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At the advice of counsel, the Waitsfield Select Board will not present voters with a two-part bond vote for new town offices.
The board met on Monday, April 22, to consider attorney Joe McLean’s suggestion that the town stop trying to find ways to word a ballot article so that voters could vote yes or no on whether to build new town offices and then select one of two sites for those offices.
The board received a citizen petition requesting the two-part bond vote several weeks ago. The petition came on the heels of a Town Meeting vote in March when voters rejected a $1.6 million bond vote to build new town offices on the Farm Stand parcel in Waitsfield Village.
The citizen petition asked voters to first vote yes on new town offices and then select either the Farm Stand parcel (with the price reduced to $1.3 million) or the former Methodist Church with a price of $2.1 million (also reduced from previous estimated costs by $300,000).
Ultimately, McLean told the board, Vermont statute favors yea or nay/yes or no bond questions. He suggested that the board present voters with a bond requesting funds for town offices and list the maximum proposed amount and make no mention of site.
At this week’s hearing, board members, after extensive discussion on how to honor the spirit of the citizen petition and how to best take advantage of Community Development Block Grant opportunities, came up with the idea of surveying voters as to preference for town office sites.
The urgency that the board had felt in previous meetings to get a bond vote back before voters as soon as possible was lessened after town administrator Valerie Capels spoke with the funding agencies, explaining the wording conundrum the town faced with the petition. Earlier this month, Capels completed the extensive application process for the grant, completing one application for the Farm Stand parcel and price and a second for the Methodist Church and price.
The town applied for up to $750,000 to offset the cost of moving its current town offices out of a flood-prone area.
The town should know, before the next select board meeting on May 13, whether or not it will receive funding.
“The funding agency meets on May 9, a Thursday, and we may know their response by Friday but definitely by Monday at the latest. Having that information will be very useful in continuing to discuss this topic,” Capels said.
“If the grant is approved then we’re tied to one of those two choices,” said board member Logan Cooke.
Capels said that was not the case, that the funding agency would allow the town to seek the grant without a bond vote scheduled and also said that if the town receives a grant, then wants to change the site, the town could withdraw its application and immediately resubmit with the new site without prejudice.
“I don’t see the timeline here. We’re waiting until the next meeting to see if we can get a grant that we’ll re-apply for if we have to change the site. I think the site discussion should happen sooner versus later. It has been questioned whether the task force recommendation was right. How are we, as a board, going to move forward?” Cooke asked.
“If we don’t get the funding, that might change the discussion,” Capels said.
“We also decided at the first meeting after Town Meeting that the voters had spoken and the first site was turned down and it would be disingenuous to go back to voters with a higher priced project. We have to start the conversation over. Don’t remove the two sites from the discussion but we owe it to the voters to have that discussion,” said board member Chris Pierson.
The board discussed how it might communicate with voters about town office preferences including sending out a direct mail piece, putting a coupon for a survey in The Valley Reporter, and creating a portal on the town’s website.
Cooke said he did not want to send out a mailer that includes opening up all the sites that had previously considered including those in Irasville and other parts of the town.
Resident Nancy Henry suggested the board start with the information it needed to know to bring forth a bond vote and create the questions from that information.
Local realtor and town resident Neil Johnson said that at the most, opening the whole process back up would mean there “might be 20 locations.”
“You guys could narrow it down amongst yourselves. The survey I did was just put as an ad in the paper and at the Village Grocery and its results might give you a little guidance, at least on prices of what people were thinking,” Johnson said, referring to a survey he created that let people select which of eight locations they preferred with prices that ranged from $280,000 to $2.3 million.
“We’ve got to get as much feedback from the townspeople as possible,” said board chair Paul Hartshorn.
Brian Shupe, a member of the citizens group that petitioned for the two-step vote, said that the town has done empirical valid surveys in the past and said that there is a science to it that includes sending voters a postage-paid return envelope as well as informing voters that a survey is coming by sending out a postcard ahead of time explaining what the town is trying to do and when it is coming and then following up after the survey has been sent.
“The questions are important. You have to make sure they are not leading. You’ll want to consult with people who do surveys. In the past, Waitsfield has gotten really good responses. It has to be done in such a way that people have a single equal opportunity to respond,” he said.
“I think there are other sites that have been pretty popular. I’ve talked to a lot of voters and I’ve been asked why we aren’t building on other town-owned land, like the Wait House,” board member Scott Kingsbury said.
The board discussed whether, in surveying the public, they should present a full gamut of choices or only those for which costs had already been estimated. Capels noted that to apply for the grant for other additional sites, she would need extensive project details including drawings, site plans, costs and more.
Pierson suggested that the board not reject the Farm Stand and church sites because a lot of money had already been spent vetting those sites and drafting estimates and plans. He suggested that those two sites plus two others be presented to voters.
Architect Bill Maclay, who worked with the task force and has since then been volunteering his time on the town office project, said that full cost estimates and most of the necessary work already existed for the Wait House because that site had been the favored site of the task force initially – until cost estimates brought it in at the same price as building on the Farm Stand parcel.
Architect Ellen Strauss, a supporter of renovating the church for town offices, said she felt that there had been so much support for the church that the town could build on that support. Maclay responded that no matter how the projects were reduced and scaled back the church was always going to be three-quarters of a million dollars more expensive than the Farm Stand parcel.
Ultimately, the board voted to create a survey and appointed Brian Shupe, Nancy Henry, along with select board members Cooke, Kingsbury and Pierson to a subcommittee of the select board to create the survey.