Part 1 – A Closer Look: The long and winding road toward a municipal gravel source

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

This is the first in a two-part series on the water and gravel projects proposed for the town of Chester. Next week: Do water and gravel mix?

On Tuesday, May 19, Chester voters will be asked to decide whether to go forward with a $4 million water system upgrade, which includes the purchase of 139.57 acres of land on Route 103 South. But documents obtained from the town show that the Chester Select Board was discussing and likely negotiating to buy that land – holding at least six closed door sessions as early as the spring of 2011, long before the discussion of the proposed water project.

The field of boulders and stone on a flat area high above Route 103 south and southeast of Green Mountain Union High. All photos by Shawn Cunningham. Click a photo to launch the gallery.

The field of boulders and stone on a flat area high above Route 103 south and southeast of Green Mountain Union High. All photos by Shawn Cunningham. Click a photo to launch the gallery.

In the fall of 2014, the Dufresne Group — an engineering firm working for the town — recommended land located behind Green Mountain Union High School as a less expensive alternative for siting a second water tank that would solve fire flow and pressure deficiencies and give the municipal water system some needed redundancy in water storage.

Town Manager David Pisha has said that he asked the owners of the property – Mike and Amy O’Neil – for 1 or 2 acres for siting the tank, but was told that the 139.57 acre lot was only for sale as one piece.

After the board discussed this purchase in a closed door meeting on Nov. 19, 2014, Pisha brought forward a proposal to buy the property and reduce the cost of the water project by selling gravel from the property to the town’s Highway Department at below-market rates, then using profits from the sales to make payments on the state loans. But when questions — including conflict of interest, a purchase price $95,700 above the assessment of $303,300,  how much gravel remains and how much time and money would be involved in obtaining an Act 250 permit — Pisha asked the public to keep the water and gravel projects separate when considering how to vote.

The first issue was gravel

Beginning in March 2011 and continuing throughout that summer — which saw the arrival of Tropical Storm Irene — the Select Board hired engineer Everett Hammond to study the property, consulted town attorney Jim Carroll and met twice in executive session with the O’Neils. It is clear from the work product of Hammond and Carroll that the objective was gravel.

  • On Tuesday, March 29, 2011, the Select Board received a spreadsheet and email from Hammond ahead of an executive session that evening. The spreadsheet outlined costs of extracting and processing gravel for the years 2012 to 2016.
  • On Wednesday, April 13, 2011, the board held a stand-alone executive session outside its regular meeting schedule. Mike and Amy O’Neil were invited into the closed door meeting where the board discussed “contract matters.”
  • On Monday, June 27, 2011, the board again held a stand-alone executive session outside its regular schedule, this time inviting Carroll to join them to discuss a contract matter. Two days later, Carroll sent a letter to the board saying that he had reviewed land use permits for the site and recommended steps to fulfill the town’s due diligence.
  • Hammond submitted an estimate for doing a quality/quantity study of the gravel at the O’Neil site on Friday, July 22,  “to meet the goal of having something for the August Select Board,” and he was invited into an executive session following the regularly scheduled board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 3.
  • Two weeks later, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, the Select Board met with the O’Neils in an executive session.
  • On Sunday, Aug. 29, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene hit, and the state of Vermont waived regulations to reopen closed gravel pits — including the O’Neil site — for material to make emergency repairs throughout the state.
  • Finally, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, the board held an executive session with Hammond, who submitted a report on the potential of a gravel pit. He estimated that the O’Neils were taking about 1,100 cubic yards of gravel a day out of the area since the beginning of September under the state’s waiver. The state mandated that those pits be closed by Nov. 15, 2011. A search of the files held by the Act 250 office in Springfield found no records relating to the reactivation of the pit and no records of how much material was removed during that period.

Asked about these meetings at the April 15, 2015 board meeting, two of three members present who attended those sessions could not remember why they did not buy the pit. “I think it was too much money,” said board member Bill Lindsay, “It was way too much money.”  Board member Tom Bock was absent from the April 15 meeting and Derek Suursoo no longer sits on the board and was not asked to comment.

A search of Multiple Listing Service records shows that the O’Neils put 139.57 acres off Route 103 S., east of the high school, up for sale on April 8, 2011 for $380,000. On Aug. 5, the price was reduced to $309,000, just 24 days before Tropical Storm Irene. The land remained on the market at $309,000 for almost 10 months — until March 26, 2012, when it was pulled from sale.

In a recent meeting, Pisha contended for the first time publicly that he had negotiated the asking price last fall down from $500,000.

Town attorney Jim Carroll’s letter to Pisha dated June 29, 2011, advised the town to make the sale contingent on several items including:

  • verification of type, quantity and accessibility of gravel;
  • obtaining needed permits;
  • obtaining a marketable title;
  • getting a satisfactory environmental assessment and;
  • getting voter approval.

Julie Hance, assistant to the town manager, confirmed this morning, “The only thing that has been discussed so far is the price. Terms of a contract have not been negotiated.”

In the current situation, the town could be locking itself into a water project budget based on buying land with none of the contingencies recommended by Carroll.  In an undated “permit review” from the same period, Carroll advised that “permitting will be expensive and involve retaining expert assistance” and that such approvals should be a condition of the sale. While the costs of Act 250 permitting for the water tank is part of the Dufresne contract, the town will need to fund the Act 250 process for gravel extraction.

Among Carroll’s other 2011 “due diligence” recommendations was that work “toward the purchase of the land be done in public.”

What price to pay?

Several questions have been raised about paying $95,000 above the assessed value for the property. But according to Pisha,  road construction since the last assessment has increased the value of the land. Pisha also points to a “box of documents” that include engineering studies and other data about the property. The dates of these documents are unknown but descriptions given by Pisha point to the period around the 2001 and 2006 Act 250 permit applications.

Finally — as a response to the high price — Pisha told a public meeting that there is gravel “on the ground” estimated at 15,000 cubic yards with an approximate value of $150,000.

A field of pre-gravel boulders on the site.

A field of pre-gravel boulders on the site.

While the description of the gravel gave the impression that it was ready to load, after Pisha visited the site he told a Select Board meeting that it became clear that it is unprocessed rocks and boulders. The cost of crushing and screening will likely mean that the value of the stone will drop.

Pisha estimates that at $4 per cubic yard, but that figure has been the subject of doubt by both the public and Select Board members who have wondered whether the processing cost estimate is low. An Act 250 permit also would be needed to do that work, adding another cost.

Whether there is readily available gravel aside from what’s “on the ground,” is another question. In 2003, the O’Neils approached Green Mountain Union High School with a proposal to extract gravel from a site on school property.  Newspaper articles from the time quote one school board member estimating more than 1 million cubic yards of gravel there. There is no explanation in these articles why the O’Neils would want to buy material from the school rather than harvest it from their own land. In the end, the board voted the proposal down.

Everett Hammond’s study of the O’Neil property in 2011 identified two sites for extraction. Site 1 is a 2-acre site exploited during the Irene waiver and Site 2 is a 3-acre site to the east of Site 1.

Hammond estimated the amount of gravel available in each in September 2011 just as post-Irene extraction was getting under way and noted that about 1,100 cubic yards of gravel was being trucked out each day.

According to Pisha, the town is not basing its calculations on Hammond’s report, but on another 5-acre site with estimates made by the sellers.

Next week: Do water and gravel mix?

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  1. Joe Brent says:

    Amy, I too feel that Shawn should have done the right thing and asked to visit and take pictures on your property. He also should have talked to you and Mike about the property for the water project.
    While I have reservations on whom should pay for this project, I know it is much needed for the town. I also know that many towns in Vermont would give an eye tooth to have any source of gravel in their town that could be used. So as I see it we get a better location than the other sites for a tank and have a source of gravel for some time to come. I also thank you for making another side of the issue clearer.

  2. Sam Comstock says:

    Thanks for the detailed response, Amy. I appreciate the simplicity of you not selling the land as a gravel pit. Most of what I’ve read here and elsewhere suggests the town is justifying the purchase based largely upon the potential of additional extraction, which is why I asked about it, and you’ve provided some useful details.

    As a landowner with un-posted land, I sympathize with your irritation. I found this a trivial incident compared to some damage and trash I discover, so I didn’t bother to address it.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful response.

  3. Amy O'Neil says:


    We are not selling the land as a gravel pit. We are selling it to the town for the water project. During the last townwide appraisal the property was assessed over $900,000. We grieved that assessment when we learned that no other gravel pits or quarries in the Town of Chester were assessed based on future earth extractions.

    The town agreed with our grievance and reduced the assessment to what it is now. Based on past permitting history, if we sold the town an acre or two for a water tank it would forever prohibit future extractions by any private entity.

    That is why we offered the entire property to the town. Because of the public benefit, the town’s ability to permit and extract gravel is very different from our ability. After Irene, we designed a new project for sand and gravel extraction only – similar to our 2001 project but hidden from Green Mountain Turnpike.

    We didn’t follow through with the permitting because we started bringing stone aggregate into our facility on Pleasant Street by rail. The stone aggregate is of more use for the type of work we do than sand and gravel. We do use gravel, but we use stone (drainage stone, dense graded crushed stone and Shurpac) more. We have shared the preliminary design drawings with the town.

    We estimated 150,000 to 160,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel in the new project. That is not the only aggregate on the property. You might remember in 2006-2009 we attempted to permit 1 million cubic yards of gravel and stone. We failed to permit that extraction and, because of the economy, we decided not to redesign the project to conform to current permit conditions. That material remains on site.

    We were offended that Shawn Cunningham did not ask our permission to walk the property. Now might be a good time to add that he also did not interview us for the article – in case you couldn’t tell. Furthermore, by posting the photos he took on our land he made his trespass very public. We took it as a complete disrespect of our rights as property owners, which is why I made the comment I did.

  4. Sam Comstock says:

    I fully respect your right as the landowner to structure and price any deal as is best for you. But as a taxpayer, I applaud the efforts of local journalists to inform the rest of us on the town’s efforts at due diligence in this sizable purchase. With the clock ticking down on favorable financing for the town, it would be useful for you, Amy, to assist us taxpayers in understanding the net value of the remaining gravel. Perhaps an open site visit with an engineer familiar with the pertinent details would help us reach a decision more expediently and less contentiously.

  5. Ron Patch says:

    Amy, I was taught the same Vermont courtesy about asking permission before using someone’s property. People like Cunningham who didn’t grow up in Vermont were never taught these basic Vermont rules. Too many people today who weren’t raised here don’t understand Vermont ways. All they want to do is change Vermont ways to suit themselves. It was a nice place to live before though, wasn’t it?

  6. Amy O'Neil says:

    Mike & I were taught to respect property and to respect property owners by asking permission to use their land. We taught that to our children, just as we were taught by our parents. Because of that, we don’t believe in posting land. In our negotiations with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, we worked hard to avoid posting our land due to conditions imposed in our Land Use Permits. We are proud that many of our friends and neighbors have been able to hunt, trap and hike our property with our permission. Shawn Cunningham has never asked permission to trespass on our property.