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Selectmen opt out of grange contract

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September 3, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh selectmen on Wednesday opted not to sign a $2.75 million contract with Breadloaf Corp. to put up a duplicate Grange building with an addition, but on Thursday selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said the board could do so at a scheduled Tuesday meeting. 

Lawrence said selectmen made no official decision last week to proceed with the Route 7 project, which would provide new town offices and a community meeting space, because of undisclosed issues with the contract.

But Lawrence said selectmen also told town attorney James Carroll to work with the Middlebury construction firm to resolve those issues, although an Aug. 31 deadline that guaranteed Breadloaf’s $2.75 million bid has been missed.

“The signing of the contract has been delayed. The board continues to move forward with Breadloaf,” Lawrence said. “Despite the Aug. 31 deadline, the board and the town attorney and Breadloaf are still working through some issues.”

She said selectmen did not formally vote to proceed with the Grange rebuild, a decision that about 60 residents debated for more than two hours at an Aug. 28 informational meeting at Ferrisburgh Central School, but the board could sign the contract as soon as this week.

“We’re very optimistic that details will be worked out soon. It’s nothing major, I don’t think,” Lawrence said.

At the Aug. 28 public meeting Breadloaf project estimator Rob Zimmerman was asked what would happen if the Aug. 31 deadline was missed.

Zimmerman said many subcontractors would probably stay on board. Their quotes are now more than two months old and are normally good for a month, but commercial construction has slowed in recent months, he said. On the other hand, he cautioned some might move onto other projects, and that the price of some goods could rise. 

Breadloaf and the town have worked in the past month to knock about $100,000 off the original estimate of roughly $2.85 million. At the same time, Grange fund-raising committee Chairwoman Jean Richardson told the Aug. 28 meeting, the town now has about $2.85 million in funds from the remainder of the $350,000 bond approved in 2004, government and foundation grants, individual donations, about $2.1 million in insurance settlements, and interest.

That leaves the town with about $107,000 extra on top of the 2.5 percent contingency built into the project, Richardson said.

“There will be no more taxes for this project,” she said.

DIFFERENT IDEAS

Although the Grange design will mirror that planned before the original structure burned in 2005, many residents in town and at the Aug. 28 meeting believe the combination of the $2 million insurance windfall and the recent availability of land near to the Grange and school should trigger a re-evaluation of the project.

Board of lister Chairman Carl Cole, who has served on five town office committees dating back to the late 1980s, said he is one of many who believes there are better options now than there were when the Grange was picked in 2003.

Selectmen should think “town offices first, Grange second,” Cole said, and he noted that the Breadloaf presenters at the meeting said they would probably have designed offices differently if they were not constrained by the Grange dimensions. He and others also questioned the site’s parking capacity and the interior meeting room layout.

In the first of many remarks by both project supporters and doubters that drew applause, Cole also said the $2 million could, for example, be used to buy available land, build a modern town office, and still restore the Grange. He asked the selectboard to delay the contract and look at all options first.

“My request to the selectboard is that it not rush to judgment and consider all the issues that have been raised,” Cole said. “Today we have several other options … I’m just asking the selectboard to consider the best interest of the town with regard to town office space, and not let yourselves by overly influenced by a feel-good project.” 

Cole and others, including Russell Mace and Bob McNary, also suggested that selectmen call for a townwide vote on the project.

“Just because there is a small interest group that wants this, don’t push this through,” Mace said. “If it’s such a great project, (residents) will vote it in.”

McNary suggested selectmen negotiate a 100-day waiting period with Breadloaf in which options could be researched, after which a Dec. 11 informational meeting and a Dec. 15 vote could be held on a project to be built in the spring. His preference was for buying land and putting up separate town office and community buildings, the latter of which would hold an exhibit in the Grange’s memory.

“At the end of the day, if this project is the one that folks want, so be it. If there’s another project that we feel would serve the town better for the long run, so be it,” McNary said.

Middlebury attorney Karl Neuse, who represented the town in its quest to earn the additional $950,000 insurance settlement, said he and Carroll both told selectmen they do not need to call another vote because residents approved the bond for the original Grange project in 2004 and because selectmen are not asking for more money.

Lawrence said on Thursday that a vote could also only be advisory because no money is involved, and that selectmen believe the 2004 vote offers insight into how residents feel about the project.

“That was the intent of that vote, to build on that site,” Lawrence said.

Neuse also raised a potential financial problem with other options than the proposed rebuild. He said there were no strings attached to the first $1 million of insurance money, but that the $950,000 was won with the argument it was to be used for expensive historic preservation.

Not using it for that purpose could expose the town to legal action, Neuse said, although he acknowledged it was a “gray area” under questioning.

Richardson and others, including Friends of the Grange member Nadia Smith, said that the roughly $600,000 of grants and donations were also at risk if the Grange project was not done as planned. Smith said many donors considered the project’s multi-use nature to be a selling point.

“Our project probably wouldn’t have gotten the grants if were just a reproduction,” Smith said.

Project backer Art Cohn said selectmen should respect the “integrity of process” that led five committees over parts of three decades to settle on the Grange.

“We’re going to get a first-class historic replica building which is going to function for this town as vastly improved town offices and vault … we’re going to get a Grange meeting room and a town meeting room and a space that we can figure out how to connect to the school,” Cohn said.

Former fire chief and selectman Bob Jenkins said once selectmen make a decision he believed would be difficult, all should respect it. 

“One thing I don’t want to see is this divide this community,” Jenkins said, “because we are a good community, and let’s stay that way.”

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