City and Northlands still at odds

March 29, 2007
VERGENNES — As the Vergennes City Council discussed on Tuesday how city police and Northlands Job Corps officials should work together, aldermen also turned to the simmering issue of compensation for Vergennes for hosting the 280-student federal job-training program.
From 1979 until 2004 Vergennes was paid an amount equal to about 10 percent of its operating budget for hosting Northlands on the state-owned campus that once housed the Weeks School. That funding was promised the city in the original agreement between state, federal and city officials in which Northlands was founded.
But in 1999 federal officials claimed such payments were illegal taxation. Although Congress passed a bill to cover continued payments for five more years, state and federal officials have since refused to pay any more, despite the city’s ability to produce the written promise of funding.
Aldermen on Tuesday said the fight was not over, and some said Vergennes should look into billing Northlands directly for services — including police and rescue calls — if the larger payments were not restored.
Newly-elected Alderman Christine Collette said the city should still try to enforce the agreement, but should consider the smaller individual charges in the meantime. She suggested the council put the issue on an upcoming agenda and work on a way to make it happen.
“Something is better than nothing at this point,” Collette said.
City Manager Renny Perry said the council’s focus in recent years had been on the bigger picture, but that changing tactics was worth considering.
“I think there is an opportunity for something like that to happen,” Perry said.
Alderman David Austin suggested that before the council discusses charging for calls that Police Chief Mike Lowe research costs to give the council something to work with.
“Let’s get down to business with this stuff,” he said.
As for the protocol for police working with Northlands officials, Perry said there was one in place between the city and Northlands operators before Rescare Inc., the private firm which now contracts with the U.S. Department of Labor to run Northlands, took over the center in 2005.
Since then one has not been in place, Perry said, and he wrote a draft to reflect current understanding and practices.
It requires Northlands officials to notify city police of any serious incidents involving threats to “life, limb or property;” allows center security to handle cases involving alcohol or amounts of marijuana of fewer than two ounces; requires center officials to report all narcotics and larger amounts or marijuana or any cases in which intent to distribute drugs is apparent; requires that any weapons will be turned over to police; and requires all offenders in these cases to be identified.
Aldermen said and Perry agreed that language should be added that all gang-related activity also be reported to city police. Alderman also wanted to consider whether amounts of marijuana smaller than two ounces should be dealt with by city police. Perry said he picked that amount because state law treats two ounces or fewer as a misdemeanor.
Aldermen decided to table the document until their next meeting to consider the marijuana issue, with the understanding that Perry will add the gang-related language in the meantime.
Aldermen also once again denied a request from the Addison County Eagles Club for an open-ended permit to serve alcohol outside on club grounds, including under the Eagles’ controversial picnic pavilion.
A year ago aldermen approved a request allowing the club to serve liquor at up to five outdoor events, including at the annual July Fourth fireworks display, assuming the Eagles got a Department of Liquor Control permit. City Clerk Joan Devine said there was no record the club had ever applied.
The club’s application for an annual city liquor license, which aldermen granted for interior consumption, also had an outside consumption box checked. Alderman Randy Ouellette said maybe it was time to let the Eagles go ahead and serve outside. “They’ve been jumping through hoops for five or six years. It’s time for us just to give them this permit and just move on,” he said.
But Aldermen Ziggy Comeau and Collette, who were on the city planning commission when the club was mistakenly granted permission to build its pavilion, disagreed. They noted the club is in a residential zone, and that neighbors have objected to the pavilion and other expansion of club activity.
“It would not be right now to give them this,” said Comeau, while Collette said the council needed to “protect the neighbors.”
Aldermen said they would cooperate with the club if its leaders would agree to the same conditions the council approved in 2006. If all went well, aldermen said, they might consider fewer restrictions in the future.
In other business, aldermen:
• Held the first of two required public hearings on proposed amendments to the city plan. The amendments will bring the plan into line with changes made to zoning laws during the lengthy adoption process that ended last year. Notably those changes would allow more homes on vacant land on West Main Street and add a former medical office off Monkton Road to an adjacent commercial district.
The changes drew no comment, and aldermen set the second, and probably final, hearing on them for April 24. Aldermen will probably also adopt the changes then.
• Heard from planning commission Chairman Neil Curtis that planners have proposed adding inns as a conditional use in residential zones, but only on parcels larger than an acre. The proposal was triggered by an ongoing dispute between the owners of the Strong House Inn on West Main Street and a neighbor, he said.
Curtis said the inn was mistakenly granted permission to expand in the past, and functions associated with its expansion have generated complaints. If the new provision is approved, he said the inn could then seek appropriate conditional use approval for its improvements, and then neighborhood “issues can be addressed in the DRB (development review board) process.” Curtis said a planning commission hearing will be held soon on the proposal.
• Heard from Perry that an engineering study is under way to determine why MacDonough Drive continues to have problems. Perry said neighborhood residents have provided useful information to engineers, and that test pits would soon be drilled to determine what lies beneath the roadbed. Perry said the solution could range from reasonably priced to costly. “It may be as simple as diverting water, or it may be as complex as digging up MacDonough Drive,” he said.
• Heard from Perry that another study will begin soon, whether it is feasible to add a second sidewalk to the Otter Creek bridge, this one on the falls side. Perry said two options would be studied, one whether a walkway could fit on existing deck, and the other whether a walkway could be added as a new structure attached to the bridge.
• Appointed Alderman Randy Ouellette as the council’s representative to the Vergennes Partnership, and appointed Carrie Barrows to the DRB to a term that will expire in August 2008.

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