Citing lack of information Chester board nixes firehouse, likely to revisit question

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Citing a lack of information on the process of transferring the Yosemite Firehouse to town ownership, the Chester Select Board defeated a motion to accept the building from the Chester Historical Society by a vote of 3 to 2 at its meeting on Wednesday May 18.

The Yosemite Fire House. Chester Telegraph photo

The Chester Select Board voted 3-2 against accepting ownership of the Yosemite Fire House. Chester Telegraph photo

The discussion of the 1873 firehouse began as a follow up to the board’s visit to the building on the previous Friday.  Town Manager David Pisha said he has a list of names for a five- to seven-member committee to look at  issues around accepting the building, which he would present to the board at its June 1 meeting for a vote

Board member Ben Whalen asked whether there was a policy about choosing a committee of seven from 20 applicants. Pisha said there was not.

Saying that the committee could take “three, six, nine months, a year” to come up with answers on what to do with the building and noting that the Chester Historical Society had asked for an answer “in July,” board member Heather Chase moved that the town accept ownership of the Yosemite Firehouse.

What followed was a discussion of all of the questions that have been apparent but remain unanswered since the historical society suggested that the town might take over the building back in April 2015.

Whalen asked Pisha what he had learned regarding the cost of insuring the building from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which carries the town’s property and casualty policy. Pisha told Whalen that the VLCT had not returned his phone call.

Among the other items that have been discussed in past meetings but for which there were no answers on Wednesday night: the availability of grants for rehabilitation and the question of whether any previous grant would need to be repaid as a result of the transfer of ownership. Board member Arne Jonynas said that he was not against the idea of Chase’s motion, but he was concerned about the issues with the historical society’s deed, which was given by Gertrude and Pember Hazen with the condition that if the society stopped using it as a museum it would revert back to the Hazens or their successors.

Mike Leonard. All photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Mike Leonard, who had grants to preserve the firehouse and the Academy Building, urged the Select Board to take ownership of the firehouse. All photos by Shawn Cunningham.

At this meeting, as in the past, historical society President Ron Patch said that Sarah Weingarten — who owns the former Hazen property — is not interested in owning the firehouse. This was echoed in a letter that attorney Bill Dakin — who represented Weingarten at the time — sent to Patch. But with the historical group’s offer on the Select Board’s table for two weeks, it appeared that the town had made no effort to contact Weingarten to understand her position in the transaction.

Mike Leonard, who wrote several grants that funded work on both the Academy Building and the firehouse, said that taking the building makes sense and will not mean that the town will be on the hook for it.

“We have a lot of essential things that need work,” said Whalen, listing Town Hall and the Town Garage as well as a new emergency services building.

Select Board chair John DeBendetti told the meeting that the “cupola” on Town Hall is the symbol of Chester and that it is in poor repair so that “it would be premature to take (the firehouse) now,“ and that there was time for the committee to work.

Resident Frank Bidwell said he sees the firehouse as a potential visitor draw. Chester, he said, has to “start putting money into what brings people here.”

Board member Dan Cote said he saw an opportunity for a private/public partnership and called for leadership in the process “or we will always languish with this building.”

In the end, the vote was tied with Chase and Cote voting for the town to accept ownership of the Yosemite Fireouse and Jonynas and Whalen voting against. As is his custom, DeBenedetti only votes when there is a tie and he voted no. After the vote, Whalen said he was not against the idea, but wanted more information for a future vote.

Brookside Cemetery expansion

In Deb Daniels' cemetery design, the green line represents vehicle traffic, the yellow line pedestrian traffic and the black line the recommended limit of burial plots until further study is done

In Deb Daniels’ cemetery design, the green line represents vehicle traffic, the yellow line pedestrian traffic and the black line the recommended limit of burial plots until further study is done.

Manchester surveyor Deb Daniels, who has been hired by the town, brought a plan for expanding the Brookside Cemetery north behind the Chester Academy Building.

Saying that land appears generally flat, the design was not easy as “constraints presented themselves over time.” Daniels said that in putting together the proposal, she looked at access, zoning, FEMA, flood boundaries, stream issues and runoff.

Daniels said that access to the new cemetery was a difficult aspect of the design. The only vehicular access is through an easement between the Academy Building and the Hugging Bear. Since this is a narrow point, Daniels recommended a pedestrian access on the opposite side of the Academy Building along the old portion of the cemetery.

There was discussion of whether the access to the pedestrian area should be via the handicapped access ramp on the front of the Academy with an elevated walkway along the building for a better view of the old cemetery.

In response to questions about access to the new section from the old, Daniels said that the old cemetery is completely full with some people buried in what would have been roads. “You’ve got mom here and no room for pop,” said Daniels. “So pop went into the road.”

Deb Daniels, a Manchester surveyor, talks about her ideas for expanding the Brookside Cemetery.

Deb Daniels, a Manchester surveyor, talks about her ideas for expanding the Brookside Cemetery.

“It’s possible to go through channels to relocate burial sites,” said Daniels. “Those souls that are in something that is relocatable could be moved. Those in the older sections are gone, they’ve gone back to the earth.” Daniels said that relocation for access would not be a first choice.

The land in question was a gift that came with some strings attached including an educational use. Daniels proposal includes a gazebo that could be used as an outdoor classroom. The gazebo would be placed in an area that gets wet at various times of the year and is not appropriate for burials.

Daniels asked the board if she should continue on to meeting with the zoning administrator and starting a project sheet with the state of Vermont. It was decided that she should come back on for the June 15 meeting.

Trees on Green and doing the research

Returning after appearing at the last Select Board meeting, Tori Spater Sommerville of Chester Townscape again asked the board for permission to have the trees on either side of the gazebo on The Green cut down.

Payne Junker speaks to the Select Board about the problems he sees at a property adjacent his business on Route 103 S.

Payne Junker speaks to the Select Board about permits for his business on Route 103 S.

At the previous meeting DeBenedetti had questioned whether these were planted as memorials, obligating the town to keeping them in place. Spater Sommerville said that research had not been able to find any evidence that these were memorials. And even if they were memorials she noted, “They are dying and their value as memorials die with them.”

DeBenedetti disputed that the trees were dying, but Jonynas said they were “in pretty sad shape” and Cote called them “a hazard … and a growing concern for the gazebo itself.”

In an interesting contrast to the lack of information gathered to discuss the firehouse, when Payne Junker, owner of 103 Artisans Marketplace, appeared for an outside consumption permit, the homework was done.

“When I got into this and started pulling some records,” said DeBenedetti, “… the findings of the DRB review limits you to 9 o’clock for hours of operation.” He then went on to clarify that an entertainment permit for which Junker had applied could only be used indoors. Quoting from the DRB findings, DeBenedetti said, “additional noise  generated is only to be by the addition of outside seating for the restaurant.” Junker agreed to change the hours on the permit to 9 p.m. and not to have outside entertainment.

Public comment: Website and eyesore

During public comment time, Frank Bidwell mentioned that he had recently come out for a meeting that was listed on the calendar on the town website only to find there was no meeting. Bidwell said that the information on the site is often not complete or correct and that information on the town sponsored 250 year celebration was not there at all.

Cote asked Pisha if there was a specific person who maintained the website. Pisha said there was but was uncertain who. Executive assistant Julie Hance said they hope that the master planning consultant will be able to give the town some guidance on that.

Also during public comment, Payne Junker asked the town to do something about the dumpster at the former Jack’s Diner on Route 103 south. Calling the site “the biggest eyesore in town,” Junker, whose business is adjacent, said that the dumpster is often full, contains food waste, attracts animals, smells bad and its contents often blow out onto his and other neighbors property. DeBenedetti asked if this was a health issue and asked Pisha to contact the town health officer.







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  1. Barre Pinske says:

    It is clear to me the majority of the Select Board members are not understanding the partnership that members of the community want to have with the town government in this case. I am so upset with the level of fear and the reasoning that we “can’t” do things. The amount of money spent that get no return is crazy, and then when we want to plant a seed to create some pride or potential growth it gets no water.

    This town has players on the team who are not playing to win, they are playing not to loose. They don’t have the vision and the biggest motivator is fear. It gets proven over and over. In the mean time our community suffers from a lack of culture, declining property values, fewer good paying jobs and a region getting poorer and poorer. There are so many examples in history where people in power could not see the future in order to make changes fast enough to do the right thing. Or they did not want to relinquish power and bad things happened because of it. Our ship is sinking.

    The Firehouse could be an example of new found pride, an ability to work together and an attraction to bolster our town. There has to be an ownership structure in order to move forward with the Firehouse. I ask the select board to just get it done and then get the hell out of the way. Let flatLanders play ball I think you will see we have some Jackie Robinson’s in our midst.

  2. Elise A. Junker says:

    Hoping the town will address the dumpster issue soon. It has been full to overflowing for two weeks and a lot of litter is blowing around. The 80 degree weather should add a bit of smell to the mix. What are the options to fix this?