There was continued frustration after another attempt at open communication between the city council and the school board Monday night.
The subject: Stormwater and 180 Market Street.
On Monday night, City Council Chair Helen Riehle read a lengthy statement covering the evolution of the disagreement between the two bodies and reiterated her frustration.
“My view, and I believe I speak for three of the other four council members, is that for reasons not made clear to us or the public, the school board is needlessly delaying this project despite the clear will of the voters,” Riehle said. “If that is not the case, then I ask the school board to meet with the council and arrive at an agreement on the parking lot design and all other related matters by Friday, May 31. If the school board fails to meet and reach an agreement, then they will be ignoring the clear and overwhelming will of the voters.”
At issue is the stormwater collection and retention plan for the proposed city hall/library/senior center project at 180 Market Street. Voters approved all of the ballot items related to the $20.4 million project by a 3-1 margin in November. The project will be built near the Rick Marcotte Central School and required easements to use small parcels of school property for parking and stormwater retention. Voters also approved a ballot measure in November approving the lease of the current city hall at 575 Dorset to the school district for $10 a year for three years, allowing the district two, three-year renewals and an option to buy the property for $10.
But since the joint city council/school board Steering Committee meeting in January, the two bodies have been at odds over how to proceed with a change to the proposed stormwater plan for 180 Market Street. The school board has said that the city council’s stormwater plans are not in compliance with the September 2018 Memorandum of Understanding it has with the city. Members of the city council have said the school board is needlessly delaying the planned summer groundbreaking for 180 Market Street and refusing to meet jointly again to go over a new version of the stormwater plan developed earlier this month.
Council chair lays out her frustration
In the opening lines of her statement, while Riehle acknowledged that the council has “not at all time been perfect” in its relationship with the school board, she said “the council’s intent has always been to be both pro-school and pro-city.”
“We believe our residents expect us to work together diligently to get back on track,” she said. “So much resident investment in our future is at risk.”
Riehle then announced that on Friday, May 17, the school board’s attorney informed the city attorney that “the school board’s position is that the city is not in compliance with the September 2018 Definitive Agreement regarding the land swap and lease/purchase agreement on 575 Dorset.”
“There is too much at stake here not to make a good faith effort and come together to understand and resolve these different interpretations and perceptions,” Riehle said. She advocated for mediation as provided in the agreement, and asked the school board to meet with the city council to hash out the issue.
In closing, Riehle also discussed transparency of government, saying that weeks ago, the city asked the school board for a report generated by the school board’s engineers that described the school district’s obligations to deal with stormwater.
“The city was denied,” Riehle said. “The city had to file a public records request with the school district and was able to get a redacted copy of the report … To be clear, the South Burlington taxpayers financed this report. Nothing should be withheld from the taxpayers including redactions. What is in this report that the school board feels cannot be shared with the taxpayers and residents of South Burlington?”
Riehle also touched on the school board’s practice of discussing the 180 Market Street project in closed executive session at its meetings.
“This is not a typical real estate transaction where a public board can go into executive session so as not to reveal matters that would hurt their competitive position,” Riehle said. “The board and the council are not competing; they are fulfilling the will of the voters. To discuss these matters in executive session under these circumstances may not be a violation of the Open Meeting Law, but certainly undermines the intent of the statute.”
How we got here
Just before the regular Steering Committee meeting in January, engineers for the city hall project said that a stormwater plan needed to be expanded and improved in order to meet state and federal requirements. Engineers suggested that the city’s stormwater run-off from the community center parking lot be treated by the school’s wetland in order to save money.
The city got word of the new stormwater requirements from engineers the day of the January Steering Committee meeting, but the school board felt that the news was sprung on its members last minute. City Manager Kevin Dorn said it was unfortunate timing.
Any time more than 5,000 square feet of impervious surface is added to or modified, stormwater must be treated per state regulations.
Dorn said earlier last month that the updated stormwater plan would require the city to build a gravel wetland that will be dry on the school property. He estimated the gravel wetland at 50 feet by 150 feet.
The school board at its March 27 meeting decided not to support a proposed change in the definitive agreement with the city over the school’s easements for the new city hall/library building at 180 Market Street.
There are three easements with the school the city will use for parking, stormwater and access. In March, the school board said that the city would need an additional 0.4 acre. That is no longer the case. The easements remain the same as those approved by voters in November.
Two weeks ago, engineers for the city and the school board met on the building site and came up with an alternate version of the stormwater plan they felt would solve the issue. The problem is that the new plan was presented to the council at the May 13 regular meeting, but the school board never heard the details prior to its May 15 meeting.
School board vice-chair Bridget Burkhardt was in the audience Monday night as a representative of the school board and listened to Riehle’s statement, making notes throughout. When Riehle was done, Burkhardt prefaced her response by saying there were a number of corrections to be made in Riehle’s assessment and history of the issue, but that she would not go into those at the meeting.
She then addressed Riehle’s assertion that the school board was purposely delaying the project.
“Given the history that we’ve had on this project and how it’s turned out, we feel we need to do our due diligence appropriately,” Burkhardt said. “ I am not a stormwater engineer. That’s why we have a stormwater engineer. We are looking at this new plan. We are in no way purposely trying to delay this project. We are trying to do the work that we are obligated to do for the community to protect the assets of the district and to protect the children that go to school there, and that to make sure we have the assets and the land we need to educate them.”
Burkhardt said the board has since seen the new version of the plan on its engineer’s phone and are in the process of looking it over.
“This is new,” she said. “We are sharing stormwater facilities with the city on additional land that was outside the scope of the original agreement, and I would just ask that you be respectful and we are working as quickly as we can and we are doing the very best that we can.”
Riehle and the other councilors all pushed to have a joint meeting with engineers and attorneys for both bodies and go over the new plan together and come up with a way forward. The school board has not yet agreed to another joint meeting, and Burkhardt explained why.
“I appreciate your willingness to get in a room and just hash everything out,” Burkhardt said. “We thought we had done that previously and it turned out not to be what we understood it to be, so having learned from that, we are taking our time … we are not going to be rushed into this. We have to understand that plan, what the impact will be on the school … We want the library to happen. We wouldn’t have done all the original work with the memorandum of understanding if we didn’t. We wouldn’t have gone to the voters with you. We went to the voters with you, to make the library and the city hall happen.”
A new version of an evolving plan
City Manager Kevin Dorn said afterward that there is a misconception about what the new version of the stormwater plan really is and who has seen it.
“The council has seen the plans,” he said. “It’s an evolving version of the plan presented at the Jan 23 Steering Committee meeting. All the engineers are doing is moving around various versions of it.”
Dorn then said that he believes the issue is who is treating what related to stormwater and how.
“The city will treat its stormwater on its easement and the school will treat their stormwater on their property. What we’re waiting on is a conceptual agreement with the school district before we dump more money into a final design. How can you negotiate something when you can’t get a meeting?”
A plea from a concerned resident
An impassioned plea by resident Monica Ostby steered the discussion Monday night toward next steps rather than reliving past perceived slights. Ostby is also a member of the city planning commission. Ostby took to the microphone before the council and laid out the issue as she sees it. She said she had heard rumblings on social media and through talking to other residents about the council and the board being at odds. A self-described “busybody,” Ostby said she decided to ask Central School parents why they were so upset. It should be noted that Market Street is closed for the summer to through traffic while the road is improved and at least two other projects are being built. The street is reduced to a potholed dirt road leading to the school entrance and there have been delays for parents picking up and dropping off their children.
“I said ‘Tell me parents, what is upsetting you?’” Ostby said. “It’s traffic. They’re pissed about the traffic. They’re mad about the traffic. They feel disrespected. If there was a sign like there was near Klinger’s Bakery saying, ‘This street is for school traffic only,’ that would really help and there would be happy parents.”
Ostby went on to take Riehle to task on the tone of her opening statement, and the fact that the council said it has not seen the most recent version of the stormwater plan in question, just an overview from the city public works director.
“First of all, I believe Bridget is the only person in this room that has seen this new engineering map, apparently,” she said to the council. “You’ve had it for a month, and you’re saying you haven’t even seen it? Why are you jumping down her throat? They had a meeting this morning with their engineer to go through it, and you guys haven’t even seen it?”
“We want to talk about it,” Riehle said.
“Exactly, well (Burkhardt) did, with their engineers,” Ostby replied. “Have you? The point is I think there is massive miscommunication going on here … The school board is for the library. And maybe you can by Friday have the engineers together. But you saw me, I couldn’t hold myself back when I heard your tone, Helen. C’mon! I’m asking you, as a voter, be collaborative. Separate the parents from the school board, please be collaborative and respectful.”
Ostby also said she believes the new version of the stormwater plan holds common ground where the two sides can resolve the issue.
“You guys are much closer than you realize with this new plan,” Ostby said. “I believe this new plan is going to be excellent. It’s going to work ... Let’s just not talk about this money and that money, let’s get to this plan. We’re so close, we’re so close, these engineers are going to figure it out. We’re not going to use any more Central School land, we’re going to get this building done, and this frigging traffic, especially if you can make it better for these parents who are just trying to get their kids to school, maybe use the school bus more often. You guys are really close.”
Riehle asked Ostby how she knows the two sides are close to a resolution with the new plan.
“Because I call people and ask them nicely without accusing them,” Ostby replied. “I look at what people are saying on social media, and I ask them … The reality is there’s just a lot of anger out there, like there is across our entire country, and we just have to breathe and be respectful, and listen. The school board wants the library. You’re close. You’re really close.”
The portion of the meeting dedicated to the 180 Market stormwater issue closed with no concrete resolution.