by Carla Occaso and Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — Montpelier Beverage building owners are crying “foul” over a recent move by Montpelier City Council to start condemnation proceedings for the structure located at 12 Main Street. However, the building thwarts what city officials say is the safest route to get a new proposed bike path across Main Street without creating a more dangerous intersection at a spot already declared a “failed intersection” by the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
Currently the bike path does not completely go through town. It drops off at either side of the center of town. On one side it goes from a point behind the Department of Labor building and ends at an empty parking lot near the proposed One Taylor Street Transit Center behind the Capitol Plaza. The bike path picks up again on the other side of the North Branch river and across Main Street to a point behind Barre Street, across from the Montpelier Senior Activity Center. And, in between, bicyclists must make their way on the streets, parking lots and back alleys.
The completed bike path as conceived would bring cyclists from behind the Capitol Plaza, across the river behind Shaw’s, and would require moving the one-story Montpelier Beverage building to the adjacent vacant lot (tearing down and rebuilding), directing bikes around the existing building or condemning the building and taking it by eminent domain. In conversations that unfolded, it became clear the first option might be too expensive (if done the way city council endorses, requiring a second story rather than single story), the second one might be unsafe creating further complications at an already failed intersection, which leads to the third option of condemnation.
Jay White, spokesperson and co-trustee with the Mowatt Trust (set up to control the interests of the building that houses Montpelier Beverage) claims the city is going back on an agreement signed last year to help the trust relocate the building to the vacant lot immediately next to the existing structure.
The city agreed to pursue a one story building, City Manager William Fraser told The Bridge in a recent telephone interview. After that agreement was signed in February 2014, it was noted the one-story would require a variance. “The agreement did not work because we could not agree on a price for the current property. A one story building is not permitted under the city’s zoning and would require a variance in order to proceed,” wrote City Manager William Fraser in an e-mail to The Bridge. He further explained by phone that one of the city council’s goals is to have high density development downtown, which means taller buildings with more units rather than sprawled out single story buildings. Therefore, the council changed its position, and decided to pursue eminent domain hearings. This move is much to the chagrin of White, who is hoping to get a large turnout of supporters at the condemnation hearing to be held at the city council meeting September 23.
Q & A between Nat Frothingham, Carla Occaso and Jay White by telephone September 4:
Nat Frothingham: I guess there are negotiations going forward with the city of Montpelier about their plan to run a bike path across the footprint of your store in Montpelier, is that right?
Jay White: At the moment, that is correct.
Frothingham: Where are the negotiations at the moment?
White: The only thing I can say about that is that on September 23 the city council will hold an evidentiary hearing to listen to testimony regarding their plans for the bike path. I believe it is their intention to go forward with the hearing and then shortly after the council will vote to proceed with an article of condemnation. Whether they actually file that with the court, we don’t know.
Frothingham: I don’t know how long M&M has been in place there, but certainly it has been in place there for as long as I’ve lived in town and I’ve lived in town for 35 years.
White: It has been in business since 1979. My late employer, Thomas Mowatt, passed away in 1991. He started the business with his partner, Gilles Morrow. That is where the name came from, M&M beverage. Gilles Morrow was Tom Mowatt’s general manager who ran and operated M&M Beverage. Morrow purchased the business outright from Mr. Mowatt in 1990. And he continued to operate the store up until about seven years ago. The Mowatt Trust was created for Mr. Mowatt’s family and the real estate went into that trust. In 2007 Gilles sold the business to Farogh A. Wien who operates it now under the name Montpelier Beverage.
Frothingham: One of my concerns is that you have been operating that business since 1979. That has to have a value. How do they figure that out? Do they get an outside appraiser to figure that out?
White: I suspect on September 23, part of the discussion will be the city has arrived at a number to condemn the property. They have to condemn the property and the business. Ruby (Farogh A. Wein) has told me nobody has contacted him to do an appraisal on his business. They’ll talk about what is the tax assessed value on the property and maybe the appraisal that they had done a year or two ago. Let me explain something. The law “eminent domain” is kind of interesting. The city or municipality can make a claim. They have to go to superior court and go before a judge since they are doing a public project. It could be a bike path, it could be a fire station or police station, whatever, “therefore we need this land.” The proof of burden falls to the landowner not the municipality. Well, you know, money doesn’t grow on trees. This puts us in a difficult situation because we are the ones who have to go out and hire the attorneys and the expert witnesses.
Now the mayor of the city of Montpelier, by the name of John Hollar, just happens to be an attorney that works for the largest law firm in Vermont: Downs, Rachlin and Martin. So, John just figures, well, he may just pick up a little bit of bad PR on this thing, but we are the ones who are going to have to shell out some serious money to fight this. And, as they did with Alan Carr two years ago, the city council voted for condemnation, but they never filed with the court. Once they voted to do that, they turned around and said to Mr. Carr, “Look, you either negotiate with us, enter into some negotiations, or we will file. And that is what Alan did. He entered into negotiations. They actually never filed the article of condemnation.
Occaso: Who are the other trustees?
White: The Mowatt Trust owns the property. I am a trustee of that trust. I am a co-trustee. The other co-trustee is Conrad L. White. It happens to be my father. And then Thomas Mowatt’s son, Thomas A. Mowatt.
This thing has been going on for 15 years. It took 13 years (or approximately that long) for the city to acquire the Carr property. (Then they acquired) the two other properties beside the Montpelier Beverage. The former Mathew Lot, which is a vacant parking lot, and the building immediately behind Montpelier Beverage, which was the Vermont Association of the Blind building.
Years ago, when I was first contacted about the project, I said to the city, “Look, guys, I am really not interested in selling the property. However, I want to work with you, let’s see if we can do something special. It is easy enough for us to build another building where the former Mathews lot is located, you could get your roadway and your parking lot, which is out behind Aubuchon’s. And then you could do the bike path. They thought that was a good idea. So, I started looking into that. And there’s an ordinance in the city of Montpelier that requires a multi-story structure on Main Street. You can’t build a single story. So immediately I said, “Look guys, we’re going to have a problem. The cost of building a multi-story structure on a very small footprint is going to make it very difficult for us to finance. We went through all the work and the effort, designed the building, and it approximately came in at $1.4 million. A building that only has 2,000 square feet, you can’t make that work.
We’ve all known for a long time that the city would have to help make this happen. And then, the mayor called me a month and a half ago and said, “Look Jay, we really don’t have any funds to put into the project.”
My response to John Hollar was, “Okay, John, since there is no money to invest in this, let’s go back to a single story structure. Now the single story structure required the Mowatt Trust to gain a variance in order to do that. But, we had our attorneys look into that and they said there is a good chance we can get a variance, so, not only did I feel comfortable with that, but we have an agreement with the city. We have a signed (agreement) with William J. Fraser’s signature on it. It was done in February 17 of 2014. And the council and the mayor have decided that contract doesn’t mean anything. And at the moment they aren’t giving us the opportunity to even go to the Design Review Committee or Development Review Board to look at a single-story structure. Today our choices are to either build a multi story building, which we can’t do or face condemnation.
Q & A between Nat Frothingham, Carla Occaso and Mayor John Hollar in person at The Bridge office September 8:
Nat Frothingham: We have interviewed Jay White a spokesman for the Mowatt Trust. He was vehement about certain things (concerning the condemnation proceedings).
Hollar: Here’s the challenge. The city council will be acting as essentially the judicial body in deciding whether to go forward with the condemnation of that parcel. I am not able to talk about specific facts to that because we have to act as a neutral arbitrator — hearing the evidence and making a determination. So, I think that what you need, what I would ask you to do is to talk to Bill Fraser and his staff. They will be presenting the city’s case for why that condemnation should go forward. But as a member of the council, chairing that council, I have to hear the evidence that is submitted both by Mr. White along with the council, and then decide along with the rest of the council whether to go forward with the proposed condemnation. There is just not much I can say about it because we are in this quasi-judicial role.
Carla Occaso: Who proposed condemnation?
Hollar: Well, you know, it is a bit of a unique process because the city council has to at least say we know enough where we’ve got to go forward with this. We haven’t made a final decision, but we have to move forward. So, it is unlike most judicial proceedings where the judge would be completely independent and they just hear the case. In this case the council did have some role in saying, “Yes, we think there is enough evidence here to suggest that we ought to go forward with this presentation. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of the staff to present the case to the council. So the council hasn’t made a final judgement about whether or not to actually approve the condemnation.
Occaso: The last time we talked to Bill Fraser about One Taylor, condemnation wasn’t on the table. This was in early June.
Hollar: I don’t know when the council agreed to go forward with this process.
Occaso: It would be in council minutes?
Hollar: You could call Sandy Pitonyak, she is the assistant to the city manager. She might be able to give you that date.
Occaso: So was it Bill’s office?
Hollar: It was the council. The council voted to go forward with it, but that would be different than actually approving it. We agreed to go forward with it.
Occaso: Because the way Mr. White talks, you’re kind of spearheading all that stuff.
Hollar: I spearheaded negotiations with him. And we’ve had many, many conversations with him about the parcel. About our interest in acquiring it. But we’ve still got to present evidence. We still haven’t heard from engineers of what the potential redesign would be … the hazards of having a separate intersection for the bike path and vehicle access to the site though the current city lot.
Occaso: Would it go down along Stone Cutter’s Way after that?
Hollar: (Takes out paper and pen and describes while he sketches how the path would come across a proposed new bridge behind Shaw’s, cross in some manner through the lot where Montpelier Beverage is, cross Main Street and continue along a dedicated bike lane that would go along one side of Barre Street.)
So you’ve got these Barre Street buildings and then you’ve got a dedicated bike lane going up to the senior center and then crossing over. You’ve got the Rec Department here. This was part of the Greening of the Capitals grant. The city got a grant that proposed a variety of different things that we could consider for upgrading our downtown. One of them was to consider a roundabout for this area (Hollar points to the intersection where Barre Street meets Main Street). Another was a bike path along here and there were a variety of others. This was one that seems to have a lot of support and the ability to move forward on this pretty quickly. Because right now the bike path ends behind the Rec Department. It just ends. So you have Sarducci’s over here. You’ve got the railroad tracks. You’ve got the dry cleaners and people just kind of find their way. So the bike path just kind of ends. The idea is to (he gestures showing how to connect One Taylor Street across the river, across Main Street, along Barre Street and to the Rec Department where it cuts back out behind Barre Street.)
You’ve got two questions. One is you are going to need vehicle access. So you are going to have an additional intersection here. You have access here to Shaw’s, to the Montpelier Beverage, and then you have a new intersection where you would have both the bike path and cars. So what he is suggesting is run the bike path this way (indicates a path around the back of Montpelier Beverage and through a parking lot near The Drawing Board).
Occaso: That is what White is suggesting?
Hollar: I think so. That is what we’d have to do.
Occaso: I heard him say two things. Either that or build another one story building and have (the path) go straight.
Hollar: That is a possibility as well. And we can talk about that. We have a failed intersection here (where Barre Street meets Main Street) according to VTrans. It is an intersection that really doesn’t work. And if we add another intersection, what does that do for safety and traffic congestion. And then the question is what do bikes do?
We are going to go forward with this, I believe, which is extending the bike path to Main Street, so you are going to have a very clear route (from the Rec Center along Barre Street to Main Street).
Occaso: So, would that mean you would take out a sidewalk or add into the existing roadway?
Hollar: No, we’d take out parking. That parking would be replaced by a dedicated two-way bike path.
Occaso: I go on that street all the time. It is like a free-for-all.
Hollar: It is really not a safe street right now for bikes. I think it would be seasonal. You can create temporary demarcation along there so it is clear that this is for bikes.
Occaso: That might actually make things better for driving.
Hollar: Oh, I think it would.
(Meanwhile, Nat Frothingham gets off the phone from the City Assessor’s office)
Frothingham: Stephen Twombley reports (The Montpelier Beverage property) is worth $341,0000, but he is also saying that was in 2010. It may be low.
Hollar: There is also the requirement and opportunity for funding for business relocation as well. So the business that is located there is eligible for relocation.
(The discussion turned to other matters.)