By Lisa Loomis
A roomful of people had no shortage of opinions and suggestions for the Waitsfield Select Board in the wake of its proposed municipal septic and water systems being voted down at Town Meeting.
With new board members Kate Williams and Bill Parker, and newly elected board chair Charlie Hosford, the board heard fellow member Roy Hadden caution them against taking hasty action following the vote.
"This was a vote where two-thirds of registered voters participated and they voted these projects down. I don't think it is right for us to ignore the vote and bring this right back like, this is your medicine and you're going to take it," said Hadden, who served on the task force that brought the projects forward.
"What happens to the money we were promised if we don't go forward?" asked board member Paul Hartshorn.
Town administrator Valerie Capels explained that the town could possibly shift funds designated for sewage to a municipal water project and avoid losing them. Other promised funds, she said, would just be lost due to the town's inability to garner a positive bond vote.
"What if we got a petition?" asked Hartshorn.
"A formal petition asking for a revote would have to be worded in the exact same way as the first vote. Before we do that, we need input from users, not just people outside the district, but the ones who would use it, to create a new proposal," Hadden said.
At Town Meeting, voters cast ballots on three articles. The first was for a municipal water system. It received 398 yes votes and 442 no votes. The second was for a small 18,000-gallons-per-day wastewater system. It failed, 336 to 484. The third was for a larger wastewater system. It passed, 297 to 254, but was written in such a way that the second needed to pass in order for the third to be approved.
"The water failed by only 40-some votes and the number of yes votes for that was more than the number of users of the proposed system," Parker said, asking if it made sense to separate the projects and bring the water project back to voters quickly.
"I think we as a board have the obligation to have a vision for the town and its future and we need to go out and seek the information as to why this didn't pass," Williams noted.
Planning commissioner Robin Morris, also a member of the water and sewer task force, reminded the board that the town's plans for rezoning Irasville won't work without municipal water and sewer. He said there were many Irasville property owners who do want to see these systems created. He too suggested separating the water and sewer projects and holding separate votes.
The town is currently involved in the application process of seeking the state "growth center" designation. That designation requires having over at least 50 percent of future growth over the next 20 years within the designated growth area, in this case, in Irasville. The town is also seeking to create a TIF (Tax Increment Finance) district in that same area which would allow the town to capture a portion of all new property tax value from development in the district.
"The TIF district is jeopardized without sewer and water and we can't have the growth district designation without the infrastructure capacity to support development there," added planning commissioner and former task force member Russ Bennett.
Bennett urged the board to recommission a new task force to get back to work and to work with the community on how to present a better proposal next time. He volunteered to serve on such a task force.
Board members discussed with the public and others present various reasons for why the bond articles were voted down. Some suggested that there was misunderstanding in general about the projects and their costs. Others said that people outside the district were unwilling to pay for something they would not use.
Parker said he felt a lot of people really did want to create a system that would allow Waitsfield to have a more vibrant downtown and they wanted to see water and sewer projects that would do just that. The 18,000-gallons-per-day interim system, he said, may have been rejected as not the right first step.
"I think another thing that we may be ignoring and which caused people to vote no is the prospect of growth in Irasville. They don't want to see the build-out we've projected for the next 20 years. I'm convinced some people, even if the project were free, would still have voted against it," Hadden said, noting that people voted down the water project even though the entire cost of that would be paid by users.
"I believe there were people voting no as a way of saying we didn't give them a good project," said planning commissioner Brian Fleisher. He also urged the board to get a new task force organized and said he'd be willing to serve on it.
"We need these projects for a variety of reasons. They will allow us to control and direct growth to areas where it is appropriate; they will allow people to live downtown and walk places, which as global warming worsens, will be important. And, both of the candidates who supported the projects were elected to the select board," said Bennett.
Mike Kingsbury, a member of the town's development review board, said he agreed with Hadden, that some people voted against growth rather than against the project specifically. He also reminded the board that when the project was proposed 15 years ago, the idea was for a sewer system for Waitsfield Village, which needed one. As the project evolved, the sewer system was proposed only for Irasville. He urged a return to the original proposal.
Waitsfield resident and a would-be-user of the water system, Jeremy Gullion, thanked the board for the work they'd done to bring the systems to a vote and encouraged members to keep pushing because it is in the best interest of the town to do so.
The board moved on to other agenda items, including an executive session. After coming out of executive session the board continued discussing the water and sewer project and decided that it will convene a new citizen task force to explore the basis of the negative votes, consider alternatives, and make recommendations to the select board.
"Some people may have voted no because they felt they needed more information," said Williams.
"The numbers show there is reasonable support for the projects, but we need to better understand why people voted no before we decide what to do next," said Hosford.
Hadden cautioned against rushing into a decision. "The majority of people voted no and we need to respect that. If we bring either or both of the projects back to the voters, it needs to be after we've sought their input and carefully studied the options."