RICHFORD — A change to the meeting minutes of the Richford Development Review Board (DRB) came as a surprise to at least one of its members.
“That’s news to me,” said Tim Green when asked about an amendment that altered the vote on a conditional use permit for the Cornerstone Bridges to Life community center from 3-2 against to 4-2 against.
Decisions to either approve or reject permit applications must be made by a majority of the board, not simply a majority of the members who are present and voting, explained Deputy Secretary of State David Leven.
Richford has a seven-member DRB. “They need four votes to get an approval,” said Leven.
Or, in the case of Cornerstone, a disapproval.
The community center has twice asked the DRB for permission to move to 140 Main St., the site of the former Spears Funeral Home. The owner has offered to donate the building to the center.
Members of the community spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the move at a public hearing of the DRB on Feb. 11.
According to minutes obtained from the town clerk’s office, the DRB took up the issue on Feb. 25, but did not make a decision.
On March 13, the DRB again took up the issue.
According to the minutes, the DRB reviewed various aspects of Richford’s zoning rules and discussed how they would apply in this case.
Green then made a motion to approve the application. His motion was seconded by Jane Lariviere. The vote failed 3-2. Chair Joan Cheeseman abstained.
At its next meeting, March 18, the DRB again discussed Cornerstone, although the minutes contain no details of the discussion. On a motion made by Green, board members also approved the minutes for the March 13 meeting “as corrected.” However, Green said he had not been aware of any change to the vote totals until contacted by the Messenger on Friday.
Asked specifically about the changed vote, Green said, “It didn’t happen at a Development Review Board meeting.”
On March 19, Cheeseman sent a letter to Lyle Willey, founder of Cornerstone, to explain the reasons for the permit denial. The letter explicitly referenced a 3-2 vote.
On March 25, the Messenger received an undated copy of the formal decision denying a permit to Cornerstone.
During an interview with the Messenger about the decision, Cheeseman said the vote on the permit had been 3-2. No mention was made of the need for four members of the board to agree or disagree before a permit could be granted or denied. Instead, the decision appears to have been issued on the basis of the 3-2 vote.
The minutes for the March 13 meeting show hand written alterations, changing the vote from “2 yes, 3 no and 1 abstained” to “2 yes, 4 no and 0 abstained.”
There is also an asterisk indicating an amendment. The amendment states: After consultation with town attorney Michael Gawne, DRB Chair Cheeseman changed her vote from abstain to ‘no,’ following discussion with town attorney Michael Gawne on what constitutes an ex parte communication.” An ex parte communication is a communication with one party to a court case, or in this case a permit, and not the other.
The amendment is not dated.
The Messenger has been unsuccessful in its efforts to contact Cheeseman and DRB secretary John Libbey to determine how and when the minutes were altered. Phone messages were left with them on Friday, but answers were not forthcoming as of the newspaper’s deadline.
According to Leven, the 4-2 vote is not valid. “In order for a board to take formal or binding action they must do so in a publicly warned meeting,” said Leven. A member of the board cannot change his or her vote after the fact without another vote being taken at a properly warned meeting.
Under Vermont law if a majority of the board does not approve or disapprove a permit application within 45 days of closing the public hearing and ceasing to take evidence, the permit is considered approved on the 46th day, explained Leven.
Once a DRB votes on a permit, the public hearing is considered closed. Thus, the public hearing for Cornerstone would have been considered closed on March 13, giving the board until April 27 to reach a decision by a majority of the board at a warned meeting.
If the board does not take action before that date, the permit is granted, according to Leven.
In the meantime, however, the Cornerstone board has voted not to continue its current lease at One Main Street. The space was too expensive to heat, board members explained at the Feb. 11 DRB meeting.
Without a new building to move into “our only option now is to close the center and seek alternative places to piece out the work we are doing,” Willey said in an e-mail to the Messenger. “It is definitely not optimal but we are committed to try to keep programs going as long as we can.”