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By Lisa Loomis
The third time may be a charm for a proposed municipal water project for Waitsfield.
The town has received a legitimate petition calling for a revote and is legally obligated to hold such a vote. The project was voted down by 13 votes, 219 to 206, on June 10. At Town Meeting the project was voted down by 44 votes, 442 to 398.
The $7.5 million project was to have served Waitsfield Village, Irasville, the Tremblay Road and the Old County Road. The project would have $7.5 million and the town had obtained $3.6 million in grants. All the operating costs of the system were to be borne by users. The project would provide fire protection to the service area with hydrants.
STOP ANY WORK
The select board discussed the petition at its July 14 meeting along with an earlier petition calling for the town to stop any work on engineering the project or spending money on the project.
Town Administrator Valerie Capels explained that the petition for a revote was "actionable" requiring that the board comply with the legitimate request of five percent of registered voters to hold a revote. The other petition was received June 4, after the June 10 bond vote had been warned. The Vermont secretary of state advised the town that the June 4 petition was outside of the scope of the action that the select board could bring to voters. Town Attorney Paul Giuliani explained that the June 4 petition had no legal force.
NO LEGAL FORCE
"The petition received on June 4 is of no legal force and effect. The decision whether to proceed with analyzing and investigating the feasibility of public water and wastewater systems is within the Board's discretion. In Waitsfield's case there is an additional factor that . . . trumps a prohibitory petition of this sort. Recall that the Board of Selectmen, convened as a Local Board of Health, made specific findings with respect to "emergent conditions" (proximity of failed/failing septic systems to drinking water sources), and declared the existence of a significant health risk. Those findings and declaration have never been challenged, appealed or rescinded. Consistent with those findings, the Board's efforts to develop water and wastewater systems have been guided all along by a desire to abate an unhealthy situation. That is the Board's exclusive responsibility. It cannot be abrogated by petition or by vote. . . . Even if the Board wanted to accept the petition, it could not legally bind itself or any future Board to the prohibition the petitioners' request. An attempt to do so would be an unenforceable nullity," Giuliani wrote.
ISSUE BEHIND THE ISSUE
Members of the public present at the meeting included Arno Noack, who created the June 4 petition. He questioned the board on the wisdom of bringing anything to the voters that might increase taxes, given the state of the economy.
Select board member Bill Parker said he felt Noack was raising one valid "issue behind the issue," namely whether the voters at large could trust the select board on the fact that project costs would be paid for by grants and users.
Capels pointed out that the terms of the grants and loans were specific that users of the system would have to pay for the costs.
The board must by law take action on the petition within 60 days and is likely to hold the revote on Primary Election Day, September 9.