Dean George takes pass on Middlebury selectboard re-election bid

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George has decided to take a pass on re-election after 20 years of service, a decision that creates an open seat for prospective candidates that are already beginning to step forward.

Former Selectman Victor Nuovo has confirmed he will toss his hat into the ring for one of the three selectboard seats that will be up for grabs on March 1. Along with George’s post, seats held by incumbent Selectmen Gary Baker and Nick Artim will also be in play. Baker and Artim have confirmed that they will be seeking re-election.

East Middlebury resident Richard Terk has also taken out a nomination petition for a spot on the board. Terk is leader of the Middlebury Airport Neighborhood Association, a citizens’ group that has been opposing expansion at the local airport.

Candidates for town and school offices have until Jan. 25 to submit their nomination petitions to their local town clerks. In Middlebury, those petitions must bear the signatures of at least 30 registered voters of the town. The 2016 local elections will offer an extra wrinkle this year for towns that are part of a supervisory union seeking to consolidate into a single school district under Act 46. Towns in such a supervisory union — such as the seven communities in the Addison Central Supervisory Union — will be voting on candidates for the local school boards, as well as candidates for a new board that would govern the unified district (if such a district is approved in a separate vote).

With a month left until the filing deadline, the field for the Middlebury selectboard race is starting to crystallize. And the prospect of an open seat is drawing interest.

George is a retired Vermont State Police captain who was first elected to the Middlebury selectboard in 1996. His civic résumé also includes a two-year term (2001-2002) representing Middlebury in the Vermont House. He has been a member of the Addison County Transit Resources board since 2003 and currently chairs the Vermont Parole Board.

“I didn’t have any idea how long I’d stay,” George said of his political plans after first being elected to the selectboard almost two decades ago. “You learn the aspects of the whole job as you go along. You get to work with a lot of different people on different projects. Before you know it, your three-year term is up and there are things you haven’t gotten done yet and you want to keep working on them. The next thing you know, it’s 18 years.”

He acknowledged not wanting to take on another three-year term toward the end of his tenure. But George felt comfortable extending his term by successfully running for terms of less than three years that were created by resignations of former board members.

MILESTONES

There was no shortage of compelling issues to command George’s and his colleagues’ attention as the years went by. The selectboard, during George’s tenure, has dealt with such issues as:

•  Building a new wastewater treatment plant.

•  Phasing out the town’s machinery and equipment tax as a means of stimulating business growth.

•  Proposing a new municipal building and police headquarters at 94 Main St. When voters defeated that original plan more than a decade ago, the selectboard pitched a new police headquarters off Seymour Street, which voters endorsed. Work is now wrapping up on a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility off Creek Road, two structures approved by voters following a bruising political battle over the location and financing plan for the structures.

•  Designing and erecting the Cross Street Bridge. The $16 million structure is being funded with assistance from Middlebury College and ongoing revenues from a local option tax on sales, rooms and meals. By making it a local project, Middlebury was able to build the bridge more expeditiously than by going through the state and the associated red tape that can delay major construction projects.

•  Marketing more than an acre of town-owned land off Bakery Lane to prospective developers for a project that would spur downtown economic development. A team of local businesspeople known as NexBridge is planning a mixed-use development containing retail, office and residential units.

•  Overseeing a state plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges in downtown Middlebury. The selectboard remains at odds with the Vermont Agency of Transportation on the scope and duration of the $40 million “tunnel” project, an undertaking expected to last through parts of four years and bring substantial detours, noise, dust, parking headaches and nighttime lighting to the downtown. Affected property owners, merchants and residents are concerned about how the project might affect commerce and quality of life in the downtown.

“There’s no end to the challenges,” George said.

George cited the rail bridges project and development of the economic development property as issues that will spill over onto the dockets of future selectboards. He is confident town officials will be up to the challenge.

“We have a really good group of people working on this,” George said. “I am hopeful.”

Balancing economic development with a desire to maintain Middlebury’s small-town atmosphere and keeping taxes within residents’ collective budgets should also be top priorities of future selectboards, according to George.

He will miss working with his colleagues and forging friendships with people whom he would not have met had he not served on the board. But George will continue to serve in other capacities, including on the parole board.

“I enjoy that job a lot,” he said. “I’d like to continue that.”

SEEKING NEW TERMS

Baker, a local insurance professional and former chairman of the Middlebury Development Review Board, was elected to a one-year term on the selectboard in 2012. He ran successfully for a three-year term in 2013. Baker said he would like to see through some unfinished business during the next three years.

“I would like to see the railroad bridge/tunnel brouhaha move forward with as little disruption as possible,” he said.

Baker also wants to see the economic development project carried forward in a manner that will strengthen the downtown.

“I have enjoyed my time, generally,” Baker said. “We have a good board with a lot of different backgrounds that are helpful in coming to decisions on things.”

Artim , director of the Heritage Protection Group, was appointed to the board in November of 2009 to fill the remainder of a term vacated by former Selectman Bill Perkins. He then ran successfully for three-year terms in 2010 and 2013. Artim could not be reached for comment for this article.

Nuovo, a Middlebury College philosophy professor emeritus, was elected to a third consecutive three-year term on the board in 2012. He resigned in January of 2014, citing conflict of interest allegations — which he said were unfounded — leveled by a group of residents who argued his affiliation with Middlebury College should preclude him from voting on town matters related to the college. Those allegations were specifically related to votes Nuovo cast on the Middlebury municipal building project, which benefitted from Middlebury College assistance.

Nuovo had argued that no conflict existed because he was not on the college payroll. He is retired from the college, though he has an office on campus. Since he does not receive a paycheck from the college, and the new municipal building has been approved by voters and is nearly completed, Nuovo believes it is appropriate for him to again offer his service on the selectboard.

“I enjoy being on the board and I think town government is important,” Nuovo said. “I really want to contribute what I can to make (local government) work.”

If elected, Nuovo wants to in particular tackle the downtown rail bridges issue.

“I am not happy with the way in which VTrans has dealt with it,” Nuovo said.

He believes the current plan does not adequately protect the interests of downtown merchants, residents and property owners. Nuovo also believes the town should be granted more input in how the project is pursued.

“I don’t think (VTrans) has given the town a chance to make the project work,” he said.

Nuovo also wants the board to closely follow the potential changes to school governance in the Addison Central Supervisory Union through Act 46. He thinks Middlebury should do more to promote affordable housing, contain tax increases, and confront the impact that prescription drugs (primarily opiates) is having on area residents.

Terk is a former Middlebury Planning Commission member who has lived in the town for more than 40 years. He is a project manager for Engelberth Construction. Terk said he is running in an effort to give residents a bigger voice on issues like future development of the Middlebury State Airport. The airport’s 2,500-foot-long runway is due to be repaved and extended by 700 feet to the north, to provide more clearance for airplanes landing at and leaving the facility. Some neighbors fear the project will give rise to a busier airport serving larger airplanes. State officials have countered that the project is exclusively about increasing airport safety.

Terk has been disappointed by what he believes has been a lack of selectboard support for airport neighbors’ concerns.

“The town’s governing board needs to be more attuned to quality of life issues here in Middlebury,” Terk said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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