MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School directors want the Middlebury selectboard to further define its plans for a recreation facility on ID-4 school district grounds before they’ll give their required blessing for such a facility to be built.
The selectboard is currently working with an architect to develop a $7.5 million project for a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility off Mary Hogan Drive. Middlebury College has agreed to contribute $5.5 million toward the endeavor in exchange for the site of the current municipal building and gym at the intersection of College and South Main streets.
Mary Hogan Elementary School board members have voiced concerns that the pace at which the project is being assembled has not given them enough insight or input into the planning process for the new recreation center. The ID-4 school district owns the lands on which the recreation center would be built. Per conditions of a long-term lease, the town maintains the recreation fields for the greater good of the community, but the ID-4 board must give its consent before any new structure can be built on the property. So it will be critical for the two boards to agree on a recreation center plan if such a facility is to be built.
“Obviously, it’s public property and we want to work with the town for the betterment of the entire town, but we have a particular interest in the school and a particular mission and responsibility to oversee, maintain and protect the resources of the school district and the safety and education of the children who attend that school,” said ID-4 Chairwoman Ruth Hardy. “We need to make sure anything that’s done on this property is in conformance with that mission. While we have the broader mission of serving our town, our specific mission is for the education of the students at the ID-4 school.”
Hardy and her colleagues have asked the selectboard to respond to 13 specific questions about the new recreation center plan before Friday, Oct. 11. Among the requested details, reflected in a Sept. 25 letter from Hardy to selectboard Chairman Dean George:
• The proposed design, size, contents and siting of the building, and how such a facility will dovetail with the current recreation park and school facilities — including the impending redevelopment of the Kidspace playground.
• The proposed budget for the recreation center, and how the new building could affect traffic circulation, parking, pedestrian and bicycle access issues on a site that is teeming with people during certain times of the school day.
“It is a very congested place right now and it needs a major overhaul if there is to be another structure built there,” Hardy said.
• How wetland protection and drainage would be addressed on-site.
• How the new center would fit into a broader master plan of the recreation park site reflecting current amenities (playing fields, warming hut, outdoor tennis and basketball courts, hockey rink, swimming pool, playground spaces), as well as potential future development during the next 10 years.
• How child safety would be addressed at the site.
• A plan showing how recreation programming at the new facility would be accessible to all Mary Hogan School students.
• A plan for continued input from the ID-4 school board and administrative leadership into the construction and use of the facility.
• A plan for grounds and facility maintenance.
• Evidence that the project timeline and related public engagement process has been “thorough, inclusive and sufficient to ensure adequate input by key stakeholders and the general public.”
• A draft construction timetable and how the school schedule will be accommodated.
The ID-4 board has asked for responses to their questions by Oct. 11 in order to entertain a formal building request from the selectboard at the school board meeting the following Wednesday, Oct. 16. If that request is made, Hardy said her board will convene a special meeting on Oct. 28 to vote on whether to approve construction of the building on school property.
Hardy said the ID-4 board’s list of questions should not come as a surprise to the selectboard, which has been working with Bread Loaf Corp. to define a town offices/recreation facility project that could be put to voters as soon as this December.
“I have shared this list verbally, in the past, with the (Town Office and Recreation Facilities Steering Committee),” Hardy said. Hardy is a member of the steering committee.
Some ID-4 board members have expressed concerns about not having enough information on a building plan that could be headed for a townwide vote before the end of the year.
“If we know what is coming, we can be part of it, rather than be surprised by it,” Hardy said.
George acknowledged receiving Hardy’s letter, and he is taking action on it.
“It’s my goal to meet their demands as best we can,” he said. “I am not sure the deadline is achievable on all those items, but at the same time, I am not sure all of those items are germane to what they need to make their decision on, to permit construction of that new facility.”
Some of the information the ID-4 board is requesting is already in hand, and George is confident the selectboard will have additional answers by Oct. 11.
He stressed he doesn’t want the board’s interactions with the ID-4 board to be “adversarial.” George said the selectboard has been doing its best to share project details in an inclusive, public process through the steering committee and its design-build team. A tentative itinerary calls for steering committee meetings on Oct. 8, 15. 22 and 20, and Nov. 5 and 19; “Public progress meetings” on Oct. 17 and Nov. 12; and a pre-bond vote presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 19. All of the aforementioned meetings will be open to the public. George said news of a potential town offices/recreation facility didn’t break until this past spring because Middlebury College’s contribution had to first be OK’d by the institution’s board of trustees.
The selectboard has, in recent weeks, heard some calls to slow the planning process for the project. Hardy shares that view, including in terms of when a townwide vote should be held.
“I think (Town Meeting Day) makes a lot of sense,” Hardy said. “We have a very short timeline here to process the information, to consider the information, to work through the legal implications, to work through the permitting. We need to make sure we have time to do it, and do it well, so we are not creating a bigger problem.”
George believes there is enough time to prepare properly for the project, and noted the potential financial consequences for the town in further delaying replacement of a municipal building that is a well-chronicled energy hog.
“While I recognize there are some people who do not approve of what’s being proposed and they are trying to do what they can to stop it, I still really believe it’s important for the people of the community to have a chance to vote on it,” George said.
“To have some sort of a deadline forces you to begin to process and work on the project,” George added. “We’ve told the steering committee and our design-build team that if the (December) date is not realistic, then tell us, and we will wait. We will postpone it until whatever time we think it’s best to have the project ready for everybody to understand completely and have a well-founded decision on whether they would support it or not. I certainly don’t want it rushed through as (opponents) are implying. But at the same time, I don’t want the project stopped because the opponents are doing something that would delay the vote. And I think that’s their goal — that it not be voted on at all.”
Selectman Victor Nuovo chairs the Town Office and Recreation Facilities Steering Committee. He, too, is hopeful that the selectboard can supply the answers the ID-4 board is requesting about a project he believes would be a big win for the school and the community at large. He said he’s disappointed by the recent tenor of discussions about the proposed town offices and recreation center.
“I think there has been an air of suspicion and blaming that I don’t think has been very constructive,” Nuovo said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.