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Middlebury College, town wrangle over terms for park

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Posted on December 12, 2013 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday failed to muster enough votes to pass a revised term sheet outlining the mechanics of an agreement with Middlebury College on construction of a new town office building and recreation center, with some members voicing concern at the institution’s rejection of a request that the current municipal building/gym site be perpetually maintained as a public park.

Tuesday’s gathering provided another outlet for people to pack the board’s meeting room to again weigh in on the current building proposals, which have spurred some controversy. Current plans call for the town to enter into an “exchange” with Middlebury College, through which the institution would receive the current municipal building/gym site at 94 Main St. and a town-owned parcel located at 6 Cross St. The college would allocate $1 million to cover demolition and removal of the current municipal building and gym, as well as the costs of relocating the Osborne House from 77 Main St. to the Cross Street site. The college would additionally make “payments sufficient to repay a bond in the principal amount of $4.5 million, to be applied to the cost of construction of the new town office and recreation buildings,” according to the proposed town-gown term sheet.

Town officials are seeking to build a new town office building at the 77 Main St. site. A steering committee is evaluating two possible locations for the new recreation center: Town Recreation Park property off Mary Hogan Drive, or a parcel off Creek Road owned by the UD-3 school district. Officials are seeking to build the two structures within a construction budget of $6.5 million.

The selectboard and college officials have spent the past few months trying to agree on a term sheet to lay out the primary terms of the deal. The latest draft includes 12 provisions, the majority of which have been endorsed by the two parties. But one of the proposed provisions has emerged as a sticking point. The town had requested that the college maintain the current municipal building site in perpetuity as a town park. Patrick Norton, the college’s treasurer and vice president for finance, has  presented a counter-offer of 99 years.

“This period is consistent with other long-term, land-related transactions, such as the college lease of land to (Porter) Hospital,” reads a notation next to Norton’s request.

Middlebury College Public Affairs Director Sarah Ray explained the college’s position thus:

“As an institution that thinks in terms of centuries we do not go beyond 99 years so as to provide future generations with flexibility,” Ray said. “We want this flexibility for both the town and the college.”

Selectman Craig Bingham strongly objected to a finite amount of time being placed on the park provision.

“When you have the proposed sale of public property, we need to maintain this as public property in perpetuity,” Bingham said. “That’s why I proposed that language (in the term sheet). I think it’s what the voters of the town expect. They expect that this will be maintained as a park. I don’t want my grandchildren to face the prospect of a college building being built in the downtown.”

Resident Barbara Tomb agreed with Bingham.

“To me, ‘in perpetuity’ suggests permanence,” Tomb said. “Ninety-nine years suggests finite. That’s a huge difference … For the town to completely rearrange itself and go through this enormous process based on a finite commitment — to me personally, that’s a deal-breaker.”

Former selectboard Chairman John Tenny voiced concerns that the conversations about the town office and recreation center projects have included “an uncomfortable undertone of questioning the honor and steadfastness of the college in its relationship with the town.” He said the town currently maintains “many” agreements with the college — reflecting “fair share” payments, fire truck purchases and space leases — that the college has consistently honored. He said he believed it would be wrong to assume that the college would not work in the town’s best interests on the future of a park at 94 Main St.

Nancy Malcolm, chairwoman of the Middlebury Planning Commission and leader of the ad hoc steering committee that is shepherding the town office and recreation center projects, said she believed there might be strong rationale for not having a perpetual agreement on the park.

“If it’s perpetuity, and suppose in X-number of years the college says, ‘We’d like to give this land back to the town to do something,’ would we not be able to accept the land to do something?” Malcolm asked. “I’m worried we would be locking ourselves into something that we could regret.”

Bingham said that, while he appreciates the college and its services to Middlebury and county residents, “Our job is to protect the best interests of the town of Middlebury. In my opinion, the best interests of this population and future generations is best served by maintaining this parcel as a park in perpetuity.”

Resident Ellen Oxfeld, a longtime Middlebury College professor, echoed Bingham’s sentiments.

“This has nothing to do with questioning the honor of the college,” Oxfeld said. “It’s about a parcel of land that belongs to the public and that we don’t want to see become private.”

Middlebury selectboard chairman George said he has not received any indication the college plans to do anything but maintain the property as a park.

The board on Tuesday voted on a version of the term sheet excluding the college’s proposed park provision. The motion failed to pass with a 3-3 tally, with selectboard members Susan Shashok, Travis Forbes and Craig Bingham opposed and Selectmen Nick Artim, Gary Baker and Dean George in favor. Selectman Victor Nuovo is recovering from a medical procedure and was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Shashok said she was in favor of a previous version of the term sheet that called for the park to be maintained in perpetuity, but did not support the alternative 99-year provision.

“I really don’t want to vote on this with (the 99-year condition) in there, and I’m really having a hard time thinking about the rest of it,” she said.

Shashok had previously been excluded from voting on elements of the proposed town-gown agreement on the municipal offices and recreation center projects, because her husband Alan was employed by Middlebury Interactive Languages — an enterprise that is 40-percent owned by the college. She announced on Tuesday that her husband had been laid off from his job and that she no longer had reason to recuse herself.

It will now be up to the selectboard and college to revisit the term sheet in an effort to come up with some mutually acceptable language.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

Editor’s note: During Tuesday’s meeting, the ad hoc committee that is managing the details of the town office and recreation building projects updated the selectboard on its activities. At that time several citizens offered their suggestions to the board, which will be covered in the next edition of the Independent.

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