Liberty Mill project generating controversy

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ROCKINGHAM — At the most recent Selectboard meeting, Charles Hunter of Bellows Falls read a statement voicing his concerns regarding Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark's proposal of the Liberty Mill Justice Center and the efforts of the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation Executive Director Frances "Dutch" Walsh to further this project.

Hunter expressed that he believes there has been an unreasonable amount of "opacity" between officials and citizens, particularly with Walsh, who is also Rockingham's development director. Hunter offered several suggestions to the Selectboard at the meeting, such as a thorough performance audit of the development office over the last eight years; the unbundling of BFADC from the Development Office by rescinding the 1984 agreement between the Selectboard and BFADC allowing the development director to serve as BFADC executive director; and having the Selectboard return to twice-monthly meetings in order to provide direction and oversight to Town Hall and to allow a vote at Town Meeting to ascertain the level of citizen support of the Sheriff's proposal.

"I think the Selectboard means well, but there is no mechanism in state law for citizens to be heard," said Hunter during a phone interview. "Though a vote would be non-binding, it would be a good gesture from the Selectboard, to say they do care what we think," he added about a petition for the Liberty Mill Justice Center.

Hunter expressed his concern that there is a certain level of secrecy in the work completed by the Development Office and believes this has created a "massive disconnect between the residents and the town." Hunter said he believes two meetings a months for the Rockingham Selectboard would bridge the communication gap between citizens and the board.

Ann DiBernardo made the motion that the Rockingham Selectboard return to two meetings per month on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. The motion passed with Ann DiBernardo, Susan Hammond, Thomas MacPhee and Joshua Hearne voting in favor and Golec opposed.

MacPhee, Selectboard chair, believes the board needs to stay out of matters concerning the Liberty Mill Justice Center because the proposed project will need to go through the Zoning Board. If the Zoning Board rejects the application, then the proposed project would go before the Selectboard and if the Board has a pre-determined opinion, he believes this would significantly impact the process.

The Liberty Mill Justice Center has been a controversial topic lately in the Bellow Falls and Rockinham area. It is a proposed multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility that would be located at the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building. The space would hold 155 beds — 120 secured for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are transitioning out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. The two-story building would be "building secure" rather than "site secure," which means no barbed fencing, guard tower, floodlights or large open spaces surrounding the building. Instead, security would be held within all or a portion of the building.

At the Selectboard meeting on Jan. 5, board member Ann DiBernardo expressed her discontentment with areas of the project.

"I am not taking a stance on it," DiBernardo said. "I am upset with the process. Four out of five members of the Selectboard have no clue what was going on."

Macphee said he knew of the project at an earlier time than some of the board members when he had a run-in with Clark at a Rotary Club gathering. "He asked me to keep it under my hat at the time," said MacPhee.

He said that at the time he urged Clark to hold a joint meeting for the public and board to become educated about the project at that time. "He wasn't quite ready then, but I kept urging him to do it sooner than later."

Other business

Other matter covered at the Jan. 5 meeting included the manager's report which noted that the Vermont Food Bank will hand out food at the Waypoint Center on January 26 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then every fourth Tuesday after that. There are no requirements and for further details regarding this, people should contact the Manager's Office.

In addition to the manger's report, there was a presentation from Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies regarding its internship program, the Youth Professionals Group and Entergy funds and low interest loans.

During the Development Office Updates, Walsh stated that he has worked closely with Steven McAllister, the owner of the Liberty Mill, on various scenarios for this site at Paper Mill Road. Soil testing has been complete, showing minimal soil contamination, but there is lead paint in the building and a structural analysis was scheduled to begin January 11. According to the meeting minutes, additional funds for other environmental testing and evaluations are being sought.

In addition, an access permit was granted at 1 Taylor Street, where there had been a driveway issue. As for the FY2016 Budget Status Report, according to MacPhee, there was is increase of $1.68, but he said this was the "least increase we've had in a number of years."

Friday, January 8., a petition regarding the Liberty Mill Justice Center, was turned in and approved by the town clerks office. The petition states "We the undersigned registered voters of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont petition the Rockingham Selectboard to place the matter of the Liberty Mill Justice Center as a ballot article in the upcoming annual Town Meeting in March 2016 to allow voters to determine the outcome of the project placement. Shall the voters of the Town of Rockingham allow placement of a detention center within the legal boundaries of Bellows Falls?"

Wright informed the Board that the citizens of Rockingham will hold a meeting at the Windham Antique Center on January 14 at 7 p.m. to discuss the Liberty Mill project and hear what people would like to see at that site.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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