It's official: Voters sent a clear and unequivocal message to the Colchester selectboard today, voting to reject the $4.5 million purchase of the former Camp Holy Cross property on Malletts Bay.
The results of Tuesday's special election, announced shortly after 8 p.m., revealed that "no" votes outnumbered "yes" votes by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Out of 3069 votes cast, 2110 gave a thumbs down to proposed purchase of the 27-acre parcel, while only 959 approved of the deal.
Sam Conant, a member of the Camp Holy Cross Vision Committee, a citizens' advisory body hurriedly pulled together in late August to examine possible uses, liabilities and other restrictions on the property, expressed regret that fewer than 5000 residents turned out for Tuesday's special election. Nevertheless, Conant, an outspoken supporter of the purchase, thanked all the residents who showed up to the various open houses held at the property, as well as his fellow panel members, many of whom were against the deal.
Tuesday's vote was the second opportunity for Colchester residents to weigh in on the deal. In March 2010, voters authorized the selectboard to enter into preliminary negotiations with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. The diocese is selling off the lakefront real estate to help pay its settlements to victims of its priest sex-abuse cases in Vermont. (For background, click here.)
However, numerous questions arose in recent weeks about the fiscal wisdom of the proposed $4.5 million bond issuance, which would have put voters on the hook for something closer to $6.9 million over 20 years. And, unlike a mortgage, the town wouldn't have had the luxury to pay off its debt early.
The fur really began flying in this otherwise politically sleepy town over the last two weeks when the volunteer Colchester Community and Economic Development Advisory Council (CEDAC) formally recommended that citizens vote against purchase.
In emails and postings on Front Porch Forum, CEDAC Chair James Ehlers and Vice Chair Dave Usher called the potential Holy Cross purchase "fiscally imprudent" and the current time frame for evaluating it "untenable given the scope of the commitment at hand." In response, Town Manager Al Voegele demanded that Ehlers and Usher resign.
In the eyes of many Colchester voters, Tuesday's vote was the final opportunity for the public to score a parcel of prime lakefront real estate at a greatly reduced price for future generations. However, for many opponents of the deal, today's vote reflected enormous dissatisfaction with the way the entire purchase process was handled. Specifically, the selectboard opted to not invest in an independent feasibility study of the property well in advance of the vote, choosing instead to spend $15,000 on a Burlington PR firm to get the vote out.
Based on today's disappointing turnout, that money doesn't appear to have been well spent, either.