By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — In the second of two discussions this week focusing on the winter use of the municipal gym, Middlebury selectmen backpedaled during their Tuesday board meeting from tentative plans aired last month to close the space to reduce heating bills and conserve energy.
Town Manager Bill Finger reassured those who use he gym — including a large contingent from the growing teen center — that plans to close the gym had been tabled. Currently, he said, he’s exploring other solutions to counter a spike in heating prices that could double the already-steep $44,000 bill Middlebury paid to heat the town offices and municipal gym last year.
“The thought of closing the gym is not foremost in my mind — it’s more how can we reorganize the programs that are in the gym and how can we better control the heating system and make that more efficient,” he said.
Finger said that the “guestimate” is that the gym is responsible for around 70 percent of the entire building’s 20,000-gallon heating oil consumption.
Tuesday’s conversation followed on the heels of a meeting Monday for “stakeholders” in the municipal gym space, including members of the teen center, the Russ Sholes Senior Center and members of the recreation department.
Many of those same supporters turned out for Tuesday’s selectboard meeting to reiterate the importance of the space — including the role it plays in creating a vibrant downtown community.
“One of the things we all agreed on last night is how important this building is,” said Emily Joselson, a co-founder of the Addison Central Teens group that uses the 94 Main teen center. “We also agreed that everyone — you guys who work here, and we guys who play here — deserve a better building.”
In the short term, the board called for town staff — spearheaded by Finger — to create plans as soon as possible for “the first winter.” Finger said that an engineer is completing a schematic of the building’s heating system, which will hopefully provide ideas for small changes that “could make a major change in the way the system is controlled.”
Finger also said that he is also looking at the winter scheduling of activities in the gym to see how they might be coordinated and consolidated, so that heating will only have to occur at certain times, and is exploring the possibility of moving some activities to other spaces in town during the coldest part of the season.
“I think everybody would like to see kind of a preliminary plan by the first of September,” he said. At this point, he added, that plan will not likely call for closure of the space.
“I don’t see us going forward with any complete shut down of the gym,” he said. “It throws too many things into disarray.”
Tuesday’s meeting also featured lively discussion about the long-term heating plan for town offices. The board called for letters of interest from community members who would like to serve on a committee to discuss more sustainable and energy-efficient options for the building in the future.
“We have a full commitment to the programs that are offered through the town,” said selectboard chairman John Tenny. But, he noted, “We have a responsibility as a town … to be more responsible in our energy use. Cost aside, the wastefulness of this building is really unacceptable.”
SWIMMING POOL LAW
In another major point of business, selectmen returned to the discussion of a proposed ordinance that would require owners of in-ground swimming pools to erect fences around them. The issue first cropped up in selectboard meetings in June and culminated in a July 8 public hearing. Selectmen ultimately returned to the drawing board on a proposed law that had, in July, appeared near completion.
Selectmen balked at endorsing the new ordinance that would require local property owners to erect fences around in-ground pools at that July 8 meeting, instead referring the proposed law to the town’s Public Safety Committee for revisions.
The committee met on July 30 to discuss liability, the extent to which the town should intrude into a citizen’s yard and the enforcement of the proposed ordinance. The ultimate suggestion that came back to the selectboard this week made an abrupt departure from the board’s original intent to approve the ordinance.
At the July 30 meeting, Public Safety Committee voted 3-1 to urge selectmen to discontinue consideration of the law. Selectman and committee member Don Keeler said that the ordinance could be considered a “moot point” after the resident in the Sarah’s Way neighborhood — whose unfenced pool prompted one family to petition for the law — ultimately decided to erect a fence.
When the committee voted, Keeler, Nick Artim and Police Chief Tom Hanley all voted to urge the dropping of the law.
This news fell on unhappy ears at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting, when many selectmen expressed dissatisfaction with the committee’s decision.
“I think this board was right when it acted to vote to enact an ordinance,” said Selectman Craig Bingham, who cast the single vote against the motion on the public safety committee. “I do think the public safety committee failed when it did not act to revise the ordinance in light of those comments made at the public hearing.”
Bingham’s disappointment was echoed by Selectmen Dean George and Victor Nuovo.
“I’m rather perplexed,” said Nuovo. “As far as I’m concerned, I find the committee’s recommendation out of order.”
The board decided last night to redraft the ordinance including provisions suggested during the meeting. The new provisions call for fences around swimming pools in high-density and medium-density residential areas, and would include both in-ground and above-ground swimming pools. The board will re-warn for public hearings on the ordinance before adopting any new law.
“It’s a shame that we have to legislate responsibility, but sometimes that’s what you have to do,” said Bingham.
In other business Tuesday night, the selectboard:
• Heard a presentation from members of the Riverfront Committee on a pedestrian improvement project near the base of Otter Creek Falls. Committee members produced a preliminary sketch for a riverfront terrace and walkway, which would be situated near the pedestrian footbridge on the Marble Works side of the river.
The public meeting was a requirement for the town’s application to the Vermont Agency of Transportation Enhancement Grant program. The committee plans to apply for $260,000 from the grant program, which would make up a significant portion of the project’s overall $312,000 budget.
Even if the project wins funding from the grant program, the terrace would not be slated for construction until 2011.
• Weighed concerns from citizens living on Lower Plains Road regarding bridge damage that occurred in the wake of last week’s flooding. Lower Plains Road resident Eric Bleich asked for an update on the repair status of the bridge, and requested a way for residents to remain active in the repair discussion.
• Fielded extensive community input and discussion on updates to the town’s zoning and sub-division regulations. (See extended coverage of this discussion in a future edition of The Independent.)
• Voted unanimously to support the Middlebury Business Association’s plans to hang 24 banners, which will feature artwork by Woody Jackson and the word “Middlebury!”, on light posts in the downtown area. The banners will be ordered in the next four to six weeks, and will be hung in time for fall foliage and Middlebury College parents’ weekend traffic.
• Approved bids for a sewer project on North Pleasant Street and a culvert on Painter Road.
• Briefly discussed mosquito control options. Three residents weighed in to urge selectmen to consider adopting a mosquito control plan, pointing to the success of larvicide spraying in Leicester and Cornwall.