Parking Garage Permit Challenged in Court
Opponents of a downtown parking garage have gone to court to challenge a permit issued by the city’s Development Review Board (DRB). The appeal to the environmental division of Vermont Superior Court was filed on behalf of 18 city residents and could potentially delay construction of the project that was approved by voters in November.
The plaintiff group includes most of the same residents who brought a list of concerns to the DRB in December before the board approved the joint application by the city and the owners of Capitol Plaza to build a privately owned 80-room Hampton Inn and Suites and a publicly owned four-story, 348-space parking garage on land owned by the Bashara family. The opponents are also pursuing a ballot item for Town Meeting Day that asks the city to satisfy a series of seven concerns before it releases money from the $10.5 million bond that was approved in November by a margin of 582 votes.
The notice of appeal was filed January 9 in environmental court by James Dumont, a Bristol attorney who specializes in environmental and public interest cases. Dumont has represented opponents in high-profile disputes such as the Vermont Gas pipeline project in Addison County and the effort to base Air Force F-35 fighter jets at the Vermont National Guard facility in South Burlington.
Dumont said the appeal of the DRB permit will center on the same concerns about the garage proposal that the groups brought up in the DRB process—issues such as traffic, water quality, historic preservation, and compliance with the city’s master plan. The opponents must file a statement of questions with the court within the next 10 days or so, and then a teleconference will be held between the parties to determine how to proceed, Dumont said.
“I think there are some major problems with this project and we’ll have to let the courts decide whether the problems are large enough to say no to the project,” Dumont said.
City officials said they have attempted to meet with the opponents before the appeal was filed but no meeting was arranged. The appeal is the latest chapter in a continuing philosophical battle between residents who see the garage and hotel as essential to the economic development and growth of the downtown district and those who believe the structures are not in tune with the city’s effort to encourage non-vehicular transportation and aesthetics, among other things.
“I’m disappointed that they chose to file an appeal without trying to get clarity on their issues of concern,” City Manager Bill Fraser said. “I hope they understand that there is support for this project in the community, and that we are willing to try to resolve the issues.”
Fraser said the environmental court judge in such cases usually urges the parties to enter mediation before it is argued in court and hopes the matter is settled there. “We don’t see any of the issues they raised that we can’t resolve,” he said.
The petition and the appeal process have left downtown merchants frustrated. Sarah DeFelice, owner of Bailey Road and president of the Montpelier Business Association, said retailers strongly support the garage and hotel projects as a way to bring more people into the capital city. She said halting the project is the goal of a small group of people who seek to undo a vote by the majority of Montpelier residents.
“We just had a meeting in which 25 downtown business owners reiterated their support for the project,” she said. “We think it is unfortunate that a group of 18 people can try to undo the will of 2,500 voters. Downtown businesses need growth and development to keep going.”
She said her attempts to meet with opponents of the garage were also unsuccessful.
Andrea Stander, a member of the group that appealed the DRB decision and helped organize the petition that may appear on the March ballot, believes the garage will not solve the city’s economic problems and said the group has no alternative other than to pursue available legal remedy.
“There is no court of philosophical debate,” she said. Stander, who emphasized that she was speaking only for herself and not on behalf of the opponents’ group, said that at the very least the challenge will change the process for such large projects in the future.
“In the short term, I would like to see this project improved, to see that the concerns in the petition are addressed. In the long haul, I would like the city to recognize that the process was not adequate for the size and scope of this important project,” she said.
Some sentiment has been expressed that the hotel could be built without the parking structure but the Basharas and the city have been clear that one cannot exist without the other. The family initially proposed to build and pay for a 200-space garage but found it to be cost prohibitive. They then sought the public-private partnership with the city that led to residents approving a $10.5 million bond for a larger, 348-space garage in November by a vote of 2,459-1,877. The city has said that no new tax money will be needed to pay for the bond debt and operation of the garage and that parking fees and taxes from a new development district will cover the costs.
The appellants of the DRB decision are Laura Rose Abbott, Les Blomberg, Daniel Costin, Charles Daghlian, Rebecca Davison, Nathaniel Frothingham, Mollie Gribbin, Sarah Gribbin, Jennifer Hasskamp, Dorothy L. Helling, William Koucky, Lawrence Mires, Jill Muhr, Lisette Elise Paris, John Russell, Albert Sabatini, Andrea Stander, and Sandra Vitzthum. Frothingham is the retired co-founder of The Bridge and Helling is a former advertising representative. Neither is currently involved in the management or operation of newspaper.
Act 250 Hearing
On the same day that the appeal was filed, a crowded hearing on the project was held in City Hall by the District 5 Environmental Commission, which issues state permits under Act 250, Vermont’s landmark environmental review law.
Several of the opponents attempted to be granted party status at the hearing and all were denied except for one limited approval. Dumont indicated that the board’s denial of party status might be appealed at the end of the Act 250 process. Other parties that were denied status could also appeal.
The commissioners requested more details from the city and gave it 30 days to supply the information. After that, another hearing could be scheduled or the testimony would be closed. Once closed, the commission has 15 days to issue its decision on the permit application.
Opponents have until January 24 to file the 311 signatures needed to place an item on the March ballot that asks the city to withhold funding of the parking garage until its list of seven criteria is met.
The city council must set the warning for the vote at its meeting the same day. The council also meets that night to finalize the proposed municipal budget. It is unclear whether opponents will continue with the advisory ballot item now that the matter is headed to court.