A housing development project that could transform the southern edge of Morrisville barely squeaked through the local zoning process, a process that has raised questions about whether the public was given enough opportunity to participate.

The Morristown Development Review Board, at its Oct. 27 meeting, narrowly approved developer Graham Mink’s 136-unit housing complex on the southern edge of the village on a vote of 4-3. It was the culmination of a three-part hearing. Part two — a tour of the property — was only reluctantly made public partially through the hearing.

An initial hearing on Oct. 13 was recessed because the board was two members short — one of the members, Paul Trudell, is the project’s architect and recused himself.

Town zoning administrator Todd Thomas told the News & Citizen ahead of the meeting that, since a full board couldn’t be seated, the hearing “will be opened and recessed almost immediately.”

The meeting was, in fact, more substantive, with the project engineer providing a presentation, board members asking questions and neighbors raising concerns and asking that conditions be placed on the project.

Also at that initial Oct. 13 meeting, according to Thomas’s meeting minutes, board chair Gary Nolan said an Oct. 25 site walk would not be open to the public. Mink interjected, saying those in attendance could also attend the site walk; Mink later granted the newspaper’s request to attend.

Jamie Brewster, a Morristown resident concerned about the pace of development in town, said he was interested in attending the Oct. 13 meeting but was also told by Thomas it would be a brief affair.

“He told me there wasn’t going to be a quorum, so I didn’t go,” Brewster said.

A public records request for correspondence related to the hearing addressed to Thomas and Nolan directly after the Oct. 27 meeting turned up very little that had not already been read into the public record on one of the hearing dates. Thomas offered a hypothesis on why more people didn’t weigh in.

“Maybe the lack of public involvement is attributable to the project being set back into the woods and far from a main road? Not sure,” he wrote in response to the public records request.

But Thomas withheld at least one key bit of correspondence, a back and forth with Brewster, who was concerned by the town’s attempt to block people from attending the site walk.

Brewster provided the correspondence between Oct. 20-26 to the News & Citizen.

Thomas said he doesn’t think site walks should be publicly warned and told Brewster that such tours are a “no-win situation” for the board because people might show up and not be allowed on the property, which is “a really bad scene.”

Thomas acquiesced, however, and a warning for the Oct. 25 site walk at some point materialized on the town website.

Thomas later told Brewster that he had the warning posted because he was unable to find “succinct guidance” in state law.

“I did so after having spent a couple of precious hours emailing back and forth with you about warning (or not warning) the site walk, and then researching the open meeting law and related guidance about site walks (which I had not refreshed myself on in a few years),” Thomas wrote Oct. 26, the day after the site walk and the day before the final approval. “The decision to post that meeting schedule was also the result of me not wanting to jeopardize the hearing process for a multi-million-dollar development if my decision to not warn Monday’s site walk was somehow incorrect, and the lack of warning for the site walk was going to be part of a legal challenge of a somewhat controversial development proposal.”

Thomas’s email touches upon one reason to do things by the book: development projects approved by towns are subject to appeals before the Vermont Environmental Court. Mink already went through the appeals process earlier this year in a previously approved project.

He prevailed in court, but he said it was costly.

Thomas did not release the email correspondence between him and Brewster to the newspaper as part of its public records request and he did not reply by press deadline to a lengthy series of questions about the perceived missteps in the public process, so it is unclear whether he withheld any other correspondence from the public.

Nolan did reply, saying simply in an email Tuesday, “It is my opinion that all the open meeting laws were followed and that it is inappropriate for further comment, as although the decision has been reached, it has not been issued.”

Brewster said this week that he did not attend the Oct. 13 meeting because it had been undersold as a quick formality. When he read the meeting minutes, he felt shut out of the site walk, which he might have attended.

“I felt unwelcome and felt it was not open to the public, and if I had showed up, I would have been asked to leave,” he said. “I’m not out to be a thorn in anybody’s side, but there are rules and regulations that need to be followed and I think I should be able to ask that they are.”

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