By Tom Brown
A group of Montpelier residents who were dissatisfied with the pace of a November bond vote for a $10.5 million parking garage are asking the city to voluntarily meet a series of conditions on the project.
The group intends to place a non-binding question on the March Town Meeting Day ballot that asks the city to withhold funding for the project until their list of seven criteria are met. They are not asking for a revote on the bond, as the deadline for filing such a request has passed. The results of the March ballot item would be advisory, meaning the city would be under no obligation to abide by the conditions even if passed.
Voters in the November General Election approved construction of the four-story structure, which would be built behind Capitol Plaza Hotel in conjunction with an 81-room Hampton Inn and Suites hotel, by a vote of 2,459–1,877. The 348-space garage would require no increase in property taxes and the $10.5 million bond would be paid through parking fees and the proceeds of a new Tax Increment Financing (TIF) development district.
Critics of the garage project had complained before the November vote that the process was moving too fast and information was, in some cases, incomplete. The concerns spelled out in the proposed ballot item have to do with alternative parking during the garage and hotel construction, sidewalk and bike path safety, contaminated soil remediation, bidding, permitting, and a breakdown of costs.
Most of those issues were addressed by City Manager Bill Fraser during the runup to the November vote, but petition organizer Rebecca Davison said the group wants the city to provide “more depth” to the details.
“There are still things that need to be done,” Davison said. “The process was very quick and we think that looking at the things we have listed are important steps for this development or any development.”
She said the group hopes to meet with Mayor Anne Watson as soon as possible, even as it collects the 311 signatures needed to place the question on the March ballot. The deadline for submitting the petition is January 24. The group earlier filed for party status in the city’s Development Review Board’s permit process questioning whether the garage project conformed with the city’s master plan, among other things. The board granted the permit with conditions in December.
“We are looking forward to having a conversation with Anne and getting as much information as we can,” she said.
Watson said she was eager to meet with them, too, regardless of whether the proposal is binding, and plans to contact the group this week.
“It is great when people have specific, well-thought-out concerns that can make the project even stronger,” Watson said. “Even if it’s not binding there is a lot of good that can come out of this conversation.”
Fraser said the city is already meeting most of the conditions on the proposed list and is happy to discuss the issues with the group.
“Even if it’s advisory and it passes, we have a moral obligation to respond and we are hoping to comply with all of them,” he said. “We’re doing most of them anyway.”
He did express concerns with some of the specifics of the group’s request, such as a traffic study, saying the city recently completed one and the purpose of doing a second study a year after the project is complete is to determine whether the initial study was accurate in predicting the project’s impact on traffic. Regardless he said the group’s concerns should be addressed.
“Communication and conversation is always better,” he said.
Next up? An Act 250 hearing by the District 5 Environmental Commission on the combined hotel-garage project is set for January 16.
Text of Proposed Non-Binding Ballot Item
Shall the City Council withhold spending of the $10.5 million (Ten Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars), as authorized in Article 1 of the November 6, 2018, Official Ballot, until the following shall occur:
1. That, for the benefit of downtown merchants and other businesses, there is a written commitment by the City to provide sufficient remote parking spaces and transportation services to the downtown during the construction phase;
2. That it is clearly shown that there will be safe, continuous public sidewalks and bike lanes along the road leading to and from the entrance of the garage from State Street;
3. That the comprehensive traffic study required by the Development Review Board in its December 13, 2018 decision is completed immediately, not one year later;
4. That soil remediation on the site is completed and the findings and cost of this work be made public;
5. That the bid process is completed with the costs of the successful bid being within the bond limits;
6. That all State and municipal permits and sub-permits, including water quality permits if required, have been issued and any appeals resolved;
7. That a public report projecting operating costs and revenues over the expected life of the garage, including pay down of the bond, is completed by an independent accountant who has experience in public parking garage operations.