November 26, 2014

Commission delays decision on rezoning case

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By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston Planning Commission on Tuesday tabled a controversial rezoning request that would allow a growing high-tech company to expand.

The commission voted 3-2 to delay a vote after Bill Dunn, the developer who sought the rezoning, asked for a chance to present more information. Dunn, who did not attend the meeting, relayed the request through Town Planner Lee Nellis.

Nellis said Dunn wanted to give a representative of Qimonda, the technology company that hopes to move to a bigger building on Dunn’s land, an opportunity to speak about the case.

The commission had appeared ready to deny the rezoning request. Consulting with commissioners via e-mail in the days before this week’s meeting, town planning staff had prepared a document called a record of decision that rejected the rezoning and explained why. More than 30 residents attended the commission’s previous session, most arguing against the rezoning.

But Nellis told the commission that it has been common practice to allow any citizen a chance to speak. Commissioners debated the request for about 30 minutes before narrowly approving the delay.

“I think it would be rude to Qimonda to just say no,” said commissioner Kevin Batson.

Other commission members wanted to immediately make a decision. George Osol and Ron Herath voted against the delay.

“I can’t think of anything they would present that would change our position,” Herath said.

“I think the same thing, but I also think we owe it to him to listen,” said commissioner Steve Bradish.

Dunn owns the Hillside East business park on Hurricane Lane, where Qimonda has outgrown its existing research and development facility. The company produces memory chips for consumer applications.

But Dunn has said there is no room in Hillside East for Qimonda to expand, so he wants the town to rezone a 55-acre parcel of land he owns just south of the business park. That would allow Dunn to construct a new 50,000-square-foot facility for the company.

Nearby residents are adamantly opposed to the rezoning, which would change Dunn’s parcel and most likely the surrounding land from agricultural-rural to a commercial designation. They raised issues ranging from traffic problems to decreased property values during an Oct. 3 public hearing.

Only one person attended Tuesday’s meeting. The unidentified woman watched the proceedings but did not speak.

The request presents a dilemma for the town, which has a disconnect between employment and housing that creates traffic congestion and impacts the environment. And town officials have in the past expressed a desire to attract more high-paying jobs.

Most Williston residents work elsewhere. Meanwhile, thousands of workers commute to Williston, many if not most to retail jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the cost of the town’s relatively high-priced housing.

A draft of the record of decision acknowledged the risk that Qimonda could move elsewhere if the commission denies the rezoning request.

“The commission recognizes the potential economic impact of this decision and urges the Town to take a proactive role in helping Qimonda stay in Williston,” the document said.

But the record of decision concluded that the rezoning “would not be consistent with the public interest at this time.” The document noted that commercial development would increase traffic in the already congested area south of Interstate 89 and noted that alternate sites in Williston are available for the company’s expansion.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to again discuss the rezoning and perhaps take testimony from Qimonda at its Nov. 7 meeting.

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Landfill dissent may spread to Essex

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

While Williston town officials explore buying out of an agreement to host a regional landfill, those against the project are turning to Essex residents to widen opposition.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire last week sent a letter to Tom Moreau, general manager of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, that said the town would like to “explore the concept” of buying out of a 1992 agreement to host a regional landfill.

In the two-paragraph letter, McGuire said the town “has no interest in breaching the host town agreement.” Moreau said he expected the district’s board of commissioners to discuss the letter Wednesday night, after this week’s Observer had gone to print.

In 1992, Williston voters by a 3-1 margin gave town officials the authority to sign a “host town agreement” with the Chittenden Solid Waste District. The 66-page document outlines conditions for selling land to the solid waste district for use as a regional landfill. The District opened an interim regional landfill in December 1992, and closed it when it reached capacity in 1995.

Though a legal battle over the land and the permitting process (see page 5) make the opening of the proposed landfill potentially years away, this summer residents began organizing to oppose it. As of last week, more than 900 residents had signed a petition opposing the project, according to Williston Neighborhood Coalition member Craig Abrahams. Some residents have said they were not informed about the landfill plan prior to purchasing their houses, and they believe it will affect their property values. Others have expressed health concerns (see related story page 3).

An attorney hired by the town earlier this month said breaking the host town agreement by opposing the landfill would “expose the town to significant liabilities,” in part due to money paid to the town by the District.

The town has received nearly $3.7 million from the Chittenden Solid Waste District since the signing of the host town agreement, according to information on the District’s Web site. McGuire said though he can’t quickly verify the accuracy of each line item, the list accurately reflects his memory of how the host town fees – informally called “landfill money” in previous years – were being spent.

Most of the money has gone toward capital improvements that touch nearly every facet of town. Some money has gone toward fire and police equipment (over $700,000); sidewalk, path and footbridge improvements (over $700,000); other public works equipment and projects (over $900,000); Williston schools (over $300,000) and cemetery land and improvements (over $250,000). Money also has gone toward recreation, library and town office infrastructure improvements. The fees also pay for annual environmental student scholarships.

McGuire said town officials will be involved in the months ahead regardless of the District’s response to his letter.

“We still have an obligation to make sure people’s concerns are addressed by the solid waste district during the permitting process,” McGuire said.

The opposition group is pursuing their agenda of defeating the landfill by expanding to Essex. Bob Marcotte of Essex Junction, a developer, said a member of the Williston coalition called him this week about starting a petition drive in the neighborhoods located across the river from the proposed landfill.

Marcotte said Pinewood Manor, for which he is developer, Perkins Bend, and Forestdale Heights developments would be most affected by the project. When a landfill was active in Williston in the early 1990s, Marcotte said the Perkins Bend condominium roofs drew numerous seagulls that carried waste from the landfill and left their own waste on what were originally blacktop roofs.

“Within six months to a year they were white and all the chicken bones were rolling down onto their lawns,” he said.

CSWD plans to announce dates of public meetings to discuss the conceptual design of the proposed landfill in the coming week.

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Landfill review presents potential obstacles

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Town has limited say in process under state law

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The proposed landfill faces obstacles beyond widespread opposition from Williston residents. The permit process can potentially produce lengthy delays and outright roadblocks – although the town’s review may be more akin to a speed bump.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District wants to build a landfill on Redmond Road that will accommodate refuse from throughout the area. Residents in neighborhoods near the site have formed a coalition to fight the landfill.

CSWD’s governing board has yet to approve the project. But that approval seems likely given the district’s long-running and expensive legal battle to acquire the site and extensive planning for the landfill.

If the district moves forward with the project, the focus will shift to navigating a complex permitting process that involves two state entities as well as Williston’s Development Review Board. The process could easily produce substantial delays, wrote Tom Moreau, CSWD general manager, in a letter to the town earlier this year.

“One obvious potential delay is the appeal of our permits, which could set the schedule back a year,” he wrote.

The state could reject the landfill for a number of reasons; the DRB is allowed to review the project but not deny it outright if it meets the town’s land-use rules.

A change in law enacted in 2004 limits scrutiny of landfills by municipalities. The law now allows only a site plan review that looks at things such as location, size, height and parking.

Paul Gillies, an attorney who represents the town, has told Williston officials that the Development Review Board can impose requirements but not reject the project simply because it is a landfill.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is charged with certifying that the project meets technical standards governing landfills. The process includes a review of the site itself, as well as design and operation of the facility. The agency may impose conditions or requirements “as deemed necessary to protect public health and safety and the environment,” the review rules state.

The agency’s review affords multiple opportunities for public comment. All property owners within a half-mile of the landfill must be notified. Notices of public hearings must be published in area newspapers.

A CSWD timeline estimates it will take five months to navigate the certification process.

“I suppose it’s possible,” said Chris Wagner, chief of the Agency of Natural Resources Solid Waste Compliance Section. The review time depends on factors ranging from the completeness of the application to employees’ work schedules, he said.

Would hundreds of opponents convince the agency to deny a permit? “For us, it’s purely about conformance with the rules,” Wagner said.

The landfill will also be reviewed under the state’s Act 250 land-use law. The process will consider whether the landfill meets Act 250 criteria. The District 4 Environmental Commission, which has offices in Essex Junction, will conduct the review.

The commission will likely consider criteria that cover the landfill’s traffic, stormwater and aesthetic impacts, said Peter Keibel, co-coordinator of District 4.

Huge numbers of opponents could slow the process if they testify individually, he said. If many people testify, it could force the commission to conduct additional hearings.

The waste district’s timeline for the Act 250 process is about six months, which Keibel said is realistic.

Officials say there can be some overlap of the three review processes, potentially reducing the total time it takes to receive approvals. CSWD estimates it will take a year to obtain all the permits.

Both town and state decisions can be appealed to the Vermont Environmental Court. When the decisions of more than one board or agency are appealed for the same project, the court will sometimes consolidate them into a single case, said Kathleen Lott, docket clerk for the court.

Appeals have taken as little as a month to as long as four years, she said. It all depends on the complexity of the case and whether parties attempt to settle or battle until the bitter end.

“There is no particular time frame,” Lott said. “It’s on such a case-by-case basis. Everything is so individual with land use.”

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Delay in rezoning case concerns neighbors

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Developer says he will propose alternative

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Residents opposed to a proposal to rezone land near their homes for commercial use expressed surprise and concern about the Williston Planning Commission’s decision to delay a vote so it could hear further testimony.

Commission members on Oct. 17 tabled the matter until their next meeting. Bill Dunn, the developer who sought the rezoning, asked for the delay so Qimonda, the high-tech company that wants to move to the site, can address the commission.

The company’s research and development facility is currently located in Hillside East, the business park Dunn owns adjacent to the land he wants to rezone. But Qimonda has run out of space at the current facility and wants to relocate to a new 50,000 square-foot building on the land to be rezoned.

The commission had appeared ready to reject the rezoning at last week’s meeting. Consulting with the town’s planning staff, the commission had produced a written decision denying the request. But by a narrow 3-2 margin, they voted to table the matter until hearing from Qimonda.

“All of a sudden here we go again,” said Larry Reed, who lives on Vermont 2A adjacent to the land to be rezoned. “I’ve got to question what’s going on. I’m suspicious.”

“That surprised me,” said Williston resident David Martin about the delay. Martin also lives next to the 55 acres of land Dunn sought to change from rural-agricultural zoning to a designation that would allow the Qimonda facility.

Martin felt the delay could make it easier for the town to defend a no vote on the rezoning. “I’m sure the town is just protecting its own butt,” he said.

Martin LeWinter, another nearby resident and president of the Oak Hill Estates Association, said some of his neighbors “are confused about why the commission would continue this if they’ve made up their minds.” But LeWinter said he is OK with the commission hearing more comments.

“Personally, I don’t have a problem with them listening to the company,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if anything new comes out of it.”

Dunn said Tuesday afternoon that he in fact does have something new to say. Having concluded that the commission will not approve a rezoning, he now intends to ask for a boundary line adjustment.

His new proposal involves adjusting boundaries so that a fraction of the land he wants to build on is considered part of Hillside East.

The change would avoid the need to rezone the parcel by placing five to 10 acres in the same commercial zoning district as Hillside East, Dunn said. Both residents and town planning staff worry that rezoning could have far-reaching affects and lead to spreading commercial development south of Interstate 89.

“It’s a creative way to accommodate Qimonda and not impact the neighbors,” Dunn said.

Reed said the boundary line adjustment might be more acceptable than the rezoning. It all depends on the details, he said, such as exactly where the new building is located and placement of the access road. Dunn’s original idea was to access the new Qimonda facility via a road along Reed’s property line.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to again consider the rezoning case at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7. The meeting begins at 7:15 p.m.

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Beckett makes first House bid

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Editor’s note: This is the last in a series of profiles of the four candidates running for Williston’s two open seats in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Republican Deb Beckett doesn’t like the partisanship she sees in Montpelier.

“There’s a lot of things I would like to see changed,” Beckett said in an interview last week. “I think I can do better at the compromise.”

Though she has “always wanted to run” for the Legislature, Beckett said various people in and out of Williston encouraged her to do it this year. She agreed.

Beckett is one of four candidates running to represent Williston in the Vermont House of Representatives. Incumbents Jim McCullough and Mary Peterson, both Democrats, and Republican Mike Quaid also are running in the Nov. 7 election. The four will be vying for two seats.

The only one of the four candidates who has not been a Representative – Quaid served two terms from 1999 to 2002 – Beckett said it is her “well rounded” public service in Williston that makes her qualified for the position. Beckett has served as town clerk and treasurer for nearly eight years, and has served in several volunteer positions since the early 1990s.

She said her top priorities if elected include reducing education spending in elementary and secondary schools; making housing, health care and college more affordable; and seeking alternative energy sources for the state.

Education funding

Beckett sees no drawbacks to Gov. Jim Douglas’ proposal to cap increases in education spending to roughly the rate of inflation annually.

“I think the schools need to work within that,” Beckett said.

Beckett believes the biggest savings in education spending can be found in salaries and benefits. Though she believes Williston’s student-to-teacher ratios are reasonable, the ratios in smaller schools are not.

“If ( Vermont’s) student population is going down, why isn’t the number of our teachers going down?” Beckett asked.

With “far too much administration” in school systems, Beckett said, the state needs to look at consolidating school districts and closing small schools, though she acknowledged those are hard decisions. Regional teachers contracts would also help reduce salary costs, Beckett believes, though she also supports teachers’ right to strike.

Beckett, like all three of her competitors, believes the state’s current education funding structure needs work. She supports repealing current education funding law that relies on property taxes, with modifications to individual taxes based on income. Beckett supports a system that is more reliant on income tax, though some property tax would be necessary, she said.

Beckett is opposed to proposals for universal pre-school education and would rather see that money go toward colleges and the university.

“We put so little into our higher education system. We have to look at our priorities,” Beckett said.

She supports the governor’s proposal for college scholarships for Vermont students who stay in state, but disagrees the money should come from a tobacco lawsuit settlement. Instead, she would look at all current education funds, she said, to see how increasing efficiency and shifting priorities might help higher education get more.

Not a ‘yes woman’

Beckett said as a Representative she would not be a “yes woman” to Gov. Douglas if he was re-elected. Though she said there aren’t many of the governor’s positions with which she disagrees, there are some.

Beckett said she supports all tobacco lawsuit settlement money going toward health education and anti-smoking initiatives; the governor wants some of it for scholarships. She supports development of wind power more than she believes the governor does.

Overall Beckett believes Catamount Health, a health care bill passed last session, is good.

One provision she would not have supported, she said, requires employers to pay for health insurance for temporary workers, even if they have coverage through a spouse or parent. Beckett said that seems unfair to employers.

Also on the issue of employers, Beckett said she would not have supported the law, signed in 2005, increasing the state minimum wage. The law raised the minimum wage from $7 to $7.25 an hour starting this year, with incremental increases annually thereafter.

Social values: ‘It depends’

Beckett said how she describes herself on social issues “depends on which ones,” though her answers to a political survey suggest she leans more conservative than liberal.

She is opposed to the death penalty and physician-assisted suicide. Abortions should be legal, Beckett believes, only when the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape or the life of a woman is endangered. Parents “absolutely” have the right to be notified before a minor child has an abortion, she said.

Beckett does not support affirmative action in public employment or college and university admissions, nor does she support crimes based on protected categories such as race, religion or sexual orientation be prosecuted as hate crimes. When asked if she would have supported a bill this last session banning discrimination in employment on the basis of gender identity, she shook her head.

“No, why?” she said. “I think our laws cover that right now.”

Though the bill was supported by a majority of legislators, the governor vetoed it this last legislative session.

Leaning in a more liberal direction, Beckett supports sex education programs that address contraception as well as abstinence.

Beckett said she has “no problem” with civil unions.

Doing both jobs

If elected, Beckett will retain her job as town clerk. She said other town clerks – both in smaller towns and in larger ones – have managed both jobs simultaneously. Beckett has a firm response to one of her opponents who, at a candidate forum recently, said being a legislator is a full-time job.

“It’s not,” she said during her interview. “We have a part-time Legislature.”

Prior to agreeing to run for office, Beckett said she asked the assistant town clerks if they would help cover her duties if she was elected. She said they’d agreed, as they had when she was deployed to Kuwait with the National Guard last year for 14 months.

Beckett plans to work half time as town clerk during the months the Legislature is in session, January through April or May. On Mondays, when the Legislature does not convene, Beckett will work 10 hours. On other days, she’ll come in early mornings or afternoons. Her clerk salary will be reduced by 50 percent during these months, she said.

When asked how she would respond to residents who ask why they pay for a full-time town clerk if the job can be done half time with the help of assistants who already work full-time, Beckett appeared surprised by the question. In an email after the interview, she emphasized that being a town clerk is a “24/7 responsibility.”

It’s not uncommon for her to go into the office on an evening or weekend, she wrote, to issue a marriage license, a certified copy of a birth certificate for someone wanting to travel to Canada, or locate the owner of a lost dog. Those duties are on top of evening meetings with the Board of Abatement, the Board of Civil Authority, the Cemetery Commission or for a tax appeal hearing, she said.

“A Town Clerk is a true public servant all of the time – not just during regular office hours,” she wrote. “I truly do not see that changing.”

‘Moderate person’

Beckett said she most wants Williston residents to know that she’s a moderate.

“I like to look at both sides of an issue, to listen, before making a decision,” she said. “I don’t see where that’s happened necessarily all the time this past session.”

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