The petition, which asked, "Do the voters of the Town of Shaftsbury approve of the purchase of property adjacent to the current town garage, from 83 Buck Hill Road LLC, for an amount not to exceed $110,000, for the purpose of constructing a new town highway garage," received 159 legal signatures, according to town clerk Judith Stratton. This exceeded the 124 signatures needed, which represent five percent of the voters in the town.
Shaftsbury resident Ed Corey had negotiated the possibility of purchasing the property from 83 Buck Hill Road LLC, which is managed by Peter K. Cross. Corey put money down on the property in order to put it on hold, preventing Cross from selling the property to another bidder, pending the result of the vote.
The select board considered the petition and the proposed ballot article during a public meeting on Monday. According to the board, through consultations with the state's attorney's office and the town's own legal counsel, it was determined that voters cannot compel the select board to purchase property. The board was considering putting the article on the ballot as advisory, meaning that it would be used merely to determine the will of the voters.
Selectman Ken Harrington, who had spoken out against taking out a $995,000 bond in November to fund the construction of a garage at a site off Airport Road near the town's transfer station, an article which was eventually voted down, said, "Why buy more land for a garage when you already have land? But, I think this should be put on the ballot. You can't ignore 159 signatures." Harrington suggested that the land near the transfer station could be sold to make up for some of the $110,000 that would be spent on the Buck Hill Road property, if the town voted in favor of purchasing that land.
"The board has been seeking to purchase that property for more than three years," said Korman, "The board has weighed the pros and cons of purchasing that property for a fair price, based on the appraised value, or even exceeding the appraise value. This exceeds the appraised value considerably." The town's previous high offer for the property, which has been recently appraised at approximately $70,000, was about $95,000.
Cross, who was in attendance at the meeting, said he had walked away from negotiations with the select board the first time after they became heated, with one select board member threatening to enact eminent domain if Cross did not sell the property. Mellinger, the only current member of the board who was on the board at that time, agreed with his assessment, calling that board member's actions "unfortunate." However, she also noted that the board and Cross had re-entered negotiations twice after that, and that the offer of $95,000 had been open for negotiation. Cross never responded to that offer.
Cross said his willingness to work with the town this time was largely a result of Corey's requests that the town should have a choice. Mellinger responded, "Mr. Corey has lobbied very hard for purchasing your property from the beginning. He will not accept any test results from wells at the landfill site (on Airport Road), and has repeatedly made untrue claims about contamination at the site. Mr. Corey does not seem to understand the level of work done by facilities committees. He obviously has his own agenda on this issue."
Selectman Carl Korman expressed his own frustrations with Corey, saying, "Where the heck is Mr. Corey? I have never seen him at one of these meetings. He wants the town to take the time to consider something he doesn't even have the time or desire to come here and personally advocate for."
Harrington mentioned that Corey had told him that he was ill and unable to attend Monday's meeting, to which Korman responded that Corey had had several opportunities to come before the board, and never had, and that there was "no excuse for that."
Mellinger replied that some people just aren't comfortable speaking in front of public boards.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Corey responded to Korman's criticisms, saying, "I'd be willing to come to the meetings, but I'm not going to get my ass chewed out."
One member of the public raised concerns about Harrington, who, along with his brother, owns property adjacent to the Airport Road site. The resident questioned whether the value of Harrington's property would go up if something other than a garage was placed there, noting Harrington's opposition to the November garage vote and his earlier stated opinion that the Airport Road property should be sold, and asked Harrington to recuse himself from the vote.
Harrington said, "I really don't care," where the garage is located.
Selectman Tim Scoggins opined that that Harrington was telling the truth, but also acknowledged that this was the second time a member of the public had expressed concerns about Harrington's ownership of adjacent property.
Selectman Mitch Race agreed, saying, "Perception rules. I think if it appears that there could be a conflict of interest, I think you should recuse yourself." The rest of the board concurred, and Harrington was asked to not participate in the remainder of the discussion.
Harrington disagreed with the idea that there was a conflict of interest, but left his board seat and seated himself on the opposite side of the table for the remainder of the discussion.
The board eventually voted 3-1 to not put the article on the ballot, with only Mellinger voting in favor.
By phone, Corey expressed extreme disappointment in the board's decision, saying, "I find it unfortunate. I did what I was instructed. Never did they say any of this garbage. None of this came out before [Monday]. They shouldn't tell people that if they get 125 signatures it will be put on the ballot if that isn't true."
"I certainly had some of the same concerns as some of the other members of the board," said Mellinger, "but when you get a petition from five percent of the voters, you have to take it very seriously, and we did. It was a difficult meeting."
Mellinger said that going forward the board would take the petition, and the message the signees had delivered, very seriously. "I went in there with a mind to put it on the ballot," said Mellinger, but she said that when several people who had signed the petition, including Art Whitman of Whitman's Feed Store, who will be one of the candidates for the select board in March, expressed confusion in the way the article was worded, she became hesitant. Whitman said he believed that purchasing that property was a good move for the town, which is why he signed the petition, but that he didn't necessarily support building the garage there.
Mellinger said that she believes the board should consider asking the townspeople two separate questions, first, if they believed the town should purchase that property, and second if they thought that site should be used for a hypothetical new town garage. While Mellinger said she will not be running for re-election this March, she did say, despite the board's decision, "I imagine the future board will attempt to re-open negotiations with Mr. Cross."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB