MONTPELIER — The city’s description of the demise of a hotel and parking garage project that had been the subject of a protracted legal appeal has drawn an objection from the lawyer representing the appellants.
With a pair of unresolved appeals now seemingly moot, Bristol attorney James Dumont said Monday a news release issued by the city late Friday afternoon unfairly blames his clients for the death of the controversial development.
“The press release was written by someone who either is completely unfamiliar with the court record, or is deeply confused,” he said.
Dumont bristled at a prepared statement from Mayor Anne Watson that accompanied the release, which outlined the Hilton Corporation’s decision to “terminate the franchise agreement” it signed with the family-owned Capitol Plaza three-and-a-half years ago.
Watson described the latest development as “disappointing,” and suggested “the prospect of endless litigation” created uncertainty that drove the Hilton Corporation’s decision to pull the plug on plans to build a five-story, 81-room Hilton Inn and Suites Hotel on land Capitol Plaza owns behind its existing hotel on State Street.
“… Appeals are not meant to kill projects through delay, but that is what has happened here,” Watson said.
Dumont argued the record is replete with examples of a process that took longer than it otherwise would have because of the applicants — not the appellants.
“As for ‘delay,’ the city’s actions delayed this case over and over and over again,” he said. “The appellants did nothing to delay this case.”
According to Dumont, his client’s promptly appealed a local zoning permit issued by the city’s Development Review Board in December 2018, but had to wait seven months for a document he said was key to the still-pending appeal.
Dumont said the document — a “letter of intent” outlining the terms under which Capitol Plaza would convey land needed to accommodate the city’s construction of a 348-space parking garage — wasn’t signed until July 2019.
“The terms of that (land) grant were critical to addressing many of the zoning and the Act 250 issues,” he said.
By the time the letter of intent was supplied by the city, the District 5 Environmental Commission had concluded its review of the hotel and parking lot project, and issued an Act 250 land-use permit that was appealed in May 2019.
That appeal was partially dismissed a year ago when Environmental Court Judge Thomas Walsh ruled the parking garage — a municipal project proposed on less than 10 acres of land — was not subject to Act 250 jurisdiction in the first place.
At the time, Dumont didn’t rule out appealing Walsh’s decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, but he said Monday, he had been waiting for months for the lawyers representing the city and Capitol Plaza to ask the judge to dismiss the pending Act 250 appeal with respect to the hotel.
According to Dumont, that motion was filed by opposing counsel on March 1 after he prodded them to do so back in January.
“It was the appellants who were reminding the city and Capitol Plaza ‘the judge invited you to file this motion to throw out the whole Act 250 case in June shouldn’t you be doing that … by now?’” he said.
Dumont said he filed his reply to the March 1 motion on March 31 and the judge has taken the matter under advisement.
Dumont also cited the city’s belated and thus far successful attempt to decouple, for state permitting purposes, the parking garage from the hotel and what he characterized as a failed attempt to compel the disclosure of those responsible for paying his legal fees.
“You can blame us for the months that took to resolve or you could say that was a waste of time that the city caused,” he said, noting the judge concluded the latter request was both “improper” and “irrelevant.”
It was one of several examples Dumont said are at odds with Watson’s claim the city and Capitol Plaza “… won every substantial legal challenge put forward by the appellants.”
According to Dumont the best example is the appeal of the local zoning permit — one where, despite an early attempt to get the case dismissed, depositions are scheduled to start in May in preparation for a trial that has tentatively been scheduled for August. Before last week, the only lingering question was whether the hotel-related component of the Act 250 appeal would be dismissed or consolidated with the zoning appeal.
Based on Friday’s announcement, Dumont said he is uncertain what will happen with either appeal.
So is City Manager Bill Fraser.
Fraser, who learned of Hilton’s decision last week, said the city was considering whether to let the appeals process “play out” even though the project is off — at least for now.
“This is all coming at us fast,” he said. “We’re evaluating.”
Fraser said Dumont’s objection with respect to the wording of last week’s press release was “disingenuous.”
“All the delays come from their appeals,” he said, suggesting the resulting uncertainty is what ultimately derailed the hotel project and, by extension the parking garage.
Dumont’s client, the Friends of Montpelier, is a group of more than a dozen residents, though only three — Les Blomberg, John Russell, and Dan Costin — have been permitted to participate in the two pending appeals. Blomberg and Russell are the appellants of record in zoning case, which, among other things, contend the proposed parking garage is inconsistent with Montpelier’s historic district.
Blomberg and Costin are the appellants of record in the Act 250 appeal, though the recently filed motion suggests the hotel-related component of that appeal be dismissed because concerns related to traffic, historic preservation and the nearby recreation path all involved the parking garage.
Walsh has already ruled the garage is exempt from Act 250 review, leaving the hotel that Dumont said his clients supported when it incorporated a smaller garage for its exclusive use. Dumont said the more modest garage would not have had the “visual impact on the historic district” that the one subsequently proposed would and wouldn’t, in his opinion, have been in conflict with the city plan.
Still, Dumont has argued, since hotel and parking garage are by all accounts “codependent,” concerns primarily involving the garage indirectly involve the hotel.