Middlebury officials, developer progress in hydro talks

MIDDLEBURY —Middlebury officials on Tuesday reported continuing progress in talks aimed at advancing a small-scale hydroelectric project at the Otter Creek Falls.
The Holm family has been seeking to install a water turbine that would harness electricity from the creek as it flows through a flume under a downtown building (owned by the Holms) that borders the south side of the Otter Creek Falls. It is a project that could generate more than 1 megawatt of electricity — enough to power the downtown area, according to Anders Holm.
But the Holms pulled the plug on the project in 2009 amid rising costs, a lengthy permitting process and a disagreement with the town regarding ownership of water rights.
Earlier this year the Holms decided to take another stab at the project, this time hoping to sort out any differences with the town in a series of negotiating sessions facilitated by David Hallam. Hallam was the town’s manager for the recently completed, $16 million Cross Street Bridge project.
Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said the two camps met for talks on March 7 and are again scheduled to meet on Monday, March 28. He said the town has thus far emphasized two main points to the Holms.
“The town is interested in seeing a good, productive project go forward if it is financially and aesthetically viable; and the longstanding discussion over water rights… should not be seen as a barrier to get over in developing the property,” Finger told the selectboard.
He described the March 7 meeting as being two hours long and “markedly productive.”
Middlebury Town Counsel Karl Neuse noted the town and the Holms (aka Middlebury Electric) have signed a mediation agreement. As such, he raised the prospect that some elements of the negotiating sessions could be kept private.
“We are getting to the point where future discussions are going to (involve) concessions or deal with issues where confidentiality may be important,” Neuse said.
At the same time, Finger said the parties want to make sure there is “some transparency in the process, so it doesn’t appear everything is being done in secret. So it’s finding a balance between the need for some confidentiality because of the agreement, but also making it open enough so people understand we are doing this on behalf of the town.”
Looking ahead, Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said the selectboard faces the delicate task of trying to further a beneficial project while at the same time looking after a valuable community asset — the Otter Creek Falls and water rights. Middlebury Electric will need an easement from the town to make the project happen.
“It’s important to finesse this in a way that makes a project happen, but positions the town well for the long-term stewardship (of the falls asset),” Dunnington told the selectboard.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny agreed.
“In and of itself, it has a benefit to the town, to be able to produce this non-polluting source of power,” Tenny said. “At the same time, it’s a use of an asset here, and does it generate the revenue which townspeople should see a share of? And if so, how do we determine what is fair? We certainly don’t want to be putting a burden of an expectation of revenue for the townspeople that hinders the project — I don’t want to suggest that at all. But I think we would not do our jobs if we were to say, ‘This is an asset, you use this asset for one or two generations and then perhaps the townspeople will have it back,’ but not be compensated or considered for compensation to determine that use.”
Middlebury Electric’s financial plan acknowledges an increase in property tax value stemming from the project and the Holms will not be seeking a tax stabilization agreement from the town, according to minutes from the March 7 meeting.
The Holms have hired a Maine-based firm to design a water turbine that will ensure water flow levels mandated by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard:
•  Unanimously passed a resolution honoring Gary Barclay, who recently announced his retirement after 40 years as a special officer with the Middlebury Police Department. Barclay, who received a standing ovation, will remain on call with the department for traffic control and emergencies.
•  Unanimously endorsed an application by the organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) to purchase the historic duplex at 61 Court St. and convert the property into a boarding house for single, working adults who are homeless. The property is currently owned by the Counseling Service of Addison County, which has now consolidated many of its office functions in Catamount Park off Exchange Street. Plans call for the building to be renovated into a one-bedroom manager’s unit; a small accessible unit with bath; a common kitchen with dining living room; and eight single-person rooms. Plans also call for an existing garage to be removed and replaced with a new, single-story structure with three one-room units and shared common spaces.
The Addison Independentfeatured an article about the project last fall, when HOPE originally asked for selectboard support for Community Development Block Grant funding. But HOPE withdrew its application amid fierce competition for limited funds. Now the organization is reapplying and is seeking up to $600,000 in CDBG funds toward an overall, estimated project cost of $1.18 million.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said renovations would be done in a way that respects the architectural integrity of the 1910 building.
If funding comes together, HOPE officials believe the new housing could be ready for occupancy by the end of this year.
•  Were informed that the Middlebury Fire Department continues to work on plans to update its facilities. The department has been working with Bread Loaf Corp. to whether to substantially upgrade its Seymour Street and East Middlebury stations, or consolidate those functions into one new headquarters on Route 7 South. Middlebury Fire Department Lt. Pat Shaw said he and his colleagues recently took a “pulse poll” of where they stood and a clear majority (25-5) believe the department should continue to maintain two stations rather than consolidating into one.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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