Midd prepares to extend tax for downtown improvements

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday unanimously endorsed the seven-year renewal of a special tax on non-residential property in the downtown in order to fund ongoing improvements to public property in the core village area.
The board voted 5-0, with Selectmen Craig Bingham and Dean George absent, to continue the Downtown Improvement District (DID) ordinance. Established 14 years ago, the new law carries a tax of $100 per $100,000 of assessed value on non-residential properties. That tax has raised roughly $35,000 annually, money the DID Commission has used to leverage state and federal grants as well as foundation money for capital projects to enhance the village, such as the ongoing installation of historic street lights.
Better Middlebury Partnership Coordinator Gail Freidin said the DID tax has leveraged $1.5 million for downtown improvement projects during the past 13 years.
On average, those affected by the tax are paying $224 annually, with a few property owners paying in excess of $1,000, according to Freidin.
Tuesday’s decision by the selectboard to extend the DID ordinance becomes official on June 7, unless someone submits a petition to repeal the law. Approximately 80 affected property owners signed a renewal petition for the ordinance. That’s more than the minimum two-thirds majority of affected property owners whose signatures were required.
“This was heavily debated, long discussed and when finally approved, it grudgingly moved into operation, but quickly became a real success, and one that the town can be proud of and certainly those who worked so hard for its establishment and continuance should be proud,” Selectboard Chairman John Tenny said.
Still, the ordinance continues to raise at least a few concerns from some property owners paying the tax, which in this latest renewal has been broadened to around a half-dozen properties that had been outside of the DID boundaries.
“The thinking was to try and square up the district as much as possible,” Freidin said of the modest expansion, suggested by the DID commission.
One of those newly added properties includes a building at 50 Court St. owned by Jeff Olson. The building includes a combination of residential and retail uses. Olson questioned the benefit he would see from the new tax he will be paying.
“I’m a half a mile from the Post Office,” he said, illustrating the distance of his property from the core downtown.
Leicester resident Gerard Trudeau owns property at 810-812 Court St. He said roughly one-third of his property is being used for commercial purposes and is therefore subject to the tax.
Trudeau questioned the configuration of the district and suggested that since the overall town has been benefiting from upgrades to the village core, it would make sense to have the DID tax absorbed by all Middlebury taxpayers. As such, he said the assessment would have less of an impact.
“If you take the irregular configuration of the district as it now exists, and you take businesses that are contiguous to it on the other side of the district, do they not benefit from downtown improvements?” Trudeau said. “The answer to that would be yes. So how far out do you go?”
He noted the $35,000 raised annually by the DID ordinance is equivalent to roughly a half a penny on Middlebury’s tax rate.
“It would seem that all of the taxpayers in town should be taxed, rather than just this particular group,” Trudeau said.
Selectboard members countered that it was downtown business property owners themselves who, during the early 1990s, first pitched the DID ordinance.
“It was not an initiative of the town of Middlebury municipal government or any other authority to bring this forward, but of the business owners, who saw an opportunity to work together to create a better place in which to conduct mercantile operations,” Tenny said. “So the focus was on making improvements to the downtown that would improve the value of those businesses and their ability to compete in an improved marketplace.”
As such, Tenny said it makes sense for the tax to be applied to those properties lying within the district in which the improvements are being made.
“They see a benefit beyond the benefit to a whole,” he said.
MIDDLEBURY — In addition to discussing the Downtown Improvement District at their meeting Tuesday evening, Middlebury selectmen also:
• Discussed the proposed conservation, by the Middlebury Area Land Trust, of a 40-acre parcel of land on the eastern slope of Chipman Hill. That land is owned by the Co-operative Fire Insurance Co.
• Discussed the prospect of putting some kind of centerpiece, or monument, in the middle of the new rotary intersection on Main Street that will serve the new Cross Street Bridge.
• Agreed to consider some amendments to the municipal parking ordinance intended to streamline the rules and give police more clarity in enforcing them.
• Appointed Dean Rheaume as the new tree warden and thanked the most recent incumbent, Peg Martin, for her many years of service. The board also designated Larry Katz of Cornwall as a deputy tree warden.
• Appointed Sharon LaFramboise as East Middlebury Fire District No. 1 treasurer, replacing Joyce Haggarty, who has resigned.
• Issued an entertainment permit to the new owners of Tully & Marie’s Restaurant, soon to be known as Jackson’s on the River. The new owners plan to offer periodic unplugged entertainment.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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