Developer doggedly pursues rule changes (10/29/09)

Jeff Atwood attends dozens of meetings

Oct. 29, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Developer Jeff Atwood shed his coat, placed papers in front of him and then made an eight-minute speech at last week’s Selectboard meeting that was equal parts plea for cooperation and policy critique.

“I’m hoping we can come to some compromise and resolution but I don’t see it happening so far,” said Atwood, who recently appealed in court restrictions that he says make it impossible to build his eight-unit subdivision on North Williston Road.

The town plan calls for construction of modestly priced homes like those offered by his project, he added, but that can’t happen without the board easing the burden of Williston’s growth control rules.

Atwood has become a familiar sight at Town Hall. He has appeared at or had his project discussed during 35 meetings of various boards over the past two years, minutes posted on the town’s Web site show.

He has more recently focused on the Selectboard, attending a half-dozen meetings in 2009.

Earlier this year, he argued against provisions in the unified development bylaw that he said would prevent construction of his project. After the bylaw passed, Atwood continued to press his case, sharpening criticism of the land-use rules and implying that town staff and board members have a hidden agenda.

“Unfortunately, your staff has got their hands in the sandbox,” he said at the Oct. 19 Selectboard meeting.

“Are you making an accusation against our staff?” asked Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig. Atwood said he wasn’t.

But in an interview, Atwood said his comment referred to a conflict of interest complaint he filed against Development Review Board member Richard Asch and former Town Planner Lee Nellis.

A committee of the Board of Civil Authority investigated the complaint but found no violation of Williston’s conflict of interest ordinance, said Town Clerk Deb Beckett.

The town’s conflict of interest ordinance forbids the release of information regarding a complaint if no wrongdoing is found, so Beckett said she could not provide details.

Macaig said he was irritated by Atwood’s vague allegation and surprised that he attended the meeting after taking the town to court.

“He has a lawsuit pending, so I sort of wondered why he was there,” Macaig said. “He certainly has the right to come to the board meetings, but I don’t think we are in the position to do anything until there is a settlement or the lawsuit is heard.”

“I’m annoyed too,” Atwood said. But he said he still has “faith and confidence” that the town will reconsider restrictions on his project.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said Atwood has repeatedly made “veiled references” to wrongdoing that are impossible to rebut.

“It’s unfortunate for me as a member of the staff who treasures our good reputation,” McGuire said.

Under Vermont’s public meeting law, the board is required to set aside time for public comment, so Atwood has the legal right to speak at each meeting. But Macaig said he could impose time limits in the future.

Atwood filed a permit application for the controversial subdivision off North Williston Road about three years ago. The project attracted opposition from residents on nearby Lefebvre Lane, who argued among other things that the planned multi-unit buildings were out of character with the existing neighborhood.

The Development Review Board granted a permit for the project in April. But phasing rules and sewer allocation limits will force Atwood to wait until 2011 to construct homes, which must then be built over a four-year period.

Those restrictions make the subdivision financially unfeasible, Atwood said. It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to install roads and other infrastructure, and he said he can’t afford to spend that much while waiting years to sell homes.

Atwood, along with co-applicants Dana and Brenda Hood, have appealed the project’s conditions of approval in Vermont Environmental Court.

The appeal challenges the phasing requirement, alleging affordable housing cannot be built “without undue financial sacrifice.” It also seeks to overturn a condition requiring Atwood to relocate driveways to avoid wetland buffers.

Atwood said he will continue to speak out at Selectboard meetings.

“I’ve got to keep pressing, I’ve got to keep fighting for it,” he told the board.