By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLBURY — It appears as though the various broadcasting and cell phone tenants of the communications tower on Chipman Hill will be providing Middlebury residents with some property tax relief this year.
Subject to the approval of an Addison County Probate Court judge, a portion of the rental fees derived from those tower tenants will be used to make up a penny on the tax rate — around $70,000 in property tax revenues — that will be earmarked for Middlebury’s conservation fund.
Middlebury selectmen recently requested the donation from directors of the Battell Trust, a 100-year-old organization that presides over the vast public lands on which the communication tower is located. Those lands include the 130-acre Chipman Hill and 90-acre Battell Woods properties that were willed to the town by the late Joseph Battell, who stipulated that the lands be used for public enjoyment.
A communications tower (to host an FM station transmitter) was first built on Chipman Hill around 30 years ago. The courts in 2003 OK’d the replacement of that initial tower with the more modern structure that stands there today. The structure provides free spots to several emergency response organizations, including the Middlebury police and fire departments, the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association and Porter Hospital dispatch services, Middlebury Department of Public Works and the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
But other users — who pay monthly fees ranging from $500 to $2,000 — include Central Vermont Public Service Corp., Rinker’s Paging, Unicel, NEXTEL, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and local radio stations like WFAD 1490 AM.
The Battell Trust receives rental income from those corporate users, amounting to around $70,000 each year, according to Battell Trust board member Anton Rifelj. The town collects those funds and passes them to the trust, which may use them for maintenance of, and potential future additions to, the Battell Park and Chipman Hill lands.
Town officials have seen the fund grow and recently asked the Battell Trust if it would consider donating the equivalent of a penny on the tax rate during what is looming as a tough budget year.
“The town would deposit the funds into a conservation fund to be used only for conservation purposes consistent with the town’s goals of acquiring, preserving and enhancing conservation park lands,” reads a letter from Town Manager Bill Finger to Battell Trust directors.
Rifelj said he and his fellow directors considered the request and decided to honor it, given the fact that the money is to be earmarked for conservation.
“The purposes are aligned,” he said, of the Battell Trust’s mission and the intent of the town’s conservation fund.
But Battell Trust officials stressed the agreement is contingent upon approval by Addison County Probate Court, which must review the proposal in context with Joseph Battell’s will.
Trustees also noted the deal, if OK’d by the court, will only apply to the budget in the coming fiscal year.
“At this time we make a commitment for FY 2010 only but will consider future years at the request of the town prior to the formulation of future year budgets,” Rifelj informed selectmen through a Dec. 12 letter.