Board hears pros, cons on school deal

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — A plan to build senior housing on land at the old Woodstock School drew fire from Shenandoah County residents Tuesday night.

But representatives from several agencies that deal with low-income and elderly residents say the need for such housing exists.

The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on a proposal to transfer part of a contract originally meant for the Shenandoah Area Agency on Agency and to enter into a purchase agreement with People Inc. for the smaller of two parcels on Court Street. People Inc. plans to build an 11-unit apartment building for low-income, senior citizens.

Most of the speakers said they opposed the plan because it would not include renovating the old school and could leave the building to neglect. Other speakers said they felt the 0.71-acre site is not the right place for senior housing. Several speakers said the town lacks the roads or public transportation senior citizens would need.

Board Chairman David Ferguson and Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley did not attend the meeting. District 1 Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese served as meeting chairman. Board members did not take action on the proposal. The matter likely will come back before the board at its first meeting in February.

District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey spoke at the end of the meeting and said she would like to see documented proof of the need for housing for low-income senior citizens — a reason used to justify the project. She said too many questions remain unanswered for the board to vote one way or the other.

“Overwhelmingly, the constituents in my district do not want this project,” Bailey said. “They will be directly affected by this project and I feel that should hold more weight.”

Prior to the hearing, County Administrator Mary Beth Price gave the board and the audience a time line of events that led up to People Inc. seeking the Woodstock School parcel for development. Price also explained that it appeared the deed, transferring the property from the school system to the county had not been recorded circuit court. The county is in the process of getting the deed transferred. Property records show that the smaller of the two parcels is still held by the School Board.

Also at the end of the meeting, District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz claimed that SAAA breached an earlier contract the agency had to take and develop the former school property. She also criticized the situation that arose over the deed for the property and said it did not appear that the county had a vested interest in the parcel in question.

“If it’s not taken care of by the county, I view this as a sloppy way to do business,” Shruntz said.

Shruntz asked County Attorney J. Jay Litten to work on clearing up the issues.

“For what it’s worth, I agree with you on the contract and when I make a decision I’ll keep you posted,” Litten said. “On the deed, it just has to happen. We just have to work with the School Board to make sure that happens.”

The SAAA had planned to renovate the school to house its offices and then build housing for the elderly on the vacant lot across Court Street. That plan ended in 2011 as the SAAA fell into financial hardship.

Representatives of several area agencies that deal with low-income and elderly residents, affordable housing and homelessness spoke at the hearing. Some of them said the need for affordable housing exists in the county and they have heard this from their elderly clients.

Martha Shickle, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, gave information about the agency’s involvement in the original development plan put forth by the SAAA that began in 2009. The commission awarded $21,750 to the SAAA for a feasibility study on the renovations of the former school building and development of the adjacent, vacant property. The study was not made available at the hearing or at a previous town hall meeting held earlier this month.

Beth Oliff, of the Shenandoah County Department of Social Services, said her agency has been receiving calls from residents about the issue. Oliff said the county has a high number of elderly residents. The agency handles the distribution of federal housing vouchers and Oliff noted that 183 households in the county are waiting for these benefits, more than 50 of which contain at least one senior citizen.

Rob Goldsmith, president and chief executive officer of People, told the board that the nonprofit agency has not come up with a feasible way to develop and use the school building. SAAA had approached People Inc. about the land and possible development of both the school and vacant lot.

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