Municipal water upgrade, land purchase discussed by Chester Select Board

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With uncertainties about how long state funding will be available and a number of questions unanswered, the upgrade to Chester’s municipal water system took center stage in the second Select Board meeting in a row that came in under two hours in length. Also at the Wednesday March 18 meeting were planning commission appointments and discussions of an economic development board, regional hazard mitigation plans, sidewalk paving and preserving access to Class 4 and ancient roads

Naomi Johnson of Dufresne Group addresses the Chester Select Board. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Naomi Johnson of Dufresne Group addresses the Chester Select Board. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Water project: Many questions, tight timeframe

Naomi Johnson of Dufresne Group, which has been working on the engineering report for improvements to Chester’s municipal water system, reported that Eric Law of the state’s drinking water fund had been in the area that afternoon and that he would have definitive numbers on financing of the project for the next meeting.

Johnson said that Law said he could reduce the Median Household Income number that the state uses for calculating the interest rates of bonds by using a smaller section of the town recorded by the U.S. Census.

To calculate a bond deal, Law needs the town to provide an overlay of the water district on top of the Chester/Chester Depot Census Defined Place and the number of equivalent residential users. That area has a much lower income than the town as a whole. But in an interview on Tuesday, Law said he would probably not be able to provide an outline of a funding deal to the Select Board since he has not received the “homework” he needs from the town.

According to Johnson, Law still recommends doing an income survey for the water district, noting that any reduction in MHI will further lower the overall cost of the project. Johnson told the board that Law said that the town would need to vote on a bond issue by the end of May for the state to continue to earmark funds for the project. On Tuesday, Law told The Telegraph that while the state can fund the full amount of the project, after June 1, he can’t guarantee all of that money. “Post June 1, it’s not no,” said Law, “but there’s no guarantee of all the funds.”

From left, board members Tom Bock and Bill Lindsay.

From left, board members Tom Bock and Bill Lindsay.

“Is the board committed to the project?” asked town manager David Pisha during the meeting.

“My level of commitment is tempered by how much it’s going to cost,” said board member Tom Bock.

Pisha noted that the result of Law’s calculations will give the town a maximum cost of financing to work from with the idea that some factors may reduce that upper limit.

Board member Heather Chase asked where the proposed water tank for the eastside of the system stood.

“The most ideal site,” said Pisha, “is the O’Neil site.”

Chase expressed concern with going before the town’s voters with several questions still open. Pointing to a purchase price of $399,000 for the 139 acres -– more that 25 percent over its assessed value — and noting that whether or not it was real, there is an appearance of a conflict of interest in the recommendation of the O’Neil site for the water tank. The land in question is owned by O’Neil Sand & Gravel, LLC which is owned by Michael and Amy O’Neil. Naomi Johnson and Amy O’Neil are sisters. Chase told the board that that appearance bothers her. It was this purchase that was discussed in an executive session on Nov. 19, 2014. The Telegraph has alleged that that session was illegal.

Defending the purchase price, Pisha pointed out that it is not just for “bare ground” but includes roads and engineering surveys and reports. At the time of the initial proposal, the town only sought 1 to 2 acres of land, but O’Neils said they would only sell the entire 139-acre parcel for $399,000.

Chase allowed that test pits had been dug, but, “I don’t want to pay $399,000 and take the land off the grand list without a plan.” When the purchase was discussed in the past, its financing was to be a combination of a loan from the town’s Cyprus Minerals Fund and the proceeds of selling gravel to the Highway Department. Questions about this were raised at the time and a business plan was requested by board members.

“I gotta tell you there are still a lot of questions that I have prior to going to a vote,” said Chase. “If the water is still muddy, I can’t support it.”

“The town would be getting something for our money that has a long term value,” said Pisha saying that he would put together a report.

Responding to questions about Act 250, Pisha said he had spoken with the owner of a gravel pit who told him that Act 250 would take one to one and a half years and cost $50,000 to $75,000. Chase responded by suggesting that the board invite April Hensel of the 2nd District Act 250 Commission to come and speak to the board about how this would work for a municipality.

Planning Commission appointments with (almost) no questions asked

With three candidates for two positions, the board decided to have an open session with questions to be asked of each candidate rather than interviewing the candidates in executive session. But almost no questions were ever asked.

Chairman John DeBenedetti opened the floor and board member Bill Lindsay immediately moved to reappoint Planning Commission chair Tom Bock and vice chair Naomi Johnson. Acknowledging the value of Johnson’s work on the board, Chase asked how Johnson separates the interest of the town from those of her engineering firm. 

Johnson told the board that there had been potential for conflict of interest when the Planning Commission still oversaw subdivisions.

With that job now in the hands of the Development Review Board, Johnson said she saw no potential for conflict. Pointing to Dufresne Group’s conflict policy and to that of the town of Chester, Johnson said that if a conflict arose, she would recuse herself. No other board members asked questions of the candidates.

In his motion, Lindsay noted that there is an alternate position on the commission and moved that architect  Claudio Veliz be appointed to that post. Veliz told the board that he is looking at property in Chester and in Andover and wondered what affect buying a home in Andover would have. Bock said that there is no residency requirement, only that the majority be Chester residents. Johnson resides in North Springfield.

While Select Board members pointed to a need for an alternate, a check of town reports from 1965 when the Zoning Commission (precursor to the Planning Commission) first appeared through 2014, shows that the position of “alternate” to the board has only been filled once – for one year – after which the appointee resigned the three-year appointment. The motion to appoint members and an alternate to the planning commission was passed unanimously.

Alison Hopkins of SWRPC.

Alison Hopkins of SWCRPC.

Hazard mitigation plans

Alison Hopkins of Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission answered questions about an All Hazard Mitigation Plan crafted by emergency responders from towns in the commission’s service area.

DeBenedetti confessed that he was unaware of the committee that had put together the plan, saying that the board’s concern was the cost of matching some of the grants outlined in the report.  DeBenedetti noted that among the goals was to have a new emergency services building in the next two years. “That would be nice,” said DeBenedetti, “but I don’t see it happening.”

Under old business, Pisha suggested the formation of a new Economic Development Board, which would report to him and by extension to the select board. Board members questioned what the assignment of the board would be and some expressed a desire to see a narrow focus that could be controlled. Also in old business, the board took note that the Andover Select Board will meet on Monday March 23 to look at the Memorandum of Understanding for fire and ambulance service. You can read that article here.

The board also discussed Class 4 roads and ancient roads and the need to monitor them to see if some landowners have gated and posted town rights of way. Several members expressed an interest in preserving town property.

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  1. Mike Leclair says:

    This may very well be a good deal but you need to show the taxpayers what you plan to do and lay out for us why this alleged overpriced location is worth the extra money we would have to spend. Please show us.

  2. Mary Jane Miles says:

    Really Mr. Pisha you think it is acceptable to pay over value in today’s market because they simply will not budge on the price?

    Are we obligated to this site or have we investigated the possibilities of other options? I have not read anything that indicates that we have looked at other options. Please let me know, is this purchase going to be borne by all of the taxpayers including those that do not use municipal water services??? If not have we considered the cost to the smaller group that does?

    I will not support a purchase of overpriced land to provide municipal services. I agree with Select Board member Heather Chase as well about the possible conflict of interest. I hope we are not going to make a kneejerk decision, without having looked at all of the options. I understand there are engineers involved with developing a plan on the one site but I do not think that the one site, overpriced is an option.

    I understand the owners want to recoup their losses. But when the possibility exists that I am footing the bill and we hear talk of what we may be able to do with the property to offset costs, none of which has been thoroughly defined makes me extremely reluctant to justify the purchase. If the prior owners could not extract more gravel without blasting and that permit was not allowed, how can we consider this as a resource for gravel for the town then in the future for the roads?

    I respectfully do not agree with you Mr. Pisha. The ends to not necessarily justify the means.