MONTPELIER — A hotel and garage project is locked in limbo as opponents continue to appeal permits issued for it.
City officials are concerned that the appeals might sufficiently delay or add legal costs that could “kill” the project.
It follows appeals by Friends of Montpelier, a group of 16 residents, of permits issued by the Development Review Board (DRB) in December for the Bashara family to build an 81-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel behind its Capitol Plaza Hotel off State Street, and an adjacent city-owned and -operated 348-space public parking garage.
Last week, the Act 250 District 5 Environmental Commission issued a permit for the hotel and garage project that the Friends of Montpelier said they would also appeal. Only one resident, Les Blomberg, was granted partial party status because of concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety on State Street and in the Heney parking lot adjacent to the proposed garage.
The group has said it is appealing all the permits issued because the city did not follow its own zoning regulations in the permitting process.
Despite receiving all the permits needed for the project, City Manager Bill Fraser said in an email Monday, “Construction cannot begin until all permit issues are resolved. That includes appeals.”
Fraser couldn’t say anything about the timeline for the project and alternative parking plans for vehicles on the Capitol Plaza lot during construction.
“Given the uncertainty of the construction start date, we do not have a specific plan right now,” Fraser said.
Fraser said he remained concerned about the effect the appeals would have with delays and added costs.
In a phone call Monday, Fraser said city officials remain unclear about what the Friends of Montpelier want from the appeals.
“We’ve asked them, ‘What do you want to get out of this?’ and we can’t get a straight answer,” Fraser said.
Fraser noted that the Act 250 process was an independent review of the project.
“So, if their argument is that the city didn’t follow its own process, well, we followed Act 250’s, and the state (Division for) Historic Preservation said it was OK to be downtown; the environmental people all said, ‘No problem with your (water) runoff;’ the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) said ‘You’re managing your soils properly;’ traffic, (Act 250) said traffic was fine — but now they’re going to appeal,” Fraser said. “That strikes me as different than (they’re) just concerned about the process.”
Fraser said even if the city had to go through the de novo (start over again) review of the projects in the Environmental Court, it was likely the city would still get its permits, even if there were conditions attached.
“We believe, and we could be wrong, that if they win, we will still proceed, we’ll still get a permit,” Fraser said.
James Dumont, the Bristol attorney representing the appellants, took issue with Fraser discussing strategy concerning the appeals of the projects after he and the city signed a confidentiality agreement.
“Bill Fraser has a problem,” Dumont said. “And now he’s (saying) that despite all the discussions we’ve had, they haven’t gotten answers to certain questions?
“No. 1, he’s violating the written agreement that the city signed. No. 2, it’s false. I’ll leave it at that,” Dumont added.
Dumont said that three main areas of concern to the appellants were traffic, the impact of the development on the historic downtown and water quality issues.
“The DRB and the district commission has not addressed (the issues) in the manner required by law and that leaves them no choice but to have the Environmental Court to review them,” Dumont said.
Asked about who is funding the appellants’ legal costs, Dumont did not name anyone specifically, and hedged on whether leading Vermont renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf was among them, as has been rumored.
Blittersdorf was also reluctant to confirm he’s supporting the appellants but spoke in strong terms about the importance of the city avoiding the car culture to improve economic prospects for local businesses.
“Let’s just say that I have an interest in what’s going on there because the city and the business community think that the automobile is the savior of our society when it’s actually destroying us,” Blittersdorf said.
Blittersdorf said he favored the Team Bridges winning design competition entry to help Montpelier become net-zero in carbon emissions by 2030 — a proposal that calls for the creation of the “Capital Corridor” using mass-transit light rail to move commuters throughout central Vermont. Last year, Blittersdorf brought 10 independently operated Budd Rail diesel cars to central Vermont to make the idea a reality.
“To have the leadership basically reject any other ways of doing this other than building a concrete parking garage in downtown Montpelier is absolutely mind-boggling to me,” Blittersdorf said.
Montpelier Business Association President Sarah DeFelice also expressed frustration with the appeals when many business owners said they hoped both projects would help the local economy. Voters approved a $10.5 million bond for the garage in November.
“I know as a business community, we’re just ready for us to move on and move forward with what the voters said, and I think a lot of us are confused as to what they’re actually asking, like what do they actually want,” DeFelice said.