Selectmen not sold on railroad overpass plans

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectmen on Tuesday served notice they are far from sold on the state’s latest plans to replace the deteriorating railroad overpass on Merchants Row.
Board members this week got their first glimpse of the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s (AOT) draft plans to replace next summer the portion of the road that passes over the railroad. Plans submitted by AOT Project Manager Roger Whitcomb call for:
• Removal of the existing pier columns at the bottom of the new deck, which would be around eight inches thicker than the current deck.
• A rise in street level of around 13 inches at the project site, which would require installation of a grade-separated, split sidewalk near the main entrance of the Battell Block.
• Conversion of some of the diagonal parking on the street to parallel parking, in the vicinity of the Battell Block parking entrance and on the bridge. AOT officials said the change will result in a net loss of “a couple parking spots, but will greatly enhance safety for drivers and pedestrians.”
State officials said the Battell Block parking lot would have to be closed during various intervals of construction, expected to last from July 1 to Sept. 29, 2007.
Selectmen were candid in their displeasure over various aspects of the project, including the sidewalk scheme and potential loss of parking.
Selectboard Chairman John Tenny added he is concerned that the AOT is not, at the same time, advancing the replacement of the Main Street railroad overpass. Local officials were expecting the two overpass projects to follow parallel tracks.
“We cannot be pulled into a situation where we’re considering one half of the overall project, without considering the whole,” Tenny said.
Still, selectmen conceded the AOT’s plans for Merchants Row are much better than plans the agency had floated for the Main Street overpass earlier this year. Those plans, among other things, prescribed a dramatic increase in the grade level of Main Street.
“They are responding appropriately to the messages we sent strongly the last time,” Tenny said.
In other action on Tuesday, Middlebury selectmen:
• Unanimously agreed to contribute $20,000 from the town’s land conservation fund toward the conservation of the 90-acre Elmer Farm off Route 116 in East Middlebury. The Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) and the Vermont land Trust (VLT) are putting together a financing package to acquire and conserve the farm, which they plan to re-sell — at a bargain price — to a farmer specializing in diversified agriculture.
The farm — profiled in a recent issue of the Addison Independent — was most recently owned by resident Dorothy Elmer. Mrs. Elmer died a year ago, and her heirs have pursued a sale/conservation deal with the VLT and MALT.
The town conservation fund currently contains $254,737 and is boosted annually through the proceeds of a penny on Middlebury’s tax rate.
MALT officials explained that a $20,000 contribution from the town could leverage as much as 12 times that amount through other sources.
Gioia Kuss, executive director of MALT, said the Elmer Farm property includes a homestead, barn, granary, chicken coop and sugarhouse. She said the property could someday host a walking trail that could link up with the Trail Around Middlebury.
• Agreed to reconsider the awarding of the town’s 2006-2007 fuel oil contract, but could not come to a consensus on which type of fuel to purchase.
The board had voted on July 11 to accept an Ultramar pre-pay price of $2.53 per gallon of No. 2 fuel oil. But upon further study, town officials determined Middlebury could save an additional $581 by instead accepting Ultramar’s fixed price (monthly delivery) at $2.57 per gallon. The savings, Middlebury Business Manager Kathleen Ramsay explained, would come through interest the town would get by keeping its fuel money in the bank longer.
Selectmen agreed to reopen discussions on the contract, but arrived at voting stalemates on two separate proposals.
Selectmen Don Keeler, Bill Perkins and Janelle Ashley recommended that the board accept Ultramar’s fixed price offer of $2.57 for No. 2 fuel oil.
But Selectmen Craig Bingham, John Tenny and Victor Nuovo suggested that the town instead accept an offer from Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating to supply the town with biodiesel fuel at $2.67 per gallon.
Bingham said while it would cost the town an extra $3,500 to go with biodiesel, such a move would “set an example for citizens” in the fight against global warming. On July 11 members of the Middlebury Global Warming Action Committee issued a report that, among other things, encouraged the town and its citizens to use alternative fuels.
Keeler argued that the town has already taken significant steps in decreasing its dependence on fossil fuels by 10 percent, and that with fuel dollars already tight, it would be best for Middlebury to go with the less costly No. 2 fuel oil this year and consider a switch to biodiesel next year.
Separate motions to go with biodiesel and No. 2 fuel oil each drew 3-3 votes and failed to pass. The board will try to settle the fuel contract at its next meeting, when Selectman Dean George is likely to be back to break the tie.
• Discussed the upcoming, Aug. 8 vote on the proposed municipal junk ordinance. The ordinance, approved by selectmen this past spring, would require that property owners in the village areas of Middlebury and East Middlebury remove their junk, or at least screen it, from the view of neighbors and passersby. Violators would be subject to fines.
The ordinance has earned praise from residents in neighborhoods with junk-filled yards, but has drawn some criticism from some who don’t believe the new law should be selectively applied. A local resident recently petitioned for a townwide vote on the ordinance, believing it should not have been endorsed by just the selectboard.
The Aug. 8 Australian ballot vote will give voters the option of repealing the ordinance, or keeping it in place. The town charter requires that at least 15 percent (roughly 670) of Middlebury’s registered voters cast ballots on the question, for it to be considered a valid election. Officials said that may be a tough feat, given residents’ summer vacation schedules.
• Received complaints about the water drainage system in the Rogers Road area. Residents encouraged selectmen to create a temporary ditch to drain some residential properties until a more permanent fix can be financed.

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