Middlebury office critics don’t like changes to town plan

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents on Tuesday offered their input on a number of proposed town plan and zoning bylaw revisions, some of which would pave the way for the construction of the new municipal building at 77 Main St.
In the thankfully air conditioned Russ Sholes Senior Center that evening, more than a dozen residents offered questions and comments. Some supported the amendments, while others said the selectboard was simply changing the town plan to fit the new municipal building project, which was OK’d by voters on Town Meeting Day and in a May revote.
By law, the selectboard was required to hold one public hearing on proposed town plan amendments. The three proposed amendments include:
•  Changing the current language of “Ensure that the Post Office, town offices and community services remain in their downtown prominent, accessible locations and support renovation,” to the amended “Ensure the Post Office, town offices and Ilsley Library remain in downtown prominent, accessible locations.”
•  Striking a paragraph on Page 112 that dates back to 2012 that talks about redevelopment of the current municipal building/gym site at 94 Main St. Since that plan is off the table, the planning commission is proposing to replace it with a paragraph outlining the recent vote in favor of new town offices at 77 Main St., a new recreation center off Creek Road, and the transformation of the 94 Main St. site into a park to be owned and maintained by Middlebury College.
•  Eliminating language calling for replacement/renovation of the municipal building with a community center. That language would be replaced with language calling for replacement/reconstruction of the town offices to “meet long-term public needs and energy efficiency in an affordable manner while providing a respectable landmark on a downtown site that will support economic development in town,” and also to “construct a town recreation facility to meet public needs in an affordable manner.”
Town officials have said the purpose of the amendments is to clear up any ambiguity in the Middlebury Town Plan, not to significantly alter it.
Selectwoman Susan Shashok said that she consulted an attorney the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to make sure that amending the town plan in this manner was legal. Shashok said the attorney told her that so long as no substantive changes are made, the selectboard is within its authority to amend the language of the town plan.
“If you’re dealing with the same subject matter, and you’re still working toward the same goal, it’s not a substantial change,” Shashok said.
Michael Olinick, a vocal opponent of the town office project approved by voters on Town Meeting Day, said the fact that the selectboard has proposed amending the town plan is evidence that the project did not adhere to the plan in the first place.
“Many of the residents of the town believe this proposed amendment is an acknowledgement that the current town plan is not consistent with the proposal for a new town hall and recreation facility,” Olinick said.
Olinick added that he felt the selectboard had misled the public before the bond vote by not explicitly stating that the project would necessitate amending the town plan.
“I don’t think this that was an honest depiction of what the situation was,” he said.
Victoria DeWind, who also opposed the town office project, said she did not believe it is appropriate to amend the town plan.
“It’s very difficult to see the town not use the documents it has adopted, but rather change them after the fact,” DeWind said.
Ken Perine said he believed the selectboard is making the right decision by amending the town plan.
“The will of the voters is clear,” Perine said. “I think it is entirely appropriate to make sure there’s no ambiguity in the town plan.”
The selectboard also held a second hearing Tuesday evening, to discuss a number of proposed zoning bylaw changes. The changes would address a litany of zoning issues including wetland buffers, gas station and drive through canopies, private rights of way, parking and slaughterhouses.
Town Zoning Administrator Ted Dunakin read each proposed change and solicited citizen feedback.
Ross Conrad said he felt that town zoning officials had improperly ignored citizens’ suggestions on zoning bylaws at a meeting in May.
“As a member of the public who comes to these things, I find it rather offensive that it gets ignored, to put it bluntly,” Conrad said.
Planning commission Chair Nancy Malcolm responded by saying that zoning officials carefully considered citizens’ input, but ultimately felt that the zoning bylaw changes as proposed did not need to be amended.
The selectboard will again take up the proposed Middlebury Town Plan revisions and zoning bylaw changes at its next meeting on July 29.

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