South Deerfield residents share views on senior housing options

Deerfield Planning & Economic Development Coordinator Christopher Dunne talks to residents during the town’s senior housing open house on Thursday evening at Town Hall.

Deerfield Planning & Economic Development Coordinator Christopher Dunne talks to residents during the town’s senior housing open house on Thursday evening at Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Ad hoc Senior Housing Committee Chair Lili Dwight introduces residents to the town’s senior housing open house on Thursday evening at Town Hall.

Ad hoc Senior Housing Committee Chair Lili Dwight introduces residents to the town’s senior housing open house on Thursday evening at Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Deerfield senior housing design Option 1, which proposes 25 units by renovating the St. James Church, while tearing down its rectory and constructing a new building. Residents on Thursday evening said Option 1 would be their preferred choice.

Deerfield senior housing design Option 1, which proposes 25 units by renovating the St. James Church, while tearing down its rectory and constructing a new building. Residents on Thursday evening said Option 1 would be their preferred choice. COURTESY IMAGE/TOWN OF DEERFIELD

Deerfield senior housing project Option 2, which proposes 30 units by tearing down the St. James Church and its rectory and replacing it with a new building.

Deerfield senior housing project Option 2, which proposes 30 units by tearing down the St. James Church and its rectory and replacing it with a new building. COURTESY IMAGE/TOWN OF DEERFIELD

Deerfield senior housing Option 3, which proposes 27 units by renovating the St. James Church and its rectory, while also building a 22-unit building on the town ballfields.

Deerfield senior housing Option 3, which proposes 27 units by renovating the St. James Church and its rectory, while also building a 22-unit building on the town ballfields. COURTESY IMAGE/TOWN OF DEERFIELD

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-01-2024 11:50 AM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Three initial designs for a potential senior housing project that would serve as a key piece of the town campus is receiving positive feedback from residents.

At an open house attended by more than 40 residents last week, town officials and consultants from Austin Design Cooperative and Berkshire Design Group presented designs proposing at least 25 senior housing units on parcels abutting Bloody Brook, including the former St. James Church at 85 North Main St.

While three designs were presented, most residents in attendance signaled their support for the first option, which would create 25 housing units by renovating the church, tearing down its rectory and constructing a new building. The consensus was clear among the responses: this option would best preserve the town’s character.

“I think what we really need to do is keep the character of the town, while we provide senior housing,” said resident Linda Shea, adding that the first option preserves the ballfields and “keeps the church, which keeps the character of the town.”

“I like Option 1 because it saves the ballfields and saves the church,” added Sharyn Paciorek, who is also the president of South County TRIAD, which works with seniors in Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately. “This is great, I hope I live to see this built.”

Option 2 proposes creating 30 units by tearing down both the church and the rectory, relocating the ballfields and constructing new buildings, while Option 3 proposes 27 units by renovating both the church and rectory, moving the ballfields, and constructing new pedestrian paths and plazas.

In pursuing a senior housing project, Deerfield seeks to emulate the process Sunderland went through to build Sanderson Place. Sunderland worked with Rural Development Inc., a nonprofit developer, which paid for the development of the site and became the land owner, thus adding it back onto the tax rolls. The key to this project, according to Austin Design Cooperative architect Tom Chalmers, is coming up with a proposal that is attractive to developers who will be putting their money into the project. He noted that Option 1 may be the most financially feasible because it proposes the construction of one building and only one renovation project.

“We’re trying to develop schemes that not only look good to us, but a developer would find financially viable,” Chalmers said, adding that the renovation costs for the building at the entrance to Sunderland’s complex drove up the project’s price. “At Sanderson Place, just to keep that front house was about $1 million.”

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While residents shared positive feedback on Option 1, there were still concerns. Bloody Brook’s floodplain runs along the town’s parcels, and there are also wetlands that require a 100-foot buffer.

The other main challenge, which was brought up by several folks, is addressing the concerns of Jason Clark, who owns the property between Tilton Library and the St. James Church — the only resident-owned property on this strip of North Main Street. Clark said Thursday night, as well as at previous meetings, that he is concerned that several residential buildings going up near his home could encroach on his privacy. He added Option 1 is the best design he’s seen yet, but these issues still remain.

Berkshire Design Group landscape architect Rachel Loeffler said she and her fellow team members will take the feedback into account as they try to develop a request for proposals package, which should be expected by mid-June. They will also be looking at groundwater, testing the soil and looking at possible geothermal uses.

Affordable senior housing is sorely needed around Franklin County, and is even more pronounced in Deerfield, where just 1.64% of the town’s approximately 2,261 housing units are subsidized.

As Deerfield pursues the project, Select Board Chair Carolyn Shores Ness emphasized the town will ensure the project is complete before turning any property over to a developer, as they have seen projects fall through in the past.

One notable example was in 2006, when Rural Development Inc. purchased land on Thayer Street to build senior housing, but drainage problems forced the company to move on from the site because development would have been too expensive and getting a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection was unlikely.

“We are moving forward with senior housing; we’ve been working on it since 1998,” Shores Ness said. “We are not turning it over until it’s built.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.