilitation of the school for affordable housing remains outside the scope of funding in place, Phipps said.

The Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging entered into a deal with Shenandoah County in 2010 to take over the former Woodstock School property at 403 W. Court St. The county vacated the building in 2000. In 2009 the agency came forward with a plan to rehabilitate the vacant school that included turning the main building into offices and program space and to construct elderly, low-income housing on the smaller of the two tracts that make up the property.

The county held a public hearing Feb. 28, 2012 so the board could receive comments on the partial transfer of terms of a purchase contract from the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging to People Inc., and to enter into a purchase contract with People Inc. for the part of the county property. No one spoke at the hearing.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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