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Development Review Board agrees state plan for shelter may need local permit – Waterbury Roundabout

The Waterbury Development Review Board held a special meeting May 16 to hear from attorneys for the state of Vermont on local zoning requirements, should the state want to open a shelter in the future at the facility on Armory Drive in downtown Waterbury.

In January, state officials with the Agency of Human Services included the Waterbury site in discussing plans with state lawmakers about the continued need to house hundreds of individuals and families.

During subsequent public meetings in Waterbury, state officials outlined to community and local government leaders how a Waterbury facility could fit into the state’s emergency housing program. The proposal surprised local officials and generated a lot of community interest and concern about how a shelter would function and fit into the surrounding community. Public meetings of the Waterbury Select Board attracted several hundred people in person and via Zoom.

During those meetings, Chris Winters, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, which oversees the state’s shelter program, explained that if the plan to use the Waterbury facility were to develop, the state would contract with a authority to run a shelter here.

In February, Waterbury Zoning Administrator Mike Bishop wrote to State Buildings and General Services Commissioner Jennifer Fitch, who said local regulations would require a change to the armory’s use permit if its future use would not be directly managed by state or federal government employees.

Two weeks later, an assistant state attorney general responded that he disagreed with the bishop’s decision and appealed to the city development board.

In February and March, the state had construction contractors on site at the armory to make improvements to the facility in preparation for its future use. The work included adding a sprinkler system, upgrading a water line and other updates to the building’s infrastructure. At the time, the state expected an April 1 change to its hotel-motel program, which would create a need for new shelters, including possibly the Waterbury Armory.

But that deadline passed without a crisis as the state Legislature and administration crafted a new plan that maintained funding for the hotel-motel program and eliminated the need for a shelter in Waterbury until now. Money was put into the fiscal year 2025 state budget to continue the program, which used hotels and motels across the state to house hundreds of people.

However, the review board still followed its schedule for reviewing the state’s appeal.

Given the strong public interest at previous public meetings of the Waterbury Select Board, the Development Review Board met at the Main Street Fire Station for the May 16 hearing. However, the meeting only attracted about a dozen community members, including members of the Waterbury Select Board. Board and one of the city’s two state representatives.

Before the hearing, the review board received a letter dated May 14 from Bartholomew Gengler, an attorney representing the Vermont Agency of Human Resources, and Ryan Kane, the state’s deputy attorney general. They wrote the city asking it to rescind the bishop’s February memo, which stated that future use of the armory by non-governmental personnel would require a local change to the use permit.

Their reasons were that the bishop’s decision “was issued without jurisdiction, that the issue is now open to dispute, and that any future controversy is speculative and not ripe for adjudication.”

Present at the hearing were Neal Leitner, Waterbury’s planning director, and Bishop, who served as witnesses to explain his determination on the permit requirement.

The state’s attorneys told the board that the state has not yet decided what the next use of the armory will be. Buildings and General Services officials have even suggested the property could be used for a variety of functions rather than as a shelter.

According to Leitner, the state’s attorneys maintained that since no specific plan has been submitted for an armory shelter, it has not been determined whether state employees or contract workers would operate the facility for future use.

State Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, chair of the House Human Services Committee, attended the hearing and commented to the review board on the issue.

“They gave the impression that the state would choose to operate the shelter,” Wood said afterward. “I noted that, in my experience as chairman of the House Human Services Committee, the committee that has jurisdiction over these shelters, the state does not operate any of the shelters in the state, they are all operated under contract.”

Wood also noted that legislation passed this spring appropriates $10 million in one-time funds for shelter operations, and $7.5 million for permanent, ongoing shelters.

Given its quasi-legal role, the Development Review Board deliberates behind closed doors.

After the hearing, Leitner said the board unanimously agreed to uphold the zoning administrator’s decision. The board has 45 days from the May 16 hearing to make a written decision. The state then has fifteen days to appeal if it so chooses; an appeal could be filed with the state environmental court.

Shayla Livingston, policy director for the state Agency of Human Services, responded to a request for comment on the Waterbury Roundabout case. Livingston said she could not comment on the board’s decision without already receiving official notice of it.

Asked if and when the state might consider the Waterbury armory as a potential shelter, Livingston said recent legislation calls for the agency to have an updated shelter plan that looks ahead to the fall and winter. That plan should be ready by July 15, she said.

In their memo to the review board before the hearing, Gengler and Kane wrote that the state would keep open communications with city officials about future plans for the armory:

“The state will continue to work with the City of Waterbury to keep it informed of the state’s plans for the Waterbury Armory. It may well be the case that future use of the Waterbury Armory will require a change of use permit; however, that is a decision that will have to wait until the state makes decisions on how it will implement a project at the Waterbury Armory.

See documents related to the weapons depot proposal at the municipal website here.

See previous coverage of the proposal for a shelter for the armory in the News section.

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