Middlebury voters back $6.5 million town office/gym bond
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters on Tuesday voted 915 to 798 in favor of a $6.5 million plan to build a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center on Creek Road.
The vote, 53 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed, comes after nine months of fractious and at times caustic debate between those who supported the projects as forward-looking and affordable, and those who opposed them as being too hastily conceived, inappropriately sited and not responsive enough to the needs of local teens and seniors.
In a related action, Middlebury residents voted 955 to 731 against a non-binding referendum that would have directed town officials to pursue the repair or rebuilding of the municipal building and gymnasium complex at its current location at 94 Main St. That petition was spearheaded by residents Michael and Judy Olinick, vocal opponents of the $6.5 million proposal.
The town offices/recreation facility issue also proved a catalyst for one of the most fiercely contested Middlebury selectboard races in more than two decades (see related story). Selectboard Chairman Dean George, whom voters returned to office for another year, said he was pleased that the town office/recreation center plan earned majority support amid higher-than-customary turnout for a typical Town Meeting Day.
“I’m pleased,” George said. “A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into this, including people who opposed the project.”
George said he believed the opponents’ concerns raised during the past several months helped make the final project a better product.
“There were more people involved with this than any other project I have been a part of,” George said.
Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz applauded the outcome of the town vote.
“I’m pleased for the citizens of Middlebury and I hope our community will coalesce quickly to ensure that the new municipal building and gymnasium projects move ahead toward the best possible result,” Liebowitz said. “The last few months have pulled at the fabric of our town, but I believe it is in our character to debate issues of public importance and then come together once a decision has been made. I want to thank those citizens of Middlebury who have worked so hard and selflessly in the interest of the community to create a plan that the majority of voters could embrace. We look forward to working with the selectboard and the citizens of Middlebury, including our students, to continue to make our town a more attractive, safe and vibrant place to live and work.”
Opponents were clearly disappointed with the outcome.
“We’re very sad that the town has sold a unique piece of land and a fine old building that could have been saved,” Mike and Judy Olinick said in a joint statement. “We’re equally sorry that — as we and many others see it — important principles of democratic government and process were abandoned. But we hope that all will work out well and that personal fences will be mended. We know that Middlebury will continue to be a wonderful place to live. It has been a privilege to work with so many thoughtful, concerned, creative and articulate people; and it is encouraging to know that such a large percentage of our fellow Middlebury citizens shared our views of what was at stake.”
Ron Kohn, another opponent of the building plan, said he and like-minded residents will discuss their options in possibly contesting the Town Meeting Day vote. He specifically cited a possible challenge based on the town office project’s incompatibility with Middlebury’s town plan, which advocates for the gym and municipal building to remain at their present location.
“We’ll look at every option we have and see what’s reasonable,” Kohn said.
It was last June that the selectboard announced the framework of a proposal with Middlebury College officials to accomplish several town goals, including the municipal building project. It calls for the town to convey the current municipal building and gym at 94 Main St. to the college, along with another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. The college would turn a cleared 94 Main St. parcel into a public park and relocate its Osborne House from 77 Main St. to the 6 Cross St. property. In return, the college would assume $4.5 million of the $6.5 million construction budget for a 9,400-square-foot municipal building at 77 Main St. and an 11,500-square-foot recreation center off Creek Road. The college has also agreed to pay the town up to $1 million to raze the existing building at 94 Main St. and clear the land, and to move the Osborne House.
Bread Loaf Corp. architect Chris Huston offered a quick overview of the two building plans at Middlebury’s annual town meeting on Monday, a gathering that drew more than 250 people. And many of those people showed up to comment on the $6.5 million project and perhaps mint some allies for the next day’s Australian ballot referendum on the $6.5 million bond issue.
Former Vermont Gov. and longtime Middlebury Town Moderator James Douglas proposed — and town meeting attendees endorsed — a two-minute time limit for comments. Presenters of the project were allowed to exceed that limit, an allowance that did not sit well with resident Roger Desautels.
“If the time limit is not serious, I would request that the time limit be removed,” Desautels said.
For almost two hours, a procession of residents took to the microphone to weigh in on the project. And the vast majority of speakers lobbied for defeat of article 6.
Among them was resident Andrea Murray, an architect with Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA), a Middlebury-based firm that three years ago took the lead in designing a municipal building/gym makeover for 94 Main St. A majority of the selectboard ultimately balked at the plan — which called for renovating the gym and replacing the town office building — due to the estimated price tag of up to $10 million.
Murray disclosed her association with VIA and said the company would not compete for any new town office/gym contract that the town might put out to bid, had article 6 failed.
“I encourage you to vote against the proposal at hand,” Murray said through a written statement. “Let’s follow our town plan and make planning decisions that serve the most people in our community. Let’s save a perfectly solid, historic building. Let’s make wise, informed decisions about our energy future, and please, let’s do our finance and fundraising homework. It is tempting to bite at the carrot in front of us, but it will definitely cost us in the long run.”
Murray said her opposition to the plan was based on what she called “poor urban planning”; her belief the gym is still solid; a lack of information on energy efficiency of the two new structures; the prime location of 94 Main St.; and her contention that the town had not fully explored financing options for on-site construction. The town put together a financing committee that searched, without much success, for potential large grants and contributions to help subsidize a project at 94 Main St.
Resident Carol Eckels said she could not support the town office project because it would mean a longer walk for those unable to get an on-site parking space. The project will not result in a net loss of overall spaces, but some will be further removed from the structure. Eckels noted the state’s aging population and the hardship a walk could pose on seniors — particularly during the winter.
“Some people can’t walk two blocks,” she said.
Resident Dawn Saunders also served notice she would vote ‘no.’ She noted the gym building was erected during the 1930s as a product of the Works Progress Administration, a program that helped the nation recover from the Great Depression.
“This gym has its own history,” Saunders said.
“I think we would regret its loss.”
Resident Gerry Loney took issue with the process through which the new town office building and recreation center were planned. It’s a process that Loney and other argued was not inclusive or lengthy enough.
“I don’t think you can have a lousy process and come up with a good project,” Loney said.
He urged the community to take another year to plan a project that could get more support.
Selectman Craig Bingham was an outspoken critic of the project since its inception. He reiterated some of his concerns on Monday evening, specifically citing a lack of parking, a rushed planning pace and a lack of citizen input. Bingham urged a ‘no’ vote on article 6 as a way of helping the community recover from a collective wound inflicted by the building proposal.
“The defeat of article 6 would be the same as applying an antiseptic to our wounded community and would allow for the healing to begin,” Bingham said. “We can start from scratch with a process that includes all voices, because all voices deserve to be heard and honored.”
Resident Victoria DeWind said she feared the project would be shortsighted. She believes the project budget does not allow for the “best quality, net zero buildings,” something DeWind said could cost the town in heating and maintenance bills in the future.
A former chairwoman of the local planning commission, DeWind said building a municipal building at 77 Main St. would run counter to the current Middlebury town plan, which advocated for that structure (and gym) to remain at their current location.
“The town plan is not something you adopt and forget about,” she said.
“Our town plan has specific language that calls for renovation or rebuilding on the existing site and maintaining and redeveloping community facilities and town-owned lands.”
John Barstow was a member of the Middlebury Town Office & Recreation Facilities Steering Committee. He agreed with those who said the planning process for the project was not thorough enough. He added he would have preferred to see voters presented with a choice of project options, rather than deciding on one leading plan.
“We can work together,” he said.
But other members of the Town Office & Recreation Facilities Steering Committee insisted the proposal was thoroughly planned with ample opportunities for citizen input. They said the plan was explained at six public presentations and took shape during the course of 11 (public) steering committee meetings.
Planning for new Middlebury town offices began in earnest during the early 1990s, according to Nancy Malcolm, chairwoman of the steering committee. Malcolm said the plan would allow the town to replace two deteriorating structures with new, energy efficient buildings. She called having the new municipal building next to the Ilsley Library “a big plus,” and said the new recreation center would result in the demolition of the old Middlebury Legion building on Creek Road, a structure that UD-3 (which owns the Creek Road property) has been unable to get rid of thus far.
A smattering of project supporters also made their way to the town meeting microphone to say their piece.
Among them was resident Max Kraus, who said he believed townspeople had ample time to study the building proposal and weigh in on it. Kraus noted that leaders of the Addison Central Teens group had endorsed the proposed new location of the local teen center (at the warming hut at the town’s recreation park) and added he was concerned Middlebury College might withdraw its participation in any future town office/recreation proposal if the current one was defeated.
Resident Peter Schumer also offered his support for article 6, saying the new town offices spot is only “100 yards” from 94 Main St. He argued 77 Main St. is even closer to the heart of downtown.
Resident Chip Malcolm said the town offices had “not changed one bit,” during the 40 years his family has lived in town. He urged people to vote for a proposal that he believes would deliver good buildings at a reasonable cost.
“This is a good plan,” he said.
Resident Hudson Tilford urged his fellow townspeople to vote for a plan he said has been “cussed and discussed” for a long time.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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