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As you know, the condemnation hearing regarding the Houston property was on October 11 and 12, 2011, in Burlington. The session went on for two days, and there were some salient points that were brought to life that did not make it into the press. I felt the obligation to call these out to the voting public. These points are:
1) The town did work with an engineering firm but did not engage a hydrogeologist to find water for a town source. Phelps Engineering, the chosen firm, specializes in water source confirmation and infrastructure. The current pursued water source on Reed Road was investigated and discovered by Heindel & Noyes, hired by the landowner, who utilized scientific methods to locate potential water sources in the pre-development phase. This information was the key source of scientific information on water source at the Reed Road site.
2. 2) The town did not utilize the state of Vermont Water Board to get existing data which shows 53 high yielding wells in excess of 50 to 100-plus gpm (gallons per minute) between Route 100 and the Houston property. Those wells could possibly yield higher volumes at greater depths. The Houston well was rated at 180 gpm by a Heindel and Noyes’ hydrogeologist hired by landowner Houston.
3. 3) Two 100-plus wells are on Tremblay Road just before the town garage property and test drilling by Phelps Engineering was not done there.
4. 4) The elementary school has double the capacity they need yet they signed up for the project with continuing costs versus the one-time cost of the UV system installed and nominal maintenance. This contrasts with the annual expense of approximately $12,000 annually to purchase water from the water board instead.
5. 5) Back in the early 1990s when the town was voting on a zoning amendment that would make commercial water extraction a use by right, the planning commission sent to all voters in Waitsfield a letter stating water withdrawal for a bottling facility in town would be “degradation of the character of your neighborhoods through construction of commercial buildings such as a bottling plant, bottle making factory and unrestricted water withdrawal which could deplete your water supply.” This was during a vote to make water extraction a use by right at that time, but now the town wants unrestricted access for the town. The town has now reversed that position to suit their own needs.
6. 6) Also in 1994, a letter from the Mad River Valley Planning District was sent to William Shouldice, secretary of Development and Community Affairs. It was signed by Elwin Neill Jr. (Waitsfield Board of Selectmen), Russ Bennett (Waitsfield Planning Commission) along with others. The letter was sent to Secretary Shouldice to request he stop any help for the Houston water project stating, “One out-of-town landowner should not have the power to persuade one out-of-touch senator” (referring to Senator Matt Krauss). A copy of this letter was admitted into evidence.
7. 7) Although the town attorney did not agree, per Houston’s court testimony, the select board said they would not grant Houston any permits until she granted them water rights. This included a permit for one home on 1,646 acres in the forest reserve district where no residential development is permitted above 1,700 feet.
8. 8) There has never been a problem selling property in the service area because of lack of water, according to testimony provided by David Dion, a local realtor.
9. 9) During the condemnation hearing, Houston testified that she was told by a planning commission member “whoever owns the water has the power and control and if you make me your partner, all your troubles will go away.” This same testimony was provided at the first condemnation meeting in town. Houston stated she would state a name if asked under oath; she was never asked.
1010) The town gave testimony that no one else had approached them with an offer to extract water. Yet in 2005/2006, the town offered the Richards’ family a significant payment for five acres to use for drilling and extraction. That deal fell through. When the town proceeded with drilling on private property without a signed agreement, the litigation between the town and the property owners rose to another level.
All this was submitted as evidence (where letters were referenced, copies are now on file). The judge also noted to the town that they were moving ahead with construction at their own risk as this matter was not settled.
Next steps are that both sides must prepare a final brief and submit it to the judge. He will decide. Estimated time is somewhere in December and, of course, there may be appeals.
It is true that many missteps and unfortunate events occurred in the past by people no longer part of our current select board or planning commission. My question is, “Why are they moving forward adopting a position that is based upon bad judgment?” We can’t expect them to go back and correct errors from the past, but adopting a position based on fact and respect for all townspeople would be a great start. And just how much has really been spent on legal fees for this?
Jerry Miller lives in Waitsfield.