Chester board moves toward 2nd water vote, away from Yosemite Firehouse

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Two historic Chester structures took center stage on Wednesday, July 15 as the Select Board started the runup to a new vote on upgrading the ancient and crumbling municipal water system while looking to back away from involvement in preserving the historic Yosemite Firehouse on Depot Street, a discussion that at times got testy among board members.

The Select Board began the discussion of how to proceed on a re-vote on the water system upgrade, which passed by 26 votes on May 19. But because of a mistake in advertising the warning, it was subject to a ratification vote on June 30. That was voted down by 5 votes on a turnout of 143. According to Dufresne Group engineer Naomi Johnson, by statute, an issue can be brought to the electorate two times in 12 months, but the ratification vote does not count toward that total.

Board member Bill Lindsay kicked off the discussion with a handout describing the process to date and noting verbally that there should be a meeting of the Board of Water Commissioners. “The water commissioners are the

Chester Select Board member Heather Chase said the town needs to take steps to boost confidence in the water plan. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Chester Select Board member Heather Chase said the town needs to take steps to boost confidence in the water plan. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Select Board, but it should be a separate meeting with a separate set of minutes,” said Lindsay. “This is an important project and it should be done correctly.” According to an email circulated to the board, state bond attorney Paul Guiliani had counseled that the select board should convene as a water commission to approve the plan.

“I hope we haven’t done anything wrong to jeopardize this,” said board member Arne Jonynas. “But the project still has to go through — for the benefit of the town, for the benefit of the water company.”

Lindsay referred to “questions that were not answered” in previous presentations and called for a special meeting of the water commissioners to be able to tell the public that “this is what the water commissioners are recommending to the town.”

Town Manager David Pisha gave a new Power Point presentation outlining the project much as had been described in the past. He told the board that the Chester Water Department cannot purchase more property than it actually needs for the project. The board discussed how the General Fund might pay for the 139 acre O’Neil property and have the water department reimburse the General Fund for its share. The water project needs a fraction of the total acreage, but a firm number has not been established.

Pisha told the board that the Median Household Income (MHI) survey is about two-thirds complete, needing about 75 more completed surveys  to make a valid statistical sample. The survey influences the cost of borrowing and therefore the water rates for users. Unless the survey firm gets 38 percent of the household surveys returned, the cost of borrowing will be calculated on a 2000 census MHI with annual inflation adjustments that the town feels is higher than the town’s actual income.

Noting that voter turnout was low in both elections, Select Board member Heather Chase said the town needs to do some things to boost public confidence in the plan, among these an appraisal and a second opinion on the engineering choices. “I wouldn’t buy property personally without an appraisal,” said Chase.

Chester resident Charlea Baker asked that the town have an appraisal of the O’Neal property and would  like to see a breakdown of the costs of the project by a third party not connected with the sale of the property.

“The Select Board hasn’t pushed for an appraisal on this,” said board member Tom Bock, “because it is that rare case where the market value and the value to us are two greatly different values – based on the engineering – a million dollars different. If pushing for the appraisal will make it clearer for people, then I support it.” It was also noted that borrowing from the drinking water fund necessitates an appraisal, where borrowing from the state bond fund (as proposed) does not require an appraisal.

Baker also raised the question of conflict of interest, telling Johnson, “Your family owns that land.” She was referring to the fact that Jonson’s sister and brother-in-law, Amy and Mike O’Neal, own the land.

Johnson told Baker that as a professional engineer, she must abide by a code of conduct that means that her actions must serve the public good and that she must give her client an honest appraisal of the facts. She said that when the land purchase came up she told the board that “my sister and her husband own the land.”

“I was not involved in land negotiations,” said Johnson “ I do not stand to profit from this.” As to a third-party review of Dufresne’s work, Johnson said the state of Vermont has professional engineers on staff who looked closely at the plan and asked a lot of questions.

Chase said that while she did not see an actual conflict of interest, there is a perception of conflict. “And that’s why the town needs to look at our bidding process and conflict rules.”

Yosemite Firehouse stirs more debate

Pisha, who tends to mumble during Select Board meetings, clearly and loudly read a report from attorney John Holme, who was paid by the town to do a title search on the ownership of the Yosemite Firehouse. Holme looked at several historical documents and concluded that no further search for deeds was necessary.

Board members DeBenedetti and Lindsay have expressed publicly their wish that town government not own the building.  Holme’s opinion bolstered that wish, saying that the town has no legal interest (or claim) to the firehouse and that it would be expensive and fruitless to assert any such rights in court.

The board discussed the situation with Ronald Patch, president of the Chester Historical Society, which has had control of the Depot Street building since 1976.

Ronald Patch of the Chester Historical Society speaks to the Select Board.

Ronald Patch of the Chester Historical Society speaks to the Select Board.

“As I see it, there are two options,” said Patch. “See if the Shelburne Museum wanted it and then move it up there – they have the deep pockets to restore it. The only other option is to sell it.”

“I’ve heard that the building is in terrible shape,” remarked Bock.

Chase then asked Patch when the condition report done by a historic preservation architect would be coming, to which he replied, “I have no idea, I haven’t been kept in the loop.”

“Wasn’t the first option you suggested to offer it back to the town?” Chase asked Patch. “I wonder if there aren’t more options than that.”

At an earlier meeting, Bill Dakin, an attorney representing the owner of the land where the firehouse sits, offered his own legal opinion on the property, telling the board that the town did indeed hold a legal interest in the firehouse which was perhaps stronger than that of the historical society.

On this Wednesday night, Dakin said that the Chester Community Alliance would like to look at options – to save the firehouse in place or move it.  “Anything is better than seeing it lost or destroyed,” said Dakin.

The CCA is a tax exempt organization that encompasses the Green Mountain Festival Series that sponsored a music and arts program, the Chester Economic Development Corporation, which has been a part of evaluating loan proposals from the Chester Development Fund, and Chester Townscape, which is working on restoring the historic Hearse House and conducting town-wide projects.

Patch also told the board that over 39 years, the historical society put $10,000 into the building, a figure he later revised upward, when he told the board his group wants to recoup the “$15,000 to $20,000” it has invested in the building. However, part of the mission of historical societies tends to be preservation of historic buildings, a task that costs them money and is not reimbursed.

DeBenedetti’s view was, “We (town government) don’t have an interest.”  But Jonynas replied, “That doesn’t mean we can’t take an interest in the future.” DeBenedetti then told him he could support it as an individual, to which Jonynas said, “Or as a board or a town.”

Yosemite Firehouse. Chester Telegraph file photo.

Yosemite Firehouse. Chester Telegraph file photo.

“It all comes down to the dollar,” said DeBenedetti. “There’s a process.”

“You are jumping to the conclusion that it’s money,” Chase said to DeBenedetti. “We are finally coming together to look at this. We don’t know the results of the assessment or what grants are available out there.”

“It has to follow a process. But we’ve fought since 2004 to get an emergency services building – which to my mind has a higher priority than renovating the old building,” said DeBenedetti.

“It’s not your decision though. The voters make that decision,” answered Chase.

“I’m not sure. I don’t know the process. I don’t know how voters got involved in a building we don’t own,” said DeBenedetti.

But for Patch, like DeBenedetti, it came down to dollars: “Our goal is not to re-insure that building, come September, whether we have a new owner or not. We are not going to insure it anymore.” Patch told the board that the town does have some interest in the building since it owns a “1931 American LaFrance firetruck and an 1889 1849 hand pumper in there and some other apparatus.” Patch noted that the majority of the contents of the firehouse belong to the town.

Board member Tom Bock asked Pisha to look into new storage for the town’s property. Jonynas pointed out that it would be cheaper to pay the $1,200 insurance for the year than moving the contents.

“I’ve been afraid I’m going to be painted as the bad guy here because I’m the spokesman for this,” said Patch. “But I am not speaking for myself, I’m speaking for the board.”

“If I see a groundswell of 501(c)(3) activity on this, I’ll participate,” said Bock. “But I don’t know how much I am willing to commit the board’s money on this,“ he said in effect referring to taxpayers’ dollars.

At last, an MOU with Andover

After months of back and forth, the select boards of Chester and Andover were able to agree on a memorandum of understanding to cover the provision of fire, ambulance and emergency communications by the former to the latter. The board voted to accept the MOU.

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