A petition signed by 76 registered Waitsfield voters calls for a Town Meeting agenda item that would shift the cost of the municipal water project to all taxpayers and would create a per gallon water usage fee to be paid to two landowners.
The petition was received by the Waitsfield Select Board at its January 24 meeting. It proposes shifting $50,000 of the estimated $147,000 annual debt from users of the municipal water project to all of Waitsfield's taxpayers.
The petition also calls for creating a per gallon user fee that would be paid to two landowners whose land is the subject of condemnation proceedings by the town. Waitsfield began work on a $7.6 million municipal water project last fall. Water for the project comes from a well the town drilled in the right of way off Reed Road.
CHALLENGED THE TOWN
In December, the Vermont Superior Court ruled that Waitsfield had not proven that Reed Road was a town road, ruling in favor of two landowners, Virginia Houston and Jean Damon/Toby Richards, who challenged the town.
In January, the town Select Board voted to begin negotiations with the landowners to purchase an estimated acre of land and a portion of the traveled way on Reed Road. Simultaneously, the select board voted to begin condemnation proceedings on that land.
Under the terms of the federal and state financing package that the town received for the project, all costs associated with the water project are to be borne by the users of the system - as opposed to all taxpayers in the town.
CAN THE TOWN SHIFT COSTS?
The question of whether the town can legally shift costs from system users to all taxpayers has not yet been answered although the town is currently contacting its loan/grant providers on the matter.
Corinthia Richards, author of the petition, representing the Damon/Richards family, said that the petition presented a proposal and a chance for townspeople to discuss having all taxpayers share the cost of the municipal water system. She said that if an agreement could be reached on a per gallon usage fee to landowners, it could mean the town would not have to buy the land or go through the process of condemning the land.
"As a settlement solution, the two landowners (Richards/Damon and Houston) have proposed the formation of a public/private partnership to resolve the water/land dispute. Funds will be used to pay down the town's annual debt service and allow for a water usage fee which would be partially paid to the landowners to compensate them for legal fees and the use of their property. A settlement in this issue would avoid the town attempting to use the powers of eminent domain to condemn three to four acres of private property and keep the town from being continually tied up in lengthy legal issues which could ultimately lead to the water project's failure," Richards explained.
The town's condemnation proceedings get underway on Monday, January 31, and the town is currently in negotiations with the town landowners. Per Vermont statute, as authorized by statute 19 V.S.A. Chapter 7 and 24 V.S.A Chapter 89, eminent domain (or condemnation) is legal and is generally favorable to municipalities if the town can show the requisite public good.
FROM THE FLOOR
When the select board verified that the petition included the requisite number of signatures, the board accepted the item for the Town Meeting warning, which will be posted on January 30. At its January 24 meeting the board stalemated on a vote of whether the water petition would be voted on from the floor of Town Meeting or by Australian ballot.
Only those present at Town Meeting could vote if the article is heard from the floor. All voters could vote if the article were voted on by Australian ballot. Board members Paul Hartshorn and Sal Spinosa voted for having the vote be by Australian ballot and board members Kate Williams (board chair) and Charlie Hosford voted to have it heard from the floor at Town Meeting.
After the tie vote, Town Administrator Valerie Capels was charged with taking the petition wording to the Vermont secretary of state's office to discuss the Australian ballot/Town Meeting floor vote issue. She reported that Kathy Scheele, director of elections and campaign finance, said that the petition did not qualify to be voted on by Australian ballot.
Capels said that Scheele also said that such a petition - and the accompanying Town Meeting article and vote - could be considered advisory rather than binding but also said that the select board wanted to honor the spirit and intent of the petition and the will of the voters regarding the petition. Scheele could not be reached for comment.