Board may reconsider contentious vote on housing project

Dispute turns on road access for subdivision

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Development Review Board will revisit its controversial decision to reject a senior housing project based on reasoning that even some board members said was flawed.

Former Williston Selectboard member Herb Goodrich wants to build a 14-unit development on land he owns off U.S. Route 2 between Taft Corners and Williston Village.

The board on Jan. 24 voted 5-0 to deny preliminary approval because plans did not provide two ways in and out of the development. But immediately following the vote, the board learned there was in fact a second road in the adjacent Pinecrest Village subdivision.

The project’s would-be builder, Russell Barone of Williston-based Barone Construction Inc., has since submitted a written request to have the vote reconsidered.

Goodrich was bluntly critical of the vote and dismayed the board did not know about the other access road.

“They made a bad decision,” he said. “If they didn’t know what they were talking about, they should have tabled it.”

Board Chairman Kevin McDermott said the issue of a second access, which the town requires for safety reasons in case the primary road is blocked, was raised during closed-door deliberation of the project. Since board members couldn’t obtain more information at that point, he said, they had no way of knowing that there was another way in and out of the project.

“It would have been better if everything came up during the public hearing,” he said. “But we may have a second chance.”

McDermott said he would vote to reconsider the board’s decision “as long as it’s legal.”

Town Planner Lee Nellis said legal advice the town received indicates there is precedent supporting a reconsideration vote when new evidence becomes available. He said the board would review the decision at its Feb. 14 meeting. If the board votes to reconsider, another public hearing would be held to decide the project’s fate.

The unusual events surrounding the initial hearing came amid opposition to the project from neighbors. About 15 people from nearby Pinecrest Village and The Commons attended the meeting.

Neighbors from Pinecrest Village complained the new housing would clog traffic and asserted the new development’s driveway crossed their common land. Residents of The Commons worried the development could block their views and create stormwater problems.

After closing the public hearing, the board moved on to other agenda items. It later held a closed-door meeting to discuss the project.

Two members sat out to avoid conflicts of interest: Cathy O’Brien, who had surveyed wetlands for Goodrich before the project was proposed, and Brian Jennings, who lives in Pinecrest Village.

When the meeting was reopened, the other five members unanimously voted to reject the project. McDermott said the development failed to comply with a town ordinance that requires subdivisions with 50 or more units to have two means of access and egress. The board considered Pinecrest Village and the new project as one in counting the number of units because they would share an access road.

But Jennings immediately pointed out there was a second road in and out of Pinecrest Village. O’Brien criticized her fellow board members for raising an issue that was never mentioned during the public hearing.

Even if there hadn’t been a second access road, Goodrich said it was unfair to combine his project with the 81 condominiums in Pinecrest Village in deciding whether the plan met town requirements.

“You can’t make up your own rules in this game,” he said. “There’s nothing in the rules that says you can join these two together.”

If the board votes to reconsider its decision, it remains to be seen whether the other access road in Pinecrest Village will be viewed as adequate. The road – really more akin to a wide and winding path – runs from Cedar Lane in Pinecrest Village to U.S. Route 2. It is overgrown with grass and at times blocked by those parking in a visitor’s lot on the Cedar Lane end.

Barone said he believes the project would benefit the town by providing more housing for the rapidly growing senior population. He said he is confident that the board will do the right thing.

“We believe we are doing something good and nice,” Barone said. “It’s unfortunate the way things happened. But we think the town can find a way to remedy that.”