City, Grist Mill owner reach deal
VERGENNES — Vergennes officials and the owner of the Grist Mill Island in the Otter Creek Falls have reached a deal that both sides hope will end both an ongoing Development Review Board permit process and Environmental Court case that together have lingered for more than two years.
The city and island owner David Shlansky have agreed to work together over the next 18 months to obtain a grant for a sidewalk to be built on the falls side of the Otter Creek bridge. That sidewalk would access both Grist Mill Island and the city-owned Pumphouse Island, which can now be reached only via Grist Mill Island.
The only sidewalk now on the bridge runs on the opposite, upstream side, and pedestrians must cross South Main Street in the middle of the bridge to reach the islands.
The Grist Mill itself already houses Shlansky’s office and several apartments, and the island’s parking is maxed out, per city zoning. Shlansky therefore needed offsite parking to develop a barn on the island into office space, and the new sidewalk would answer the DRB’s concerns about safe pedestrian crossing to the island.
Those concerns led the board to twice — in 2008 and 2009 — deny a permit to a company owned by Shlansky (Mahaiwe LLC) to develop the Grist Mill Island barn using parking spaces at Settlers Park, at the east end of the bridge.
In its April 2009 decision, the DRB stated, “there is not sufficient provision of safe pedestrian facilities” to allow additional development on the island. Shlansky appealed both denials; the 2009 denial was of a slightly amended proposal.
In the new agreement, which was set to be signed late last week or this week, the “City and Mahaiwe agree this Court shall grant approval of Mahaiwe’s application for Site Plan and Conditional Use Review” and city manager and zoning administrator Mel Hawley “shall issue a zoning permit” within a month of the construction of the sidewalk.
Hawley said Shlansky had asked late this summer if there was a way to settle the case, which included a court ruling in April of this year that sent the appeal of the first denial back to the DRB. In early September, Hawley suggested this approach to an agreement.
Hawley cautioned this settlement does not necessarily conclude the issue, but rather “parks” Shlansky’s court appeal while the parties work together toward a grant that would pay for 80 percent of the sidewalk; the city and Shlansky would share the remaining 20 percent up to $15,000 apiece.
“It provides for a window of time, 18 months, to seek funding to put a sidewalk on the downstream side. If that occurs, it would enable me to issue a zoning project for him to do that project,” Hawley said. “If we are not able to find funding to do that project, and David wants to un-park, if you will, the appeal, then we are back at the Environmental Court.”
Hawley is optimistic that the city can earn such a grant. As potential funding sources, he pointed to either the same program that will pay for the move of the city’s historic rail station to Kayhart Crossing (at this point probably next spring), or another that has paid for a number of other improvements to the city’s Otter Creek basin and southern gateway area that includes the two islands.
Those projects include an extension of the city’s sidewalk to the falls side of the bridge and a soon-to-be bid out stairway from that side of the bridge down to the river basin; that stairway will start from behind buildings owned by William Benton.
Hawley also pointed out Settlers Park has itself already been provided grant money in the past, and that the city’s new municipal plan puts a premium on pedestrian improvements.
“The city has received a fair amount of money relative to the development of Settlers Park, the sidewalk behind the Benton building, the stairway project that is going out to bid here, hopefully soon. To me, I would see this sidewalk attached to the bridge as basically being a continuation of that project. So, to me that would be a likely source of money,” he said. “It would seem that this project would rank very similar to the other projects that got funded through that program.”
Shlansky was traveling earlier this week, but found time to send a brief email stating his support for the settlement.
“I think it is fair to say we are happy that the city is working with us to find a good solution to an access problem that we share, they with the park and we with the Grist Mill. We think it’s a good thing that should make things better and safer,” Shlansky said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].