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Virginia Houston and the town of Waitsfield have reached an agreement to settle all current and pending litigation for a sum of $31,000.
The settlement was reached after an intense three-week period of negotiations between Houston and the town and their respective attorneys.
Houston initiated the settlement talks by calling Waitsfield Select Board chair Sal Spinosa at home in December.
The select board, at a special Sunday meeting, negotiated for five hours on January 20 and finalized the settlement document at its regular meeting on January 21. The check for $31,000 was cut and delivered to Houston’s attorney on January 22.
The $31,000 that the town paid Houston is in addition to the $135,000 that she was awarded by Vermont Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford for the town’s taking by eminent domain of two parcels of land for the town’s municipal water project last October.
The agreement settled seven lawsuits, including Houston’s appeal of Crawford’s October order to the Vermont Supreme Court. There were three other cases pending in Superior Court and another three cases in Vermont’s Environmental Court. The settlement ends a lengthy period of litigation that began in 2005 when the town made plans to drill a well in the Reed Road right of way to be used as a source for a municipal water project.
Houston’s property abuts Reed Road and she brought a variety of lawsuits against the town as soon as the town received a state water source permit to drill for its well. Houston and another abutter, Jean Damon, prevailed in one lawsuit against the town in 2010 when the Superior Court ruled that the town had not proven that Reed Road was a town road.
That decision brought work on a portion of the town’s $7.6 million municipal water project to a halt. As a result of that decision, the town began simultaneously negotiating with Damon and Houston and pursuing condemnation proceedings to take an easement on two small parcels (under a half acre) on each side of Reed Road.
In July 2011 the town settled with Damon for $230,000. Last October’s decision by Judge Crawford that awarded Houston $135,000 in compensation included $47,500 for Houston’s 50 percent ownership in 1.42 acres of land on Reed Road where the town’s well is drilled, $45,000 for a one-half acre strip of land on Reed Road, $63,000 for Houston to create a new access to her property from Reed Road, and $18,800 to purchase and install an electric well pump to pump water from the wells she has drilled on her land near Reed Road.
This week’s settlement announcement ends the long legal battle between the town and Houston over the municipal water project. But the water project was not the first time Houston was in court over Waitsfield’s actions. After tapping into the same enormous aquifer that Waitsfield’s well taps, Houston began seeking permits to create a commercial water bottling business in the early 1990s.
She appealed a decision by the Waitsfield Zoning Board of Adjustment that commercial extraction of water could not be considered an agricultural use (raising water) to the Vermont Supreme Court. The court ruled that water could not be considered a crop. Waitsfield’s zoning at the time did not include the specific use of commercial extraction of water as an allowed use in the town and after the Supreme Court ruling, there ensued a series of votes on whether commercial water extraction should be allowed as a use by right (with no town oversight) or a conditional use (with town oversight). After three votes requiring a supermajority to pass, commercial water extraction was approved as a conditional use.
Houston began the permitting process to truck water from the wells and did receive town permission to haul water from the site via six round-trip truck trips per day, but she never acted on those permits.