ST. JOHNSBURY — As Northeast Kingdom Human Services works through neighbor friction and permit challenges to establish a residential facility for people with developmental and mental needs in Lyndon, a similar home is operating on Main Street in St. Johnsbury.
The property at 1111 Main St. that at one time housed St. Johnsbury Academy dormitory students when it was owned by Steve and Susan Quatrini has been housing people who qualify for Intellectual and Developmental Disability Services (IDDS) through NKHS since April. The property is located across the street from the northern end of the Academy campus.
There are currently four people who are IDDS clients living in the building, and NKHS Interim Director Paul Bengtson said things are going well there.
A point of some contention at the property is scheduled to be addressed at the Development Review Board meeting on Thursday; it’s a cosmetic concern unrelated to the occupants or human services’ use of the building.
NHKS bought the building in May 2020 from the Quatrinis for $400,000 after securing a change of use permit from the town. It took nearly a year and roughly $200,000 in building fixes and changes, Bengtson said, to make the property ready for occupancy.
“They’ve done a really nice job for the residents,” Bengtson said of the building contractors.
A zoning permit clearing the way for Human Services to purchase the property from the Quatrinis was issued in March 2020. It followed a DRB meeting at which NEKHS Chief Finance Officer Denis Houle said the clients who would live in the residential program have intellectual disabilities and are not dangerous.
“I can assure you they are not dangerous individuals,” Houle said during the January 2020 meeting. “They are individuals who will make friends in the community and benefit both from offering their friendship to people but also be receiving of that interaction.”
Bengtson said the in-town space for the IDDS clients is having the desired result of convenience and interaction.
“Because of its location they have better access to a variety of activities,” Bengtson said. “People are going out and about.” “The ones who go to the Athenaeum are very well-received there,” he said. “All the feedback regarding the residents, their activity and how they are doing is good.”
Since the permit was issued in March 2020 for three therapists’ offices and eight rooms for staff and residents to live in NKHS completed extensive work on the property to include plumbing, structural and electric, said Bengtson. The organization also sought and got permission to erect a sign in the front yard.
One of the things NKHS did to the building appears to run afoul of the restrictions related to buildings in the town’s Design Control District. Double-hung windows were installed in the front of the building, replacing bay windows.
Zoning administrator Paul Berlejung said he was out for a walk with his wife in June and noticed the window difference.
“‘Whoa,’ I thought, there were bay windows there,” he said.
This change was made without pre-approval.
“In the design control district almost anything that is done to the exterior of the building or on the ground has to go before the design committee,” said Berlejung.
He sent a letter to NKHS noting, “This is to notify Northeast Kingdom Human Services (NKHS) it is in violation of the zoning bylaws at 1111 Main Street.”
Berlejung noted two options for NKHS: going back to the bay windows or ask the DRB to allow for the change after the fact.
NKHS is opting for the second option. In a request for approval filed in July, Humans Services noted, “The original bay windows on the building were replaced in the 1970s and the original foundation on which they rested was removed. The bay windows that were installed in the 1970s rotted to the point of being irreparable. With no foundation to secure them, they sagged as they rotted-and did not close fully.”
DRB members will consider the request on Thursday evening in the Welcome Center at 7 p.m. The public is welcome.
One Main Street neighbor, David Askren, has already weighed in on the issue. He expressed concern about the windows change in emails to Berlejung. “I just don’t think the new windows provide any architectural interest to the building. Functional yes, but attractive or interesting, no. The face of the building now just looks very flat and uninteresting to me and out-of-character with the other buildings on the street,” noted Askren in an email to Berlejung Aug. 2.
Bengtson said he is hopeful that the window change will be approved. He said the work done to the building was a benefit to the neighborhood and with NKHS owning the property it will be well-maintained into the future.
“I would say that the building did not get the care that it’s going to get by Northeast Kingdom Human Services,” he said.
Locating IDDS clients into the home is a significant benefit for people in need of a stable, safe and supervised space, Bengtson said. Too many people are trying to get by in sub-par living situations, he said. “I cannot believe the conditions under which any number of people are living in this town.”