Opponents sue to overturn Burlington mall redevelopment vote

Opponents of a voter-approved redevelopment project in downtown Burlington have sued to have the Nov. 8 referendum declared invalid.

John Franco, an attorney representing two residents and a group called Coalition for a Livable City, announced Monday that they had filed the lawsuit on Friday.

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"There was a big rush to judgment in this administration to push this thing through and they didn't do it right," Franco said in an interview. "Sometimes touchdowns get called back for illegal procedure."

Messages left Monday morning for Mayor Miro Weinberger, a city attorney and Brian Dunkiel, an attorney for property owner BTC Mall, drew no immediate response.

The lawsuit said the ballot question exaggerated how many properties would have their taxes earmarked to pay back a nearly $22 million bond aimed at helping the Burlington Town Center mall redevelopment.

The mall sits on a prime piece of real estate on the city's Church Street pedestrian retail district. The city vote was to put $21.83 million of borrowed money toward street improvements around it.

Tax-increment financing allows cities and towns to earmark new taxes generated by improvements to private property in specially designated districts toward paying off debt on public improvements the city made to support the projects.

The Nov. 8 bond issue was to pay for redesign and reconstruction of four streets around the mall. Meanwhile, developer BTC Mall was promising about $200 million in new or refurbished retail space, housing and offices.

Heated debate surrounded a part of the plan that called for the city to raise its height restrictions on downtown buildings by 50 feet to accommodate a 14-story residential tower on the property. The Burlington City Council gave its OK to increasing the height limit in September.

The lawsuit alleges the city not only misrepresented how many properties would participate in paying off the debt, but failed to get approval from a special state panel for the plan before putting it on the ballot.

The ballot measure called for all the properties in the larger waterfront tax district to have taxes generated by the improvements to be used to finance the city's share. But Franco pointed to legislation passed by state lawmakers saying the project could be supported only with the tax increments of three properties.

In addition, the lawsuit said the city failed to get the needed requirement from the Vermont Economic Progress Council before putting the funding request before voters.

The lawsuit also maintains that the city's denial of the Coalition for a Livable City's public-records request for an economic feasibility study on the project violated the Vermont Public Records Act.