Voters approve Chester water project by wide margin

By Shawn Cunningham and
Cynthia Prairie

©2015-Telegraph Publishing LLC

With a turnout more than double either of the two previous ballots, Chester voters Tuesday passed a $4 million bond for a project to add a 330,000 gallon water tank and replace aging mains. The measure passed by a vote of 280 to 121 with turnout of 401 registered voters or 18 percent of the checklist.

John and Debbie Zink vote for first time in Chester.

John and Debbie Zink vote for first time in Chester.

Town Clerk Deb Aldrich said that voting was steady from the polls’ opening at 9 a.m.  With the new tank and water mains, the project will improve pressure during firefighting and remedy water loss that is estimated to be 38 percent of the water flow.

Town Manager David Pisha, who has be integral in promoting the project to town residents, said Tuesday night that he was pleased with the turnout, adding “This is a very positive end to a very long process.” But, he said, that if the vote had been against the project, ­“I was going to work with whatever the citizens wanted.”

As for next steps, Julie Hance, assistant to the town manager, said, “I think they will start the loan paperwork and then we can go out to bid.”

Town Manager David Pisha

Town Manager David Pisha

Pisha said he has heard there is a lot of interest in the project from contractors. When asked about a timeline, he said, Engineer “Naomi (Johnson) said she’d like to see construction started and completed in 2016.”

Asked what he would have done differently to speed the process, Pisha said, “We were dealing with so many moving parts. Had we realized the importance of the Median Household Income (to the loan formula) we would have taken the survey sooner.”

He added that it would have been better if the town had provided more facts to the citizens sooner. Still, at this point, Pisha said, “I’m happy with the outcome, happy for Chester and happy for the Water Department.”

Johnson, of Dufresne Group, said, “This is a major project for a small town.  I personally look forward to the construction phase.  During that period, we will welcome public interest …”

From Point A to approval

The project has faced a long and winding road.

On May 19 — the first vote — only 198 residents voted, approving the water project 112 to 86. However, that vote had to be affirmed by voters because it had not been properly warned. That next vote, taken June 30, had an even poorer turnout, and the project went down to defeat 69 to 74.

The water project has caused controversy since it first became public in part because it involved the purchase of 139 acres from a company owned by Amy and Mike O’Neil. Amy O’Neil is the sister of engineer Naomi Johnson, who recommended the purchase, saying that it was the best and least expensive site for a new water tank to back up the 1-million gallon tank on Reservoir Road. The O’Neil property – which had been used as a gravel pit –  sits high above Route 103 behind Green Mountain Union High.

Ballots are counted Tuesday night.

Ballots are counted Tuesday night.

In 2014, the Chester Select Board held an executive session (behind closed doors) to discuss the recommendation and also the gravel that could be extracted from the site. ( The improper use of an executive session was a situation that The Chester Telegraph formally complained about.)

Pisha linked the purchase of the land for the water project to much-needed gravel for roads as a way to pay for the water project. This caused confusion among many residents.

And it seemed as though some members of the Select Board did not understand either the project or its somewhat complex financing package that would make the project possible, causing some in the community to question their commitment to it.

Over the course of the past few months, Pisha has sought to unlink gravel from the water project, and Water Superintendent Jeff Holden has helped by speaking at several meetings on the difficulty he faces in repairing aging, leaking and broken water lines.

The water project has recently been boosted by the fact that the town will save $800,000 in borrowing from the state Drinking Water Loan Fund because the water district’s Median Household Income is $16,000 per household less than what had been expected. The fund rates are based on the MHI, and this reduced the terms of the loan from 3 percent for 24 years to -1.5 percent for 30 years.

This means that the water users would borrow $3.7 million and only have to pay back $2.9 million.

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