Keeping Middlebury office also on ballot

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents Michael and Judy Olinick confirmed on Tuesday they have gathered enough signatures to file a citizens’ petition for a Town Meeting Day referendum that will ask residents if they’d like to see their current municipal building and gym replaced or renovated at their current 94 Main St. location, instead of being erected elsewhere in the community.
The Olinicks have been part of a vocal Middlebury group that has urged the town selectboard to reconsider its current plan calling for a new, 9,400-square-foot municipal building to be erected at 77 Main St. and for a new, 11,500-square-foot recreation center to be built at the former American Legion site off Creek Road.
It’s a plan that would require the town to clear the current 94 Main St. site and sell it to Middlebury College, which would maintain the spot as a public park. The college has offered to acquire the 94 Main St. spot, as well as a town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. on which the institution’s Osborne House would be relocated from its present roots at 77 Main St. The college would pay the town $5.5 million, of which $1 million would be used to clear 94 Main St. and relocate the Osborne House. The college would also absorb $4.5 million in debt for the town’s new municipal building and recreation center, projects budgeted at a combined $6.5 million.
Present at numerous public meetings for the past seven months, the Olinicks have protested the current plan — which will be up for a vote of residents on Town Meeting Day — for several reasons. Among other things, they believe the project has been hastily conceived without enough public input or scrutiny, requires the town to give up a valuable real estate asset (94 Main St.), and places the recreation center outside of the downtown and therefore makes it less accessible to seniors and other potential users.
“Having those facilities (at 94 Main St.) helps make the downtown vibrant,” Michael Olinick said. “There is also adequate space for parking and for future expansion and renovation.”
He believes that the gym could be renovated and a new, modest town office building could be built on-site for not much more than the $2 million that town taxpayers would need to absorb if the selectboard’s preferred plan is OK’d on March 4.
The Olinicks asked the selectboard in December to place an advisory question on the March 4 ballot that would direct town officials to rebuild or renovate its town offices and gym at 94 Main St. A majority of the board declined and instead encouraged the Olinicks to gather the roughly 230 signatures needed to place the question on the ballot. The couple announced on Tuesday that it had thus far gathered 417 signatures, 390 of which were confirmed to be on the Middlebury voter checklist.
“We are way over (the required threshold), which is good,” said Michael Olinick, who with Judy planned to submit the signatures and petition to Town Clerk Ann Webster on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 22.
They believe the petitioned question will resonate with local voters.
“There are a lot of people who have been saying there should be a choice,” Judy Olinick said, adding that residents of all ages, income groups and political persuasions readily signed the petition. “This plan was rushed through with as little conversation as possible.”
Also of concern to the Olinicks: They said the new plan limits potential future expansion of the adjacent (to 77 Main St.) Ilsley Library, does not have a good parking scheme, would remove the town clerk’s office as the future polling location, and runs counter to language in the Middlebury town plan that calls for the town offices and gym to be maintained at their present location.
Their petition question reads, “Shall the voters of the Town of Middlebury advise the Select Board to retain the town offices and municipal gymnasium on the current site as publicly owned land and to develop, for voter approval, a plan to replace and/or upgrade these facilities on this site?”
In a statement to the selectboard on Tuesday, Michael Olinick said he and Judy got much encouragement when they announced they would circulate the petition.
“Almost immediately, voters contacted us by phone and email or stopped us in the street to ask when and where they could sign the petitions. About 20 people volunteered to circulate copies of the petition,” he said.
So residents will have a choice, and their votes could give selectboard members food for thought. For example, it is possible that the bond initiative could pass and the Olinicks’ petition could get considerable support.
“If the bond vote passes, that becomes the reality … even if our (petitioned question) passes as well,” he said. That’s why the Olinicks are hoping people vote “no” on the bond and “yes” on their petitioned question, an outcome they said would likely compel the selectboard to revisit the notion of fixing or replacing its current assets at 94 Main St.
Selectboard Chairman Dean George said the panel will certainly take a close look at the voting results on the Olinicks’ petitioned question. It will, of course, be a new selectboard that could have some new faces, depending on how the municipal elections go.
George believes the town did its due diligence in exploring projects to keep its facilities at 94 Main St., but the most recent project estimate was for $6 million to $10 million — without college funds. The selectboard looked fruitlessly at ways of reducing the taxpayer tab, through fundraising and/or grants, George noted. That’s when George and former Selectman Victor Nuovo approached the college about becoming financially involved. The college agreed, which resulted in the proposed deal that was made public last June.
“We have an opportunity to get these two programs done, albeit in other locations,” George said.
“We are hoping for a large voter turnout on this issue.”
So are the Olinicks. And they are also hoping that the emotional and sometimes contentious debate on this issue does not spill past Town Meeting Day.
“It’s too bad that this has become personal in some ways,” Judy Olinick said. “However it is resolved … I hope people do not have lingering bad feelings.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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