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By Lisa Loomis
Virginia Houston believes the town of Waitsfield owes her free water from the town's municipal water system and came before the Waitsfield Water Commission to make that request.
She told the commission that she felt it was right that she receive the water for free because she said the town had spent over 30 years trying to prevent her from going into the business of selling water in bulk and creating a bottling plant.
At a late May meeting of the water commission, Houston told the board she had offered the free water 30 years ago if she could get into the water business but said she was turned down. Town records reveal a slightly different version.
Houston came to the Waitsfield Planning Commission with a plan for commercial extraction of water from two wells on her property on Reed Road in 1991 and the planning commission gave preliminary approval. The planning commission found that the proposed use could be considered small-scale processing of a raw agricultural or forestry product and could be considered a conditional use – one which the town may regulate.
Subsequent to that Waitsfield's then town attorney wrote to the town's zoning board of adjustment (now the development review board) suggesting that commercial extraction of water should be considered an agricultural use – which is an unregulated use by right. The zoning board of adjustment considered her application both ways and ultimately denied it because the town's zoning did not speak to commercial water extraction.
Houston appealed that to Superior Court and later to Vermont Supreme Court, which in 1994 ruled that commercial water extraction was not a use by right. The town began trying to pass a zoning amendment that would allow commercial water extraction as a conditional use while Houston and supporters petitioned the town for a vote on commercial water extraction as a use by right. After several votes and several years, the zoning ordinance was amended to allow commercial water extraction as a conditional use.
Houston applied for and received a conditional use permit to truck water in bulk off the site via six round-trip truck trips per day. She never acted on those permits.
When she spoke to the water commission she said she feels her land and water were stolen from her illegally, referring to the town drilling a well that accesses the same aquifer she tapped into. The town uses that water for its municipal water project. Even though Houston settled all seven of her lawsuits with Waitsfield in January 2013 over the water project, she suggested to the water commission that the town owed her the free water to make up for the fact that "my land and water were stolen from me illegally."
"I'd like to put all of this behind us and move forward. I'd like to have access to half your supply of water. I'm willing to take more because I guess you don't have enough users and need to be able to keep your pipes clean without chlorinating. So I could bring a business to town and employ people, which is what I offered 30 years ago.
Water commissioners asked her where she'd set up a business and she said she'd start by selling the water in bulk, so she'd set up wherever there's a pipe. She said she hadn't researched locations because she didn't know if the town would provide her with the water.
Waitsfield's state permits for its wells are for 186 gallons a minute and Houston said she would like to be able to sell half of that.
"All day? How many loads?" asked water commissioner Peter Reynells.
"Yes, we'd be doing it all day, every day. We'd be keeping the pipes running so that you don't need chlorine,' Houston said.
Commissioner Jack Himmelsbach asked Houston if she'd be selling any of the water from her wells or if she'd only use the town well.
"If in 20 years you need more water, you can have some of mine," Houston said.
"Why use ours versus yours?" Himmelsbach asked.
"It's quicker and easier. I'd have to go back and get all my permits. I think it would suit your purpose because you really didn't need that amount of water and you're having a problem because of low usage. This is a way for me to get more quickly into business and for you to keep your pipes clean," she said.
"I get your approach. You want to prove your business and that's why you want to start this way. We could certainly use another user, however, with the way you're looking for you're probably going to look for guaranties of quantities. I see it as an issue for town water source without you having permitting in place to use your water. My report says you have 2,000 gallons per minute of water up there of your own," commissioner and select board member Chris Pierson said.
"Have you looked at the economics of this? Would you be supporting half the debt service and maintenance of the system or would you want a discount?" asked commissioner Bill Parker.
"No I just want access to the water," Houston said.
"So you'd pay the user rate for the water?" Parker asked.
"No I wouldn't be paying because I feel the water was taken from me illegally and you were defrauded by certain people because you never needed a source for municipal water to begin with," she said.
"The town was defrauded and it was an illegal taking when you drilled your well," she said.
"Didn't the courts decide all that?" Himmelsbach asked.
"I lost in court. Part of the problem was that people lied," she said.
"You started your intro by saying you wanted to put the past behind us, but now you're going right there. I'm confused," Pierson said.
"By the town putting it right now and allowing me to access my water, I think I am putting the past behind us," Houston responded.
"You have four wells and permits for up to 600 gallons per minute, but you opted not to do anything with that," Parker said.
"The town would not give me a permit to do anything," Houston said.
"They ended up giving me a permit for six or eight truck trips a day with restrictions. It was clear to me that the town did not want this business. I was told by the same person who told me to make him my partner and all my permitting issues would go away that he did not want my business in town because I might pay people more than he was paying people," she continued.
"So you're feeling that you were abused by the town, cheated by the town and you think the town should give you half the water as repayment for abuse?" asked Parker.
"I don't think I should be paying for water that I spent 30 years developing," she responded.
Parker pointed out that the water commission has to charge all users the same rates and that free water for her would mean that her water was being paid for by the other users, something water commission chair Scott Kingsbury would make the water users "really angry."
Parker also noted that state and federal funds went into the town's water project and there may be restrictions on that funding that will impact this decision.
Current water system users are paying 2 cents per gallon and Houston eventually revealed that she could or would pay .01 cents per gallon for the water, or about 48 cents for an 8,000-gallon truck.
Further action was tabled.