EAST MONTPELIER — A 10-month-old request considered crucial to plans for Berlin’s “new town center” encountered an unexpected obstacle Wednesday night when its three representatives to the Washington Central Unified Union School Board expressed concern about deeding up to 7.4 acres of district-owned land to the Town of Berlin for $1.
On a night when the district’s pandemic response was the subject of some discussion, concerns raised by Berlin board members Vera Frazier, Diane Nichols-Fleming and Jonathan Goddard were contagious. As a result, the request — one that was made last December — was put on hold by board members reluctant to second-guess Berlin’s delegates without hearing more from others who live in that community.
It began with the board’s lawyer, Nicholas Low, walking members through a transaction that members were told could involve between 3.8 and 7.4 acres of land that were part of the nearly 26-acre parcel conveyed to the now-defunct Berlin Town School District more than 50 years ago.
Some of the property is classified as wetlands and can’t be developed. The balance — 3.8 acres — could be under Berlin’s long-term plans for its state-designated “new town center.” All of the property that was the subject of the request is located in a wooded area on the eastern fringe of the property and is separated from the school, its parking lot and most of its network of nature trails by a stream.
All of the property was absorbed by Washington Central following a two-year-old merger that brought previously autonomous elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as U-32 Middle and High School, under the purview of one new board.
Berlin Zoning Administrator Tom Badowski attended the board’s virtual meeting Wednesday night hoping for approval of a request he said is pivotal to plans for replacing the Berlin Mall’s privately owned entrance off of Route 62 with a sidewalk-lined town street — part of which, due to site constraints, would have to be built on property owned by the school district.
Badowski left empty handed after Berlin’s representatives undercut their town’s request, while expressing support for the town center concept.
Frazier went first, citing concerns raised by perhaps 40 of her Facebook friends who responded to a post about the proposal she made back in April.
According to Frazier, many who responded were underwhelmed by the $1 the district would receive and had visions of leveraging money to cover the cost of everything from athletic fields to playgrounds.
“There were a lot of other ideas that people threw out there to make it part of a deal, but it didn’t sound, at the time, that you could incorporate some of those items as part of the deal, she said.
That hasn’t changed and Frazier, who said she’s heard from “75-ish” Berlin residents — some on Facebook and some in person — suggested there wasn’t much support for the town’s request.
“There’s no money attached to the transaction that would gain the school or the district anything,” she said.
For Nichols-Fleming, it wasn’t about what the district might get from her town in return for the property it has asked for; it was about what she perceived as a lack of need.
“I believe in the town center, but I don’t believe we should build and build and build when we have a three-quarter empty mall,” she said. “My concern as a Berlin resident is I’m not seeing the need to donate this land.”
Neither was Goddard, who made it unanimous among Berlin’s contingent — prompting board members from other towns to agree on the need to solicit community input involving a request they arrived inclined to approve.
School Director Kari Bradley was one of them.
Like others who spoke, Bradley said he saw no need to convey the wetland area, but said he believed the district’s interest in retaining the nature trail was “doable,” as was creating a suitable “buffer” between land where Berlin would like to construct a portion of a new town street and eventually a new municipal office building, with rental housing on its upper floors.
He said he believed Badowski’s pitch of more students in quality housing located a short distance from the school was in the district’s interest even without the added property value — an estimated – $125 million Berlin hopes will result from development in its new town center.
“All of those things make me think that this development, in general, is in our interest and we want to support it,” he said, noting that the doubts expressed by all three board members from Berlin gave him cause for pause.
Bradley wasn’t alone, as board members from other communities wondered whether a survey of Berlin residents could be conducted and possibly a forum held on the topic.
That’s the direction the board is headed notwithstanding the sense of urgency Badowski sought to convey about the request.
Badowski struggled to answer when asked whether not obtaining the 3.8 acres members generally agreed they would consider parting with would be a “deal-breaker” for Berlin’s “new town center.”
“That’s a tough question to answer,” he said. “I think it could be a deal-breaker for that end of it.”
According to Badowski, failing to obtain the school-owned property would jeopardize a $500,000 grant the town has secured to realign the mall’s Route 62 and convert it into a suitable street. It could also threaten Fox Run — 30 units of permanently affordable housing proposed by Downstreet Housing and Community Development, which is just entering the permitting process. The realigned road — one that is owned by the town, not the mall — is necessary for that project and the $500,000 was awarded to help make that happen.
Badowski said it would definitely take plans for additional housing on that end of an area that has been targeted as a town center for 25 years off the table.
Berlin voters have consistently and, Badowski said, “overwhelmingly” demonstrated support for the concept. A new town plan, a new unified development ordinance and hefty investments in water and sewer infrastructure — all aimed at advancing the long-held vision of creating a town center have been easily approved in recent years.
The concerns raised by Berlin board members, who said they were otherwise supportive of the new town center, was frustrating for Badowski who left the meeting without the answer he asked for nearly a year ago.