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The Valley Reporter
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Waitsfield, VT 05673
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Condemnation hearings begin for Waitsfield water project

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It was standing room only on January 31 when Waitsfield held its first public hearing on condemnation proceedings to secure 2.52 to 2.98 acres of land needed for the town's municipal water system. According to the town's experts, the 2.52 to 2.98 acres is worth $93,600.

At the hearing, select board members faced bombastic and aggressive questioning from town residents angry about another aspect of the water project - a voter petition that calls for shifting part of the cost of the $7.5 million water project from system users to all taxpayers in the town. Select board chair Kate Williams was repeatedly shouted down as she tried to explain that the Monday night hearing was to take testimony on the issue of condemnation.

ENGAGED IN NEGOTIATIONS

When the hearing was finally able to proceed, Williams explained that the town had to hold the condemnation hearing while fully engaged in negotiating with two landowners to purchase the property needed for the project rather than condemn it. The town drilled a well in the right of way of Reed Road in Waitsfield in 2007 and in 2010 the Vermont Superior Court ruled that Reed Road had not been shown to be a town road.

That left the town with the option of purchasing or condemning 1.71 acres from Jean Damon and 1.22 acres from Virginia Houston. Their property borders Reed Road.

VALUATION

When testimony began, those present heard from Town Administrator Valerie Capels about the need and from project engineer John Kiernan about the boundaries of the 1.71 and 1.22 acres. Professional property appraiser Spencer Potter explained his reasoning in determining that the 2.98 acres should be valued at $93,600.

"I valued the land at the value of a 1.5-acre building lot with public road access in this area of town and assumed that the land could accommodate a single-family home," Potter said.

Potter was questioned by attorneys Paul Gillies (representing Virginia Houston) and Rick Darby (representing Jean Damon) about whether his appraisal included the value of the water under the land. In 1991, Houston tapped into an aquifer under her property which she subsequently sought (and received) permits to sell commercially. (See related story.)

"Did you try and find any comparable sales of land for public water supplies throughout the state?" Darby asked, to which Potter said, "I did not look for sales of properties for public water supplies."

Neither Houston nor her attorney nor Damon's attorney proffered a proposed value for the land.


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HER VERSION

Virginia Houston was sworn in to testify and offered her version of the events that had transpired between her and the town of Waitsfield from 1991 through the present. (See related story.) Her testimony about being mishandled and targeted by the town of Waitsfield from 1991 through the present garnered a round of applause and protestations of support from members of the public who were present at the hearing.

   
Following Houston's testimony, Charlie Morse, former Northfield town manager and manager of the town's water system, testified and spoke to the value of an aquifer that could be drawn down, per gallon fees and whether the Waitsfield well, drawing between 60 and 186 gallons per day, would negatively impact Houston's wells on the property. Under questioning from select board member Bill Parker, Morse said he was under the impression that the town well had shown an impact on Houston's wells in draw down tests. Parker challenged that and asked engineer John Kiernan to review the data with those present.

IMPACT

Morse allowed as how he had not used 186 gallons per day to calculate the impact of the town's well on Houston's wells.

"I think that's important because the town's water withdrawal would not be taking water at a rate greater than Virginia Houston's trucks if she were using her permit. If you're testifying that the water that Virginia Houston would like to sell will be gone, the numbers have to be very precise. The value of the water that the town will take and the value of the water that Virginia has to sell are not connected. So, will the town's water withdrawal affect Virginia's ability to extract her permitted water withdrawal?" Parker asked.

"No," Morse replied.

"Will, over time, the town's water withdrawal deplete the aquifer so that Virginia loses the value of the water under her land?" Parker persisted.

"I can't say," Morse said.

"So is it not a reducable resource?" Parker asked.

"It seems to have recharge. What is the value of a water resource that will last forever?" Morse asked.

UPDATED INFORMATION

Attorney Darby offered into the record some updated survey information that showed the total of the condemned property to be 2.52 acres rather than 2.98.

When the select board opened up the meeting to public comment, questions were raised immediately about the petition calling for a cost shift and the select board's public hearing on January 24 where that petition was discussed. The town's attorney Steve Stitzel explained how the town had determined that the petition needed to be voted on from the floor of Town Meeting - rather than by Australian ballot despite facing a deluge of angry words from a trio of voters insistent on discussing the petition at the condemnation hearing.

Stitzel explained that towns vote on specific items by Australian ballot and other items from the floor of Town Meeting. The list of what gets voted on and where is determined by voters who petition the select board to have various items voted on each way. In Waitsfield, all budget items are voted on from the floor of Town Meeting - hence any attempt to increase the budget to include a cost shift of $50,000 from water system users to all taxpayers in the town would have to be voted on at Town Meeting. Any petition to change how things are voted would have to be petitioned and could not be effective - even if voted on at Town Meeting this year - until next year, 2012.

Following that discussion, four people voiced solidarity with Houston, speaking at length about her treatment at the hands of the town, including one resident whose home is in need of the municipal water and another who signed an easement allowing the water pipes to cross his driveway. One resident spoke up to ask what might prevent Houston from donating her land to the town and another resident asked how far apart the town and the property owners were in terms of negotiations.

 

MRVTV VIDEO of January 31, 2001 Waitsfield Selectboard Meeting
Meeting Part 1 | Meeting Part 2

 

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