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By Lisa Loomis
In an almost decade-long negotiation, Waitsfield offered one landowner $500,000 for five acres of land on which to drill a municipal water well, and offered another access to the town right of way for a private pipeline.
Town residents prepare for a second vote next week on a municipal water system for Waitsfield, which will use a well on Reed Road and requires .422 and .423 acre easements that were obtained by eminent domain from two landowners.
Earlier this year, the town obtained an easement for a wellhead protection radius around the well it has drilled on the Reed Road. Landowners Virginia Houston and Rowly Richards were paid $7,500 each for the .423 and .422 acre parcels of land for those easements. One of those parcels of land was appraised at $4,000 and the other for $3,500. The town paid both landowners $7,500 for those easements. That amount is being challenged in Superior Court and has yet to come to trial.
The Valley Reporter has researched the town’s long history of negotiations with those landowners from whom the town has received easements by eminent domain for the water supply. The documents date back to 1998 when town officials met with Virginia Houston who owns a large tract of land off the Reed Road. At that time, Houston said she wanted to develop a water bottling business using water from an aquifer she tapped into on her land. She received town permits to truck water, but not enough water, she said, to make the business viable.
“The Select Board is willing to offer the use of town highway rights of way for the installation of a water pipeline for your business. We have previously been advised that the town may legally allow private use of our public rights of way, provided we can show a public benefit accruing from such use. In turn, the town would seek water from you for a future municipal water system (this could be rights to a particular wellhead or volume of water, or an agreement for perpetual sale of water, etc.),” wrote Town Administrator Bill Bryant on behalf of the town select board on July 20, 1998.
The letter continues with an offer to share the costs of excavating and installing a pipeline for her business in the town-owned right of way when town pipelines are installed.
According to town documents, the negotiations with Houston continued off and on throughout the decade and touched on such options as tax abatement, purchase of land or purchase of water.
A July 2003 letter from Waitsfield to Houston reiterates the offer of access to the town rights of way and sharing the costs of pipeline installation and proposes a lump sum purchase of water rights and also offers to assist Houston in securing state financing and tax credits for her business. The board also offered to “support your application for local and state permits to build a bottling facility at a location such as Irasville or the Mad River Industrial Park.”
While the town’s negotiations with Houston did not involve specific sums of money, the town’s negotiations with nearby landowner Rowland Richards (and his son Rowly Richards and Damon Richards) got down to numbers.
In June 2003, the town began negotiations with the Richards family with preliminary discussions. In June 2004 the town proposed purchasing a five-acre parcel of land around a well on the Richards’ property for $250,000 for the well site and an easement for a water line. The town also proposed tax abatement for the nine properties owned by the Richards.
As negotiations continued, the Richards asked to sell water at a per-gallon price, but the town could not meet the state’s legal requirementsfor a public water system without owning the water source. In 2004, the Richards’ nine parcels of land had an appraised value of $1,529,800 and a total tax bill of $16,077 (much of the land was enrolled in the state’s Current Use tax abatement program).
In August 2004, the town proposed a variety of packages including compensation and tax abatement as well as an offer to cover any capital gains paid by the Richards and an offer to invest all or part of the purchase price and pay an annual annuity to the family that was equal to the tax bill. That letter offered a purchase price of $350,000.
An email from Bryant to the select board in August 2004 suggested that the board make an offer of a flat purchase price of $500,000, which board members in subsequent emails concurred on and by August 31, board members were ready to schedule a public vote to obtain approval for such a purchase.
In September 2004 Richards countered with a request that the $500,000 to be before capital gains and also asked that the town cover legal and title work for the transaction as well as any costs associated with removing land from the Current Use program, all regulatory expenses and other transaction costs. The town countered, but in October 2004 made the following offer:
“The select board is offering $500,000 for the purchase of five-acre well site as discussed and for a water line easement to go to towards the town’s LeClair property, where the projects water storage tank will be located. The town is willing to cover the family’s expenses such as Vermont property transfer tax, penalty fee for withdrawal of land from this Vermont Current Use program and the bulk of costs associated with development of this source including legal, engineering and survey work.”
In April 2005 the town ceased negotiation with Houston and the Richards family and began pursuing the option it ultimately followed, which was to drill its own well in the town-owned right of way off the Reed Road. For that well, the town required a 200-foot wellhead protection radius and again entered negotiations with Richards and Houston over an easement on .422 acres (Houston) and .433 acres (Richards) that led to the town obtaining those easements by eminent domain with a payment of $7,500 to each landowner.