By Tom Brown
Voters on Election Day gave a solid green light to building a proposed city-owned parking garage, but permitting hurdles and a possible legal challenge mean the debate is likely to continue.
City residents voted 2,459–1,877 in favor of the public-private downtown development that would have the city take on a $10.5 million bond to pay for a four-story parking structure. The garage will be built in conjunction with an 80-room Hampton Inn and Suites hotel behind Capitol Plaza. The bond is expected to be paid for through parking fees and from revenue gained from the creation of a special tax district. No property tax increases are expected to be needed to pay for the bond, city officials have said.
Downtown merchants, who supported the garage and hotel projects as a way to provide additional parking options for local shoppers and tourists alike, were pleased with the outcome.
“We were excited and thankful for the result,” said Sarah DeFelice, owner of the Bailey Road clothing store and president of the Montpelier Business Association. “It showed how Montpelier residents really value the business owners’ input, and that they want us here and will do things to make us stay here in the long run. This project will create a gateway to economic development.”
DeFelice noted that the additional hotel rooms will provide a place to stay for tourists who sometimes are forced to book rooms in Stowe or Burlington and, therefore, only visit Montpelier for a few hours.
Before those rooms are occupied and any cars are parked, the project will need to navigate an ongoing permit process, soil-testing, and a challenge to the city’s Development Review Board’s permit deliberations.
Nineteen city residents filed a petition with the DRB on November 5, contending that the project is inconsistent with the city’s master plan. By submitting the petition the group hopes to gain party status, should it wish to appeal the board’s decision in state environmental court. The DRB accepted the petition and closed its hearing on the garage permit on November 5.
Deliberations on the city’s permit application are expected to continue at the board’s next meeting on November 19. The board could decide to approve the permit as is, approve it with certain conditions, or deny it. The permit requires at least four votes to be approved by the seven-member board. Two regular members of the board, Dan Richardson and Kate McCarthy, have recused themselves from the case, meaning the board’s two alternates will vote on the garage permit.
Some critics of the proposal have suggested that because the board is reviewing the city’s application, as opposed to a private developer’s application for example, the review process might not be as stringent or that the city might be held to a lower standard by the DRB. Others have questioned whether the garage project fits with some residents’ vision for the riverfront area at the downtown confluence of the North Branch and Winooski rivers.
“The garage was initially a part of the hotel project, but now the city is the applicant,” said Laura Rose Abbott, a Montpelier resident who signed the petition. “I think that because of that the city could benefit from the liberty that municipalities are granted in a municipal process.”
City Manager Bill Fraser said the city works hard to keep its planning and zoning arms separate from whichever department’s application is being reviewed.
“We want them to do their diligent review and make sure we comply with all regulations and requirements,” Fraser said. “We’re an applicant, and we’ve presented our case basically through our architect and professionals.”
If the opponents wish to challenge the board’s decision, they would have 30 days to file a notice of appeal in environmental court.
Abbott said her concerns are about the pace of the project, and that she doesn’t believe the garage fits with the vision for Montpelier that various working groups have endorsed, but added that the 19 petitioners each have their own reasons for objecting to the project.
“There is no formal position as a group at this time,” she said. “The outcome of the vote has made some feel more strongly that action needs to take place.”
Residents who filed the petition are Abbott, Dorothy Helling, John Russell, Sandra Vitzthum, Andrea Stander, Nathaniel Frothingham, Les Blomberg, Elizabeth Slayton, William J. Koucky, Lisette Elise Paris, Cara Barbero, Diana Baron, Jill Muhr, Sarah Gribbin, Daniel Costin, Mollie Gribbin, A. David Gram, Albert P. Sabatini, and Rebecca Davison. Helling and Frothingham are former employees of The Bridge.
Gram said he joined the petition because he believes the project is moving too fast, and the vote came before all questions about its construction have been answered. He said the fact that voters endorsed the project is important, but he is not sure what steps the petitioners will take next.
“I’m still skeptical of the garage but not unalterably opposed,” he said. “I still think we should take a little more time,” noting that pedestrian-friendly riverfront promenades are at the heart of many of the world’s great cities.
Fraser said that while the petitioners are entitled to challenge the project, he believes the reasons might be more philosophical than procedural. “My sense is they just don’t like the project and are seeking to impose their will on the will of the voters.”
The DRB permit is not the only unresolved issue regarding the parking garage. The results of an examination of soils on the proposed site are expected this month. The site behind Capitol Plaza is a known brownfield site where traces of oil, gasoline, and byproducts of the dry-cleaning process are likely to exist. The city has allocated $100,000 in the garage proposal to clean up the site. Should remediation greatly exceed that amount, which Fraser said he doesn’t expect, the city would seek other sources of money for the cleanup, such as state and federal grants.
“I suppose if it were millions of dollars, and we couldn’t find it, then we wouldn’t do the project,” he said.
Also still on the table is a request by resident Alan Goldman that the district environmental review commission issue an opinion on whether the garage should be reviewed separately or as part of larger development proposals in the new downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. Considering the proposals together could trigger a higher level of environmental review.
Finally, the city is in negotiations with the Heney Family Trust over a portion of the proposed parking garage site that the city currently leases from the trust. Fraser said the lease needs to be revised to allow construction of the garage and to determine what will happen on the site at the end of the 49-year lease. He and Tim Heney said details are being finalized on an agreement that would essentially create four scenarios at lease end. One option would allow the trust to buy the portion containing the new garage; one would allow the city to buy it; one option would extend the lease; and perhaps least likely, one option would restore the site to its original condition (i.e., remove the garage from the leased site). The parties would meet two years before the lease expires to agree on one of those options, Fraser said.