A report about “Phase 1” of how to move forward with Montpelier’s newly acquired Country Club Road property provoked one city council member to request a more detailed engineering assessment of the site. The presentation at a city council meeting on March 22 generated concerns about potential infrastructure costs the city could incur developing the housing and recreation facilities the community envisioned during a series of public meetings held last fall and winter.
The “concept plan” was presented by consultant Stephanie Clarke of White + Burke, the company contracted by the city to manage the planning process to guide development of the site. Clarke reported that the vision for the property that has emerged from community surveys and public meetings includes “a mix of housing product, balanced with recreation, and incorporating trails and open space, including the proposed U-32 trail.”
When Clarke asked the council whether there are any uses for the property that the council would oppose, newly elected District 3 Councilor Tim Heney, who has long been involved with real estate and development in central Vermont, was concerned about the lack of key engineering data about the costs the city will incur to develop the property.
“We need some engineering data to help make these decisions — we’re in kind of a dreamy phase right now. . . . The engineering data is going to be a tipping point that will impact the feasibility of these different options,” Heney said. Tipping points Heney referenced include the current railroad crossing, the management of the intersection with busy Route 2, and the potential need for a secondary road.
“If that has to happen, we’re talking millions of dollars,” he said. “That will impact how far you go with this project.”
Heney also emphasized concern about future community surveys. “Let’s not just keep going with ‘what you would like to see here.’ I’m feeling like we’re leading people down a path where we may end up pulling the rug. That’s not good. Let’s look at the cost of getting the infrastructure in place,” he said. “I do like the idea of keeping lots of options available, like in Phase 1. Having some housing on the front end to help pay for some of those utility costs going up may make a lot of sense.”
Clarke replied that the design team is in the process of “winnowing the options” and will be looking at those costs; she noted that the “net cost” to the city over time will depend on what kind of development takes place. The White + Burke team has been looking closely at the impact of developing recreational facilities in other New England communities and the net cost to those communities. “We have some preliminary base data that has informed the initial planning, but we will refine those costs,” Clarke said.
Clarke indicated that school officials have ruled out the option of building a new middle school at the property, one of the ideas raised during the community meetings.
Other concerns raised included the importance of having three-dimensional modeling of the buildings proposed for the site. “Many people can’t understand two-dimensional drawings,” said councilor Sal Alfano.
Resident Steven Whitaker, recalling that the city previously did not have ownership of the three-dimensional model created by a contractor for an earlier project, commented that it will be important for the city to specify the ownership of any models created by contractors.
At the outset of the discussion, resident Peter Kelman suggested that the recreation report and the Country Club Road project should be discussed concurrently because the Country Club Road property is being considered as a site for new indoor recreation facilities. “There is a danger in siloing consultant reports,” Kelman said.
Kelman also noted confusion among some in the city because of a lack of clarity about the definition of key terms. For instance, “solar array” was taken by some to mean “rooftop” installations of solar panels, while the designers were, in fact, referring to a solar field installation. He recommended any new surveys be beta tested before their general release. Clarke replied that the earlier survey had been beta-tested, but that had slipped by.
The importance of clear definitions will become even more important as concept development continues, Kelman added. “The definitions of housing types need to be clearer,” specifically citing such terms as “tiny houses, town houses, single family, duplexes, triplexes, and split-level.”
Stating that he was not speaking in his role as the vice-chair of The HUB, a local organization that has proposed creating an indoor/outdoor recreation facility on the Country Club Road site, Nat Winthrop voiced concern that the Phase 1 report has not addressed the cost of including indoor tennis courts. “A building with two basketball courts would not be big enough to accommodate tennis — though it would accommodate pickleball,” he said.
Winthrop also said that despite much concern during the public hearings about creating any development as an extension of the town, “not a separate community,” that distinction is not clear in the report. “The possibility of including a ‘mom and pop’ retail store (on the property) is not mentioned in the report,” he said.
Councilor Cary Brown asked, “At what point will the infrastructure costs be addressed?”
“We will be addressing the net costs perspective. We will try to make an apples-to-apples comparison,” Clarke replied.
In wrapping up the discussion, Clarke said, “I’m satisfied. I have my answers. We will be going forward, back to the design team to create these concepts and you can expect public meetings at the end of April and beginning of May. We will come back to the council with specific options for the second (regular city council) meeting in May for a final decision on concept planning and a presentation of the actionable master plan in June.” Clarke then added, “I won’t be here … It’s very likely I will have a newborn. You likely will meet another member of the design team at that point.”