Town to discuss ‘buying out of’ landfill agreement
By Ben Moger-Williams
Irate Williston residents left Monday night’s Selectboard meeting feeling disappointed and angry after hearing about their limited options for fighting a proposed landfill.
“I think the whole thing is an outrage,” said a visibly upset Moya Muller, a three-year resident.
Muller and most of the nearly 100 others who showed up at the Williston Central School auditorium Monday were there to hear about the town’s options for opposing a proposed regional landfill.
Attorney Paul Gillies was hired by the town to answer questions posed by residents at an earlier meeting regarding the landfill. The landfill would be located on 66 acres off Redmond Road, on land currently owned by Hinesburg Sand & Gravel Co. In 1992, Chittenden Solid Waste District initiated eminent domain proceedings for the land, and won the right in court to purchase the property. The price is in dispute and the case is currently before the Vermont Supreme Court, so there is still no proposal before the town.
At Monday’s meeting, Gillies read a five-page letter attempting to address the main concerns residents had with the landfill and the Host Town Agreement, which was approved by voters in 1992 and signed by the town and the CSWD. The agreement says Williston will support the district’s application for the landfill. The town received about $1 million from the initial agreement and has received funds every year since then. Town Manager Rick McGuire said the town has received about $300,000 a year for the last few years, but was unsure about the amount received in previous years.
Gillies said the town, as represented by the Selectboard, could not oppose the landfill, since they had signed a contract (the Host Town Agreement) saying they would support it. Even though the Selectboard that signed the agreement was composed of different people, the contract still applies, he said.
However, the landfill will have to qualify for at least three different permits – a certification from the Agency of Natural Resources, an Act 250 permit, and a local zoning permit – in order to be approved, Gillies said. If any of the permits are denied, the landfill will not go through. Gillies said in order to effectively oppose the landfill, residents would have to form a group and gain “party status.” The party could then call witnesses and experts to testify in front of the Development Review Board or Act 250 Group and fight the permits on whatever grounds they thought would be effective.
Muller, who said she is a breast cancer survivor, expressed concerns during the meeting about health risks, including cancer, associated with landfills.
Gillies offered some hope.
“If you can prove as a party that it’s unhealthy then it would not be permitted,” he said.
One person in the audience asked if the town could seize the property and escape from the landfill agreement that way.
“It’s a provocative question,” Gillies said.
After hearing all of the public’s comments, the Selectboard said it had recorded residents’ concerns and would discuss the issue at its next meeting on Nov. 6. The meeting is currently scheduled for 7 p.m. at Town Hall, but could switch to the school if a large crowd is expected.
Many people, upset about potential health risks and decreased home values due to the landfill, expressed frustration because they believed the Selectboard was not doing enough to help them.
“I’d like to ask the current board when you will be proactive and try to negotiate your way out of this mess,” said Craig Abrahams, a member of the landfill opposition group, the Williston Neighborhood Coalition.
“If your Selectboard decided to be proactive in opposing the landfill they would be quickly brought to task by the district itself on the Host Town Agreement,” Gillies responded.
Gillies explained that the board could not legally break the contract, but they could ask the CSWD about options.
McGuire said Tuesday that the board had decided to do just that.
“The board … decided to have the town, through me, approach the Solid Waste District with the request that we begin a dialogue or begin a discussion on the potential for the town to buy out of the Host Town Agreement,” McGuire said.
He added that Selectman Jeff Fehrs, who works for the state Agency of Natural Resources in the Waste Management Division, recused himself from that discussion. Fehrs has also consistently recused himself from previous discussions regarding the landfill.
McGuire said he was drafting a letter to CSWD this week.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
Muller, after the meeting, appeared dismayed that Vermont, an environmentally conscious state, would have allowed the landfill.
“Everybody uses Williston already as a poster child of what not to do,” she said. “And now this.”
Many residents were incredulous that the Selectboard in 1992 would have approved the landfill, and wondered why members didn’t see it as a health and environmental hazard.
Several members of town boards at the time said the town benefited by signing the agreement. Prior to 1992, the town was operating its own landfill, which, unlike modern landfills, had no lining. After the agreement was signed, the CSWD capped the old landfill and created a new, lined one, which was operated for several years. George Gerecke served on the Planning Commission in 1992. He said that town voters approved the agreement so CSWD would create a new, safer landfill, and assume liability for the old landfill.
“That was more influential than any money,” Gerecke said.
Herb Goodrich, who was on the Selectboard in 1992, said he still thinks the landfill is a good idea for Williston.
“I think the town is better off with it here,” Goodrich said. “Once it’s done, the rates CSWD has to pay Williston will double because they don’t have to truck it out.”
Goodrich noted, however, that he empathizes with homeowners near the proposed site, many of whom say they had no idea about the proposed landfill.
“The real estate person should have been honest enough to say ‘maybe there’ll be a landfill site there some day,’” he said.
In a letter to the town planning commission dated Nov. 30, 1995, the CSWD recommended that the town make approval of the Ledgewood development contingent upon notifying potential homebuyers of the district’s plans for a landfill.
“While the District has no position concerning the appropriateness of XYZ’s proposed subdivision, it does feel strongly that any potential homebuyers of residential lots or homes in the area be made fully aware of the District’s activities, both current and future,” the letter says. XYZ Real Estate is the company that originally proposed the Ledgewood subdivision.
Another letter dated Oct. 15, 1996, was sent to the District 4 Environmental Commission, which decides Act 250 permits for Williston. That letter is similar to the Ledgewood letter, and urges the commission to impose a condition on the permit, which would notify homebuyers about the landfill site.
Mike Coates was appointed by the Selectboard to represent Williston on the CSWD board about six years ago. Coates was present at Monday’s meeting, and said he was not able to talk about the final plans for the landfill, because they don’t exist yet.
“It’s a work in progress,” Coates said in a phone interview.
He said the CSWD was planning a series of public meetings to inform Williston residents about the CSWD’s plans.
Coates said that one of the misconceptions people have is that there will be a 66-acre open trash pit in the town. He said that would not happen.
“What we’re talking about is a cell system with five-acre cells, and only one acre opened at a time,” he said.
He said the construction would be bowl-like and every night the trash dumped that day would be covered with dirt.
Coates also said he thought the landfill was a good idea. He cited a study done by CSWD which discussed the impact of trucks hauling Chittenden County’s garbage to the current landfill sites in Moretown and Coventry. He said the transportation costs $850,000 and burns 12,000 gallons of fuel per year.
“That all goes away when we have a landfill (in Williston),” he said.
Paul Gillies’ letter is available online at http://town.williston.vt.us/mgr/gillies.pdf
Staff reporter Marianne Apfelbaum contributed to this report.