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Supervisors reject senior housing project

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Shenandoah County leaders shot down a proposal Tuesday for senior housing in Woodstock amid strong opposition in the town.

The Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 not to approve a deal to give part of the former Woodstock School property to People Inc. The agency planned to build apartments for low-income senior citizens on a vacant lot across from the school on Court Street.

Specifically, the board voted against approving a purchase contract that called for the county to sell 0.781 acres of land it owns to People Inc., an Abingdon-based, community-action agency, for $1. People Inc. planned to build an apartment building with 11 units for qualifying residents on the smaller of the two Woodstock School parcels.

Supervisors who voted against the proposal cited concerns raised by Woodstock residents and a lack of support for the project from Town Council.

District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey read an email she received Monday from Councilman Stephen Heishman in which he suggests that the board delay a vote on the matter. Heishman noted the proposed apartment building would not solve the housing problem and "may not be the best use for that land."

"That is the message that I have gotten," Bailey said. "My constituents have asked that we not approve this project.

Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley said the councilman's comments should carry some weight. Helsley said he would support delaying any action. District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz said she has received many emails from people who oppose the project or suggested the board put off a vote.

Opponents of the proposal cited a lack of parking and public transportation for an apartment building and a fear of "undesirable" tenants as reasons not to allow the project to move forward. But many people said they opposed the project because it no longer included renovations to the old school.

District 1 Supervisor John R. "Dick" Neese echoed Helsley's comment that the need for such housing exists.

"But the fact that the town of Woodstock themselves can't come out and either support it or not, I have a problem with that," Neese said.

Supervisor Steve Baker cast the lone vote in favor of the project. Baker pointed out that representatives of several agencies that deal with homelessness and poverty spoke at the public hearing on the matter of a need for low-income, senior housing in the county.

"Having said that, they are the ones in the trenches that really have a feel for the whole situation," Baker said.

Chairman David Ferguson said he didn't feel it would be fair to People Inc. to postpone action. Ferguson said he didn't see opponents of the proposal changing their minds if the board delayed a vote.

"I do know that there has been a lot of confusion, when I listen to the tapes, as to what the project involved," Ferguson said.

Ferguson lauded People Inc. for its contributions to the county.

"However, I don't think that the town supports this project," Ferguson said.

The chairman said council members he contacted indicated they would take no position on the proposal.

"Not taking a position for it is taking a position against it, so I'm going to have to abide by what I think the wishes are of the town of Woodstock," Ferguson said. "They're the officials who represent the people of Woodstock and if they are not supportive of the project then I'm going to have to defer to their better judgment."

People Inc. took on the project after plans for the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging to develop both parcels fell through. The SAAA had proposed to renovate the school for offices and build senior housing on the smaller parcel. The SAAA received a U.S. Department of Housing grant for $1.3 million to build the senior housing apartments. People Inc. was successful in having the grant transferred from the SAAA for its proposal.

At the same meeting, supervisors adopted a resolution recognizing People Inc.'s 50th anniversary and members spoke in support of the community action agency's work in the county. People Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Goldsmith earlier in the meeting presented to the board the annual report, which highlighted the agency's local efforts and benefits.

The fate of either Woodstock School parcel remains uncertain. County Administrator Mary T. Price said after the meeting that the board and other officials likely will revisit the school property, but probably not until after the budget-creation season later this spring.

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

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