By Lisa Loomis
Virginia Houston has asked the town of Waitsfield to consider a collaboration with her which entails her buying excess water from the town's municipal water supply.
A March 5 letter from Houston's attorney, David Blythe, to the select board spells out her interests.
"I represent Virginia Houston in her proposal for collaborating with the town of Waitsfield in developing a mutually beneficial arrangement under which Ms. Houston will have the right to purchase excess water from the municipal water source according to certain terms and provisions to be worked out. In brief overview, Ms. Houston would have the unilateral right to purchase untreated water from the town on an exclusive basis for the purposes of wholesale or retail beverage sales or manufacturing uses (including, by way of example, bulk or retail drinking water, juices, manufacturing of soft drinks, brewing or distilling of beers, ales or spirits, etc.)," Blythe wrote.
Waitsfield Select Board chair Paul Hartshorn said the board reviewed the letter on behalf of Houston at its March 10 meeting and referred her first to the Waitsfield Water Commission as the appropriate board to negotiate contracts for the town water system.
Select board member Scott Kingsbury, who is also the chair of the water commission, said that he was approached by Houston last year on the issue.
"She called me in December and was talking to me about her interest in the town water. I told her I was open to talk to her about anything she'd like to do in town. Obviously, our customers come first and there's a lot to look at and consider, but the town is interested in working with anyone who has a proposal," Kingsbury said.
"From what I understand she wants to use water from our source, which goes through our storage tank, and she wants to use our infrastructure to bring the water down to The Valley floor. She also wants to use water from her wells and dump it through our pipes and our system," Kingsbury said.
In the early 1990s Houston tapped into a large aquifer on Reed Road. She spent many years in legal battles with the town, first to classify commercial water extraction as an agricultural use and, as such, a use by right (which went to the Supreme Court where she lost), then to change the town's zoning so that commercial water extraction was considered a use by right rather than a conditional use (three separate town votes on the issue before it passed as a conditional use). She then began permitting to truck water from the site and received local permits to do so. She did not use those permits.
In 2005, the town, seeking a source of water for its own water system, drilled a well in the Reed Road right of way. That set off another long round of legal battles which ended with the town settling with Houston in January 2013.
In January, Virginia Houston and the town of Waitsfield reached an agreement to settle all current and pending litigation for a sum of $31,000. The $31,000 that the town paid Houston is in addition to the $135,000 that she was awarded by Vermont Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford for the town's taking by eminent domain of two parcels of land for the town's municipal water project in October 2012.
The agreement settled seven lawsuits, including Houston's appeal of Crawford's October order to the Vermont Supreme Court. There were three other cases pending in Superior Court and another three cases in Vermont's Environmental Court.
Houston's property abuts Reed Road and she brought a variety of lawsuits against the town as soon as the town received a state water source permit to drill for its well. Houston and another abutter, Jean Damon, prevailed in one lawsuit against the town in 2010 when the Superior Court ruled that the town had not proven that Reed Road was a town road.
That decision brought work on a portion of the town's $7.6 million municipal water project to a halt. As a result of that decision, the town began simultaneously negotiating with Damon and Houston and pursuing condemnation proceedings for taking an easement on two small parcels (under a half acre) on each side of Reed Road. In July 2011, the town settled with Damon for $230,000.