Town invokes rarely used power to secure land

Selectboard OKs eminent domain if negotiations fail

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard on Monday invoked the power of eminent domain – the constitutional authority of government to take control of land without the consent of its owner – for the first time in more than 20 years.

“This is not a frivolous motion,” Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons said. “The Selectboard is very concerned about having to do this. But it is something we need to do to ensure access to the public safety building.”

The small, wedge-shaped piece of land in question is on the east side of Talcott Road, and is a key access point to the town’s proposed new fire station. The town needs the land in order to gain approval for the fire station from the Development Review Board, which scheduled to meet Nov. 22. Approval would be impossible if the DRB was not convinced that the town would gain control of the land one way or another.

“The project fails without this piece,” Selectman Andy Mikell said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said the town has been in negotiations for the piece of land, currently owned by the Taft Farms Village Condominium Association, since June, but no deal has been reached.

The Selectboard initiated the process of condemnation, which refers to the town exercising its authority of eminent domain, after meeting in executive session for about 10 minutes at the end of Monday night’s meeting. Eminent domain is rarely used, and has not been employed by the town since the sewer system was installed more than 20 years ago, McGuire said.

However, McGuire stressed that negotiations for the land were ongoing, and were continuing in good faith.

The condo association’s property manager, Scott Michaud, said he expects the association’s board of directors will approve the sale sometime in the next week, and the condemnation process will not be necessary.

“It looks like we are going to sell the land to the town,” Michaud said. “It doesn’t look like it will be any issue whatsoever.”

The piece of land is a triangular parcel with an area of less than 2/10 of an acre. The land’s borders are Talcott Road to the west, the Allen Brook to the north and the tip of the triangle touches U.S. Route 2 to the south. To the east is the parcel of land on which the town hopes to construct a new firehouse.

Eminent domain is a power guaranteed to the federal government and to each state by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. States must demonstrate that the land is needed for “public use,” and the government must provide “just compensation” to the owner.

The Vermont State Statute specifically addresses the process of eminent domain in Title 24, Chapter 57, Section 1952, which says: “A town, city or incorporated village may acquire real property for purposes of a fire house or fire station by exercise of the right of eminent domain…”

If eminent domain is exercised, the town would have to go to court, declare that ownership of the land is a public necessity, and pay the owner fair market value. But board members hope the process will not reach that point.

“We are all hoping the negotiations bear fruit,” Selectman Jeff Fehrs said.