Town office debate divides Waitsfield
WAITSFIELD — Residents will vote for a third time, likely in October, on a bond for a new town office after a group of residents opposed to the voter-backed plan and distrustful of the process gathered enough signatures to force a re-vote.
An initial $1.6 million bond article for a new, two-story town office on the .85-acre “Farm Stand” property along Route 100 suffered defeat on Town Meeting Day in March. Town officials said voters, who rejected the bond 351-229 vote, indicated at the time that they did not support the project for several reasons, including cost and impact on taxes, building design and a preference for another site.
The town office has been located in the lower level of the Joslin Memorial Library since 1972. But officials say the basement space no longer meets the town’s needs. The vault, where vital, historic and land records are stored, has run out of space.
Space for other town records and supplies is limited, and some financial records are already being stored off site, which has affected public access and efficiency.
With those concerns in mind, the town created a special Town Office Task Force in 2010 to seek space and plan for a new town office, according to Town Administrator Valerie Capels.
But some residents believe the process was tainted from the start.
“The problem that I have with it is it seems like it’s fixed,” said Neil Johnson, a Waitsfield Realtor who wants the public to have more choice. “They’re not allowing any other options, and that’s what really ticks me off.”
Johnson said he distributed a survey seeking public input on other viable options for a new town office. Other properties, including one he owns, all ranked higher among respondents than the Farm Stand site.
“Overwhelmingly, the Farm Stand was the least popular site,” he said. “(Residents) don’t want to build a new building because it doesn’t make any sense. We’ve got too many vacant buildings in this town.”
Town officials, along with the task force, have pushed for the plan they favored from the beginning despite resistance from residents, Johnson said.
“They had it in their mind that they were going to do this. They’ve also pushed some other projects. It’s not a dumb idea. It’s not the worst idea by any means. It’s not what the people want, but they don’t seem interested in what people want,” he said.
An informal group opposed to the task force’s selection in June 2012 of the Farm Stand property as the site for a new office urged the town to provide more options. A popular choice among opponents is the Old Methodist Church.
The Select Board agreed to provide additional funding for architects to include the former church in its design and cost analysis. The costs associated with both the Farm Stand site and the church were presented at a public forum in December.
According to a cost analysis available on the town’s website, purchasing the Farm Stand site and constructing an office would cost a total of $1.2 million. Purchasing the Old Methodist Church and renovating the structure would cost at least $1.6 million.
Meanwhile, projected energy costs, also listed on the town website, show the church, even when renovated, to have significantly higher heating costs compared to a new building.
“I think the church is an attractive building and it’s an opportunity to invest in the historic fabric of the community,” said Brian Shupe, a member of the task force. “As a committee member I was interested but what convinced me was the much higher cost.”
Capels said the church has three residential units and a business. Those tenants would have to be relocated by the town under federal statutes.
Revisions to the church plan were made in an attempt to lower costs but retrofitting the church continued to be more expensive than purchasing the Farm Stand property and constructing a new building. Still, 48 residents signed a petition supporting the purchase of the Old Methodist Church and submitted it to the town in late December.
After the bond was defeated in March, officials revamped the Farm Stand plan, lowering the amount to be borrowed to $650,000 and securing a $750,000 federal grant to help support offset project costs.
The grant is specific to the Farm Stand plan, though. Capels said the town “would have to forfeit the grant and reapply” if the town scrapped the plan already approved by voters and purchased the church.
A second bond vote on the lesser amount was held on July 30 and passed by a 309-209 vote.
Opposition remains, however.
Resident Pete Reynolds led an effort to gather signatures for a petition seeking a re-vote. A total of 119 signatures were collected, significantly more than the 72, or 5 percent of registered voters, required to force another vote under state statute, Capels said.
Shupe said members of the task force have heard from opponents that the process of selecting a site was unfair. Task force members disagree, Shupe said.
“It’s been a very open and transparent process. It’s all been documented,” he said. “I don’t get where it’s coming from that it’s not to be trusted, that they were somehow bamboozled. The reasons for that decision were made very clear. They don’t agree and that’s fine.
“It’s ugly and can be messy and it’s unfortunate when it becomes name-calling. People try to use whatever tools to make their case,” he added.
Shupe said he expects voters to come to the same conclusion as they did in July and support the project again.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a very nice building to serve the town’s needs at a very low cost. I think that the 60 percent of voters that supported it last time see that,” he said.
The Select Board will discuss the required bond re-vote at its regular Monday meeting, Capels said. The board has 60 days to set a new vote after it formally receives the petition, which it will do at the meeting. She said the board will also schedule a date for the vote.
“It’s my expectation that they will set it sometime in mid- to late-October,” Capels said.
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