OFFICE OF THE SELECTBOARD
Town of Halifax, Vermont
ROAD RECLASSIFICATION PUBLIC HEARING MINUTES
May 27, 2015
Selectboard members Earl Holtz, Lewis Sumner, and Edee Edwards met interested citizens in the Halifax School parking lot at 5:00 p.m. on May 27th, and traveled in convoy to inspect the upper section of Whitneyville Road, the lower section of Woodard Hill Road, Sumner Farm Road, and Weir (Wineburg) bridge. This excursion was for observation purposes only; no business was discussed and no testimony taken.
The hearing opened at 7:15 p.m. Selectboard members Earl Holtz, Lewis Sumner, and Edee Edwards were present. Michael McGillion of Fisher & Fisher Law moderated the meeting, which was attended by approximately forty townspeople. (Note to the Reader: Attendees did not sign in, and a number of speakers did not identify themselves by name.) McGillion introduced himself, and stated that the goal of the hearing was for the Selectboard to take testimony from the public regarding the road reclassifications under consideration. Ultimately, he said, it will be the Selectboard’s responsibility to decide whether it is in the public good, necessity, and convenience of the municipality to require the changes described in the petition and the Selectboard’s motion. During the course of the hearing each road would be discussed separately; once all testimony had been received relevant to one road, discussion would be closed and the next road taken under consideration. McGillion read for the record the hearing notice for the petition. (Full text of both notices can be found online at https://halifaxvt.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Public-Hearing-Notice-Road-Reclassification.pdf.) He then asked whether the petition had been warned, published, and posted in the prescribed fashion, and received affirmative responses. No conflicts of interest were noted among Selectboard members. Edee Edwards suggested that as the separate notice of the Selectboard’s motion referenced the subject of the petition (Sumner Farm Road), that notice should also be read into the minutes before discussion commenced. McGillion then read the opening paragraph of the Selectboard’s motion, as well as item #4—Sumner Farm Road—and the closing paragraphs of the document. He noted that while the petition did not identify Sumner Farm Road for discontinuance, the Selectboard’s motion included that option.
The Selectboard now began taking testimony on the voter’s petition to reclassify a portion of Sumner Farm Road from a Class 4 highway to a Class 3 highway, and on the Selectboard’s motion to consider Sumner Farm Road for reclassification to a Class 3 road or for discontinuance. Joe Tamburrino spoke first, explaining that the intent of the voter’s petition to request an upgrade of Sumner Farm Road was to forestall the possibility that the town would carry the full financial burden of replacing the bridge in the event of its failure. Currently, due to the road’s Class 4 status, all replacement costs would fall to the town; Class 3 roads are eligible for state and/or federal assistance. Tamburrino went on to say that the Sumner home, dairy farm, and syrup-producing business, as well as a second land parcel and residence under separate ownership, would be forced to assume responsibility for the Sumner Farm Road and bridge should the town decide on reclassification to legal trail or discontinuance. Wayne Courser strongly recommended reclassifying Sumner Farm Road to Class 3. That road sees more traffic than a number of other bridges in town, he said. Sumner Farm, and its road, were first established in 1783, said Malcolm Sumner, 232 years ago. The first farmhouse was constructed at that time, and stood further up the hillside; the present farmhouse was built in 1808. Sumner Farm Road is used by the Sumner family, the Kimberly and Tom Tefft family, grain, milk, farm, and supply trucks, local people purchasing hay, syrup, and milk, and schoolchildren who come for field trips. The bridge is one hundred years old. It was built in 1915 and a steel plate riveted to the rail displays the names of Selectmen in office at that time—W. B. Warren, N. G. Stone, and C. H. Learnard. These men considered the road to be a town road. I depend on that road, finished Sumner, just as all of you here tonight depend on the town roads. I ask that Sumner Farm Road be reclassified to a Class 3 road. Keith Stone recalled past Selectboard candidates expressing a desire to bring business and cottage industry to the town. Stone sees Sumner Farm as such a business; the Farm has, over the years, employed local young people. After Hurricane Irene, said Stone, the town rebuilt a bridge which serves a single residence. And more recently the town replaced a bridge serving two homes; that bridge was redesigned several times before construction. Stone expressed frustration with what he views as attempts to manipulate other people’s business and property. Rick Gay asked the Selectboard for their reasoning in choosing to pursue road reclassification. Some town roads go from Class 3 to Class 4 and back to Class 3, responded Holtz. We are looking for ways to make them more manageable. Questions have also been raised, he continued, about expense to taxpayers of rebuilding bridges on roads leading to only one or two residences. The Board chose—for review at the present hearing–four similar roads from a list of about ten. These are roads with bridges or culverts which the town has technically to maintain, added Holtz. Edee Edwards said the Board had discussed roads that were non-contiguous—that didn’t go through. Is the town responsible for maintaining bridges and culverts on Class 4 roads?, asked Gay. During Hurricane Irene, said Edwards, she had heard that the town was responsible for bridges on Class 4 roads. More recently, however, VLCT stated in training that the town may maintain Class 4 roads, but it is not a statutory requirement. Brad Rafus, who worked with Joe Tamburrino to initiate the Sumner Farm Road reclassification petition, roughly estimated the cost of replacing the Sumner Farm Road bridge at $400,000. If the road is Class 4, he said, the town is responsible for full cost, but if the road is Class 3 the taxpayers would pay only ten percent of that amount. That road goes back hundreds of years, he added, and Sumner Farm is one of the few businesses in town that employs townspeople. That was one of the first jobs I had, he said; it’s a historic site in this town, and I think the town should do what it needs to do so it stays that way. Sumner Farm is one of the few businesses in town, said Marilou Parkhurst. It is important not only to our town, but to our state. Parkhurst supports the upgrade petition. Charlene Martynowski concurred—Sumner Farm is the last dairy farm in town, don’t drive it away, she said; make the road Class 3. Craig Stone also supports changing the road to Class 3. He quoted a University of Wisconsin study on the large financial contribution a 60-head herd of cattle brings to a local economy, and recalled Sumner Farm had been featured in Vermont Life magazine as a bicentennial farm. I don’t see Sumner Farm as just a business, he concluded. Joan Courser spoke of Sumner Farm’s historic value as well as its importance as the last thriving dairy farm in town. I strongly urge you to make this a Class 3 road, she said. Patty Dow said she believes reclassifying to Class 3 would be to the town’s financial advantage; she fully supports the petition. Rick Gay also supports the upgrade to Class 3. I appreciate the various speakers’ passion in support of the petition, stated Holtz. Another citizen mentioned that people from Wilmington come to do business at Sumner Farm. Ross Barnett pointed out that a precedent had been set when the Wineburg bridge was rebuilt, and that should be taken into consideration. Norman Fajans added his support to the petition, and–speaking of discontinuance of roads in general–mentioned that Houghton Road, which was discontinued in the 1960s or earlier, used to be a town right-of-way from Deer Park to the present Isles property on Green River Road. Access to the Isles property was lost when the bridge between Green River Road and the residence washed out during the Hurricane. When you discontinue roads, said Fajans, you lose a legal right-of-way which can’t be reclaimed, and which might prove valuable in reconstruction after a disaster. Fajans said he would argue against discontinuance of any roads. Responding to a question from the floor, Holtz said the Board has sixty days to issue a decision in this matter. What do we have to gain by this?, asked Rick Gay. If we didn’t have to pay to replace the bridge, the taxes wouldn’t go up, said Holtz; that’s one of the things that would be of benefit to the taxpayers. When you discontinue that road, if it becomes private property, the taxpayers wouldn’t be paying for the replacement of that bridge. Then who pays for it?, asked a woman in the audience. The people that own the property, answered Holtz. At this point, noting some confusion in the discussion, Attorney McGillion brought the meeting back to order. April Dupuis, addressing the Selectboard, said that public testimony during the hearing had been in favor of the petition, but her understanding was that the Board was against it. Are you not elected to represent us, she asked? We are all taxpayers. Joe Tamburrino spoke in the same vein, and Edwards responded that she understood. But what we need to do, she continued, is make sure that the process is fair, and that we address each of these roads fairly. One of the things that happens, when you’re put in this role, you may not know all the statutory requirements that we have, but this is a decision that has to be made by the Selectboard. I appreciate the petition because it brought the issue to us; we are here in part because the petition requires a hearing. Why can’t you just vote on it tonight?, asked Tamburrino. Again, conversation got heated and McGillion restored order. Keith Stone questioned whether discontinuing Sumner Road would save money. We have another road in town that we discontinued the center, he said. Now, in the winter, instead of one plow truck going in and out, we use two trucks, we plow in until we can see each other, then we have to plow a turnaround. Edwards suggested that if commentary on Sumner Farm Road were concluded, the hearing could move on to consider the other roads. Kim Tefft lives in one of the homes accessed by Sumner Road Bridge. She is in favor of the change to Class 3. I know I can’t afford a $400,000 bridge, she said, and if we lose access to our properties their value will drop and the town will lose tax dollars. Ray Combs asked for a show hands from those in favor of the petition, and another individual asked, as an alternative, whether anyone were opposed. No one spoke in opposition. This portion of the hearing closed at 8:17 p.m.
McGillion now read the public notice and opened discussion on the four-tenths mile of Whitneyville Road designated Legal Class 3, not up to standard, to be considered for reclassification to Class 4, Town Trail, or discontinuance. As testimony opened, Edwards told Ray Combs Whitneyville Road has 1.2 miles defined as Class 3, and four-tenths of a mile defined as legal Class 3 not up to standard. What if someone builds a house up there?, asked Combs. As it stands now, the town would have to fix the road to Class 3 specifications, answered Brad Rafus. Tamburrino said that discontinuing the road would create landlocked properties with a reduced tax value, as those properties would no longer have a right-of-way and the owners could not have a housesite or build on the parcels. Turn it into a trail, he suggested, so people could still have access. John Kirk requested clarification on the legal ramifications of a road being classified as a town trail. Edwards, reading from a VLCT publication, stated that when a road is designated as a trail the right-of-way continues at the same width, but municipal obligation to maintain the highway ceases. But does legal liability fall to the town, or to the property owner? asked Kirk. I’d have to check into that, said Holtz. Linda Huebner walks all the town trails and roads, and especially Whitneyville, as she lives at the base of that road. She wanted to know what effect reclassification would have. Huebner also mentioned, as side issues, the plentiful amount of trash dumped off the brook side of Whitneyville Road at the upper end, and the difficulty she is having with dirt and debris washing into her basement due to a lack of proper drainage between the road and her property. Craig Stone also had questions about liability in the event of a change of class. His property abuts the upper end of Whitneyville Road, where there is a five-foot culvert, and he advised that if the road were discontinued the culvert should be taken out. I’m not in favor of changing anything below a Class 4–you may want that road in the future, he added. I think Whitneyville Road should at least be Class 4, said Rick Gay. There’s property for sale up there, and someone could be building a house in the future. Norm Fajans commented that the town could not legally create a landlocked parcel; the Board should take this into consideration. If you discontinue, said Charlene Martynowski, we’ll have to take the housesites off four pieces of property, which will reduce the grand list. Another property owner from lower down on Whitneyville Road advised against discontinuance. Once the road is thrown up, that’s it, he said. Ross Barnett agreed with that sentiment, recalling that during Irene the road gave access by ATV when other avenues were shut off. Holtz remarked that in his opinion that section of Whitneyville was a very nice Class 4 road, although it would need some work to become a Class 3. Discussion on Whitneyville Road closed at 8:25 p.m.
McGillion read the hearing notice as it pertained to the half-mile section of Woodard Hill Road designated Legal Class 3/Functional Class 4 and under consideration for reclassification to a Class 3 or Class 4 road, or Town Trail, or for discontinuance. John Kirk, who resides in the last house on Woodard Hill Road, told the meeting there has been no maintenance on that section of Woodard Hill during the 30 years that he has owned the property. The road section is actually about seven-tenths of a mile, said Kirk. It is used by the townspeople, most notably by school children who take nature study field trips, the occasional cross-country skier, and—maybe once a year—a benighted driver who trusts his GPS over the advice of the property owner. These latter visitors provide income for the local tow truck businesses who extract their mired vehicles. As property owners, said Kirk, we have no interest in owning that piece. As part of the history of the town I believe people should be able to go down there, and I see no benefit to the town making a decision different from what the situation is now. Kirk mentioned the existence of one culvert, not noted in the Selectboard’s study, which is still functioning well. If it was made a Class 4, asked Holtz, would that be a problem for you? It is a Class 4, said Kirk, but Edwards said maps differed; one shows Class 4 while the state map indicates legal Class 3/functional Class 4. Kirk said it has not been treated as Class 3 since the bridge over Branch Brook, which connected Woodard Hill with Branch Road, was taken out. Malcolm Sumner and Rick Gay advised maintaining the status quo. Various opinions were offered in response to Edwards’ question about how long the bridge had been gone. Craig Stone said the bridge was discontinued about 1985 and dismantled in 1987. Hearing of testimony on Woodard Hill Road closed at 8:36 p.m.
McGillion read the public notice as it pertained to Weir (Wineburg) Road, a Class 4 road as determined by the State of Vermont after Tropical Storm Irene. Weir Road is .06 of a mile long and being considered for reclassification to a Class 3 road, Town Trail, or for discontinuance. As public comment opened, the first two speakers recommended leaving Weir Road as it is. Why are we doing this, asked one; we just built the bridge. Rick Gay agreed; I think we should be looking to the future; how long is the bridge good for, he asked. We’ve already spent the money on it; to turn it over is ludicrous. Charlene Martynowski was of the same mind. Didn’t FEMA pay for that bridge, she asked. And didn’t we fight to get them to pay for that bridge? It doesn’t make sense. Doug Parkhurst proposed upgrading Weir Road to Class 3. If we were to lose that bridge again, it would be the same situation as Sumner Farm bridge, he added. Unless there’s a sincere, very good reason to change classifications, roads are lifelines, said Parkhurst. People need roads to get to their houses, their businesses, their property. If we start downgrading or discontinuing them we’re not looking to the future. We might see a little bit of savings now, but looking to the future we need to have those roads open. If we change classification, asked Ray Combs, does that mean we lose the right to the bridge? Do we have to plow it? We don’t plow that, said Holtz. We would be turning the bridge back over to the property owner. Tamburrino said he didn’t see a reason to discontinue any of these roads. Are you trying to save us tax dollars, asked Rick Gay. We’re trying to follow the proper way to go about this process, according to state statute, answered Holtz. What does the statute say?, someone asked. Edwards read from the public notice: The Selectboard will then determine whether the public good, necessity, and convenience of the inhabitants of Halifax require these changes. Why? asked several people in the audience. Where did this come from? We had a petition, responded Holtz. McGillion asked for order. Why were these other roads added to the petition for Sumner Road? someone asked. We didn’t want to be in a position where we were picking on one road only, said Holtz. Again, from the floor, came a request for a reason. I’m happy to answer that, said Edwards. If a road reverts to the owners, that does take a burden off of the taxpayers, so when you’re looking at the public good and necessity that is the balance point that I think we have to address. Speaking of Weir Road, a resident said she had never seen the town crew working there. How much does Weir Road cost the town, she asked. In 18 years, answered Brad Rafus, we’ve put guard rails on that bridge once. We don’t plow or grade it because it’s a Class 4 road. These roads aren’t costing us anything now, offered Tamburrino, but if you downgrade or discontinue you will lower property values and lower taxes collected. McGillion ascertained that no further comments were forthcoming regarding Weir Road.
There was some further general comment and questions about whether the Selectboard planned to address classification of other town roads. Is the Board’s decision final?, asked a resident. Holtz said those who disagree with the Board’s decision have legal recourse.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:55 p.m.