July 30, 2007
By ANDY KIRKALDY
FERRISBURGH — After more than a year and a half of haggling and delays, an insurance deal was struck last week that will pay Ferrisburgh another $950,000 for the loss of its town-owned former Grange hall, which was destroyed by an arson fire on Feb. 15, 2005, before it could be renovated into a town office building and community center.
The town had earlier received about $1.03 million from PACIF, the insurance company that underwrote the project and is affiliated with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and its co-insurers. The earlier payment was for the value of the existing Route 7 structure, while the additional money goes toward the value of the finished project, including a duplicate Grange building up to modern code.
The town will be responsible for other elements of what is now estimated by Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Corp. as a $2.87 million project (up from about $2.6 million in late 2005), including a full foundation, new addition to the rear and new front porch. But Ferrisburgh already has most of the money for that in hand, officials said.
Selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said she now expects construction on the project to begin by late summer or early fall and continue through the winter, with the start date probably known by the middle of August.
“We’re trying to figure out the time line, when we get the money, how quickly we move … We’re anxious to start the process,” Lawrence said. “The contract (with Bread Loaf) calls for working through the winter.”
Representatives of the town, PACIF and the co-insurance firms reached the settlement at a 12-hour Wednesday meeting at a Burlington law office. The meeting was scheduled as an opportunity to present evidence to three arbitrators, who were then to spend three weeks coming up with a binding settlement. Instead they served as mediators and helped the sides reach the agreement.
Selectmen then held a special meeting on Thursday to ratify the deal, which calls for the $950,000 payment to arrive by mid-August.
Lawrence said the town had been seeking closer to $1.2 million, but said the insurance firms’ final offer, which came after the marathon talks, was much better than the initial offer selectmen rejected in January of 2006.
“It was significant movement by PACIF toward meeting what we were looking for,” Lawrence said.
Selectman Larry Simino, who served as chairman of the selectboard throughout most of the negotiations, said the settlement showed selectmen were right to spend 19 months fighting for a better deal.
“I think the whole board feels happy about it,” Simino said.
Town Clerk Chet Hawkins said the town had spent $41,000 in legal fees on the case before Wednesday’s meeting. But Grange fund-raising chairwoman Jean Richardson said legal costs could be offset by interest on the earlier $1.03 million settlement and town funds and donations already earmarked for the project.
“We accrue a lot of interest every month,” Richardson said.
In an e-mail sent out to Friends of the Grange members on Thursday, Richardson estimated that the town had about $2.76 million in hand toward the $2.87 million project.
In a phone interview she said her funding figure included both insurance settlements, $159,000 left over from the original $350,000 set aside at town meeting several years ago, $572,000 in grants and donations; and another $20,000 in uncollected pledges.
The fund balance will actually be slightly larger because it does not include interest earned since March, Richardson said, and she believes the roughly $100,000 funding gap can be closed quickly.
“I feel very confident, yes, I do. We’ve had people who said ‘We won’t pledge anything, but if it looks like a go, we’ll give something,’” she said. “I just feel terribly optimistic … I feel we can do it quickly so the town can sign a contract and start work.”
Lawrence said small cuts could also be made in the project if necessary.
“The shortage will be made up through fund-raising, or we will try to tweak some areas,” Lawrence said. “It’s doable. It’s very doable.”
Selectmen, who plan to hold a public informational meeting on the Grange project on Aug. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Ferrisburgh Central School, do not plan to ask for any tax dollars to do the work.
“The important thing is there will be no expense to the taxpayer,” Lawrence said.
The finished product will have a full basement under ground-level town offices that will also spill into the addition to the rear. That addition will also house the storage vault. The second story will be devoted to meeting space. As many details of the original Grange structure as possible will be preserved and duplicated in the new building.
Ferrisburgh has been working since the early 1990s on replacing the tiny former one-room schoolhouse that now serves as its town office. Town building committee chairman Silas Towler believes the long-delayed Grange project, which residents chose after much debate several years ago, remains the right course for the town.
“I think it’s going to answer (the need) for a long time. It’s a big building with a lot of expansion capability,” Towler said. “That’s why we tried to make it work in the first place.”