Middlebury Town-College Land Deal Debated

Sep 3, 2013

Debate continues to swirl in Middlebury over a proposed land swap between the town and the college.  Proponents say the deal will help the town afford a new municipal office and recreational facility.  But opponents are angry at the way it was worked out and say valuable town property will be lost.

Town officials have struggled for years over what to do with the municipal town offices - located in a hundred year old red brick building many in town consider an eyesore.

“It’s the remains of a burned out high school,” explains Middlebury Select Board Member Victor Nuovo. “ So it’s not the most attractive building in the world, although we could probably live with that if there weren’t other problems.”

Nuovo says the building’s antiquated heating and cooling systems and poor insulation make it incredibly expensive to operate. 

Inside, Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay walks down one of several old staircases. “And this is what I wanted to show you. . . . our lack, complete lack of accessibility.”

Visitors in wheelchairs have to use an outdated lift that she admits doesn’t always work. “So it is really not where we should be at this stage.“

Select Board Chair Dean George says the town has considered a number of proposals concerning the building and attached gymnasium.  But funding a multi million dollar renovation or rebuild has been an ongoing challenge.

So this spring, he says the town quietly approached the college and came up with a plan both say would be mutually beneficial.

“What this has done,” says Victor Nuovo, “is bring it into the range of something we can afford.”  He and Dean George say they’re excited about the potential to create something really exceptional for the town.

The complex solution is a bit like following the bouncing ball, but here’s how it would work if voters approve it:

The town would build a new municipal office and a new recreation facility, but not at their current location.  The new town office would be built down the street on a piece of land owned by the college.

The building that’s currently on that piece of land would be moved to a town-owned property that would be given to the college.

The town would also give the college the land that the municipal offices currently occupy and another piece of as yet undeveloped land.

In exchange, the college would pay the town $4,500,000 - about 2/3s of the cost of the new gym and town office.

Victor Nuovo says the college will turn the land where the municipal offices are now into a green space.  “It’s not really going to become part of the college.  It’s going to become a public park.”

But not everyone is happy.

Select Board Member Craig Bingham says Middlebury already has plenty of green space and he thinks the town could have paid for the new buildings with revenue from their local option tax as well as potential future revenue from a planned natural gas pipeline.

Bingham says moving the town office and giving up the land its on is a huge mistake.  “Because it is the most prominent downtown location; provides easy parking and holds the promise of easy expansion.”

Library trustees are miffed that they weren’t consulted since the town office would move next door.  They say that’ll exacerbate parking problems and limit expansion options for both buildings.

School board members are also upset to have been excluded from negotiations - especially since the school district owns the land earmarked for the new rec facility.

School and library officials are now part of a steering committee that will have input on potential building plans. 

Ruth Hardy, Chair of the local ID-4 School Board says that’s helped and as a school official she’s feeling more optimistic about the proposal.

“However, from the perspective of a citizen I do have many concerns about the proposal as a whole,” says Hardy, “in terms of giving up public land and the sort of creeping in of the college into the center of town.” 

College President Ron Liebowitz, sees it differently. “It’s not a land grab,” he says. “We own enough property.  The whole thing really ties back to the issue of how the town and college are linked and how they can help one another.  Because in the end,” says Liebowitz, “the college benefits from a strong town and visa versa.  And it doesn’t appear as if the college is getting all that much in getting some green space in the town.” 

Town officials say they hope to put a proposal out to voters by December.