Grafton board chair ‘as private citizen’ starts drive to force Chester to repair Route 35

By Cynthia Prairie
and Shawn Cunningham
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Members of the Grafton Select Board are hoping to push the Chester Select Board to expedite repairs to Route 35 from the Williams River bridge to the Grafton line, after its chairman, Joe Pollio, mounted a petition drive that could possibly lead to court action.

Route 35 at the Grafton Chester line. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

However, the action came as a surprise to the Chester officials, who say that Grafton has never been in touch with them concerning the complaints nor to learn about repair plans.

At its meeting on Tuesday night, Pollio, speaking from his seat with other board members, addressed the item on the board agenda Letter to Chester regarding repair of Route 35 by the public — and called the petition drive “not a selectman thing.” He went on to say that he and Town Administrator Bill Kearns researched state laws regarding the “insufficiency” of town roads.  Pollio later added that should the issue go to court, “depending on the cost, I have some people who will fund it.”

Kearns said that he wrote the letter at the request of Pollio, who was acting “as a private citizen.” The letter and its petition have been out since Feb. 15, and thus far, Kearns said, it has been was signed by more than 230 people, including those from Grafton, Chester and Athens. Kearns added that the letter would probably be sent to the Chester board “next week.”

The letter says that it serves “written notice to the ‘selectmen’ of Chester that a portion of Route 35, which is situated in Chester, is out of repair and unsafe for travel.”

The letter further states that the signatories “demand the requirements of 19 VSA 971, that is, the Town of Chester within 72 hours ‘commence(s) work upon the highway … and continue(s) the work in good faith and with reasonable dispatch until the highway … is put to good and sufficient repair.” The letter concludes that if Chester fails to act, it will pursue relief through the county road commissioners.

In an interview Wednesday, Jason Rasmussen, transportation planner for the Southern Windsor Regional Planning Commission, said that in 15 years on the job he has never run into anyone having anything to do with Windsor County road commissioners. Calls to several county and state agencies yielded similar results.

Grafton officials and the unknown knowns

During Tuesday’s Grafton meeting, Kearns stated that there was no money in the Chester budget to do the work.

This prompted Grafton Board member Cynthia Gibbs to ask if anyone from Grafton had talked to officials from the town of Chester. Kearns replied yes, that he had spoken with Chester Town Manager David Pisha.

That single conversation occurred on Tuesday afternoon prior to the meeting, when Pisha called Kearns after hearing about the Grafton agenda item. 

Kearns told the board that Pisha said that Chester was going to skim coat the road. But Kearns added, he didn’t believe there was enough money in the Chester budget to do it, except for a $300,000 bond on the Town Warning that would, besides Route 35, cover work on Green Mountain Turnpike, Coach Road, First Avenue and Sylvan Road. Grafton board member Al Sands called the work “a Band-Aid on everything,” and suggested that Chester amend the article to direct all the money toward Route 35.  However, that article will be voted on by Australian ballot and not from the floor, so it cannot be amended.

Kearns added that Pisha “was not familiar” with the state law regarding road repairs.

Neither was Tom Kennedy, head of SWRPC who said he didn’t know about the particular statute. But Kennedy did tell the The Telegraph that his organization has been working with Chester to get state funding for the Grafton Road work and to resolve problems with the Agency of Natural Resources, which has been reluctant to help fund the work needed to drain runoff and to armor the bank of the Williams River at Route 35.

Filled and unfilled potholes along the road

During the Grafton meeting, Grafton Road Foreman Danny Taylor said that it costs about $130,000 to overlay 1 mile of road, and “a lot” to repair the road fully.  Kearns said Pisha estimated the cost of complete repair at $4 million.

Reached Wednesday, Kearns said that after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 destroyed sections of Route 35 in Chester, Chester either did not apply for or was not awarded Federal Highway Funds (as opposed to FEMA funds). He asked, “Why is that (Route 35) not fixed when ours was fixed when it was the same damage” that included guard rails and banks that were swept away along Route 121/35 toward Athens?

On Wednesday afternoon, Pisha said that the town did indeed receive and use Federal Highway Funds, but the federal government, he said, was not “going to let us fix the entire road. They would only let us bring the road back to the way it was before Irene.” That meant, he said, that the town could repair the Irene damage but could not address underlying issues that eventually would cause today’s problems. “The damage we see now is caused by severe drainage problems.” He added that the cost to fix the road completely is $4 million and “our annual budget is $3 million for the entire town.”

No contact with Chester to learn of plans

Also on Wednesday, Executive Assistant Julie Hance said that Chester has a plan to repair the road and has been working on it. She said the Dufresne Group has looked at the road and broken it down into six or seven sections, each of which has different problems and requires a different fix. The worst area, she said, requires under-drains and stacked stone walls to keep the road stable and protected from the river.

Two years ago, she said, the town repaired a 300-foot section of that portion of the road. This year, the town received a $175,000 grant from the VTrans Large Structures grant program. Combined with $75,000 to $80,000 of town capital funds, that will take care of another 300 feet of Route 35 nearer Popple Dungeon Road this summer.

This photo – taken in the spring of 2017 – shows part of a 300-foot area that was re-engineered and reclaimed that summer.

Hance added that the town is in line for another VTrans grant for doing the last section of that area – to the beginning of Popple Dungeon – in 2020. As for this year, of the $300,000 paving bond, Hance said, $150,000 of that will go to paving Route 35 along with a state grant of $175,000.

The paving will go from the bridge over the South Branch of the Williams River to the Grafton Town line. Hance characterized this as “buying time” since the town does not have the $4 million needed to “fix it right.”

In the long run, Hance is applying for a FEMA “Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant,” which is a nationwide competition.  Hance has been told by the state that if a cost-benefit analysis works out to show the need, the state will make Route 35 part of its FEMA application. “That would take care of the whole problem,” said Hance.

“I was floored that Bill Kearns didn’t call us first,” said Hance who noted that a few Chester residents have stopped in to ask about the road and that she has shown them the plan. “Why would you spend time and other resources on a problem without asking about it first?”

As for the petition, Pisha said, with hundreds of signers, “why didn’t they call to find out the answer? … I’ve had one person call me to complain, two or three weeks ago, from Grafton. I tried to explain the situation but she said that she was going to speak and I was to listen.” He confirmed that no one from Grafton town government has called him about the road.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Joanne Pluff says:

    That portion of road is the worst portion of road I have ever driven in Vermont. It is teeth chattering and bad for cars. I have stopped driving to Chester because of it. My father who is a regular at Erskines has as well, he’s been going to Townshend for his grain which is a little more expensive but not in regards to wear and tear on your car! Considering there was an article/ opinion piece written about it last fall by Arlo Mudgett that was shared repeatedly across Facebook I am surprised no one on the Chester Selectboard has heard about this.

  2. Marleen Wright says:

    I travel Route 35 everyday. It’s not great this time of year, but what road is? I have certainly seen the Grafton portion of Route 35 in much worse condition over the years! Drive slowly and try to avoid the holes. If you don’t like Route 35, use an alternate route. There are several alternate routes for residents of Grafton.

  3. Tim Roper says:

    It seems that our neighbors from Grafton have drawn some grossly incorrect conclusions regarding Rt-35. As with any issue, communication is the key to understanding and developing a path to resolution.

    Maybe the Grafton Select Board could jump in and help Chester keep this problem higher on the state’s radar. A $4 million line item is tough for any small town to swallow and some additional focus on the issue might make a difference.

  4. Bruce McEnaney says:

    When I inquired about County Road Commissioners for Windsor county I was told that they have not appointed any in years. I believe there is a State Statute that requires each county to appoint three of them to arbitrate in deficient road and bridge situations between citizens and town officials. The law goes way back in Vermont history.