A Question of Timing: School Board Says Further Deliberation Necessary on City’s Request for Land

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Thursday April 12, 2018

The City of South Burlington and the South Burlington School District have been involved in discussions around land swaps and property exchanges for the past several years. As the city works to realize their vision of a dedicated downtown for residents, the Rick Marcotte Central School property has been a key area of focus. Some of the city’s proposals have involved requests for larger swaths of the 12 acre Central School property and would have offered in exchange, the school’s use of the current City Hall when the city vacates the Dorset Street offices for the proposed City Center location, or land in Oak Creek Village as the site for a new school. The city’s most recent Letter of Intent requests a smaller piece of the Central School property (0.07 acres) and offers, not an exchange of property in return, but access to the school in perpetuity as well as an additional access point.

Both entities have faced increasing pressures in recent years; the city is up against the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) clock while the school district is working to determine, through its Master Planning and Visioning process, how to best utilize school properties in order to potentially accommodate more students if the Chamberlin School is deemed to be unfit for students due to current or impending noise.

At the March 19 meeting, with the intent of securing the preferred property for a proposed library/city hall in City Center, the city council unanimously approved sending a Letter of Intent to Superintendent David Young and board chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald regarding a possible land transfer to the city. The city purports that the benefit to the school district would not only be ensured access in perpetuity to Central School from both Market and Mary Streets, but enhanced bike and pedestrian access to the school property as well as having the library right in the school’s backyard. Due in part to time constraints related to TIF, the city requested the school district provide their intentions to engage in “developing and negotiating a definitive agreement for these land transfers by April 1, 2018.” This deadline was not attainable due to the late receipt of the Letter of Intent the evening before the district’s last board meeting.

Therefore, at the April 4 school board meeting, the item was properly warned, and Project Director Ilona Blanchard and Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard offered an overview of the proposal and answered questions. The city outlined the Letter of Intent and showed schematics of the public’s preferred library/city hall design from Weimann Lamphere and Humphries Polli, although the architects are still reviewing the final designs. Blanchard outlined the library/city hall design, showing three stories with an adult collection on the second floor, children’s library and public meeting space on the first, a lobby space, and street presence. The design, which also includes municipal offices ,provides for handicapped access at the rear of the building and access for Allard Square without having to go underground; making the concept more financially feasible.

Hubbard explained that the city was seeking a willingness from the board to move forward on this, so the city can take the proposal to voters in November. If the district was not on board with this plan, Hubbard explained, the design would need to be reconsidered to determine if an alternate configuration would be feasible or affordable.

The school district’s legal counsel, David Rugh, of Stitzel, Page and Fletcher was on hand to offer background on the Letter of Intent as well. Rugh explained that during the school’s master planning and visioning process in 2015, land exchange proposals went back and forth between the city and school district, but none have come to fruition. Rugh noted the deeded access referenced in an earlier proposal, where the school would have negotiated use of the current City Hall property when the city was seeking more land. The board made a counter offer to include a right of reversion of the parcel if one of the city’s projects didn’t work out. Then, in early September 2017, discussions on that Letter of Intent were tabled by the city. According to Rugh’s timeline, shortly thereafter, the city pulled the community library out of the high school location and moved it to the University Mall. Now the city has proposed this latest Letter of Intent, where there’s “no commitment that the school could use the current city hall … no reciprocal property is given, and the Letter of Intent does not include mention of the school’s need for space or security concerns.”
Elizabeth Fitzgerald added that in August, the board submitted a revised Letter of Intent to the city and didn’t receive a response for six months. Then, they received the current Letter of Intent in late March with a two-week deadline for response. “We can’t give up space we currently have that we might need on an interim basis in the future,” Fitzgerald said, adding, “The concern, for myself, is that there may be an interest (in the Letter of Intent) but the timing may be out of sync and we may not have the information we need (from the noise study) to participate.”

Hubbard said he felt that the impression was being given that this was “sprung” on the board but denied that was the case. He said that he would certainly be willing to provide the board with more information, the city just needed to know if there was a willingness to pursue an agreement or if this was a “no go.” Hubbard reiterated the benefits to the district including a library/city hall being a compatible use for the area, adding an access point at Mary Street, and having spaces within the civic building that could be used by students.

As board members weighed in, a common theme of struggle emerged. Martin LaLonde said that although he loves the idea of a library in City Center, he was bothered by the process. “What kind of consideration is the district getting in exchange for this land given the needs we have coming up?” LaLonde wondered, continuing, “It’s a tough situation that we are in … I feel like it’s premature to say yes or no to this and we should give it more time and discussion.”

Steve Wisloski also wrestled with the proposal, noting that he wanted to work with the city whenever possible, but given the parcel the city was seeking, he thought, limited the possibilities for modular structures if necessary. “I don’t know if I can get comfortable with this in its current form … it feels very one sided with no tangible benefits,” Wisloski said.
Bridget Burkhardt agreed and said that there is a very real possibility that “Chamberlin School is too loud now, maybe even too loud for insulation, that’s where my priority is right now.” She also wondered, although a response was not available immediately, if the district was being offered something (permanent access to the school) that has already been pre-determined by Development Review Board regulations requiring developers to provide access.

As the discussion returned to Fitzgerald, she summarized the board’s lingering questions and her own concerns. Aside from wanting the issues of safety and security, as well as the district’s space constraints to be addressed, she also wondered about traffic flow and parking. Would the school be responsible for policing the parking lot? What about costs of improvements to be absorbed by the school district? She also wanted to investigate district requirements to secure voter approval for exchanging ownership of the land. In addition, Fitzgerald was curious to know if there were any design options proposed that excluded the Central property. Blanchard said there were, but they did not end up being the preferred selection.

During the public comment period, MargaretAnn Cross, chair of the library board thanked the school board for their discussion and said she believed this was the best possible chance for a library in City Center.

As the discussion concluded and both parties struggled to find a solution, Fitzgerald proposed setting up a subcommittee of two board members, herself included, to meet with city officials to try to work out the board’s issues and see if their concerns could be addressed in a time-frame that also met the city’s objectives. Hubbard said he would take the information back to the city and see what could be done. Steve Wisloski also requested that Superintendent Young offer his guidance on this issue at the next meeting.

 

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent