Judge dismisses landfill lawsuit (Sept., 11, 2008)

Foes sought to overturn agreement

Sept. 11, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A judge has dismissed a legal challenge by Williston residents to an agreement between the town and the Chittenden Solid Waste district that permits a proposed landfill near their homes.

Chittenden Superior Court Judge Mathew Katz issued the five-page ruling last week. In it, he said the lawsuit filed by 37 residents living in the Martel Hill subdivision located less than a mile from the landfill site was without merit.

Katz said the town of Williston and CSWD were legally allowed to strike the 1992 agreement and that issues raised by the plaintiffs were political rather than judicial.

“As courts are limited to deciding actual cases or controversies, we must be wary of entering into solely political frays,” he wrote. “Here, it appears the plaintiffs may indeed have an interest affected by the contract at issue, however, their concerns with respect to the contract are largely political, rather than juridical. It is not our place to determine town policy — those decisions must be made by the town Selectboard.”

The ruling, while removing one obstacle, does not mean construction of the proposed landfill off Redmond Road will occur anytime soon. CSWD officials note they must still deal with another legal issue and have yet to settle on a landfill design.

“We expected this result,” said Tom Moreau, the waste district’s general manager. “Two municipalities ought to be able to enter into an agreement and have that agreement upheld. And it was.”

Craig Abrahams, one of the plaintiffs and a member of VOCAL, Vermont Organized Communities Against Landfills, said he and the other plaintiffs have yet to decide if they will appeal the ruling. Though supportive of the legal action, he said VOCAL was not directly involved in the legal action.

“We are disappointed with the court’s decision, and are waiting for our lawyers to review the judge’s findings,” Abrahams wrote in an e-mail. “VOCAL will continue fighting this unnecessary landfill. Nothing has changed. The proposed landfill is not needed by Chittenden County.”

The neighbors alleged that the agreement unlawfully delegated town authority to CSWD with an agreement that allows the waste district to build a landfill at some undefined time in the future. The agreement, the plaintiffs said, mandates that the town support any permit application regardless of the specific proposal.

Williston voters approved the so-called host town agreement. But opponents argue that the ballot question was so vague that voters did not realize what they were approving.

“People didn’t really know what they were voting for,” said Gwen Blankenheim, another one of the plaintiffs.

She and Abrahams also disagree with the judge’s reasoning that issues surrounding the host town agreement are political, not legal. They believe the contract in fact prevents the town from exercising any political control over the landfill or changing course into the future.

In his ruling, Katz said the Vermont Legislature explicitly permitted towns and waste districts, which are legally treated like municipalities, to enter into landfill agreements. He noted that municipalities are not required to set a termination date for contracts.

He also said that a town-wide vote was not needed to approve such contracts, making the argument that the ballot was vague seemingly beside the point.

“A popular vote is not required every time a town takes action,” Katz wrote. “This is a contract permitted the town, just like buying a snowplow, purchasing liability insurance or retaining legal services.”

Other hurdles must be cleared before CSWD builds any waste disposal facility. In fact, a much-publicized proposal made last year for a landfill that could have cost $89 million has been shelved, Moreau said.

The district is still trying to resolve a legal dispute with Hinesburg Sand and Gravel, which owns property where the landfill would be located. CSWD previously won the right to purchase the land through eminent domain proceedings, and a court set the price at $4 million. But with an appeal pending, the price has yet to be settled, Moreau said.

Meanwhile, the district is searching for ways to reduce waste, which is currently trucked to Coventry because there is no landfill in Chittenden County.

Mike Coates, Williston’s representative on the CSWD governing board, said recycling technology is changing so fast that it is not clear what type of facility will be best by the time all the legal and permitting issues are settled.

“The thing is technology has fast-forwarded so fast that we have an obligation to take a step back and look at everything that is happening,” he said. “It’s possible that it would be a very small, sophisticated landfill or something that processes waste into energy.”