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City, island owner still seek pedestrian bridge

VERGENNES — While Ferrisburgh resident David Shlansky hopes to move forward soon with restoring the Shade Roller Mill and its Annex after a court case was settled (see related story), plans to renovate another Vergennes property he owns on an island in the Otter Creek falls may take a little longer.
Still, Shlansky and city officials have reached a new agreement following a 2010 court case that both sides are hopeful will allow the project to move forward in the next couple years. The parties are working together toward building a new pedestrian bridge over part of Otter Creek that would resolve a key issue holding up Shlansky’s plans and create better access to a city-owned island.
Two buildings stand on Shlansky’s Grist Mill Island not far from the Shade Roller Mill. One is the restored Grist Mill that houses his law office and several apartments, and the other, the property in question, is a vacant, 2,100-square-foot horse barn.
Shlansky would like to renovate the barn into office space. Ideally, he said last week in an interview in his 48 Green St. building, he would like to consolidate all his law firm’s operations on the island while possibly moving his property management business to Green Street.
But in 2008 and in 2009, the Vergennes Development Review Board denied two applications to restore the barn. Although Shlansky has parking in Settlers’ Park at the bridge’s east end he can legally dedicate to Grist Mill Island, the DRB ruled pedestrian access from there to the island is unsafe.
Shlansky appealed, and in April 2010 the Vermont Environmental Court overturned that permit denial, but did not grant Shlansky permission to renovate the barn. The court stated that although the DRB did not support its contention the access was unsafe, the court lacked “the authority to grant the relief Applicant requests.”
The central issue is that the island is on the north side of the bridge, while the span’s one sidewalk runs on the south side. The DRB ruled crossing in the middle of the bridge would not be safe, while Shlansky’s legal team produced an Agency of Transportation document in which agency engineers described the bridge’s sight lines at the spot as adequate for safe pedestrian crossing.
The court ruled that the DRB had “failed to articulate any findings of fact upon which its legal conclusions may be based regarding the safety of Applicant’s proposed pedestrian crossing.”
Rather than continue their legal battle, Shlansky and city officials instead asked the court in October 2010 for an 18-month stay that would allow them to explore the possibility of building a free-standing pedestrian bridge from the east side of the river to the city-owned Pumphouse Island, next to the Grist Mill Island.
There is already a crosswalk from Settlers’ Park to the parcel the bridge would access, and also a bridge between the two islands. Thus, a new bridge would resolve the pedestrian safety issue.
That 18-month stay expired, but Shlansky and city officials recently reached an agreement to extend it for another three years. According to City Manager Mel Hawley the clock started ticking in May. The agreement stipulates the city will permit the horse barn restoration if the bridge is built; it also aims for a grant that would fund 80 percent of the cost, with the city and Shlansky splitting the remaining 20 percent.
Shlansky said he is hopeful the new, longer time frame will allow for a resolution.
“The 18 months went by quickly,” he said. “We’re going to try to cooperate to get that (grant application) done this year, and we’re looking forward … to getting that in.”
Hawley said pursuing the bridge will be a two-phase process: Step one will be getting funds to pursue whether the bridge is even feasible, while the second phase would be seeking funding for the bridge itself.
Shlansky hopes someday people can walk over the scenic falls to the city’s island as well as his.
“That’s kind of cool,” he said. “The more that people can walk off the roadway, it’s more pleasant. They’ll be able to see the (falls) and get to the Pumphouse Island more, too.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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