Opinion: Middlebury College has big appetite for town land
For too long I’ve listened to a stale narrative issued from Middlebury College, town leaders, and this newspaper’s editor and writers. It’s a narrative of a town with few resources and limited options; of a benevolent college coming to rescue us in our time of peril; of a great friendship bringing mutual benefit to all. Of good neighbors. This language is all too often parlayed at long-term advantage to the college and disadvantage to Middlebury property owners and taxpayers. The very physical character of our town and the composition of our historic neighborhoods are steadily being shaped by the college, and it’s not in our long-term interest.
What do I mean? In recent decades Middlebury College has acquired a great deal of residential, commercial, and public property in the corridor between the center of campus and downtown. Houses on South Main Street and Franklin Street were once owned by a diverse group of homeowners. Now, most of those properties — all but one on Franklin and all but six on South Main — are owned by the college. Several homes on South Street and Weybridge Street are owned by the college. Even in my own community, Chipman Park, the college owns 25 percent of the homes. Enough? No, now the college is negotiating the purchase of another, even in the wake of receiving a letter from 17 remaining homeowners asking it to change its course in regards to owning so many homes in our neighborhood. And then there’s College Street, where all but two are owned by the college. Twilight Hall, too. Enough? No, now it’s the land underneath our town hall and gym in the college’s crosshairs.
How does the methodic acquisition of neighborhoods fulfill the college’s educational mission? Does the college not own enough land to develop housing for faculty and staff? Yes, thousands of acres.
Town leaders have been permissive and in some cases facilitated this transition, never requiring the college to bring forth a multi-year statement of its real estate intentions. Never attaching any conditions to its Periclean expansion that would ensure the retention of neighborhoods. Instead, the town has played both midwife and grateful supplicant, agreeing to a 20-year “in lieu of taxes” payment without any articulation of what 20 years of college expansion would mean to infrastructure and need for increased services. Meanwhile, the college acquires property after property through purchase, bequest, exchange, or multi-party and highly publicized deals perfumed by “gifts” to the community. On some properties — the five former private residences known as commons houses, for example — the college pays a reduced tax rate because these qualify as educational use, though faculty are housed in them and student use is minimal. The combined tax not paid on just those five properties is $19,732 in the current tax year. Taxes paid on the college president’s house? $0.
The college holds its long-term real estate plans tight. Fair enough; it’s a private institution and doesn’t have any obligation to share these. And yes, any homeowner may elect to sell a house to the college. (I recently sold mine but chose not to consider an offer should one come from the college.) But because the college can acquire neighborhoods doesn’t mean it should. And let’s be clear: the college is acquiring neighborhoods. But Middlebury voters don’t have any obligation to play along. We can vote against the current town office/gym deal as a clear message and a check on college expansion into our neighborhoods.
Let me be understood: I appreciate the college’s contributions to the quality of life in Middlebury. My family benefits from them. But it’s a two-way street. Many of us contribute to the college community by opening our homes to students, providing internships, supporting college athletic teams and the arts, and in many other ways. I’m not alone in recognizing this exchange of value between the college and town and also thinking the college is overreaching.
A new narrative is needed. One that includes metrics on the infrastructural costs of the college to the town; services provided by the town to the college; tax assessments on property; an easily available accounting of taxes paid and taxes not paid by the college; and some comparables on the college’s payment to the town in lieu of taxes and its other large contributions. Dartmouth College, for example, gives Hanover $1.9 million annually.
I ask my fellow Middlebury voters to look more broadly than the town office/gym deal currently debated. Next Tuesday I will cast my vote against this proposal, and I hope a new, fresher dialogue can begin afterward. Once we pause, do some new math, and press “reset” on our relationship to the college, a different future can emerge, one in which building a new town office and gym won’t bring us to our knees.
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