By Lisa Loomis
As the Waitsfield Select Board and its water and wastewater task force continue community outreach on the proposed municipal water project, landowners Virginia Houston and Damon Richards are appealing the sum they were paid for easements on land required for the project.
Houston and Richards are appealing a state decision granting the town an easement on a .423-acre parcel of land that she owns. At issue in the appeal is how much the town paid Houston for that easement. Houston's land abuts the town right of way on the Reed Road where the town drilled a well to provide water for a municipal system in 2006. Houston appealed the town's drilling of the well within the right of way to the Vermont Supreme Court and lost.
TOWN RIGHT OF WAY
A second landowner, Damon Richards, is also appealing the granting of the easement. That property also abuts the town right of way on Reed Road and the town was granted an easement on .422 acres of her land.
The easements are for a wellhead protection zone of 125 feet that the town must establish around its well. In the case of Houston, who has also drilled a well on her property, the town's wellhead protection shield and Houston's overlap.
Last winter, prior to beginning the necessity hearings (eminent domain hearings) on the easements, Houston and the town re-entered negotiations that came to naught. When the negotiations fell apart, the town resumed its efforts to secure the easements, hiring Burlington appraiser Michael O'Brien to come up with a fair market value of the Houston and Damon land.
O'Brien found that an easement on .423 of Houston's land was worth $4,000 and an easement on .422 of Richard's land was worth $3,500. The town paid both landowners $7,500. That amount is being challenged in Superior Court and has yet to come to trial.
Houston has also alleged that the town's well is drilled on her property, a charge that the town disputes.
"The test well was driven within the right-of-way limits of Reed Road, a highway within the ownership and control of the town. The test well was drilled following the town's receipt of a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation, following a public hearing. The test well was not drilled on lands owned by anyone other than the town of Waitsfield. A survey prepared by Little River Survey found that the boundaries of both Ms. Houston's and Ms. Damon Richards' properties go to the edge of Reed Road -- not across it or to the center line. Ms. Houston's site plan for her water bottling project also showed the property line at the edge of Reed Road," explained Town Administrator Valerie Capels.
FAIR MARKET VALUE
"The process of eminent domain has been completed and the only matter that remains to be resolved is the amount of compensation. The term 'taking' by eminent domain is misleading. In every case, the municipality must compensate the property owner at least fair market value for the property interest. In this case, the amount offered is almost double the fair market value for an easement on land that was already restricted by Ms. Houston's own wellhead protection area," Capels continued.
Town voters will cast ballots on the proposed project on June 10. The project came before voters at Town Meeting and was defeated. Since that time the project has been reconfigured, with funding sources revamped, the service area extended and fire protection costs, plus hydrants, paid for by grant monies.