By Morgan True
For VT Digger
An environmental court judge has denied a stay that would have blocked construction at the Burlington Town Center mall pending the outcome of a legal appeal brought by residents who oppose the project.
Judge Thomas Walsh ruled that the stay is not in the public’s interest and that the residents’ appeal was not strong enough to justify the substantial harm to the developer that would result from blocking construction.
Don Sinex, the developer behind the planned $225 million mixed-use project, told the court he would lose more than $500,000 a month if construction were delayed. Walsh’s ruling paves the way for construction to begin in early July.
“I am pleased with this decision, which is a good step forward for the Burlington Town Center redevelopment,” Sinex said in a statement issued through his spokeswoman Liz Miller.
A group of 57 residents brought an appeal in the environmental division of Chittenden Superior Court on April 14, arguing that Burlington’s Development Review Board erred in greenlighting the project.
The residents’ attorney, John Franco, later sought a stay of construction activities pending the outcome of the appeal.
The appeal is one of three separate legal challenges Franco is bringing on behalf of residents who oppose the project. The plans for the site include housing, retail and office space on half of the existing mall. Its towers would reach 14 stories, a height that would make it Vermont’s tallest building.
Another suit, also in environmental court, challenges the project’s exemption from Act 250 environmental review.
The final suit, in Superior Court, challenges a November ballot referendum in which voters approved $22 million in tax increment financing for public improvements that will be built as part of the redevelopment. A judge dismissed three of four counts in that case last Friday, but has yet to rule on a fourth.
Walsh’s ruling Monday isn’t an unmitigated victory for Sinex. The judge states that if the court ultimately determines the project doesn’t conform to zoning regulations, Sinex won’t be able to complete the project as planned and will “likely be ordered to remove any part of the project that is built.”
Franco described the ruling as “very fair and balanced” and said it validates the residents’ claims as well-reasoned and not frivolous.
“Secondly, it makes clear that if Mr. Sinex proceeds, his investors do so at their own risk that the project will be changed after the court’s review, including removal of portions which have been constructed, and they will have to make the changes,” Franco said.
Challenging the city’s plans to borrow
In the lawsuit over the tax increment financing ballot question, Superior Court Judge Robert Mello last Friday granted the city’s motion to dismiss three of the four counts because he said they had no legal basis. The decision is a victory for the city, which enthusiastically supports the redevelopment.
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