Petitioners near goal for Middlebury town office revote
MIDDLEBURY — A revote on a proposal to build new Middlebury town offices and a recreation center was still hanging in the balance as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday, though the leader of the petition drive to force the referendum was optimistic he would gather the minimum 230 signatures required by the Thursday, April 3, deadline.
“We’re working hard and we’re pretty confident we’ll do it,” Howard “Skip” Brush said. As of Wednesday morning, Brush and his approximately 15 helpers had gathered a combined total of 208 signatures on a petition seeking reconsideration of Article 6, which was approved by Middlebury voters by a 915-798 margin on March 4.
That article calls for the construction of a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center off Creek Road. It also calls for Middlebury College to acquire the current town office-gym site at 94 Main St. (and turn it into a public park) as well as another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St., to which the institution’s Osborne House would be relocated from 77 Main St.
Middlebury College has agreed to underwrite $4.5 million of the $6.5 million construction costs in exchange for the 94 Main St. and 6 Cross St. parcels, plus pay up to $1 million in costs to raze the current municipal building and gym and create a park on the site.
It’s a proposal that drew fierce debate among supporters and opponents since it was first floated last June. Supporters said it would allow the town to replace its deteriorating town offices and gym with two new buildings and a park at a modest cost of approximately $2 million in taxes for a project valued at $7.5 million; create a new recreational center with more parking and serve a dual recreational need (via an addition to the building paid for by the school district) at Middlebury Union High School lacrosse and soccer fields; plus create new town offices that would allow common space with the Ilsley Library to meet future needs, creating greater value for town taxpayers.
Opponents cite on-site parking concerns; the potential that the new town office building might preclude future expansion of the adjacent Ilsley Library; and potential inconveniences a recreation center located outside of the core downtown might present.
Brush is hoping the town vacates its March 4 decision and instead considers his proposal to build new town offices and a senior center at 105-111 Court St., and for a new gym to be erected as an addition to the Memorial Sports Center at 296 Buttolph Drive.
Brush’s plan also calls for the current municipal building and gym property at 94 Main St. to be conveyed to the college. He places the cost of his plan at $3,715,000, a sum he said could be entirely covered for considerably less than the $4.5 million the college has agreed to allot to the project voters approved on March 4. Middlebury College officials, however, have already indicated that their offer of $4.5 million in financing is not transferrable to the Brush proposal.
The Brush proposal would not be fielded as part of a revote on article 6. Rather, the question put to voters will simply be a yes or no vote on Article 6 just as that article was worded for the previous vote.
If Brush’s reconsideration petition is submitted on time and is certified by Middlebury Town Clerk Ann Webster as having enough signatures, a special Australian ballot election will need to be held within 60 days. It is possible that the selectboard could discuss the petition and lay out a timetable for the special vote at its next meeting, on Tuesday, April 8. That schedule could lead to a special vote in mid- or late May.
It is clear that opponents of the $6.5 million proposal will have to work hard to turn out like-minded voters to the polls.
Based on election statutes for reconsideration initiatives, Webster said project opponents will not only have to score a win, but must exceed two-thirds of the number of votes that were cast in favor of the project back on March 4. Two-thirds of the prevailing 915 tallies registered on March 4 equates to at least 611 votes that the opponents will have to marshal on their side to vacate the previous vote, according to Webster.
So, even if project opponents earn a majority win — let’s say article 6 loses, 450 to 315 — the reconsideration still fails (and Article 6 is affirmed) because the ‘no’ side would not have recorded at least 611 tallies.
Turnout, therefore, will be key for opponents of Article 6 if the measure is to be overturned. It should be noted that the turnout of 1,778 voters on March 4 was much higher than usual for Town Meeting Day, according to Webster. She said typically, 600 to 900 voters cast ballots in Middlebury on Town Meeting Day.
Nonetheless, Brush and his supporters pledged to work hard to deliver more than enough signatures to Webster by the end of the business day on Thursday, April 3, to force the petition to a vote.
“People are really passionate about this issue,” said Brush, who added his only real hindrance in gathering signatures has been finding people at home during the day.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].