Circ delayed again by permit debate12/11/08

Army Corps considers wetland impact

Dec. 11, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

A lengthy debate about environmental impacts among federal and state officials has stalled progress on the long-delayed Circumferential Highway.

Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Highway Administration have met monthly since June to discuss a permit for the Circ’s Williston segment. At issue is whether the proposal meets standards spelled out with the federal Clean Water Act.

“Right now, negotiations are at an impasse with the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA,” said Michele Boomhower, executive director of the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization, during a Dec. 1 presentation to the Williston Selectboard.

Transportation officials denied talks have reached a standstill and downplayed disagreements among the agencies involved in the permitting process. But they acknowledge the talks have lasted longer than planned.

“Yes, the process with the Corps is going slower than anticipated,” said Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi. “But the Army Corps is giving us the time to put our best foot forward. So they are cooperating with us.”

Marty Abair, senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said her agency has yet to make a decision. She said she was reluctant to provide specifics because of the ongoing interagency discussions and the deliberative nature of the process.

“We are still evaluating the alternatives,” she said. “That is about as detailed as I can get right now.”

The state Agency of Transportation wants to fill wetlands along the proposed Circ route in Williston. Under the Clean Water Act, a permit can be issued only if the project is deemed the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

The route, called the A/B alignment, was selected last summer after a years-long study that considered dozens of alternatives. The options were eventually narrowed down to projects falling into three broad categories.

One set of options calls for building the Circ along the original route. Another group of alternatives involved widening Vermont 2A, adding lanes and perhaps roundabouts. A third option would be a hybrid using parts of each approach.

In August, federal and state transportation officials rejected as impractical the 2A alternatives. Zicconi noted that 2A options don’t meet the purpose of the Circ — improving traffic — and are opposed by the village of Essex Junction.

Abair said it was “kind of obvious” which alternatives have the least impact on wetlands. She said the A/B alignment affects 25 to 30 acres of wetlands; the 2A alternatives just two acres.

But Abair also emphasized that LEDPA is a two-pronged test. The other consideration is practicality. Her agency also weighs the overall public good of a project.

The EPA’s regional office in Boston said last year that it would not support a highway along the Circ’s original route. Abair said her agency has the last word on issuing a permit, although the EPA can request the decision be reviewed by the Army Corps’ headquarters in Washington D.C.

The Circ as originally designed decades ago was a 16-mile bypass running from Williston to Colchester. The idea was to ease traffic along 2A. But only the middle portion of the project in Essex has been constructed.

Preliminary work had commenced on the Williston segment in May 2004 when a federal judge ruled that more information was needed for the project, effectively halting work until a new Environmental Impact Statement was completed.

Since then, transportation officials have worked on the new EIS, holding numerous public hearings, gathering input from hundreds of people and winnowing down dozens of options.

The state Agency of Transportation this fall settled on the original Circ route. It starts at Interstate 89, intersects with U.S. 2 about a mile east of Taft Corners and runs near Allen Brook School and Redmond Road before crossing the Winooski River and connecting to the existing segment at Vermont 117.

The Army Corps issued a permit for a highway along the original route back in the 1980s. But the land has changed in the past two decades. Farming halted after the state bought the land and development grew up around the project area, Zicconi said. Those changes greatly expanded wetlands along the route.

The state could mitigate the loss of wetlands by preserving land elsewhere, said Ken Robie, project manager for the Agency of Transportation. Such mitigation was done back in the ’80s, he said, but additional off-site mitigation will now be required.

The highway’s design could also be altered to minimize its impact on wetlands. Zicconi said it is likely that components from the various A/B options would be used to win the Army Corps’ approval.

Though widening 2A would have a smaller impact on wetlands, Zicconi said that option does not improve traffic and won’t work because of Essex Junction’s opposition. The village owns land and controls road access that would be needed to construct the highway.

Another problem cited by officials with the 2A options would be the effect on neighboring property owners. The state would need to buy or condemn land owned by dozens of residents and businesses to complete the project.

Practical considerations are also important in the Army Corps’ permitting process, Abair said. While acknowledging public impatience to see something constructed, she said the Corps must follow the law as spelled out in Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Abair said she hopes a permit decision will be made by early next year.

“Clearly, we hoped we’d be through the Corps’ process by now,” Zicconi said. “How much longer we have to go I don’t have a feel for right now.”