August 28, 2014

Selectboard fence-sitting on the Circ

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Other town boards have taken positions

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard does not appear likely to soon make the same public expression of support for the Circumferential Highway that other town boards have made in recent months.

The governing boards in Essex Junction, Essex and Colchester have each reemphasized their support for the construction of the Circ since a consultant began preparing an Environmental Impact Statement on the project and alternatives to it, but the Williston Selectboard has so far remained noncommittal.

Representatives of the other towns have explicitly stated their support for the Circ.

For instance, Charles Safford, Essex Junction village manager, said the village’s Board of Trustees’ support for the Circ is “unequivocal.” Tom James, chairman of the Essex Town Selectboard, called his board’s support for the project “overwhelming.” Dick Paquette, chairman of the Colchester Selectboard, said a representative of his board attended each of three public meetings on the EIS last month to express the board’s “100 percent support for the Circ.”

In contrast, the Williston Selectboard has been circumspect on the Circ, a stance that seems glaring alongside the other municipalities. The lack of advocacy for the project does not appear to reverse the town’s past support for the Circ, but it does leave open the possibility that the board will later decide there is a better alternative to the project.

The proposed Circumferential Highway would form a 16-mile arc from Williston to Colchester. Road crews were prepared to move forward in May with the construction of a segment between Williston and Essex Junction. However, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions halted the work, ruling the environmental impacts of the project had not been sufficiently researched. The state has since begun the Environmental Impact Statement process, which is required to fully investigate alternatives to the Circ.

The Williston Selectboard has had several discussions about how to be involved in the EIS process — for example, how and when to make its feelings known about alternatives — but the possibility of reiterating its past support for the Circ has never been raised.

Williston Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons, a previous Circ supporter, said it would be irresponsible for the board to advocate for the project in the midst of the EIS process. Lyons said the board could ultimately be vigorous supporters of the Circ, but in the meantime has to maintain an open mind. For the same reason, she declined to state her current feelings about the Circ.

“I’m not going to say I support the Circ right now because I support the process we have and I can’t do both,” Lyons said.

However, Safford said the village’s advocacy for the Circ does not signal an unwillingness to consider alternatives — or a lack of support for the EIS.

“It just means the Circ is the one to beat,” he said.

James said the Essex Town Selectboard reiterated its support for the Circ in part to ensure it was on record favoring the project in the EIS. He said Essex residents overwhelmingly support the Circ and it was important that the town’s board makes that clear.

Other Williston Selectboard members seemed nearly as determined as Lyons to be noncommittal about the Circ.

For example, board member Terry Macaig said he has supported the Circ in the past and believes he will in the future, but thinks “it’s important to look at all of the alternatives now.”

Selectboard member Ted Kenney, who joined the board in March, said he supports the Circ, but remains unfamiliar with many aspects of the project and plans to use the EIS process to crystallize an opinion.

Similarly, board member Andy Mikell said in February he plans to base his opinion on what he learns through the EIS process.

The most concrete public position comes from board member Jeff Fehrs, who has opposed the project for years. Fehrs said he still does not support the Circ.

Fehrs said the fact the Selectboard has not renewed its support for the Circ does not show it opposes the project. He noted that the Selectboard passed a resolution supporting the Circ a few years ago.

“We’re perceived (to be undecided), but I think the board remains a pretty strong supporter of the Circ,” Fehrs said. “We’ve in no way rescinded the resolution we signed supporting it.”

A new proposed resolution was forwarded to the Williston Selectboard last month. It has already been approved in Essex, Essex Junction and Colchester. The resolution reveals strong reservations with the most prominent alternative to the Circ. The Williston Selectboard has not yet considered the resolution.

Earlier this year, a coalition of environmental groups proposed an alternative that would widen Vermont Route 2A and install a series of roundabouts at major intersections along the thoroughfare.

The towns’ governing boards are expected to contribute to the EIS discussion, though there is no formal role for them and their support for the project that is eventually recommended is not required. It remains unclear how much of an impact the towns’ preferences will have.

Rich Ranaldo, a project manager for the Agency of Transportation, did not return a message seeking comment.

There have been public concerns that the EIS process, which the state Agency of Transportation oversees, will not be an unbiased look at the alternatives and instead will tilt heavily toward the Circ. Gov. Jim Douglas has repeatedly stated that he supports the project.

Williston Selectboard members said they were confident that the state would in fact take an objective look at alternatives. Lyons said the concerns about bias illustrate why the Williston Selectboard should keep an open mind.

However, she said the board’s reluctance to push for the Circ now should not be interpreted as a desire to remain uninvolved.

“We need to weigh in each step of the way to make sure what’s best for the town is being discussed,” Lyons said. “We’ll be keeping an eye on all the issues as this thing goes forward.”

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