by Andrew Martin
MORRISTOWN – The future of the Green Mountain Arena, located on Lower Bridge St., continues to be in question and remains a point of contention in Morrisville. On Monday, April 29, representatives of the Thomas Hirchak Company met with the Morristown Board of Selectmen to discuss their case for a possible change in zoning for the arena lot. The company recently made an offer for the lot, which has been put up for sale by owners Lisa and Randall Latona. Along with representatives from the Thomas Hirchak Company, dozens of community members attended the meeting to voice their opinions on the possible change.
“We are just keeping our options open at this point,” commented Terry Owen, of the Thomas Hirchak Company on the company’s reasons for investigating the purchase of the arena and making an offer.
“We need more office space, and we currently also rent the space we use for auctions. We would like to have a much more convenient and efficient space,” continued Owen, who went on to add that they are looking for a minimum of 12 acres to move into. While the arena lot isn’t exactly what they were looking for it would suffice, according to Owen.
The Green Mountain Arena lot is currently zoned as Rural Residential, meaning that it available for homes, indoor and outdoor recreation, or agriculture. The Thomas Hirchak Company was hoping that the selectboard and Morristown Planning Commission (PC) would consider rezoning the lot for commercial use in order to allow them to move their business in. At the April selectboard meeting the representatives of the company stressed that while a change in zoning would help their cause it would not guarantee that a conditional use permit for their move onto the lot would be granted by the Morristown Development Review Board.
Those same representatives pointed to the benefits of having their company move onto the lot, including a local business staying in town while expanding and the increase in people that their auctions could bring to Morristown.
The possibility of a change in zoning was not entirely ruled out by the updated 2013 Morristown Town Plan, which is pending approval and could go into effect later this summer. According to Morristown Zoning Administrator Todd Thomas, the wording that originally did deal with the arena lot asked the PC to study the possibility of a zoning change for the lot if it was no longer being used for recreation. However, that clause was removed completely when supporters of the arena attended a PC meeting on March 19 and asked that it be taken out. The group had a petition for their request bearing the signatures of 249 residents of the town, and after discussion the PC decided to remove the clause.
Thomas Hirchak attended the April 16 meeting of the PC asking them to reconsider, and when they did not, he and his business partners went before the Selectboard at their April 29 meeting to do so again.
“We can update the town plan at any time,” stated Zoning Administrator Thomas, “We don’t have to wait five years, which is how often you are required to update your plan.”
“The original wording just wanted to leave the door open to provide a tool to use if the building stood empty for a long period of time without completely redoing the entire town plan,” continued Thomas on the reasons for the original clause. He went on to explain that, now, if town officials wish to investigate a possible change in zoning for the lot they would need to update the entire town plan.
After the presentation at the meeting by representatives from the Thomas Hirchak Company, a number of community members, many of them associated with the Friends of the Green Mountain Arena (FGMA), chose to address the selectboard. Many of those community members stressed the fact that if the property is rezoned then the town will be losing a valuable asset that they will never get back. They also pointed out that they felt the proper ownership could make a better go of it with the arena. The Friends of the Green Mountain Arena have previously attempted to purchase the lot from the Latonas, but their offer was substantially less than the $1.2 million asking price.
“It is a difficult situation,” commented FGMA member Joel Prive, “It is currently owned by a private individual, who can do what he wants with it and asks what he wants for it… as far as our group being able to pay the $1.2 million, it will never happen.” Prive pointed to the average amount of money the arena makes annually, a figure that comes in at roughly $200,000 per year, as a reason his group could never afford to pay such a high price tag.
“That’s fairly consistent with what other rinks make around the state,” commented Prive, “What the arena makes could be increased, but it couldn’t cover a $1.2 million cost.” The offer made by the FGMA was slightly higher than the $220,000 that was the highest one-year income the arena has seen in it’s history. The Latonas counter-offered with an option for the group to lease the building, but according to Prive that option is also untenable.
“We plan to move forward,” continued Prive, “There has been roadblock after roadblock, but the arena is a community asset just like a library. We don’t necessarily absolutely have to have it but it makes our community more substantial and stronger.”
In the meantime the FGMA is continuing its quest to raise funds to purchase the arena while also searching for a possible outside partner.
“We would love to have some major investors,” stated FGMA member Amy Walker, who also stated that the group has been investigating running the rink as a non-profit organization if they can find the funds to purchase it.
At the end of the April 29 hearing the Morristown Selectboard members stated unanimously that at this point they are leaning towards keeping the arena lot zoned as Rural Residential.
“Mr. Hirchak can attend the other upcoming warned hearings for the town plan to continue his case if he chooses to do so,” stated Zoning Administrator Thomas.
“We have nothing against the skating rink or the community,” stated Terry Owen, “Nor are we for the Latonas. It was just a strategic business plan and whatever the town chooses, we will respect those wishes.”
“…While it won’t necessarily be in Morrisville…we will continue to look for alternative space,” she continued about where the Thomas Hirchak Company will go if the board does make the final decision to keep the arena lot zoned Rural Residential.
According to Zoning Administrator Thomas, the warned public hearing for the proposed town plan is scheduled for May 21. If no changes are made at that time and the document is approved then the Selectboard will host the first of its own two hearings 30 days later, meaning that it will likely fall in the end of June or beginning of July. The date of the second hearing will be announced following the first hearing. Thomas stated that if no more changes are made and nothing holds up the process he is hoping to have the new plan in place by early August, which will allow him to begin necessary zoning changes.
“The town plan is greatly improved over its 2008 predecessor,” stated Thomas, “We have worked for more than a year now on the new plan. It is more concise and relatable to the average citizen and provides a better foundation for the town’s growth moving forward.