Lawsuit over Middlebury rail bridges is up in the air

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectboard members on Tuesday said they are satisfied with the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s latest update and assessment of the upcoming downtown rail bridges construction project, but affected property owners want more information and remain poised to take legal action if it is not forthcoming.
Through their attorney, Peter Langrock, the coalition of downtown property owners in an April 11 letter made a total of 18 questions and information requests of the town and VTrans.
Requested information included the anticipated dates and durations of street closures, the contractors’ insurance information, plans showing any project drainage discharge point and the associated state discharge permit, a contaminated materials disposal plan, and details of blasting that might occur during the replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges.
VTrans on April 25 completed a six-page response to Langrock’s letter. The town’s Local Project Management Team — referred to as the LPMT in town documents — reviewed the VTrans information late last week, then drafted a letter to Langrock that the selectboard unanimously endorsed on Tuesday.
That letter — signed by selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter — states in part:
“While the final resolution of some aspects of the construction project are still in the process of being worked out — the treatment of storm water post-construction is a good example of this — the LPMT believes that this process has brought additional clarity to the issues highlighted as well as a heightened sense of joint resolve and commitment on the part of VTrans, the town, and its engineering and construction partners to resolving the challenges of this project in a transparent and collaborative manner. The selectboard endorses the LPMT’s response to your letter and encourages your clients to continue to attend and participate in LPMT meetings to assure themselves that the project is indeed receiving the diligence and expertise it deserves.”
The project management team letter to Langrock and the VTrans responses to the property owners’ questions are posted at the bottom of this story.
Middlebury Selectwoman Donna Donahue is a member of the project management team.
“I’ve been very happy with the progress we have made, particularly during the past two weeks,” she said at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“It’s progress,” echoed Selectman Nick Artim. “It’s a complex project.”
But it’s not enough progress according to some downtown property owners, who cited a lack of backup material to buttress the responses. The Langrock letter had warned of an unspecified legal action if the questions had not been satisfactorily answered by April 29. The group also invited the town to join in the legal action.
Affected property owners are concerned that they and the town remain in the dark about many aspects of an estimated $40 million project that figures to bring considerable noise, dust, traffic detours, parking woes and shopping disruptions to downtown Middlebury during portions of three years.
Langrock was unavailable for comment as the Independent went to press on Wednesday. But Edgewater Gallery owner George Dorsey, a member of the downtown property owners association, provided the following quote:
“We appreciate the town’s efforts to get answers and documentation that is vital to the health and safety of the downtown,” Dorsey said. “We continue to offer support in the review of documents. There are at this point no documents provided that answer the questions raised. No review is possible without real and meaningful documents. In the reply, we were surprised to hear the project has been delayed until 2017. That’s a concern, given the clear and present danger posed by the current infrastructure.”
Dorsey said the coalition of property owners has not yet decided whether the information provided would be enough to stave off legal action.
Matt LaFiandra, vice president of development for Dorsey’s Edgewood Holdings LLC, was present at Tuesday’s meeting.
“VTrans, despite the hard work they’ve put in the response in the draft I read before the meeting tonight, still hasn’t provided many of the documents they reference,” LaFiandra said. “It takes time, but I would recommend to my selectboard that they remain diligent about sourcing that documentation from the state and from VHB (Engineers), who we ultimately are paying, so they owe us this stuff. We can trust all we want, but as they say, verify.”
For example, the VTrans answer to the question “What insurance do each of the contractors carry?” was, “Insurance requirements are specified in Section 103.4 of VTrans’ Standard Specifications.”
Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project, said he hopes the rail bridges project can proceed as quickly as possible without legal action. He challenged Dorsey’s assertion that the project had now been “delayed” until 2017.
Gish said a longstanding project timetable has called for preliminary work — including drainage improvements at the site of the former Lazarus building off Main Street, and the laying of a temporary access road to the Battell Block parking lot — to be done later this year, with bridge work slated to begin in earnest next spring.
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard got its first look at preliminary plans for the installation of a combined total of 2,700 feet of sidewalk along the south side of Seymour Street and the east side of Pulp Mill Bridge Road. The estimated $760,000 project is primarily being funded with state and federal money, with a 10-percent match from the towns of Middlebury and Weybridge.
Once completed, the project will ensure continuous sidewalk along Seymour Street to the Pulp Mill Bridge, and then along Pulp Mill Bridge Road to Weybridge Street. The additional 2,700 feet will close what has been a substantial gap in the sidewalk network, which has presented some safety concerns for walkers, joggers and cyclists who regularly enjoy a scenic route that passes Otter View Park.
Middlebury and Weybridge in 2014 jointly completed a scoping study for the work. Plans call for the project to be put out to bid late this winter and for construction to begin during the summer of 2017.
Addison County Regional Planning Commission Director Adam Lougee on Tuesday presented the preliminary plans to the selectboard and a handful of area residents whose properties will be affected by the project.
Lougee said the work, as currently designed, will have no impacts on the municipal water/sewer systems, will avoid existing trees and fences, result in 0.15 acres of slope easements and some “small temporary construction easements on 10 Weybridge Street properties,” have minimal storm water infrastructure, and “largely involve sheet flow to existing drainage ditches.”
Some neighbors at Tuesday’s meeting raised questions about the potential impact of the sidewalk project on adjacent, mature trees.
“I can’t say that no trees will be damaged or cut,” Lougee acknowledged.
Selectboard members said they hope the additional sidewalk will provide safer conditions for Middlebury and Weybridge pedestrians.
“It is a very heavily used route,” said Selectman Victor Nuovo. “The need is quite evident.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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