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Vermont Weighs Future of Prison



Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, May 17, 2018

Windsor — Vermont officials plan to follow standard procedure and determine if any state agencies have a need for the 120-acre former prison site off County Road, rather than ceding some authority to town officials, as the Windsor Selectboard and some residents had hoped.

Vermont Building and General Services Commissioner Christopher Cole this week said the first step for his agency, which is responsible for managing state building and lands, will be to inform other state agencies of the prison property’s availability and to see whether any of those agencies see a potential use.

Cole said BGS’s objective is to find the “best and highest use” for the property and several buildings inside the prison fence. The prison closed on Oct. 31.

“I am charged with examining the facility and whether it has a suitable use,” Cole said this week.

“If the answer is no, I will include that in my report. I will have to look at every program that state has to offer.”

Cole’s work comes out of recently approved legislation on the future of the prison property.

Cole also said the possibility of transitional housing to help former inmates reintegrate into society does not appear likely to happen as far as he can see. The idea was explored in a report written by the state Department of Corrections as part of a requirement under the legislation that closed the prison.

The DOC did not take a position on the transitional housing plan. The DOC report estimated it would cost $1.3 million to convert the 10,500-square-foot prison with an annual operating cost of $6 million for the housing, programs and other services, plus another $3 million in maintenance in the next five years. With 50 to 70 inmates participating in the transitional housing program at any one time, the annual per capita cost would be $58,350, the report stated.

Transitional housing is vigorously opposed by town officials and many residents.

The town was hoping to have more influence on the repurposing process, but a bill to create a study commission of Windsor officials and residents was changed drastically in House and Senate committees.

Earlier this month, the House and Senate passed a bill that authorizes BGS to “investigate and analyze options” for the former correctional facility and submit a report by Dec. 15.

The bill’s language is starkly different from when the legislation was first introduced by state Rep. Paul Belaski, D-Windsor, at the request of the Selectboard and presented to the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. The committee stripped out the language that would have created a five-member study committee made up of Windsor town officials and residents to make a recommendation for repurposing the prison.

Town Manager Tom Marsh said he attended three hearings, including two of the Senate Committee on Institutions, where the bill’s final language was written.

Marsh said lawmakers did not want to create a whole new process for reuse of state-owned land by agreeing to the committee of Windsor residents when there is an established procedure in place.

“They didn’t think it was right because they already do that,” Marsh said.

However, the change does not suggest that the state is not sensitive to Windsor’s concerns, Marsh said, nor is it automatically dismissing any idea Windsor might have for private use of the property.

Cole said on Wednesday that while state agencies will get first crack, he is willing to listen to what Windsor might propose.

“I commented to the town manager that if he has a plan that focuses on economic development and has a proposal, please bring it to my attention,” Cole said, but he added that legislators are reluctant to sell land until an examination has been done on possible state uses.

At a meeting in December in Windsor, Cole told residents that a proposal from Windsor would be given fair consideration, but added that sufficient financing must be included in any plan.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said this week his department, which is part of the Agency of Natural Resources, did bring up the idea of using the property but called the discussion “very preliminary” and said it went nowhere fast.

“We kick around a lot of ideas and this was never really a possibility,” Porter said. “It is not the type or amount of space we need.”

Last year, about 700 acres outside the prison fencing was transferred to Fish and Wildlife and the department currently is developing a management plan for the combination of field and forest land.

Windsor resident John MacGovern, who led the effort to file the bill to establish a Windsor study committee, said he was not pleased with the final version.

“It is 180 degrees from what Windsor wanted,” said MacGovern, a former state lawmaker in Massachusetts. “This whole business has been very frustrating.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.