CHELSEA — With the design plans for the Cabin in the Woods project now 50 percent complete, officials from Volunteers of America of Northern New England say that construction could start as soon as October.

In a presentation last week to the Chelsea Planning Board, representatives from the Volunteers and Veterans Affairs described the progress made on the project to build permanent housing for homeless veterans at the VA Maine Healthcare Systems campus at Togus in Chelsea.

“It’s been six years since we’ve started,” Julia Wilcock said. As vice president of facilities for Volunteers, Wilcock has been working to bring the project to completion.

When it’s done, 21 residential cabins will house single veterans or those with families who would otherwise be homeless or at risk of becoming so.

Wilcock was one official who updated the Chelsea board on the progress of the project and outlined the time line to completion in about 18 months.

The path has been neither smooth nor straight.

The Volunteers of America secured a long-term lease for 11 acres on the VA’s property in Chelsea in 2009. Since then, the agency has been working to secure funding. In December, MaineHousing announced this project would share in about $2.9 million in federal low-income housing tax credits allocated by the housing agency. Cabin in the Woods was allocated $388,000.

The project is also expected to receive 16 Veterans Affairs housing vouchers funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The vouchers will help veterans pay rent on the cabins.

Attempts to secure state funds have so far been unsuccessful.

When the project goes out to bid later this year, the anticipated costs will be solidified, Wilcock said. “We’re still doing our due diligence and developing costs.”

She anticipates the project will go out to bid in about three months.

“We’re eager to get this project started,” she said. “We don’t want to lose construction weather this year.”

Planning board members asked about infrastructure, services available to the residents and the project’s impact on Chelsea services and resources.

VA officials have been compiling a list of candidates for the cabins. Wendy Thomas, homeless coordinator for VA Togus, said Volunteers of America has final say on who will be approved to live at the site, but the VA will screen the candidates to make sure they qualify.

Only veterans who are willing to use the services that the VA offers will be recommended, Thomas said.

“It’s a requirement that they have to work for their independence. We’re not going to cater to them,” she said. “We want to get to the point where we can step out and they can manage their own lives.”

In addition to the support that the VA provides, the VOA will impose its own rules on their tenants. No weapons will be allowed, and it will be an alcohol-free campus. Other rules regarding pets, trash and unregistered cars, for instance, will be enforced, said Melissa Morrill, Volunteers vice president of program operations, seniors, housing, mediation services and veterans.

“We manage over 450 units, so we know if you don’t address these issues up front, it is a slippery slope,” she said.

Residents will have access to VA services and staff, and Volunteers of America will also have an employee on site.

“What challenges do you see after you are up and operating?” board member Craig Hitchings said.

“The first year will be interesting. We’ll be discovering things we don’t know,” Morrill said, and that includes any unanticipated maintenance and facilities issues. “We try to head them off.”

As it now stands, the schedule is expected to roll out this way:

• June, 50 percent design plans submitted to Maine Housing, the Veterans Affairs Central Office and Togus VA Medical Center;

• September/October, design phase complete;

• October/November, construction begins;

• Summer 2017, leasing starts;

• Summer/early fall, construction completed and occupancy begins.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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