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Birke Studio owners offer town option to purchase the site

The owners of the former Birke Photography Studio on Bridge Street in Waitsfield have offered the town the opportunity to purchase the site for $20,000.

The select board, at a December 17 meeting, expressed a great deal of interest in and enthusiasm for the offer, with the exception of one member. The board promised to let the owners, Caroline Bargerstock and Derek Moretz, know before the end of January.

The photography studio, a small, white clapboard building was destroyed during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. It stood between the covered bridge and the blue building that now houses Peasant Restaurant.

Floodwaters lifted the building off its foundation and smashed it into the blue building. In the months following the flood, the building was deconstructed and removed from the site. The cement slab has been the site of lawn chairs over the summer and fall, as people sit and watch the river and the bridge.

At this week’s meeting, the owners explained that while they had received approval from the Waitsfield Development Review Board to rebuild on the site, they wanted to gauge the interest of the town in owning the property before they began the engineering and planning it would take to get the project built before their DRB permit expires in mid-May.

“You guys are our first stop. This is not a race to the top, but, rather, we’re trying to find the best use of the space and a financially viable solution,” Moretz said. He said that he and Bargerstock had been back and forth on whether to pursue a FEMA buyout of the property but ultimately found that option to be a non-starter.

Select board member Charlie Hosford thanked the owners for their offer and told his fellow board members, “This is a wonderful opportunity for public ownership.”

“I think your offer to sell that property for $20,000 is incredibly reasonable. I think our board has an incredible opportunity to make this happen,” he continued.

The board considered the option of taking half the purchase price from its conservation fund, which currently has a balance of $57,000, and then trying to do public fundraising to raise the rest but, after further consideration discussed simply using its authority to expend the funds in that account and purchase the parcel outright. After that board members and the public discussed ways that a public/private partnership could be created to solicit ideas for a small pop-up park on the site.

Town resident Leo Laferriere, who was present at the meeting, said that he would recommend that the town acquire the parcel.

“It would make a great pop-up park, which is a small tract of land near pedestrian walkways and routes of travel where people can sit. They need grass, benches and green space. I can envision that. As soon as the river receded after Irene, a picture popped into my mind,” Laferriere said.

Others present reminded the board that the chance to purchase that parcel would be a huge step forward.

“It’s a stepping stone to what Patrick Ross said after Irene, that we need a way to get more water to go under the bridge. It could enable widening of the abutments to let 20 percent more water go down the river,” said Myndy Woodruff, a former select board member and someone who owns property directly across the river from the former studio.

Paul Hartshorn, the lone member of the select board who was not in favor of the purchase, said he had concerns about taking the parcel off the tax rolls.

“I’ll play devil’s advocate here. We’ve had a number of properties come up for sale in the town and everyone thinks we should own them. Sooner or later we’ve got to decide when we’re going to stop taking land off the grand list and putting that cost on the taxpayers,” Hartshorn said.

“Paul, that property pays $200 a year in property tax on something that is unusable. I think in its next life, it is very appropriate for the town to own it,” Hosford countered.

John Brodeur, who was present at the meeting, told the board, “I think it’s a really wise purchase for the town. It’d be a fantastic acquisition.”

“I echo what is being said,” added resident Michael Ware.

Board chair Sal Spinosa said he saw the purchase pragmatically.

“The river is stilled at that site. The water is going to come up again and if there were a building there, it would be a target. When people discuss what ought to happen at a river’s edge, the FEMA formula is to move buildings out of the way and return land to the floodplain. Here we have a chance to do that with a parcel that will be targeted by the river again. Let’s buy it and not put a building on it and have it be a place for people to gather or take pics or sit quietly and watch the river,” Spinosa said.

“This is an opportunity to move a building away from a river that is going to continue to rage and make some public use of it for what I think is not a lot of money. There are some projects that are too attractive to be stopped by the concept of taking $200 off the tax rolls,” Spinosa added.

The board solicited further comments from the public present at the meeting, hearing again from Laferriere who suggested that the town use its authority to use funds already available to buy the land.

“Then solicit private funding for development of the site. You could get into a very interesting process by soliciting proposals. You might be able to get schoolchildren involved as well,” Laferriere said.

“I agree,” said Woodruff.

“It’s a lot less complicated if the town steps up and uses available funding and you have the clean deed. It’s only $20,000. Let’s not hang these people up any longer than necessary. Buy the land and make a pocket park. I’m all for it,” Woodruff added.

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