In blow to Chester gravel plan, motion to alter denied

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A portion of the unreclaimed “Irene Area” which entered into the Environmental Commission’s decision limit the size and location of development by the town.

When the Town of Chester bought 139 acres from Mike and Amy O’Neil as a site for a water tank, Town Manager David Pisha envisioned a decades-long supply of inexpensive gravel that could help pay for a portion of the $4 million project. It was part of the selling points  — including recreation — Pisha touted as town residents prepared to vote on the plan in September 2015.

But on Monday, March 6, the District 2 Environmental Commission denied a motion by the town to alter the Act 250 permit, which only allows the town to complete the water project and puts restrictions on further development – including gravel extraction.

It leaves the town with the choice of accepting substantial limits on its plans or spending tens of thousands of dollars in an appeal to the state’s environmental court.

Last fall, Pisha showed a visitor in his office a map of where the town intended to extract gravel noting that it was the area that had been identified as a source of gravel “20 feet deep.” But when the District 2 Environmental Commission released its Act 250 decision on Dec. 30 of last year, the town learned that its use of the land would be more severely restricted than expected.

In its decision, the commission restricted development (aside from the water tank and access road) to 5 acres that must be “compact and fully contiguous to previously disturbed Deer Wintering Area.”

Pisha told the Select Board that the town had negotiated an agreement with Vermont’s Fish & Wildlife Department in which the town could use 5 acres of the development with 3 more acres possible in the future, but that the commission had pared that back. In addition, the Dec. 30 decision mandated that all future development be “fully reviewed by the commission” and subject to Rule 34E  — also known as the Stowe Club Highlands analysis  — that lays out tests for changing conditions of an existing permit. Rule 34E entered into the decision to deny a permit for a quarry proposed by the O’Neils several years ago.

Another view of the ‘Irene Area.’

Following the December decision, the town hired Rutland attorney Jim Goss to submit the Motion to Alter in January and, on Monday, the Commission rejected Goss’ arguments noting that in making its decision it had looked at the permitting history of the land and the area logged and developed during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which bisected deer wintering area and was not reclaimed as required.

Monday’s decision also noted that the commission gave the town a break by not opting for “formal enforcement” which would have involved reclaiming the “Irene Area” before issuing a land use permit and thus delaying the water project. And the commission maintained that previous permits issued for the land contain “critical conditions that may be relevant to a future permit application and necessitate a Stowe Club Highlands Analysis.”

According to Greg Boubol, of the Natural Resources Board that administers Act 250, the filing of the motion to alter stopped the clock on the time limit to appeal to the environmental court. But now that the decision on the motion has been handed down, the 30-day clock starts anew and the town must decide whether or not to appeal – probably at next week’s Select Board meeting – and file a notice of appeal by early April.

Reached by phone on Thursday, March 9, Chester Select Board member Arne Jonynas said he had skimmed the decision. “I know we’re talking with Jim Goss about it and where we can go from here, but at this point, that’s about all I know.”

When contacted Thursday, Pisha said he was surprised by the commission decision, saying that “Fish & Wildlife and the town had come to an amicable agreement.”

Pisha confirmed that the Select Board will indeed be meeting in executive session with Goss at 6 p.m. Monday, March 13. When asked why the board would agree to a private session on a topic that has been aired so much in public, Pisha responded that Goss said he would be discussing “highly sensitive information.”

“He could be offering going to court as an option,” Pisha elaborated, adding that he just didn’t know.

Cynthia Prairie contributed to this article.

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