CLAREMONT — A proposal to study the feasibility to provide affordable apartments at the Topstone Mill building failed to gain the city council’s approval on Wednesday, with opponents pointing to concerns about the property history and the project’s potential to increase the city’s subsidized housing.
The Claremont City Council, by a vote of 4 to 3, rejected a city proposal to apply for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) on behalf of property owner Jon Calkins, for up to $25,000, to study the feasibility to create 48 apartments for tenants with low-to moderate incomes at the Topstone Mill building at 101 Mulberry St.
Despite the current scarcity of housing in Claremont, opponents to the proposal conveyed reservations about assisting the Topstone Mill building, given the building’s controversial tax abatement agreement in 2018, when the city reduced the Topstone Mill building’s assessed value from $670,400 to $175,000.
In 2018 the city reduced the Topstone Mill building’s assessed value from $670.400 to $175,00 following an appeal by Calkins, also erasing $220,000 of tax debt on the property as a result.
City officials at the time explained that the Topstone Mill building had been overassessed in 2014 by previous assessors, who were unaware of the property’s existing brownfield.
The city’s decision, which was not initially disclosed to the city council, led to a public backlash and a further strain in the relationship between city councilors and former City Manager Ryan McNutt.
Councilor James Contois, who opposed the grant proposal, contended that private property owners should not be securing public money to fund their projects, nor should the city assist them in that effort.
“I think it’s up to them to spend their money on a study,” Contois said. “[A federal grant] is taxpayer money and I don’t think we should be wasting it.”
Other councilors were put off that Calkins was not even in attendance.
“He had the ability to show up or to Zoom in, and he did not choose either one,” said Councilor Andrew O’Hearne. “I don’t think it’s the city’s job to tell us how to sell this [proposal]. It’s up to the property owner to come here and sell it to us.”
According to Nancy Merrill, director of Planning and Economic Development, the grant writer may have informed Calkins that his attendance at the meeting was not required.
Councilors in favor of the study argued that adding housing was a top priority, regardless of past issues with the property.
“We don’t have enough housing in Claremont, period,” said Councilor Deborah Matteau, a professional property manager. “And it’s going to become more of an issue as we try to move forward on anything if we can’t put people into affordable, safe and decent housing.”
Available housing in Claremont has been scarce for over a year. Rents continue to increase and the city has a zero-percent vacancy rate, with new renters grabbing available units before the existing tenants depart, according to Matteau.
“If we want to develop Claremont and bring people to Claremont, they need to have a decent place to live,” Matteau said.
City Manager Ed Morris said he has spoken to local employers, including Valley Regional Hospital, about the difficulties their employees are having to find available housing in Claremont.
“We’re at a critical point,” Morris said. “If we can’t get workers here then businesses may have to start looking at relocating.”
But Councilor Jon Stone conveyed his concern about the housing being for “low to moderate incomes,” indicating that such language tends to mean more subsidized housing.
“We need to think about what’s best for Claremont,” Stone said. “Yes, we need housing, but what type of housing? If you’re taking federal grant dollars, you are taking their agenda and their requirements.”
While this particular grant proposal would only fund a feasibility study, Stone said he worried that could eventually lead to a federally-supported complex for low-income tenants.
“We have to look at the impact of low-to moderate income housing on our city services and schools,” Stone noted. “A lot of people forget that our school [funding] comes out of the pockets of the same taxpayers who [elected] us.”
Merrill and Matteau pointed out that “moderate income” equates to a family of four earning around $65,000 or less, many of whom would not qualify for subsidized rents. Eligibility for housing subsidies is limited to people making only 30% or less of the median income in Sullivan County.
“Every time we talk about affordable housing in this community we go right down the rabbit-hole, saying ‘Section 8, that they will fill the schools up and it’s all bad’,” Matteau said. “But that’s not what affordable housing is all about. Housing is a basic need in a community for all levels of your citizens . . . But right now Claremont doesn’t have it on any level.”
Claremont Assistant Mayor Allen Damren and Councilors Dale Girard and Matteau voted in the minority to seek the feasibility study.
Councilors Stone, O’Hearne, Contois, and Michael Demars voted against the motion.
Mayor Charlene Lovett and Councilor Nicholas Koloski were absent from the meeting. Koloski, who co-owns Time-Out Americana Grill, has traditionally recused himself from discussions involving the Topstone Mill building and likely would not have voted even if present.