By Lisa Loomis

The town of Waitsfield is proceeding with plans to formally take land from two landowners with property near Reed Road, so that the town can develop its municipal water system.

The Waitsfield Select Board has warned a public hearing for January 7 to present its plans to take "an interest in real estate adjacent to Reed Road incident to the development of a public drinking water source and fix the compensation to be paid therefore."

In 2006 Waitsfield tapped in a large aquifer within its town right of way on the Reed Road. The town's well is sufficient to provide the number of gallons per minute needed for a municipal water system. That well is not too far from wells drilled by Virginia Houston in the 1990s when she tapped into what is thought to be one of the largest aquifers in New England.

To complete its wellhead protection area, a 125-foot radius around the well, Waitsfield will need to purchase/obtain a small piece of land from Houston as well as Jean Richards. Specifically, the town needs .422 acres from Richards and .423 acres from Houston.

At the January 7 public hearing, the select board will explain its plans and determine appropriate compensation for the two parcels. The town had the properties appraised and made an offer to each landowner but received no responses. Vermont statute requires that the landowners be paid fair market value for their land and that a town show the legitimate public interest that is served by the acquisition of private property. The hearing takes place at the town offices at 7:30 p.m. and is a formal necessity hearing as required by law.

Waitsfield is concurrently developing a public water and wastewater system and will ask voters to okay a bond vote for those projects next year. Once the wellhead protection radius is secured, Waitsfield plans to install a pipeline to bring the water to a storage facility on the former LeClair gravel pit off Bushnell Road -- assuming the bond vote passes. From there the water will be piped down Tremblay Road to Route 100.

The cost of the water and wastewater project is estimated at $10 million, of which the town has received about half in grants and loans.

When Virginia Houston initially tapped into the aquifer she sought and received town permits to truck water from the site to a bottling facility she proposed building in the town. At that time, in the 1990s, Houston said she was not interested in installing a pipeline due to the cost; although, not long after, the town expressed an interest in helping with a pipeline as town officials began looking into creating a municipal water system.

Houston's water project led to a very contentious zoning process within the town as the zoning had to be amended to allow her project to move forward. To allow the extraction of water for commercial use, the town needed to amend its zoning so that the extraction of earth resources was allowed as a conditional use. Houston initially argued, through attorneys and the late Edgar Tremblay, that water should be considered a crop which could be raised and, as such, permitted as a use by right, as other agricultural uses are.

Houston and Tremblay petitioned for two amendments to the zoning ordinance which would have made commercial water extraction a use by right and those were defeated after townspeople petitioned for the amendments to need a two-thirds super-majority to pass. The town proposed three amendments to the ordinance which would have made commercial water extraction a conditional use, subject to town review. Two of those were defeated by a similar super-majority petition and the third passed. The Vermont Legislature has subsequently done away with the two-thirds super-majority provision and has further allowed town select boards to confer upon themselves the right to pass zoning amendments -- unless voters petition for a town-wide vote.