Selectboard reverses course
ST. ALBANS TOWN — Just days after sitting down with waste treatment plant consultant PC Construction, the St. Albans Town Selectboard announced Monday night it would attempt to negotiate on water and sewer services with St. Albans City.
“We are not going to get too informal about this, but we are going to start a discussion with the city and try to work something out in regards to water and sewer,” said selectboard chair Brent Palmer.
A moratorium has been in place since 2011 on new water and sewer connections outside St. Albans City in all areas except the North End Sewer District in the vicinity of Interstate 89 Exit 20. The moratorium was installed after a long history of failed talks and negotiations, a town lawsuit against the city, an agreement reached between the two municipalities, the failure of that agreement, and a second unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the town.
In December 2014, St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache made an announcement that the moratorium would be lifted and an ordinance would be drawn up to charge an annual affiliation fee on any new hookups outside the city and the North End Sewer District. The fee – 28 cents for every $100 in assessed property value – would apply for new properties. Existing properties would be charged 14 cents per $100 in assessed value.
Also included in the proposed ordinance is a criteria for new water and sewer hookups outside city limits. Developments planned for beyond St. Albans City, for instance, could be denied if they presented an economic disadvantage for the city.
The ordinance has not yet had its first reading, a legal process leading to final adoption, and until last night, the St. Albans Town Selectboard has not formally commented on the ordinance or the potential lifting of the moratorium.
Though Palmer didn’t give an explicit opinion of the city’s plans, he said that two selectboard members would be appointed to meet with St. Albans City officials on the matter.
“[To] begin formal negotiations to see where this can go,” he said. “We want to negotiate with the city.”
In the meantime, Palmer said, “We’re not just sitting back on our haunches. We want to make sure the public is aware that were are trying to do something.”
He then referenced last Thursday’s special selectboard meeting with PC Construction, a South Burlington company that specializes in wastewater treatment facilities. Two of the company’s representatives presented different ways the town could approach building its own facility, and they also recommended that a preliminary engineering report be done to assess potential location, permitting, cost and feasibility.
No decisions were made as a result of that meeting.
Selectboard members decided last night on two appointees to talk with St. Albans City officials. The decision was not without a little controversy.
Sam Smith was the first to throw his name in the hat. “In the last few years, I have done a few [transactions] with the city,” he said. “I have a pretty good working knowledge of city relations.”
Smith, a local developer and member of S.R. Smith Real Estate – owned by his wife, Rachel – recently lost in a lawsuit he brought against St. Albans City as Ingleside Equity Group, a family entity. Smith, who had plans for a hotel in the area of Exit 19, argued that the city’s moratorium discriminated against him by denying equal access to water and sewer services in the southeastern part of the town while the northern end did have access due to an agreement made prior to the moratorium.
Judge William Sessions III issued the decision in March after a two-day trial in October 2014.
In light of the recent lawsuit and Smith’s history of other financial transactions with St. Albans City, selectboard member Dave McWilliams disagreed that Smith should be one of the people to speak with the city on sewer and water issues.
“I think, Sam, you have a conflict of interest,” said McWilliams.
Smith didn’t see his history as a conflict. “I have been involved in analyzing the city-town relations, the water-sewer issue since 1999,” he said. “With the knowledge I have, because I’ve been involved, I think it would be beneficial.”
He added, “I have had transactions with the city, real estate transactions… as [recently] as a month ago.”
McWilliams responded, “I’m not disagreeing with your experience.” He added that he, as a former employee of the city’s public works department and the wastewater treatment plant, also had a conflict of interest.
“It would be adversarial for you and me to be on that committee,” said McWilliams.
Palmer disagreed. “These are only preliminary negotiations – no decisions are going to be made by two selectboard members,” he said. Any decisions would be made by a full selectboard, Palmer said, and the two appointed members would simply be gathering information.
“That’s all it is,” he said. “I just think we’re going out right now and talking about making a deal. I don’t think that Sam’s going to make any kind of deal any more than the rest of us in terms of us cutting a permanent deal with the city.”
Selectboard member Stan Dukas spoke up. “I feel that Bruce Cheeseman should be one of the individuals,” he said, referring to the one absent selectboard member Monday. “Bruce is a good candidate.”
Palmer said, “We’re all in agreement that Sam and Bruce are going to do it?”
McWilliams said he still didn’t feel comfortable with Smith as one of the two appointees.
“This has nothing to do with lawsuits,” said Palmer. “It has to do with discussions. So are we in agreement or not? Talk to me.”
McWilliams said he’d rather have Dukas as one of the two appointees than Smith. Dukas, however, made the motion that Cheeseman and Smith would attend the July 13, St. Albans City Council meeting following that same night’s selectboard meeting.
Town manager Carrie Johnson said she had already contacted the city regarding the talks.
The motion passed three to one, with McWilliams voting against.