UD-3 voters OK lease option

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union residents on Tuesday evening voted 306-118, by paper ballot, to allow the UD-3 school board to negotiate a lease with the town of Middlebury for a Creek Road parcel that would host an 11,500-square-foot recreation facility.

Tuesday’s vote was a pivotal precursor to other, related referenda that area voters will field on Town Meeting Day, March 4, that will determine whether Middlebury proceeds with a $6.5 million plan to build a new recreation center and town office building. Those votes will decide whether the town of Middlebury bonds for the two new buildings, and whether UD-3 voters endorse a $400,000 bond for an addition to the new recreation center that would house four team rooms, showers and restrooms for local student athletes.

The start of Tuesday’s gathering was delayed for 40 minutes to allow a massive wave of residents from the ACSU-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge to register to vote on the proposed lease, and four other articles that were quickly dispatched. Those who showed up early were able to snag one of the 390 auditorium seats; an overflow crowd that numbered around 50 followed the proceedings via two TVs in the MUHS cafeteria. School officials explained the gathering could not be held in the larger MUHS gym, because it is not wired to permit live broadcasting by Middlebury Community Television.

A large turnout was expected, as the merits of the Middlebury recreation center and town office projects have been at the forefront of an at-times heated public debate.

Supporters have stated the projects will allow Middlebury to effectively replace two aging and deteriorating municipal structures at a reasonable cost. Middlebury College has agreed to underwrite $4.5 million of the $6.5 million construction debt in exchange for the current Middlebury town office/gym site at 94 Main St., along with another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. to which the institution’s Osborne House would be relocated from 77 Main St. The college would turn the 94 Main St. site into a public park and the town would build a 9,400-suare-foot municipal building at 77 Main St.

A majority of UD-3 board members have said they favor the recreation center project and related $400,000 addition because it would finally create shelter and a changing venue for the students who use the playing fields off Creek Road. It would also result in the demolition and removal of the former Middlebury Legion Post 27 headquarters, a building deemed unsuitable for public use. UD-3 acquired the Creek Road property from Post 27 more than a decade ago for $275,000.

“I think it’s a positive use for kids,” UD-3 board Chairman Leonard Barrett said of the proposed recreation center at Tuesday’s meeting.

Opponents have argued that the proposed recreation facility would be too far removed from the downtown and might be dominated by student-athlete use, while calling for the town of Middlebury to absorb too much financial responsibility for oversight and maintenance of a structure that would be shared with UD-3, which includes Middlebury Union Middle and High schools. They also argue that facility — and the Middlebury town office plan — were too hastily conceived, pose potential parking problems, and require Middlebury to give up a valuable piece of property in 94 Main St.

All of those views were aired during a spirited debate that ended at 8:34 p.m. after a second parliamentary attempt to end discussion proved successful.

PUBLIC DISCUSSION

Middlebury resident Peter Schumer voiced his support for the Creek Road lease, citing the need to remove the old Legion building and the benefits of having a new recreation facility with changing facilities.

“It makes sense to me to take this first step in the right direction,” he said of the evening’s vote and those to come on March 4.

Cornwall resident John Isham urged a “yes” vote, saying it was merely authorizing the UD-3 board to hammer out a lease. He said he was confident the final terms of that lease would protect UD-3 and the town of Middlebury.

“Tonight, we are just allowing the negotiation of a lease,” Isham said.

He added there is no guarantee the college will agree to participate in a future project if the current one is voted down. College officials have said their current offer expires with the March 4 vote, but have not said whether the institution would participate in alternative projects.

“The college has a lot of other good things to do with that $5 million,” he said.

Opponents of the lease also made their feelings known.

Middlebury resident Michael Olinick strongly objected to giving the UD-3 board permission to negotiate a lease that continues to be volleyed back and forth between school and town lawyers. The two sides have reviewed six drafts of a lease and have had differences on such matters as the length of the agreement. Some residents have suggested a town/UD-3 accord might run afoul of provisions of the state’s education funding law (originally Act 60, and updated to Act 68) that speak to the use of municipal money for school purposes.

ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows said his office has been reviewing similar town-school agreements for facilities in other communities and has been consulting with state officials to make sure the lease does not violate the terms of Vermont’s education funding law.

Olinick also said it was premature to OK a lease given the absence of a shared-use agreement for the facility that needs to be forged between the town’s parks and recreation department and the UD-3 athletic department.

“The devil is in the details … and we haven’t seen the details,” said Olinick, who with his wife, Judy, spearheaded a successful petition drive that has resulted in an advisory question on the Middlebury Town Meeting Day ballot asking voters if they’d prefer to see their town offices and gym renovated or replaced on-site.

AN ARCHITECT’S SCHEMATIC shows the layout of a proposed 11,500-square-foot recreation facility that Middlebury has proposed for land off Creek Road owned by the UD-3 schools. Residents of the district on March 4 will vote on whether to fund a $400,000 addition (on left side of the building) to house four team rooms.

PROCESS DECRIED

Middlebury resident Victoria DeWind agreed with Olinick.

“The process has been lacking,” DeWind, one of the most vocal critics of the project, said. “We are being asked to vote on something we don’t know the details of.”

DeWind also questioned why UD-3 was willing to allow a Middlebury recreation facility to occupy its land essentially for free instead of seeking a better return for its $275,000 purchase. She said Middlebury’s investment in the property and its ongoing maintenance would be too high and suggested UD-3 could potentially build a modest facility at the Creek Road site for less than $400,000.

Middlebury resident John Barstow voiced concerns about a process he believes has not been as inclusive and deliberative as it could have been.

“The process has been far less than it could have been,” said Barstow, the member of an ad hoc steering committee that helped plan the town office and recreation center projects. “This is a 100-year decision — at least.”

He added he was disappointed the community is not being given several project options to consider, but rather one proposal to vote “up or down.”

ID-4 school board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy also weighed in on the proposed lease. Hardy resigned from Middlebury’s ad hoc steering committee this winter, citing objections about the process through which the projects were being advanced.

“I know many people support this proposal because they have been worn down,” she said. “They fear what might come next if it is defeated. They believe the college will walk away, money will evaporate, and public bickering will continue. They believe this because this has been their experience in the past. But I believe, that if we as citizens expect more from our public officials and institutions, and indeed, more from ourselves, we can do better. We should not accept a proposal that so dramatically alters our town and excludes so many of its people without ensuring that it is the best we can do. We don’t want to regret hasty decisions, born out of strife and misinformation.

“If we reject this proposal, then we as a community can use our skills as citizens, educators, analysts, artists and communicators to create a project that truly reflects the values and dreams of our community,” she added. “We will not all get what we think we want, but I am confident that we can all get something of which we are proud.”

In the end, however, those in favor of the lease prevailed by a large margin.

Middlebury resident Gene Delorenzo disagreed with some opponents’ assertions that the planning process for the recreation center has been “rushed.” While the basic terms of the deal were unveiled last June, Delorenzo said planners have presented a lot of information about the project posted on the town’s Website and through the media. He said he believes a new recreation facility “would be a Godsend for the youth of our town.”

Middlebury resident and interim Selectwoman Ann LaFiandra urged voters to endorse the lease option. She noted she and her late husband raised three children who played at the Creek Road fields and faced the hardship of changing in the woods and having no shelter from passing storms.

“If you vote no (on the lease option), there’s no option (for a recreation facility),” she said. “If you vote ‘yes,’ there is an option. I think flexibility is a good thing.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

VOTERS IN THE Addison Central Supervisory Union on Tuesday gave the UD-3 school board the OK to negotiate with the town of Middlebury to build a new recreation center off Creek Road. Bread Loaf Corp. created this image of the proposed center.

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