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Middlebury Town Office Plan, Cussed and Discussed

Former town planner Fred Dunnington sent along photos taken in the tropics with the underwater camera he got as a retirement present. With the temperature on Town Meeting night hovering at zero, selectboard Chairman Dean George said he was glad someone was enjoying warm weather somewhere.

Dennis Cassidy asked the moderator, former Gov. Jim Douglas, if he was ready to declare he was running for governor again. Douglas dryly quipped that Cassidy was “out of order on many fronts.”

The troubled snow removal machine topped the debate during the budget discussions. Everyone agreed they were against having too much snow on the sidewalks.

Ruth Hardy “put a plug in there for the old fashioned way” of having people shovel their own sidewalks. And the Public Works Committee vowed to find a way to brush, blow and scoop snow better next winter.

But of course the most lively portion of Middlebury Town Meeting on Monday night was the debate on the complicated proposal to:

* Relocate and build new town offices;

* Knock down the existing municipal building and gym;

* Build a new gym on school district land along Creek Road;

* Create a new downtown park;

* Solve the international crisis over the Russian occupation of Crimea.

OK, so I made up the part about Crimea.

All that at a pricetag well below what it would cost to build new facilities on the existing site of the crumbling municipal offices and gym — thanks to an offer from Middlebury College to pick up most of the tab.

School district voters, largely Middlebury residents, last week approved the plan for a new gym on district land by an overwhelming margin of nearly three to one.

But if you’d had to judge the outcome of Tuesday’s Middlebury vote from the impassioned comments at Town Meeting, you would have thought hardly anyone thought the proposal was a good idea.

Even the customary practice of having town officials explain the plan details was heatedly challenged by some voters. They felt that like individual voters themselves, town officials should have to limit their comments to two minutes or less.

Douglas adroitly skirted that issue. But soon the barrage of criticism from the audience was in full swing. More than 10 speakers rose to inveigh quite articulately about the proposal, before someone finally said maybe it wasn’t such a bad plan after all.

To hear the opponents, you would have thought we were talking about desecrating sacred land, “the heart of Middlebury,” instead of a sawed-off building half-destroyed 50 years ago in a fire. The property is worth at least $12 million, said one. We don’t need any more parks, said others.

“Citizens of our town were denied their rightful place at the table” during the decision-making process, claimed selectboard member Craig Bingham – leaving some of us to wonder who he thought all those people were in the audience during board meetings.

It’s been a nasty process that has enraged our “lizard brain” and “infected” the town, some said – as if no one in Middlebury had ever before disagreed about an issue. One almost expected Rodney King, who was at the center of the L.A. riots, to show up and ask why we can’t all just get along.

Among project foes were several Middlebury College faculty members, biting the hand that feeds them. It’s nice to know academic freedom is alive and well.

Almost all the selectboard candidates opposed the plan. I’m having to file this column before the results of Tuesday’s voting are known. But if the plan passed, it will be interesting to see how any newly elected opponents behave as the selectboard oversees the projects.

All but ignored Monday night were exhibits that showed how the railroad tracks at Merchants Row and Main Street will be repaired and covered to create new park space. Another set of signs explained pending improvements to the Route 125 bridge over the river in East Middlebury.

The signs were reminders this is a community that both treasures its history and still moves forward when appropriate.

And finally, after most of the opponents had had their say, a few project supporters offered their perspectives.

Benj Deppman thanked the college for the positive role it plays in the community. He praised its willingness to support the selectboard’s plan, once the board had decided the town alone could not afford to fix problems with the existing buildings.

Chip Malcolm noted he’d been here for 40 years. “The town offices were decrepit then, and they’re decrepit now,” he said.

When the audience comments were coming to a close, one speaker joked that the selectboard plan “has been cussed and discussed.”

As several speakers remarked Monday night, the town has spent many years and has gone through many committees trying to decide what to do about the municipal office and gym.

Harkening back more than 200 years in the town’s history, Nancy Malcolm noted that historian Glenn Andres said it took the town 20 years to decide where to locate the Congregational Church — “so I guess we’re right on schedule.”

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