Burlington faces tight window to approve final Town Center deal

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BURLINGTON — It's crunch time for city officials who are expected to approve a final agreement soon with the developer behind a $225 million downtown project.

Last week, Town Center mall owner Don Sinex said he'd secured the investment he needs to pay for the mixed-use redevelopment of the property. Sinex said in a news release that demolition and construction would begin in "mid-2017," once the investment is finalized sometime in the "coming weeks."

In a Monday interview, Mayor Miro Weinberger wasn't any more specific about when he expected the City Council to vote on a final development agreement with Sinex. Weinberger said a vote would occur before construction begins and that he doesn't expect the approval of an agreement to delay the project.

"It's a fair question how this intersects with Don's plans. We have not sorted out that timeline fully at this point," Weinberger said.

The two sides signed a predevelopment agreement last year, but a memo the mayor wrote to the City Council in January highlights a litany of outstanding issues that need to be addressed in a final agreement.

Among them are the price the city will pay for rebuilt public roadways, the total amount of construction and permit fees, and what Sinex will pay in property tax while the project is being built.

The mayor and City Council have said they will publish the final agreement at least two weeks before it goes to a council vote so residents have an opportunity to weigh in.

A group of residents is also appealing the city's regulatory approval for the project in the environmental division of Chittenden County Superior Court. Their attorney, John Franco, said he will request a stay to block construction in early May. Sinex issued a statement Monday saying he expects to prevail in court.

The City Council went into executive session — meaning its deliberations were closed to the public — at its Monday meeting to continue hashing out details of a final deal with Sinex.

During the executive session, the council also discussed a development deal at the city-owned former Moran coal plant on the waterfront, and terms for the upcoming sale of Burlington Telecom.

"It seems like we're doing a lot of executive session, but that's because of the work that's on our plate right now," said City Council President Jane Knodell, P-Central District.

Knodell and the mayor both defended the use of executive session as necessary for the city to formulate a negotiating strategy in the two high-profile development deals and the sale of an important city asset.

An exemption in Vermont's open meeting law allows a public body to use executive session when public knowledge would lead to a "substantial disadvantage" in negotiating contracts or real estate transactions, among other matters.

"As the president of the council, I want the public to be party to our debates as much as they can without it hurting their interests," Knodell said.

"We use these executive sessions to protect the taxpayers and ensure that we create negotiating positions as a city with these counterparties that protect taxpayer dollars and promote public value," Weinberger said.

It's the mayor's administration that is responsible for negotiating the development deals, but the City Council doesn't want to just be presented a final deal for a vote, Knodell said. Executive session allows the council to provide feedback throughout negotiations, she said.

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said he was not familiar with the topics being discussed in executive session. In general, he said, "We always urge public bodies to err on the side of transparency."

"When it appears that decisions are getting made behind closed doors, it's going to raise all kinds of suspicions," Diaz said.

In all three cases discussed during Monday's executive session, the city has released information, either through public presentations or memoranda, providing an overview of what's being discussed in secret, Knodell and Weinberger said.

In the case of the Moran deal, there was a January presentation from the developers prior to a March executive session on the project, and a city official gave brief remarks Monday before the executive session. For the Town Center, there was the mayor's memo, which was released before two executive sessions on the topic in January. The Burlington Telecom sale process was approved after a presentation and public vote, they said.

Also Monday, the City Council approved its bike and pedestrian master plan, which calls for a network of protected bike lanes and improved crosswalks and sidewalks to be built over several years.

The mayor also announced that the special election to replace Ward 7 City Councilor Tom Ayers will be June 27.

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