Court rejects homeowners landfill appeal (11/19/09)

Ruling upholds Williston’s host town agreement

Nov. 19, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Vermont Supreme Court has upheld an agreement between the town and the Chittenden Solid Waste District concerning a planned landfill in Williston.

In a unanimous opinion issued Friday, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling and rejected arguments by plaintiffs that the host town agreement illegally delegated municipal authority.

“I’m very disappointed in the decision,” said Craig Abrahams, one of the plaintiffs and a member of Vermont Organized Communities Against Landfills. He vowed that VOCAL will continue fighting the plans for what he and other foes believe is an unnecessary and expensive landfill.

Gwen Blankenheim, another one of the group of Williston homeowners who challenged the agreement, said the ruling might ultimately prove moot because the landfill may never be constructed.

“I think the farther out you push it, the more expensive it becomes,” she said. “And the more expensive it becomes, the less likely it is to be built.”

Tom Moreau, CSWD general manager, said he was pleased but unsurprised by the ruling.

“It’s nice to have an agreement that we put a lot of time and effort into affirmed,” he said. “How else can you plan unless you can put up an agreement that you can go by?”

But Moreau downplayed the ruling’s significance, saying it moves CSWD no closer to actually constructing a landfill. He said the district has put planning for the landfill on hold while it focuses on boosting recycling, an effort that could reduce the size and cost of any future landfill.

In 1992, Williston voters approved the host town agreement, which called for CSWD to close the town’s landfill and construct a new facility. The agreement requires Williston to use its “best efforts” to support permit applications for the landfill and affirm that it complies with the town plan.

The neighbors’ appeal alleged that the agreement “impermissibly contracted away to CSWD its statutory power to participate as an independent party in the permitting process for the proposed regional landfill.”

But the court’s 13-page ruling noted that the Vermont Legislature gave CSWD and other waste districts authority to enter into contracts for landfills. The court said it was only logical that such agreements include pledges of support by towns that host landfills.

“We are hard-pressed to see how a contract between a municipality and a third party would operate if the municipality could withdraw its support for the joint venture at will,” the court said.

Further, the court noted that “the town has not ceded any legislatively derived power.” The landfill would still have to receive state Act 250 and local permits, the court said, and the agreement does not guarantee they will be granted.

The ruling also nixed the neighbors’ argument that the host town agreement is void because it includes no termination date. The court said constructing a landfill “is necessarily a long-term venture,” making it impossible to determine a precise lifespan for the contract. Though contracts cannot be perpetual, the court said they can run for an unspecified “reasonable time.”

Opponents assert there is enough capacity in existing private landfills in Coventry and Moretown. But supporters say a landfill is needed closer to Chittenden County to reduce long-haul truck traffic.

Abrahams said VOCAL will continue its battle against the landfill.

He said the waste district has failed to do enough to encourage recycling and asserts the $94 million price tag for the first two phases of the landfill is far too costly.

Moreau has rebutted those arguments, saying that the original landfill plan has been shelved and that CSWD does a better job of encouraging recycling than any other solid waste district in Vermont.

But the district does agree with its critics’ assertion that more waste could be recycled. CSWD will soon choose a firm to study how to best recycle organic waste, which Moreau said comprises about a quarter of everything collected by the district. The study is expected to be completed by July.