ASHLAND — A controversy that has erupted in town over a proposed housing complex for homeless veterans came to a head recently at a meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, when a group of residents made it clear that they don't want it in their town.
Judging by applause to residents speaking last Thursday, it appeared that most of the roughly 70 people in the audience supported the veterans' home proposal. But there was also loud applause for residents speaking against the zoning change requests.
After three hours of sometimes heated arguments among audience members, the board decided to continue the matter to the next meeting.
The complex proposal comes from a group of area businesses and organizations that have partnered with Soldier On, a national homeless veterans advocacy group, to develop nine acres of flat woodlands on Riverside Drive. The plan is for four buildings with at least 50 one-bedroom units.
If permitted, it would be the first such facility in New Hampshire. It would be patterned on the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Pittsfield, Mass., Soldier On's first facility, completed in 2010. Soldier On works closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to get funding for its work.
Soldier On housing projects are permanent cooperatives that provide formerly homeless veterans with safe, sustainable, affordable housing while transitioning them from homelessness to homeownership, as veterans are able to buy their dwellings with special payment arrangements.
To build the complex, the groups need some leeway in the town laws. Their first request was for an appeal of a zoning law that requires unit sizes to be at least 750 feet, as the design for the complex has rooms of between 455 and 525 square feet.
Zoning board chairman Elaine Allard began the meeting by asking that all comments only address the requested zoning changes, explaining that other town boards would deal with questions of whether to allow the development.
But that didn't happen. Supporters of the complex spoke at length of the problems of homeless veterans, while those opposing it said they didn't think Ashland was the right place for formerly homeless veterans to live.
Willis Holland, a resident who identified himself as a veteran, said the formerly homeless veterans could be a danger to the town.
"Who vets these vets before they get here? How do we know one isn't going to show up somewhere with an AK-47?" Holland asked, bringing groans from the crowd.
Mark Scarano, chairman of the town's budget committee, was among those groaning. "This has to be seen as a good thing for the town," he said. "It's bringing in $10 million (to the tax rolls), and we need that, badly. It's a beautiful thing."
But former state representative and current town selectman Philip Preston said there are too many unanswered questions with the project, and said the zoning board should not change town laws.
"We have a zoning ordinance that's been vetted by the town, I think it's important that we adhere to town law," Preston said.
Liz Cote said Ashland doesn't have the services needed for aging veterans, and complained that there were no on-site medical services proposed for the complex. She said after the veterans die, the town could be left with a complex that no one wants to buy.
"This project is too enormous for Ashland," she said.
Everett Mills said he is against the project for the same reasons. "My concern is can this community support this kind of thing," he said.
Several speakers said they worried that the veterans would cause problems in the downtown area, though they did not say how or why that would happen.
Soldier On officials assured the audience that the veterans would be "stable, responsible individuals."