By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Gailer School’s quest for a permanent home sustained another setback last week when the Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) voted 4-0 against a proposal for the school to settle in the town’s industrial park.
The DRB on Feb. 11 voted against the proposal, which called for the Gailer School to relocate from the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society (CVUUS) campus on Water Street, into a 6,000-square-foot office building at 88 Mainelli Road. That structure has previously housed Bread Loaf Corp., the National Bank of Middlebury and law offices, among others.
Gailer School officials realized from the outset that their proposed move would be a tough sell. Schools aren’t permitted in Middlebury’s industrial zone, even as a conditional use. And several business owners in the park had been candid about their opposition to the plan, citing the potential dangers resulting from students walking along roads heavily traveled by large trucks.
“We knew if we were going to pursue this, it would be a long, uphill battle,” said Dutton Smith Jr., vice chairman of the Gailer School board.
Still, Gailer officials had hoped to convince the DRB that 88 Mainelli Road represented one of the school’s last, best options to meet its goal of remaining close to Middlebury Village.
Smith noted 88 Mainelli Road was virtually in move-in condition for the school. The structure features three major exits, two of which meet strict fire-safety standards. The main floor is completely accessible to the disabled and the lower floor could be made accessible without great effort and expense.
The building sits on 4.3 acres, which would potentially provide for some recreation fields and the flexibility to expand in the future. The site is also relatively close to downtown Middlebury, abundant with educational and cultural sites — including Middlebury College — that could be made available to students.
Some Gailer officials had argued there is already a precedent for a school being permitted in the industrial park. The Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center recently built a 26,078-square-foot building off Mainelli Road that houses its power mechanics and the auto mechanics departments.
But Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington noted the heavy equipment-related activities at the career center building have a direct correlation — and in some cases, an actual business relationship — with firms in the industrial park. He added students are bused to and from the facility and are not likely to be walking within the industrial park and down Exchange Street.
Dunnington said Gailer boosters’ “last hope” to salvage the 88 Mainelli Road option at this point would be to ask selectmen to endorse a change in zoning regulations that would make a school an allowable use in the industrial park.
It’s looking unlikely right now that Gailer officials will mount such an attempt.
“Right now, my energies will be spent on looking at other alternatives,” Smith said.
School officials have exhausted many alternatives during a search of Middlebury village that has lasted almost two years. Gailer boosters last year had hoped to move into the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s Charter House on North Pleasant Street. But that option fell through when the school wasn’t able to raise enough money in a short enough period of time to acquire the historic home and renovate it to conform to the very strict building codes for schools.
Dunnington has suggested that Gailer officials inquire about the former American Legion headquarters on Creek Road. That property — located near playing fields and ample parking — is currently controlled by the Middlebury-area school district (UD-3). The building would require a substantial, expensive rehab in order to host a school, however.
Smith stressed that time is of the essence for the Gailer School to find a new home. While school officials have appreciated the interim accommodations at the CVUUS campus, enrollment has suffered during the search for permanent quarters. The Gailer School had around 50 students during its last year in Shelburne (in 2006). That number has now dwindled to around 30.
“It has made it really difficult to attract new students,” Smith said of the current situation.
“It’s a matter of finding the right space.”