MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday voted 4-3 in favor of using a Creek Road parcel as the location for a new recreation center, a vote preceded by fierce and at times acrimonious debate among members about a site selection process that has increasingly come under fire.
The board also voted 4-3 against adding to the Town Meeting Day ballot a citizen-initiated referendum asking voters to call on local officials to keep the town offices and municipal gym at their current location and develop a plan to upgrade or replace those facilities on-site. The drafter of that referendum, resident Michael Olinick, said he will now look at gathering the requisite signatures to place his referendum on the ballot.
Selectmen also formally accepted a term sheet outlining the foundation a deal with Middlebury College in construction of new town offices and a recreation center.
The current proposal calls for a new, 9,400-square-foot town office building to be erected at 77 Main St. Plans also called for an 11,500-square-foot recreation center to be built on town recreation park property off Mary Hogan Drive.
ID-4 school directors — who oversee that recreation park property — have voiced concerns about the impact such a facility could have on student safety, parking and traffic circulation. A UD-3 school board member recently suggested the town consider placing the rec. center on a 2.4-acre parcel off Creek Road. That parcel, owned by UD-3, currently hosts the former, now unusable, Middlebury American Legion hall.
Middlebury’s Town Offices and Recreation Center Steering Committee on Tuesday morning voted 7-1, with two abstentions, to recommend the Creek Road site (see story here). The selectboard — at full strength for the first time in more than a month with the return of Victor Nuovo — endorsed that recommendation Tuesday evening, but not until after a bruising discussion.
Selectwoman Susan Shashok voiced outrage that the Creek Road site had been voted as the top site before it — and the Mary Hogan Drive site — had been vetted by the town’s Parks and Recreation Committee. That panel, of which Shashok is a member, had been scheduled to review both sites on Jan. 2. Shashok told fellow Selectman Nick Artim — a member of the steering committee — that he should have asked for a delay in the endorsement of Creek Road until the Parks and Recreation Committee had conducted its review.
“I’m disappointed you didn’t speak up and say something that was really important to our committee,” Shashok told Artim. “Now I have to go back and face everybody … and say we’re going to talk about this after it’s a done deal.
“I think it’s a real shame,” she added. “I will remember this. I am just tired of this.”
Artim said the scheduled Jan. 2 Parks and Recreation Committee review didn’t come up during discussion before a motion was made to vote on the Creek Road site. Nuovo, meanwhile, said the Parks and Recreation Committee’s role is to advise Parks and Recreation Director Terri Arnold, whom Nuovo noted is a member of the steering committee.
“Sometimes you can schedule special meetings if you think something is important,” Nuovo told Shashok.
Shashok took umbrage at that response and argued there was no excuse for not allowing the Parks and Recreation Committee time to do its work.
“This is what a Parks and Recreation Committee lives for,” she said of the opportunity to weigh in on a new recreation center. “It’s our moment, and this kind of stinks.”
Selectman Craig Bingham agreed with Shashok and argued the Creek Road site was only brought into the recreation center discussion around a month ago, giving officials limited time for review. He also questioned the decision to abandon the Mary Hogan Drive site “before the (ID-4 board) has even had a chance to vote on it.” Bingham said that action was insulting and could make the ID-4 board disinclined to reconsider that location as an option should the Creek Road site not work out.
Selectmen Dean George, Gary Baker, Artim and Nuovo voted for the Creek Road site. Shashok, Bingham and Selectman Travis Forbes were opposed.
“I don’t know why we can’t wait until Jan. 2,” Forbes said in explaining his vote. “It’s crazy.”
As the Addison Independent went to press, the UD-3 board on Wednesday evening was scheduled to discuss the selectboard’s position on Creek Road and determine how/if the district should proceed in making the land available. Some UD-3 board members have declared an interest in seeing the parcel used to host the rec center as a way of getting rid of the abandoned former American Legion building on the site. They are also hoping the center might eventually include four locker rooms, restrooms and storage space, amenities that could be accessed by student athletes who use the adjacent playing fields. UD-3 taxpayers would need to underwrite the estimated $450,000 to $500,000 costs of that locker rooms project.
ON THE MARCH BALLOT
In another 4-3 vote preceded by much discussion, the board declined to place Olinick’s proposed petition on the 2014 Town Meeting Day ballot. The exact wording of the petition is: “Shall the voters of the town of Middlebury advise the selectboard to retain the town offices and municipal gymnasium on the current site as publicly owned land and to develop, for voter approval, a plan to replace and/or upgrade these facilities on this site.”
Olinick is among a group of Middlebury residents who have been urging the selectboard to keep the town offices and gym at their current location. Current plans call for those buildings to be razed, with the site conveyed to Middlebury College for use as a public park. The college would pay the town $5.5 million for the site and another parcel off Cross Street to which its Osborne House would be relocated from 77 Main St. The selectboard would use that money to help pay for the clearing of the current town offices/gym site and for the construction of the new municipal building and recreation center. The board wants to limit local taxpayers’ expense for the projects to $2 million.
Olinick has argued that the current site is a valuable, prominent asset that should remain under town control. He acknowledged new estimates indicating it would cost around $5.8 million to renovate the municipal building and gym, but he believes townspeople might be willing to pay such a sum in order to keep facilities at their present location. He has also said the town could look for contributions and phase in on-site improvements to lessen and spread out the financial pain.
“Voters want other options presented for their consideration,” Olinick told the board. “Hearing from people, they are very upset to be losing this property.”
“The decision to maintain public ownership of this site … ought to be made by the voters themselves,” he added.
Others urged the board to reconsider salvaging the current buildings. Among them was resident Roger Desautels, the town’s former energy coordinator. Desautels said that while the town has in recent years ordered energy studies of the gym and municipal buildings, it hasn’t commissioned a more extensive energy audit in decades. Desautels claimed the town could save money by replacing the gym windows with less costly energy efficient windows from Europe. He said the town could also take some simple steps of plugging doorway drafts and ventilation shafts to keep cold air from rushing in as it is doing now.
“Why are you calling (the gym) a drafty, leaky building?” He asked the selectboard. “You are making it that way.”
Resident Fred Barnes, a retired bricklayer, said he believed the bricks within the municipal building were of good quality and well installed back in 1911 and could stand an additional test of time. The municipal building consists of the salvaged remnants of the former Middlebury High School building, the top floor of which was destroyed in a fire in 1954.
Bingham, Shashok and Forbes supported Olinick’s petition request. But a majority of the board declined and instead urged Olinick to gather the more than 200 needed signatures.
“This proposal was not something that was taken on lightly,” George said.
George said the board had spent several months looking at ways to keep the deteriorating town office and gym buildings on site. Vermont Integrated Architecture last year presented the board with a plan to renovate the gym and replace the municipal building on-site. That on-site solution was estimated at $6 million to $10 million, a cost that a majority of the board decided taxpayers could not afford, according to George. A finance committee searched, without a lot of luck, for potential donors and grants in an effort to reduce the cost to taxpayers, George added. It was at that point that George and Nuovo approached the college and reported (this past April) the framework of the deal that voters are slated to field next March.
“I think it’s in our best interest to present the best proposal we can at town meeting,” George said, adding that failure of that proposal might force the town to re-examine its on-site options.
Nuovo said voters very well might decide that they can’t afford the $2 million they will be asked to float for the current plan. But he said the current plan should be allowed to stand on its own merits.
Finally, the thorny issue of the term sheet with the college was discussed. Previously selectboard members had wanted the college to keep the site as a park in perpetuity, but college officials said they would commit to only 99 years. Artim suggested that the land be used as a park for at least 99 years. at which point the future college and town leaders would re-evaluate the status of the property. The term sheet was then approved 5-1, with Bingham opposed and Nuovo recusing himself.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.