Chester board approves budget, considers Act 250 appeal

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Derek Suursoo questions using current surpluses in budgeting for ongoing new expenses Photos by Shawn Cunningham

After a relatively uneventful budgeting season, the Chester Select Board approved the 2017  financial plan and voted to send an article to town meeting to raise $2.9 million in taxes, but not before one resident questioned the large surpluses from 2016 and expressed concern that several new expenditures were being paid for with money that would not be there next year.

Pointing to approximately $280,000 in new expenses in the budget while the increase over last year’s tax bill is only $30,000, Derek Suursoo said, “I’m very concerned about recurring expenses popping back up after being paid with the surplus this year.” The former select board member called on the panel to look at how much of the new expense is  a one-time expense vs. recurring.

In its capacity as water and sewer commissioners, the board also approved the budgets for those departments.

Act 250, the water tank and gravel

Town Manager David Pisha reports on options for getting a better Act 250 outcome.

Town Manager David Pisha briefed the board on the decision by the District 2 Act 250 Commission allowing construction of a 330,000 gallon water tank and its piping on the former O’Neil Sand & Gravel site on Route 103 south, but restricting any other disturbance to 5 acres that would be “compact” and “fully contiguous” with areas disturbed in the past.

The area that Pisha had identified for gravel extraction was an oblong site several hundred feet from the disturbed area.

“My impression was that Fish & Wildlife was willing to go with the extraction site that we had outlined,” said Pisha. “Now Act 250 is saying that it has to be adjacent to the Irene site, which is not where the O’Neils had proposed going for gravel. It was not a particularly fruitful site.”

As he explained the situation, it became obvious that board members were unfamiliar with the document. Board member Dan Cote repeatedly asked where Pisha was reading from and at one point held it up saying that he had just received it that afternoon. Board member Heather Chase also said she had only received the document on Wednesday afternoon, just before the meeting, and asked when Pisha had received it.

Pisha said it came by email late in the afternoon on the previous Friday although the date stamp on the email from the Act 250 Commission was 11:09 a.m.

According to Pisha, town attorney Jim Carroll was on vacation the previous week and did not return his call until Wednesday. Pisha said that Carroll advised that the town could ask the commission to amend the decision and/or the town could appeal it and that the request for an amendment would take less time than an appeal.

An associate in Carroll’s firm – Paul Donaldson – handled the negotiations with Fish & Wildlife last summer, but has since left the firm to become the town manager of Poultney. This meant Carroll would have to spend time getting up to speed on the situation before he would be able to advise the town.

Board chair John DeBenedetti asked if it could be as simple as polling the board on Carroll’s alternatives but Chase thought it complex enough to warrant a discussion with the attorney.

“If you poll the board,” said board member Arne Jonynas, “I don’t think I have enough information.”

“Gravel was always a bonus,” said Jonynas, adding that that the premium price paid for the property was worth it for the money saved in construction costs over the original site behind Green Mountain Union High School.

1st hearing on Unified Development Bylaws set

While the revisions to the town’s Unified Development Bylaws will be controversial, the board put off public comments on them until there could be a warned meeting. The board accepted the bylaws and scheduled the first of what they expect will be several hearings on the revisions for its Wednesday Feb. 1 session.

Planning commission member Tom Hildreth rose to speak on one aspect of the bylaws but was stopped by DeBenedetti and executive assistant Julie Hance. Hance told Hildreth that the process had already been fraught will legal difficulties and the board could not hear commentary in an unwarned meeting.

The board decided that rather than doing special meetings, it would schedule a limited time during its regular meetings and proceed section by section until all of the changes to the 114 page document were covered.

Appointments to municipal boards

Board member Chase asked when candidates to fill openings on the Planning Commission and the Development Review Board would be interviewed by the board. While the town has asked people to volunteer for positions on each board through posted notices and paid advertisements, several residents who have expressed an interest in serving have been waiting for an answer since October and before.

“I personally don’t understand the urgency,” said DeBenedetti. “They are both viable boards with four person quorums.” The Chester Telegraph looks at the appointments process in this Analysis.

Throughout the fall, appointments to the panels were postponed until a conflict of interest policy could be completed. The policy contains a prohibition on anyone serving on both the planning and development review boards unless there is no one else available to fill the open position for three months.

Regional Planning’s Jason Rasmussen listens to a question from the audience.

At Wednesday’s meeting, DeBenedetti confirmed with Pisha that the interviews could be done in executive session if the board wanted to do it that way.

Planning for more sway in front of PSB

Jason Rasmussen of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission came before the board to talk about Act 174, which enables municipalities to plan for the siting of alternative energy projects within their Town Plans. By doing this, a town could have more clout before the Public Service Board in any proceeding in which energy projects must receive a Certificate of Public Good.

Rasmussen said such a plan — if done properly — would be given “substantial deference” by the board rather than “due consideration.” The planning consists of identifying appropriate and inappropriate sites for alternative energy projects and is driven by mapping, data and analysis, which regional planning will be doing. Rasmussen said that there will be a small amount of money available for the commission to assist with work on the plans – approximately enough for three of the SWCRPC’s 10 member towns.

Rasmussen told the board that to participate it would have to buy in to the state’s goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 and said that the timeline for this is short so it would be best for the town to decide whether or not it wanted to get on board soon.

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