Voters affirm Middlebury town office, gym project, 880-714

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents on Tuesday affirmed their support of the $6.5 million town offices-recreation center project by an 880 to 714 tally, a vote that paves the way for the two new buildings to proceed through final design, review, permitting and construction.
Tuesday’s referendum was a revote on the same project that residents had endorsed on Town Meeting Day, 915 to 798.
Resident Howard “Skip” Brush spearheaded a successful petition drive to force the revote, believing that the project had flaws and that townspeople deserved additional options for replacing the deteriorating municipal building and gym at 94 Main St.
Brush was pleased with the voter turnout, but disappointed with the outcome. Opponents had to muster at least 611 tallies and have the majority of votes to have a shot at overturning the original March 4 vote. They exceeded that threshold, but still finished with 166 fewer tallies than were cast by supporters of the plan.
“I feel bad for the voters,” Brush said on Wednesday morning. “I feel at some point in time, the voters are going to say, ‘We made a big mistake.’”
The project calls for a new, 9,400-square-foot municipal building to be built at 77 Main St. and a new, 11,500-square-foot recreation center to be erected on land off Creek Road. The proposal also calls for the town to convey the current municipal building and gym at 94 Main St. to Middlebury College, along with another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. The college will transform a cleared 94 Main St. parcel into a public park and relocate its Osborne House from 77 Main St. to 6 Cross St. to make way for the new town office building.
In addition, the college will assume $4.5 million of the $6.5 million construction budget for the two new community buildings. The college has also agreed to pay the town up to $1 million to clear 94 Main St. and to move the Osborne House.
Since the March 4 vote, additional possible resources for the town office have come to light. Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz said the college would help ensure that the new town office building is as energy efficient as it can be, and Efficiency Vermont has formalized a program to contribute funds to municipal building projects that meet certain efficiency standards.
Nevertheless, the proposal has divided public opinion in Middlebury more than any other issue in recent memory.
Supporters touted the plan for keeping the town offices downtown and for producing an affordable alternative for taxpayers, who will be responsible for $2 million of the total $7.5 million outlay.
Opponents have voiced concerns about the town giving up the 94 Main St. site, and whether the two new building sites will feature adequate parking. Opponents have also raised concerns that the recreation center plan might shortchange seniors and teens. Plans call for Addison Central Teens to be accommodated at the town’s warming hut building, while seniors will share a multi-purpose room in the recreation center.
Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm chaired a steering committee that helped develop the town office-recreation center proposal. She was pleased with the results of the revote.
“I appreciate that change is hard,” Malcolm said. “I am confident that we will make sure that these new buildings will be an asset to this community and we have a responsibility to make them the best that they can be. I am looking forward to when they become a natural part of our everyday landscape, much like the Cross Street Bridge is today.”
The results of the March 4 vote showed that 53.4 percent of the ballots were in favor of the town office proposal, and 46.6 were opposed. In Tuesday’s results, 55.2 percent were in favor and 44.8 were opposed.
The Middlebury selectboard received the vote results from Town Clerk Ann Webster at around 8 p.m. during their regularly scheduled meeting (see related story, Page 2A). The board then moved to pick members for a new Town Offices-Recreation Center Building Committee that will help take the project through final design and permitting review.
The proposed composition of that new committee is already drawing some fire for not including project critics who could suggest ways of making the plan more palatable to dissenters.
As currently constituted, the building committee would include Malcolm, Selectman Nick Artim, former Selectman Victor Nuovo, Phelps Engineering founder Lancelot Phelps, Design Advisory Committee member Chris Zeoli, and selectboard Chairman Dean George as an alternate. Town staff participants are to include Webster, Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and Parks & Recreation Director Terri Arnold.
“The vote was definitely not a landslide,” said Andrea Murray, a leader of the Citizens for Middlebury’s Future group that organized a townwide mailing urging people to vote against the project. “Clearly, the community is still divided. I am interested in how our town’s leadership intends to address these wounds. It will take time and thoughtful, proactive, inclusive discussion. I would think a good first step would be an invitation to bond opponents to serve on the building committee.”
That same appeal was made to the board by Heather Seeley, a project opponent who ran unsuccessfully against George for a spot on the selectboard this past March. Seeley has been a regular audience member at selectboard meetings this year.
“If there is room on the committee, I would like to express my interest in serving,” Seeley told the board on Tuesday evening.
George called criticism of the lack of project opponents on the committee “a fair point,” but stressed on Wednesday the need now to carry out the mandate of the two votes on the issue.
“The voters have spoken twice and it’s pretty clear we need to get working on the project,” George said.
He added, however, that he would be receptive to adding a project opponent to the panel if the new committee, after convening, indicates that’s something the selectboard should do.
It’s a committee that Murray believes will have its work cut out for it. Possible hurdles, she said, will include securing state permission to tear down the historic gym building; determining whether extensive soil cleanup of the 77 Main St. site will be required prior to construction (because of its proximity to the former Steele’s Mobil gas station); and potential budget problems. Murray pointed to recent estimates showing the project could cost around $700,000 more than the available $6.5 million budget.
“I think the committee has its work cut out for it,” Murray said.
Malcolm acknowledged the planning commission will need to make what she called a minor amendment to the Town Plan to make it clearer that the project conforms to that document. There is a reference (section 2.11, Page 129) in the Town Plan that states as a priority to “Renovate/replace the Municipal Building with a Community Center to meet long-term public needs, providing a respectable landmark on the site that will support downtown and economic development efforts.”
Malcolm said some have construed the reference to “the site” in the Town Plan language as meaning 94 Main St. Malcolm and other commission members believe the reference is somewhat ambiguous and allows for construction at another downtown site. She added the Town Plan is an “advisory” document.
Victoria DeWind, former chairwoman of the planning commission, originally brought the matter to the selectboard’s attention. At Tuesday’s selectboard meting she maintained her opinion that the Town Plan language is clear about keeping the municipal building and gym at its present location.
“Regardless of the vote, if you’re changing the language of the Town Plan to meet a specific project, that’s like spot zoning,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s legally wrong, but it’s ethically questionable.”
Still, Brush and Murray acknowledged that a majority of voters had spoken a second time and that efforts should now be focused on making the project as good as it can be.
“It’s the democratic process; we’ll live with it,” Brush said.
“I appreciate the democratic process, and the majority have spoken,” Murray said.
 Middlebury College’s Liebowitz was among those gratified by Tuesday’s vote result.
“We are pleased that Middlebury voters have reaffirmed their support for the new town offices and recreation center,” he said through a written statement. “We look forward to working with the selectboard and members of the town to make the plan a great success.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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