Originally printed in Rivereast News Bulletin
by Sloan Brewster
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Hebron is taking on affordable housing.
The Rev. Ron Kolanowski, pastor at St. Peter’s, said in the fall the church purchased a parcel of land on Church Street with the intention of building affordable homes there. According to movoto.com, the 16.5-acre parcel, located near St. Peter’s, was sold on Nov. 3 for $200,000. Sold by James Celio of Century 21 AllPoints Realty, the developable lot is south of the center of town with sidewalks, natural gas, and sewer connections, according to the description. Residentially zoned, the lot has approximately 390 feet of frontage along the road, is lined by a stone wall and trees and borders the Jeremy River.
Kolanowski said last March during a lunch meeting with Town Manager Andrew Tierney, he learned that there was a need for mixed use and affordable housing in town and “filed the information in his brain.” He later learned from Celio that the Horton family was looking to sell the Church Street land. By coincidence, one of Kolanowski’s neighbors in Mansfield, where he lives, is architect Kathy Dorgan, who designs affordable housing. He said he paid her a visit and after they spoke, she walked the property and told him she could envision an affordable housing development there.
Asking himself how he could come up with $200,000 to buy the land, the priest approached the church with the idea. Besides having the space for housing, the church could use the land to increase parish parking, he said he pointed out. Currently, church members have to park across the street.
“It’s very, very dangerous to walk across,” he said.
Next, he said he spoke with Superintendent of Schools Thomas Baird, who said the district needs overflow parking for Hebron Elementary School, which is also next to the parcel. The school will be able to use the church lot for that, the priest said. The church also has the need to expand its cemetery, which would be yet another perk to owning the property, Kolanowski said.
Also, the church could put in an exterior barn-like building and have room for a tent to hold large weddings. There’s even space for community gardens, he said. In addition, Kolanowski said he spoke with the town about preserving some wetlands along the river.
“They bought into it right away,” he said. “Those were the kinds of core ideas.”
After passing on the ideas to the congregation, Kolanowski said he and his spouse put a few thousand dollars in the kitty and set a challenge for the church to raise more. Then they went on vacation. When they returned, the kitty had more than $42,000, he said.
“So people were into the vision.”
Before long, the church had raised $80,000 and then a parishioner offered to make an investment and the church was able to buy the land. Between the new parcel, 22 acres of open space across the street from the church, the three and a half acres where the church, parish hall and cemetery sit and the three acres where the rectory is, the church now owns 45 acres in the center of town, Kolanowski said.
After the land was purchased, Dorgan held a session, taking congregants then through visual exercises, in which they envisioned walking through the different parts of the church property to discuss how it is currently used and what their vision for it in 10 years is.
“The saddest part for many of us was to [envision going] into the cemetery, because 10 years from now most of us will be in that cemetery,” Kolanowski said.
Donna Jolly, co-chair of Hebron Coalition on Diversity and Equity (CoDE), hopped on board to help the congregation, writing a grant application to the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The $9,900 grant will cover education and initial planning for the project, Kolanowski said.
He said the design would fit with the town’s rural character. “The whole point is to make it feel that’s its native to the area,” he said. “Integrate it into the heart and style of the community.”
Dorgan said the plan was for an environmentally, socially and economically friendly development. “Father Ron and his congregation have been very clear that, as they develop the parcel, they want to do something that is really principle based development,” she said. “Something that builds a good community around the church and for the town, for future residents.”
She said the grant from the Hartford Foundation also helped bring onto the project Elizabeth Torres, an expert in finances, funding sources and community feasibility and Ralph Knighton, a developer and former planner for the city of Hartford.
There will be public meetings to make sure the community is involved in the process, Kolanowski said. Groups, including the Connecticut Housing Authority will be added to the mix to help find the resources and funding for the development. Character is a crucial piece of the project, Dorgan said. “That’s important to everybody. Everybody that I’ve talked to values the rural character of Hebron and is looking towards something that reflects that,” she said. “People want high quality that reflects history.”
She said the community will be involved in the design and the process will include looking at existing buildings and talking to people about what they like and do not like in the town. “We’ll work very hard to get a lot of feedback from folks, and particularly young people,” she said.
Jolly said she also wrote a grant application to the state Department of Housing, but that has not yet been approved. First, she said, the department wants to “have a conversation” with the church about the details of the plan. Jolly said CoDE supports the project because it wants to bring more housing opportunities to town. The group, she said, sees the lack of affordable housing in the town as a barrier to creating a more diverse community.
From a personal perspective, Jolly said she has lived in Hebron for 37 years and raised two children in the town. “I love Hebron, it’s beautiful. I certainly benefitted personally but all along and definitely when my children were in school, I realized that our community is very white. That is a disadvantage, especially to our children,” she said. “They’re living in a community that does not represent the world.”
Jolly also said that according to state guidelines, 10% of housing in towns should be affordable, and Hebron currently has less than 3%. She said there are people, including young professionals, teachers and town employees, who work in the town but can’t afford to live there.
“Right now, we are dependent on the large houses on large lots, not a lot of choices,” she said. “I’d like to change that.”
Tierney said town officials are in the process of reviewing a survey on affordable housing that went to residents and was completed Sunday. Once that is done, officials will begin developing the town’s affordable housing plan, which is mandated by the state and will update the Plan of Conservation and Development.
“We’re going to wait to see what the plan looks like before we move forward,” he said. “And if we can help Father Ron, we will.” Based on the way the project has thus far fallen together, including that Dorgan is a neighbor, Kolanowski has his own ideas on who is really helping getting it moving.
“I am convinced from a theological perspective God wants all this to happen in Hebron,” he said.