Clippings: Town project choice simple, really

With the vote looming on the Middlebury town office project, it’s time to look through all the fog at the issues.
First, please vote. Those who think the town offices, gym, and teen and senior centers should remain at their current location — at a projected cost of $6.4 million of renovations — express your conscience.
If you prefer the proposal for new town offices 200 yards away and a gym on Creek Road — a plan that, with $5.5 million of support from Middlebury College, would cost the town an estimated $2 million — vote that way on Town Meeting Day.
My view is that the downsides to the $2 million option are the loss of a few downtown parking spaces, the fact the gym will be slightly smaller, and … well, that’s about all I can think of.
The pluses are new, functional and energy-efficient buildings; better access for most Middlebury residents to the gym; and the move of teen and senior centers out of the gray, windowless municipal building basement (go down there if you don’t believe me, and the teens have already agreed). The other sites are not inferior, nor are they less accessible, no matter what some would have you believe.
I can also think of 4.4 million other reasons to vote yes, and with the Middlebury residential school tax rate set to go up by 9 cents, those reasons look pretty good.
Meanwhile, opponents of the project have come up with seemingly endless objections. But before addressing some of those, let’s look at the idea this paper is, in the words of one person on Front Porch Forum, “restricting public discussion on its pages while giving the proponents of the deal all the space they want.”
The poster referred to the Independent’s recent policy of limiting letter-writers to one letter per topic before town meeting, a policy adopted to allow us to publish more of the flood of letters we get before town meeting every year from around the county. Letters in this issue are spread over four pages.
For the record, this is my third Clippings on this topic. Our publisher has editorialized, and Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, among others, has weighed in for the deal.
As for how many letters we have already run opposing the project, the answer is 42. Eleven of those came from one source, nine from another, and six from a third.
I guess the Independent has a lot to learn from North Korea about suppressing dissent.
Here’s a sample of opponents’ other issues:
• Selectboard members were alleged to have conflicts of interest: Two had to recuse themselves from voting on the deal, one because her husband then worked for a company related to Middlebury College, another because he is a professor emeritus. Tenuous at best, but apparently the statute is so vague that enough members of the selectboard voted against them.
But former board chairman John Tenny, a builder who had contracts with the college, and the professor in question, Victor Nuovo, both served on the board while it talked with the college on other deals, including the one for the Cross Street Bridge.
Why did it become an issue now? Here’s what another selectman, who voted against the two selectboard members, wrote on a public comment board: “The Cross Street Bridge Project was clearly in the best interest of the town. That is why people willingly turned a blind eye to John Tenny’s and Professor Nuovo’s conflicts of interest.”
So this public official was willing to overlook alleged conflicts when agreeing with a project, but used alleged conflicts as a ploy to prevent this project from coming to a vote. The conflicts were never real.
• On Front Porch Forum, one poster asked, “Where would town meeting be held?” and he and others have wondered about election materials transportation and storage. Well, the new gym on Creek Road will be surrounded by more parking than the existing town office building; the site, again, is more accessible to most of Middlebury, not just folks on the west side of Otter Creek; and the gym will have a closet for election storage.
• The town plan calls for the town office to stay put, foes say. Well, town plans are binding because zoning laws must be based upon plans to have standing, an issue that is not relevant here. And, yes, in an ideal world town plans would perfectly reflect reality and anticipate changing circumstances. Ours did not predict a $5.5 million offer that solves a problem that has been fruitlessly studied for 20 years.
I’d say 200 yards is close enough to the original site to meet the plan’s intent.
• The gym can be fixed more cheaply than Bread Loaf estimates, opponents say. Well, even if that statement were accurate, the gym is attached to the inefficient, decrepit office building that must go to make this deal happen.
But the statement is not accurate. Bread Loaf Corp. has studied this project for months and produced reams of estimates and research. Opponents are not qualified to cherry-pick a few numbers and question the firm’s engineers and architects.
And the folks in Vergennes and Ferrisburgh don’t question Bread Loaf, which is finishing the city’s new police station under budget and finished Ferrisburgh’s new town office building on budget.
I could go on and on. One person on Front Porch Forum called the college’s contribution a “real estate purchase,” as if what the college is getting back in the deal is really worth $5.5 million. Others call the process flawed, but the proposal will be decided by residents, not selectboard members and college officials.
It’s really simpler than it looks. If a voter truly believes in the current site and is willing to pay the $6.4 million freight, vote no. If a resident sees the benefits of the new buildings at a cost to taxpayers of $2 million, vote yes.
The rest is just noise.

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