Middlebury readies for revote on town offices
MIDDLEBURY — Supporters and opponents of a proposal to build a new municipal building and recreation center in Middlebury are busy trying to expand their respective camps in anticipation of a May 13 reconsideration referendum on the $6.5 million project.
It was on Town Meeting Day that residents voted 915 to 798 in favor of the plan, which calls for a new, 9,400-square-foot town office building to be erected at 77 Main St., and a new, 11,400-square-foot recreation facility to be built at a Creek Road site owned by UD-3.
Middlebury College has offered to underwrite $4.5 million of the construction costs in return for the current municipal building/gym site at 94 Main St. and another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. The college has also agreed to pay the estimated $1 million costs of moving its Osborne House from the 77 Main St. site to the 6 Cross St. parcel, and to clear the 94 Main St. parcel and turn it into a public park.
It’s a proposal that has fueled a groundswell of emotionally charged debate in town, with many people weighing in on the perceived advantages and drawbacks of the two building plans. One of the project opponents, Howard “Skip” Brush, successfully filed a reconsideration petition after the project was approved by voters on March 4. With a few days remaining before the revote, officials and citizens on both sides are now holding meetings, drafting informational flyers and promising phone campaigns to draw people to the polls on May 13.
REVIEW OF THE ISSUE
Middlebury’s current town offices are located in the portion of the former Middlebury High School building that survived a fire some 60 years ago. Erected in 1911, the building includes a lower level that hosts the Russ Sholes Senior Center and a gathering spot for the Addison Central Teens group.
The adjacent gym was completed during the late 1930s. The facility hosts a wide variety of sports activities, exercise classes and other functions.
Town officials have, since 1994, been looking at ways to either repair or replace the town offices and gym in light of some flaws that have become more pronounced through the years. According to information on the town’s website, the municipal building and gym have insufficient handicap access; antiquated wiring and heating systems; no mechanical ventilation or air conditioning; minimal insulation; leaky windows; and brick and mortar deterioration.
THE OLD HEATING system in the antiquated boiler room of the Municipal Building is inefficient. The lack of mechanical ventilation in the building has resulted in the spread of mold. Independent file photo/Trent Campbell
AIR AND WATER penetrates some of the walls and foundation in the current Middlebury Municipal Building. Bricks and mortar show signs of deterioration in the 100-year-old building, which also doesn’t have air conditioning.
Voters in 2001 rejected a proposal to locate new town offices at the former Maple Manor Motel site on Court Street. In 2002, they turned down a $6 million plan to erect new town offices and a police headquarters on the current (94 Main St.) site and renovate the gym. In 2008, Middlebury officials explored the option of relocating the town offices to a temporary site.
Then, in 2011, the selectboard organized a study of replacing the municipal building and renovating the gym on-site. The Steering Committee, one of three committees formed to study the issue, hired the local firm Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) to design plans to build a new municipal building. Another committee looked specifically at the cost of renovating the gymnasium, while another committee (finance) explored all avenues to finance the project outside of local tax dollars.
Initial cost estimates to build a new municipal building ranged from $6 million to $10 million, plus renovation costs for the gymnasium, a price tag that a majority of board members believed taxpayers could not afford. Attempts were made to bring the costs lower, but project estimates remained high and prospective donations and other funding were scarce — meaning that financing the project would require an increase of 6 cents to 8 cents on the municipal tax rate. The selectboard’s goal had been to hold any increase in the tax rate to around 2 cents.
After more than a year of study by the committees, and at a standstill on financing the project, selectboard Chairman Dean George and then-Selectman Victor Nuovo approached Middlebury College officials last spring to see if the institution would be willing to assist in financing a building plan, as it is doing with the Cross Street Bridge project. The two parties defined the parameters of a deal that received an OK from Middlebury College trustees. The board then took the new proposal to the public for feedback and design.
THE REVISED PROJECT
To provide more information about the project for public consideration and get architectural drawings, specs and projected costs, the selectboard put the revised project out to bid and, last summer, Bread Loaf Corp. of Middlebury was hired to take the project through the design and construction phase, pending voter approval. The company, with the aid of an ad hoc steering committee, came up with a municipal building plan that includes town offices, a lobby, two meeting spaces, public restrooms, and a town clerk’s department with vault.
The building would be clad in brick with metal roofing and would possess substantial roof and wall insulation, according to Bread Loaf. The building would also include: passive solar heating with building orientation toward the sun, and shading devices; natural ventilation; LED light fixtures with occupancy lighting controls; and water conserving plumbing fixtures.
Middlebury officials contended that shifting the municipal building to 77 Main St. would not create parking headaches, because spaces around the current town offices, on South Main Street and on College Street would be preserved. They said gym-related parking would shift to the new recreation facility on Creek Road.
Addison Central Teens will be asked to relocate from the municipal building to the warming hut building off Buttolph Drive.
The recreation facility would be located on a parcel off Creek Road that was once home to the Middlebury American Legion headquarters. The Legion relocated several years ago and sold the property to UD-3, the district that includes Middlebury Union Middle and High schools. The property provides important parking for those who play and watch sports at the college-owned playing fields off Creek Road. Those fields are actively used by MUHS student-athletes, who have no facility nearby in which to change, shower or dodge thunderstorms. The old Legion Hall is condemned and needs to be removed.
A majority of UD-3 board members agreed that a new recreation center would help the district get rid of the old Legion building and provide a safe spot for students to go in during a weather emergency.
Original plans called for the recreation center to be sited at Middlebury’s recreation park. But the selectboard turned its attention to the Creek Road property after it appeared it could not satisfy, within its timetable, the Mary Hogan Elementary School board’s concerns about the impact the new facility could have on parking, traffic circulation and student safety.
The recreation center would include such amenities as a 7,000-square-foot multi-sport gym;a lobby with seating cubbies; Middlebury Parks & Recreation Department offices; a kitchen; a “quiet room”; restrooms and a 530-square-foot multi-purpose room that would double as a senior center; and storage rooms.
UD-3 voters ultimately endorsed a lease between the district and the town of Middlebury, 306-118, allowing for a recreation center to be sited on the property. Those voters also agreed, by a 1,698 to 1,343 margin, to spend up to $400,000 for a 2,000-square-foot, self-contained addition onto the new center that would create four “team rooms” for UD-3 students and visiting athletes that would include changing facilities, showers, restrooms and storage.
SUPPORTERS CITE ADVANTAGES
Long-time Middlebury resident and Planning Commission Chairperson Nancy Malcolm is leader of a local steering committee the selectboard charged with helping Bread Loaf prepare the town office/recreation center projects. She continues to support the proposal and hopes it will be affirmed on May 13.
Malcolm is most excited about the greater energy efficiency of the new buildings; the look of the new structures; and the expansion possibilities at the Creek Road site. She believes the town office and recreation center locations will both have access to adequate parking and that the projects will meet the needs of all of Middlebury’s various constituencies, including teens and seniors.
“My sense is that now that (senior center) program will grow,” she said. Malcolm based that opinion on the fact that the new recreation center will have a kitchen and will not be served by an access ramp that some seniors find difficult to negotiate at the present location.
Malcolm praised Middlebury College for agreeing to help finance the project.
“The college is really stepping up here, as it did with the bridge,” she said.
Malcolm said removing the current municipal building and gym would create a clear vista between the town and the college, which she said could symbolically improve future communication between the two entities.
“I personally think it’s a win-win proposal,” she said.
Selectman Nick Artim is also a member of the steering committee. He called the proposed project “the best opportunity we’ve had in 20 years to solve a problematic building, and it will do so without an excessive burden on the taxpayers.”
The $2 million in costs to be borne by Middlebury taxpayers is expected to add around 2 cents annually to the municipal rate. That translates into an additional $20 per year in property taxes per $100,000 in valuation.
Artim said he hopes townspeople on May 13 affirm the current project and do not elect to delay the matter for future generations to address.
“It really is an exciting opportunity,” Artim said.
A CONCEPT DRAWING of proposed town offices shows how it would sit in the heart of downtown at the junction of Main, Cross and College streets.
THE PROPOSED NEW 7,000-square-foot recreation center would include a full-size basketball court dividable into two practice courts, a multi-purpose room, a kitchen, a lobby and offices for the Recreation Department.
OPPONENTS CITE FAULTS
But not everyone agrees. Some local residents — and members of the steering committee — sharply criticized the project, calling it short-sighted, hastily prepared, poorly sited and short on parking. The town office project also has drawn criticism for the provision calling for the 94 Main St. property to be conveyed to the college, and for being sited in a manner that might preclude the adjacent Ilsley Library from expanding in the future.
Some of the project opponents have formed a group called “Citizens for Middlebury’s Future.” The group has been meeting over the past month to discuss the town office and recreation plans. They most recently met on Wednesday, April 30, and are next slated to meet on Tuesday, May 6, at 8 p.m. in the Ilsley Library.
Andrea Murray is a member of Citizens for Middlebury’s Future and is also an architect with VIA, the company that was hired by the town in 2011 to design an on-site solution for the town office and gym problems, and also bid on the revised project last summer.
Murray, during an interview on Monday, said the group is putting together an informational flier that will be sent to all Middlebury postal patrons. The title of the flier is, “We can do better.” The flier suggests re-imagining a project that could provide better outcomes on such issues as parking, financing, energy, senior and teen accommodations, and future growth.
With more thought and planning, Murray said, the town could have a project that could better stand the test of time and reduce the potential for added expenses down the road.
“The main driver behind all of this is the old adage, ‘Haste makes waste,’” she said.
The community would be better served, according to Murray, if it were to start from scratch and hold a “visioning day” that would assemble all of the various stakeholders to put their ideas on the table.
Murray acknowledged it was difficult for her to speak up on the issue in light of VIA’s past business interests in the project.
“I had to think long and hard before saying something,” Murray said. “I think it’s a good example to set for my children — if you believe strongly about something, speak out.”
Brush petitioned for the revote with the hope the town might consider a different solution — siting the town offices and senior center on Court Street (where Lightning Photo used to be) and building a recreation center addition onto the Memorial Sports Center. He has put that idea aside for now to focus on the vote at hand.
“If we are successful (in vacating the vote on the project), that’s the time to think about other options,” he said.
Brush believes the costs of moving the Osborne House and creating a new 94 Main St. park will significantly exceed $1 million — especially if substantial asbestos is discovered in demolition of the municipal building. He believes the project will create parking problems in the downtown and on Creek Road. He noted a townhouse proposal for nearby Middlebury South Village figures to use space that some had envisioned as overflow parking for major recreation center/playing field events.
“They’ve got a parking issue on Creek Road even if they don’t put a recreation facility down there,” Brush said.
Opponents realize they have a challenging hill to climb for May 13, when voters will again field the same question they approved on March 4. Opponents will not only have to defeat the proposed Article 1 (called Article 6 on Town Meeting Day), they will have to do so with votes amounting to more than two-thirds of the total number of people who voted in favor of the project on March 4. Two-thirds of the 915 tallies cast in favor of the project amounts to 610 votes. So opponents of the project will have to muster at least 611 votes (and, of course, more than the ‘yes’ voters) to win the day.
The May 13 Australian ballot vote will be preceded by a Monday, May 12, informational meeting at which residents will be able to get a refresher on the project and voice their questions and opinions about the plan. That meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the municipal gym.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
AN ARTIST’S RENDERING of the Town Hall lobby highlights the planned passive solar heating and use of natural daylight. Along with other energy-efficiency features, the building aims to reduce annual energy costs by 60 percent or more.
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