Hartland Three Corners project is still a go despite public outcry

By RAY COUTURE

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 01-06-2023 5:48 PM

HARTLAND — The Selectboard has no plans to hold another public vote on the $1.5 million project to reconfigure the Hartland Three Corners intersection despite public requests at Tuesday night’s Selectboard meeting to do so over cost concerns.

A public comment period scheduled for 15 minutes at Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting ballooned to more than 1½ hours as residents expressed a litany of concerns about the project, in addition to its growing price tag. Some questioned if the project was needed, and whether the money would be better spent elsewhere.

Residents such as Andrew McLaughlin, who said he supported the project both in 2014 and 2020 when it went before voters, asked the Selectboard to consider putting it before voters a third time because of the cost increase.

At the Selectboard meeting on Dec. 19, Town Manager David Ormiston announced the project’s cost estimate from engineering firm VHB had climbed to more than $1.43 million — far more than $1 million bond voters approved to pay for the reconfiguration. The town plans to use surplus from the town’s highway fund to pay for the excess $434,000 the project has run over, Ormiston said.

“I believe that not only me but many other people who have voted in favor of this project so far would say that the amount of money has overrun enough to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s re-look at this,’ ” McLaughlin said.

The fact that the project’s request for proposals — a solicitation for bids from potential contractors — was slated to go out on Dec. 20 added urgency.

Both Ormiston and Hartland Selectboard Chairman Phil Hobbie confirmed that the RFP went out as scheduled, and Ormiston said the town has already received “strong interest” in the project.

The “horse is out of the barn,” Hobbie said in a phone interview Thursday.

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Another vote could create delays and potentially lead to further cost increases, Hobbie said. He said it’s possible the project could be halted if a member of the Selectboard made a motion to do so and it garnered support from a majority of members, but he doesn’t think that is likely.

“The attention of the board now will be to review the bids and make a decision on that,” Hobbie said.

The project aims to reconfigure Hartland Three Corners — a confusing three-way intersection with poor sightlines in the center of town that connects Routes 5 and 12 and Hartland-Quechee Road for drivers — into a simpler four-way stop that reduces the number of stop signs in the area to from eight to four and aligns the roadways so they meet at roughly 90-degree angles.

The reconfiguration, in the words of Ormiston, would make the area, which is populated with local businesses, homes, Damon Hall and the town’s post office, more “pedestrian-friendly” by adding sidewalks and eliminating a triangle of asphalt that vehicles sometimes park in or cut through.

The project was initially put up for vote at the 2014 Town Meeting and was approved by voters, 91-39. At the time, it was predicted to cost around $450,000, with the money coming from a capital reserve fund.

In August 2020, the Selectboard asked residents again to vote on the project, this time to determine whether to spend an additional $510,000 to bury utility lines that threatened to mar a green space planned in the reconfiguration. Voters said yes to burying the utility lines, 654-385.

But on Tuesday, residents noted that the Selectboard seemed divided over what to do about the project going forward. There had been debate among members at the Dec. 19 meeting about whether to go forward with the request for proposals or whether to put the project up for a third vote.

Selectboard member Jim Rielly even made a motion to delay putting out the RFP at that meeting, but no other members would entertain it.

Hobbie said he appreciated residents coming out to the Selectboard meeting to voice their concerns and said he hoped that the increased level of civic engagement would continue at future Selectboard meetings, but that the two previous public votes illustrated that a clear majority of voters wanted the project to go forward. Hobbie defended the current iteration of the project’s budget, noting that earlier drafts failed to account for additional sidewalk work and landscaping.

“The original budget was sort of bare-bones,” Hobbie said. “The original number (in 2014) just wasn’t accurate.”

Last year, the town received only one bid by the end of May, and the Selectboard turned it down because the bid was $500,000 over budget and the contractor was not prequalified with the state of Vermont, he said.

Town officials noted the Selectboard had several conversations about the Three Corners project going over budget at Selectboard meetings over the course of 2022, including an in-depth discussion at their Dec. 5 meeting on funding and at their Dec. 19 meeting on the RFP, he said. He noted that it had already been discussed at the Dec. 19 Selectboard meeting that once that meeting was completed the RFP process would essentially be “in-motion” and wouldn’t be easy to reverse.

Now that the RFP has been sent out, Ormiston said it would be difficult for the Selectboard to organize a public vote before Feb. 10, when he expects to receive proposals from prospective contractors. In addition, the town has already spent $150,000 in consulting and design costs and would have to repay around $35,000 in grant money it’s already spent on the project, Ormiston said.

“This discussion is not new nor has it been held in a vacuum,” Ormiston said. “Therefore, despite these conversations, for members of the public to then show up on the eve of the RFP’s advertisement 7½ to 8 months after it was planned and demand an alternative course of action is unfortunate and counterproductive.”

The project’s total cost of $1.98 million includes a 15% contingency fee totaling $225,000 as well as nearly $500,000 to bury the utilities. About $470,000 of the total cost is being offset by state grants.

Because the anticipated cost of the project has gone up, so too has the contingency fee, which Ormiston said had totaled around $103,000 when they assessed the budget in 2020 ahead of the second vote. The cost of the materials needed to bury the utilities has gone up “dramatically” as well, he said.

Inflation is the primary factor for the project’s price increase, Ormiston said.

“We were seeing 9% inflationary increases over the summertime,” Ormiston said. “The difficulty of getting supplies is driving up the costs of these projects coming out of the pandemic.”

Hartland taxpayers will begin paying back the $1 million bond in June this year, Ormiston said. The bill for the bond for fiscal year 2024 will start at around $75,000 and decrease over its 20-year repayment life span.

For a house valued at $200,000, the debt will cost a Hartland taxpayer $32.20, or about 2.6% of their annual tax bill.

The bond money is already in the town’s coffers and can’t be returned, Ormiston said, but if the Selectboard decided to put the project back up for a public vote, it could be reallocated to other town projects.

But that isn’t likely to happen, according to Hobbie.

“Similar issues to what were brought up (this week) were brought up before (the 2020 Town Meeting vote),” Hobbie said. “We’re just feeling like we’re on a merry-go-round that doesn’t go anywhere.”

A pre-bid conference where prospective contractors can meet with town officials and ask questions about the project will be held Jan. 17 at Damon Hall.

The Selectboard would need to vote to approve a bid in early February, and construction is expected to start in May with the goal of it being completed in October.

Ray Couture can be reached with questions at 1994rbc@gmail.com.

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