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Hotel, garage projects remain stalled this year

MONTPELIER — Construction of a hotel and garage complex in the Capital City is unlikely to begin this year because of outstanding appeals against permits issued, according to officials involved in the projects.

Meanwhile, bills for the projects continue to mount as attorneys on both sides of the appeals continue to wrangle over court schedules to reach agreement.

The appeals concern permits issued by the Development Review Board for an 81-room Hampton Inn & Suites Hotel and an adjoining garage on 2.8 acres behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel off State Street owned by the Bashara family. The Basharas asked the city to partner with them and build the garage. The city agreed but increased the size of the garage from 250 to 348 parking spaces.

The Friends of Montpelier, representing 16 city residents, then filed an appeal of the DRB permits for the hotel and garage, saying that the city did not follow its own zoning regulations during the permitting process. Residents also appealed an Act 250 permit for the project issued May 2.

Both appeals mean that the Environmental Court and the Act 250 District 5 Environmental Commission will have to reconsider the applications for both projects de novo (start over again), as if no permits had been issued.

Attorneys for the project applicants and the appellants had a conference call discussion with the Environmental Court on Monday to discuss a schedule going forward to hear the appeal of the DRB permits.

But according to James Dumont, a Bristol-based attorney representing the appellants, attorneys for the city told the court it wanted to file motions with the court by May 31 and schedule a December hearing.

Dumont said the appellants were amenable to the request to file motions on whether some of the issues raised in the appeal should be limited or addressed. He said the parties agreed to have another conference with the Environmental Court on June 10 to check on the status of the appeal.

But Dumont also noted that the city’s attorneys were only proposing to start the pretrial discovery process in September, which he said would not leave the appellants enough time before a December trial.

“The city proposed a schedule to the judge. The city proposed dates when the trial would occur and when the trial would be over,” Dumont said. “We agreed to those. What we disagreed on is when we start pretrial discovery. We’re trying to get this to move as quickly as possible. ”

Dumont also noted that the Environmental Court judge asked whether the appeals of the DRB and the Act 250 permits could be rolled into one hearing, with separate decisions on each appeal.

“But the city said they didn’t want to do that; they want it on a separate track,” Dumont said.

City Manager Bill Fraser declined to comment on why the city’s attorneys refused to combine the appeals, or why they asked the court to delay a hearing until December.

“I have no comment with regard to the court process as it relates to active litigation,” Fraser said. “The city’s attorneys are proceeding in the best interests of the project.”

Dumont denied the appellants were trying to “run out the clock” with appeals that would delay the projects and add additional costs that could “kill” them, in Fraser’s words.

“It’s been raised before, and we’ve responded before — it’s absolutely untrue,” Dumont said. “This has come up before … and our statement of questions lays out in detail what we think is wrong with the DRB (permit decision).”

Fred Bashara Sr. said he was frustrated by the delays and potential added costs for the hotel project.

“We didn’t expect it’s going to be December before we even get to a hearing. We thought that we were going to be able to put a shovel in the ground last November,” Bashara said on Tuesday. “Wait another year? I don’t like it. I thought we could be able to start a lot earlier. I’ve had permits for one year now. May 7th was one year (since) I had my permits, and we started this process a year and a half ago, and we’re maybe still a year away after you get a permit. I’m getting older, I’m 79, I want to get going on this thing.”

Fraser estimates that city costs, so far, related to the garage project total $472,716.

“We have bills from many vendors who were involved in 1) creation of the TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) district, 2) design and permitting of the garage project, and 3) the appeal,” Fraser said.


Another low turnout but Barre Town residents pass budgets, re-elect incumbents

BARRE TOWN — Turnout was better than last year, but not much, as residents passed both town budgets during Barre Town’s annual vote Tuesday.

Voters passed the general fund 591-123. That budget is $3,867,941, which is an increase of $128,385, or 3.43 percent, more than the current budget.

For notable changes, Town Manager Carl Rogers said in April the biggest increase is $102,790 for the town’s ambulance fund. Rogers said this increase was needed to offset the loss in revenue from ambulance calls paid by Medicare and Medicaid. He said the amount those programs will pay increases slightly while the payroll for ambulance service is going up by much more than that.

The second largest increase in the general fund is $29,575 in health insurance premiums for town employees. Next is $15,970 for contracted services for recreation. Rogers said that includes $7,000 for improving the softball field fence, $3,500 to remove invasive plants from the Town Forest and $4,200 to seal the skate park surface.

The proposed general fund also includes some decreases, the largest of which is in the fire department’s budget. He said the current budget includes $56,000 for new turnout gear which isn’t needed in the proposed budget.

Voters also passed the highway fund 652-66. That budget is $3,100,810, which is an increase of $95,620, or 3.18 percent, more than the current budget.

For notable increases, Rogers said in April winter maintenance is going up $96,235, but that’s offset a bit by a reduction in costs for summer maintenance. The town will also spend $22,400 more for salt next winter, which is included in the $96,235.

The town is also planning on paving some roads this summer, and this line item increases $13,710. Rogers said the roads, which include Church Hill Road and Camp Street, need some drainage work before paving can take place.

For decreases, summer maintenance wages went down $26,650, and equipment decreased $21,850. Rogers said health insurance for the road crew went down $33,450. He said the highway budget is also going down $21,860 because that money was included in the current budget as the town’s match for a grant for the East Barre sidewalk project that was completed last year.

For contested races, incumbent Paul White defeated challenger Justin Bolduc 423-246 for the three-year seat on the Select Board. Incumbent Jack Mitchell also defeated challenger Ken Alger 457-223 for the two-year board seat.

Barre Town has 5,813 registered voters, but only 723 showed up for this year’s vote. That’s better than the 308 residents that turned out last year. But this year’s vote also included the school budget for the Barre Unified School District at more than $45 million and a little over $3 million for Central Vermont Career Center. Both items also passed Tuesday.

Select Board chairman Tom White was frustrated with the low turnout, and said he’s not sure what to do about it. White said town officials have tried to get the word out via Facebook and Front Porch Forum.

“We constantly have discussions about it,” he said. “But how do you energize people to come out and take part in their civic duty?”

Tom White said if people can’t make it to Barre Town Middle & Elementary School to vote they can have absentee ballots sent to their homes.

“You don’t even have to remember there’s an election. (The ballot) comes in the mail and you fill it out and either mail it back or drop it off. It’s pretty simple,” he said.

Tom White said while adults don’t seem to care about the vote or don’t feel like their vote matters, maybe children should be taught at a young age that it’s their responsibility as a citizen to vote.


Vt. Supreme Court hears arguments in WCAX case

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday about whether to publicly release a judge’s decision blocking the state’s request for raw footage of a police shooting.

The case involves Nathan Giffin, who was shot and killed by police after a standoff at Montpelier High School in January 2018. News station WCAX was at the scene at the time and one of its cameras caught the shooting.

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault sought that footage through a subpoena as part of his investigation into the shooting to see if any officers should be charged. All of the officers were later cleared of any wrongdoing.

WCAX’s parent company Gray Television refused to hand the footage over so the matter went before a judge. The hearing was confidential because it was part of an active investigation, but according to court records, in Feburary 2018, Judge Howard E. VanBenthuysen sided with the news station and denied the state’s request for the footage, citing the state’s new shield law. After the decision was made, Gray Television filed a motion asking for the decision to be made public.

VanBenthuysen denied that motion, saying because the decision was based on a confidential matter the decision itself was also confidential. Gray Television has appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, saying the judge abused his discretion.

Chad R. Bowman represented Gray Television. Bowman said according to the state’s rules for public access to court records, the only time a court’s decision is mentioned in terms of confidentiality is in the context of a mental health proceeding but any order of the court is to be made public.

“In grand jury situations, when a witness is held in contempt of court that decision is public. When a third party moves to quash a subpoena during a grand jury proceeding, even though the grand jury proceeding is confidential the decision is public,” he said.

The state’s shield law, which limits a court’s ability to compel reporters to turn over reporting material or to testify, has been on the books for two years. Bowman said VanBenthuysen’s decision is the first one in the state regarding this law.

Thibault argued VanBenthuysen made the right decision because proceedings and rulings in a case like this are confidential and not subject to be released publicly.

He brought up search warrants saying a denied search warrant is never made public but it is kept under seal by the court. He said when a search warrant is granted it is also kept under seal until the search has been conducted.

Thibault argued an inquest subpoena is one of the tools he uses as a prosecutor as part of the executive branch. He said those proceedings, while taking place in court, are governed by the executive branch rules, not court rules.

“This case ended with criminal charges. That’s not to say that a similar posture or similar argument will not be used where an investigation is still in its pendency,” he said.

Thibault brought up investigations into child pornography cases where investigators collect information about someone, such as their IP address, without the suspect knowing about it. He said if the suspect is alerted before the investigation is complete he or she may end up destroying evidence in the case.

He said while his office decided not to press charges after the investigation into the Giffin case, another state’s attorney down the road could take another look and make a different decision, so the order needs to stay confidential.

The New England First Amendment Coalition released a statement about the case which said: “The New England First Amendment Coalition supports WCAX-TV’s effort to unseal a 2018 Superior Court decision and to reaffirm the public’s constitutional right to access judicial documents. Releasing the decision would help Vermonters better understand how the court interpreted the newly enacted reporter’s shield law and it would provide the transparency needed to oversee the state’s judicial system.”

“Concealing court opinions deprives the public an opportunity to learn why judges rule as they do,” the statement continued. “Such secrecy shouldn’t occur unless under the most consequential of circumstances. It is antithetical to a functioning democracy. With the decision kept secret, we’re all left to wonder why the Superior Court ruled as it did and how future cases may be affected.”

Barre voters approved merged school budget

BARRE — A fledgling school board that just popped a $45 million question got the answer it was hoping for on Tuesday.

Voters in Barre and Barre Town collectively approved the first-ever budget for the soon-to-be-merged Barre Unified Union School District, 631-361.

The favorable vote was made to order for a new nine-member school board that was just elected last month and is now readying to assume operational responsibility for currently autonomous elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as jointly owned but separately run Spaulding High School.

The board’s chairman, Paul Malone, summed up his reaction to Tuesday’s results in two words.

“I’m happy,” Malone said shortly learning the budget passed while attending the first meeting of the new district’s facilities committee at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, after the polls closed and the results from Barre and Barre Town had been added together.

“For the first time it feels like we’re able to move forward with our heads above water,” he said.

Malone said $640,000 in budget adjustments approved by the board likely improved its chances of passing. The proposal, he said, was “reasonable” and its approval was a relief.

“We were really worried about what would have come next if the budget was defeated,” he said. “It would have been programs.”

Superintendent John Pandolfo was also breathing easier after learning the results and sharing them with members of the unified board, as well as the three boards it will replace on July 1.

“I think it’s a good sign for us moving forward as a consolidated district,” he said of the positive vote.

Pandolfo said the new board and the three existing boards played pivotal roles in crafting the proposal that was approved.

“The boards certainly worked really hard to develop a budget that meets the needs of the students and meets the needs of the taxpayers,” he said, welcoming the opportunity to “move on.”

Instead of hastily arranging a special board meeting to consider possible adjustments to a failed budget and warning yet another special election, Pandolfo said what has been an orderly transition to a state-ordered merger would continue unimpeded.

That is no small thing in communities where voter fatigue was becoming an issue and the expense associated with ordering ballots and paying poll workers had started to mount.

Barring a petitioned re-vote the favorable vote will also avoid any delay in mailing out property tax bills in July.

City Clerk Carol Dawes and Town Clerk Donna Kelty both welcomed results that will snap a string of special elections.

Kelty, who oversaw special elections in January and February, the Town Meeting Day election of members of the Barre Town School Board in March, and the election of the new unified board in April expressed her pleasure after learning the budget passed.

“Woo-hoo!” she exclaimed. “We’re not voting in June!”

Though voters in Barre and Barre Town saw the merger from decidedly different perspectives for most of the past three years, they were on the same page with respect to the $45.1 million budget that will finance the pre-K-12 school district.

Barre voters approved the budget, 191-88, and it passed, 440-273, in Barre Town. Neither vote was a landslide, but the budget passed with a comfortable cushion in both communities on a day when the combined result was all that mattered.

In addition to approving the budget for the new two-town, three-school district, voters approved a separate $3 million budget for the Spaulding-based Central Vermont Career Center. That budget passed, 674-316, by a combined vote of the two communities. The budget for the career center passed, 201-77, in Barre and 473-239 in Barre Town.

Barre is the first of the forced mergers ordered under Act 46 to hold a budget vote. A budget vote is scheduled next week in the merged district that will included the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts, and several others, including the five-town, six-school Washington Central Unified Union School District are scheduled next month.


Jpkuckens / Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

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