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Published February 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Nearly 20 years after the Moran Plant stopped producing electricity for the Queen City, the hulking brick edifice on Lake Champlain is once again generating sparks. Last month, the Burlington City Council voted to let the citizens decide on Town Meeting Day if the vacant structure and surrounding land should become the new home of the Greater Burlington YMCA and Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. Now, with just four weeks to go before the nonbinding ballot measure goes to the voters, the debate is becoming increasingly polarized.

A motley coalition has formed under the leadership of Sandy Baird, a Burlington attorney and longtime waterfront activist, and former city councilors Maurice Mahoney, a Democrat, and Republican Kurt Wright, now a state representative. Let the People Decide, as the citizen group is called, has launched a campaign that questions many of the Y's assertions about the project's cost, feasibility and legality.

Chief among them: Is this project the best use of Burlington's precious waterfront real estate? What will be the ultimate cost to Burlington taxpayers, both in terms of infrastructure improvements and lost property-tax revenues? And, does leasing this property to a private, nonprofit entity for 99 years violate the state's public trust doctrine?

Ostensibly, Let The People Decide is neither for nor against the initiative, but simply wants Burlington voters to have more detailed information before they go to the polls. However, the group's growing list of concerns points to a deeper skepticism about whether the Y can pull off a project of this magnitude.

"A lot of people want to know more about this project, and the more they know, the more they're concerned about it," says Mahoney. "We're the only ones getting these details out, and that is our concern."

Baird, who directs law education programs at Burlington College, questions the legality of selling the Moran building and leasing 2.7 acres of public land to a religiously affiliated, tax-exempt, membership-only association which only serves 3 to 5 percent of the population of Chittenden County.

"The public trust doctrine says that that land belongs to all the people of the state of Vermont," she says. "Does the city have the authority to convey it anyway? And is the Y truly offering a public use? I don't think so." Asked if a pro-Moran vote in March would move her group to mount a legal challenge, she said she wouldn't rule out that possibility.

Wright, who says he is running for city council largely because of the Moran Plant issues, drafted a bill in the House of Representatives that would amend Vermont's public trust doctrine to allow other projects to be considered at the Moran plant location. He claims to have 30 cosponsors.

Needless to say, the YMCA is doing what it can to ground all these negative charges. Two weeks ago, the Y announced that it had hired Scott Johnstone as Moran project manager. Widely viewed as a capable, informed and diplomatic problem-solver, Johnstone was hired not only to shepherd the Y through the permitting and design process, but also to win over undecided voters. He'll need to bring his political savvy to the table along with his technical know-how.

Johnstone, now an engineer with Stone Environmental of Montpelier, was Secretary of Natural Resources under Governor Howard Dean until 2003. Before that, he headed up the Burlington Public Works Department from 1992 to 1998, a period of major changes to the Burlington waterfront and downtown. Johnstone oversaw the parking and infrastructure design of the Filene's development, the city's water-treatment facilities upgrade, and the public debate over whether to privatize the city's curbside recycling program.

"They couldn't have picked a better guy," says Democratic State Representative Bill Aswad, a former Burlington City Council president. "He's one of the most communicative people I know. He understands the problem, he doesn't get angry, and he always has a very placid approach."

Johnstone also oversaw the redesign of Lake Street. "So when people have questions about the traffic element down there, I'm pretty familiar with that," he says. "I'm responsible for putting what's there, there."

Johnstone doesn't dismiss the chorus of Moran project skeptics, but says he doesn't expect to find any insurmountable environmental or design problems at the waterfront site. He does say, however, that the $10 million price tag is fluid. "Can we expect it to cost a little bit more because it's on the waterfront and people are going to demand a good-looking facility? You betcha," he says. "But it's worth it. The Y shouldn't be willing to go to the waterfront if they're not willing to make that commitment."

And, in answer to calls for more information, Johnstone says that by later this week, he should be ready to present some architectural renderings, site maps and design plans to the public, as well as additional details on the condition of the building itself. Also, he says that a traffic study is now underway, with the results due out by mid-February.

"The key is, long before the city and the Y execute the development agreement and put the final plans together, all these answers will be in place," Johnstone says. "The vote really comes down to a fairly simple question: Is this a good use for the property? And, is what the city's getting back good enough?"

Johnstone contends that it is. He points out that about 5 percent of the YMCA's gross revenues will be offered back to the city. Revenue to the city is estimated at $250,000 -- more, Johnstone claims, than the site could generate in property taxes. And the Y plans to continue its after-school and daycare programs, which are the largest in Chittenden County.

In addition, he notes that the Y's current home at 266 College Street will likely be sold, redeveloped, and returned to the city's tax rolls. "In sum total, the city actually ends up seeing quite a nice return by having this development happen down there," Johnstone says.

Let the People Decide will be holding a town meeting on the issue on Thursday, February 3 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Burlington College. The event is free and open to members of the public, regardless of their views on the project.