Top 10 stories of 2014: #2 — Middlebury town office’s future is settled; work begins
No issue in recent Middlebury history proved as polarizing as the proposal to demolish the municipal building/gym complex at 94 Main St. and replace them with new town offices at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility off Creek Road.
The current town offices are housed in the remnants of the former Middlebury High School building that burned during the mid-1950s. The structure has fallen into considerable disrepair, with antiquated plumbing, heating and electrical systems. But selectboard members were concerned about local taxpayers’ ability to pay for replacement or renovations of the structure and the adjacent gym so soon after having agreed to float a $4.875 million bond to upgrade the community’s two fire stations.
Selectmen Dean George and Victor Nuovo approached Middlebury College in 2013, which agreed to assume $4.5 million of the estimated $6.5 million cost of erecting a new municipal building and recreation facility. College officials made the offer on condition that the town give the institution the current municipal building site at 94 Main St., which would be cleared and turned into a public park. The college also agreed to pay the costs of clearing 94 Main St. and for moving its Osborne House from 77 Main St. to a town-owned site on Cross Street.
While some town officials hailed the deal as one that would keep the town offices downtown and produce two new buildings at a bargain for taxpayers, others assailed the proposal. Opponents argued the town would be best served renovating or rebuilding at 94 Main St., and said — among other things — building at 77 Main St. site would cramp the adjacent Ilsley Library and would exacerbate local parking problems. Opponents also said seniors and children would have a tough time accessing the new recreation facility off Creek Road, and again voiced questions about whether there would be adequate parking for major events.
Original plans had called for the new recreation center to be built near Mary Hogan Elementary School, but it soon became clear the ID-4 school board was not supportive of the plan as presented — in part due to concerns over student safety, vehicle access issues and pre-existing parking/circulation problems on the Mary Hogan property. So the selectboard shifted focus to land off Creek Road (the former Middlebury Legion site now owned by the UD-3 school district).
Scores of people turned out at public hearings to register support or opposition to the plans in early 2014.
In January, Nuovo resigned from the selectboard, saying he had grown weary of conflict of interest allegations lodged by some residents who argued he should not vote on any aspects of the deal due to his relationship with Middlebury College. Nuovo is a professor emeritus at the college, but noted he is not on the institution’s payroll.
Selectman Craig Bingham was particularly vociferous in his criticism of the project, and alleged that the town had illegally sent out to residents a flier with “false” and “misleading” information about the project.
The week before town meetings, Addison Central Supervisory Union residents voted 306-118 to allow the UD-3 board to negotiate a lease with the town of Middlebury for a Creek Road parcel that would host an 11,500-square-foot recreation facility.
After an acrimonious nine months of debate, Middlebury residents on Town Meeting Day voted 915 to 798 in favor of the town office/gym plan. That same day, ACSU residents voted 1,698 to 1,343 in favor of a $400,000 bond to build a “team rooms” addition onto the new Middlebury recreation center.
But local resident Skip Brush successfully petitioned to have the vote reconsidered. Brush had argued the town should instead build new town offices off Court Street and expand the Memorial Sports Center instead of building a new recreation facility. Still, residents in May affirmed their support of the original project by an 880 to 714 margin.
Just before Halloween, the whole thing took on a heightened air of reality as workers lifted the Osborne House off its foundation and moved it across the Cross Street Bridge to a new home, leaving behind an empty lot.
Plans call for the construction of the new town office building to begin on that lot this coming spring. Construction on the new gym off Creek Road is also slated for spring.
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