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D-Day for Fairfax development

Loan vote today, initial reaction less than rosy

"Why would we want to become another Essex Junction?" - Fairfax resident at Monday's meeting

By LEON THOMPSON
Messenger Staff Writer

FAIRFAX ­­ The Fairfax Selectboard's hopes to study a possible expansion or upgrade of the town's wastewater treatment plant may be in trouble.

Voters hit the polls today to say whether they want the town to pursue a $42,000 loan for the study, but for 2 1/2 hours Monday night, more than 100 people showed little support for that endeavor.

During a public hearing on the issue at Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax (BFA), a session that became heated at times, many town residents railed against the study and said they want either more controlled or no development in the village, the area a sewer expansion would affect most.

Residents said they worry about what impact "clustered development" could have on enrollment and future costs at BFA. Some of them also implied that the sewer improvements are solely meant to pad some Fairfax residents' pockets, including one Main Street business owner who has a major housing development in the works.

"Why would we want to become another Essex Junction?" one resident asked the selectboard. "If anything, we should be getting more industry in this town."

An upgrade or expansion of the sewer system is included in the town plan, which selectmen adopted in the late 1990s. Money for the study would come from the Agency of Natural Resources' revolving loan fund, and, once the study is done -- if at all -- the town has five years to develop its project and hold a bond vote. Then, there is another five-year window to reimburse the state for the loan.

Conducted by Green Mountain Engineering of Burlington, one of two bidders, the study would take 12 to 18 months and assess land availability, the flood plain, soil structure and discharge into the Lamoille River from the growth center.

While all registered Fairfax voters can cast ballots today, only users in the designated growth center would reimburse the loan at a cost of $34.53 a year or $8.64 quarterly for five years, according to Randy Devine, town wastewater official.

That cost would affect 192 connections, or 243 building units, Devine said. He explained that the plant is permitted to hold a maximum of 78,000 gallons and is running close to that on an average annual basis.

Three "hot projects," including one proposed for a vast tract of land behind Hayes-Rich Funeral Home, would generate an additional 15,310 gallons per day and $41,250 in revenue, Devine said.

Town officials such as Nick Hadden, planning commission chairman, and Selectboard Chairman Ed Nuttall stressed that the study is essential if residents want development in the growth center; otherwise, they said, it will occur in outlying areas.

"In order for growth to occur in the growth center, you have to have the sewer capacity," Nuttall said. "If we don't allow growth in the growth center, it will be outside of the village."

Many residents want just that.

"I'm glad I have a place to grow a garden, and I don't want to be surrounded by clustered housing," said Bob Shea. "I want to be surrounded by the land I live on."

Two landowners who defended themselves publicly were Barbara Young and John Workman, who own acreage in the designated growth center. A former member of the planning commission who now serves the development review board, Young addressed rumors that she pushed for the study because her family wants to develop its land.

"When I was on the planning commission, we did not have the remotest idea that we were going to develop," Young declared.

The co-owner of Hayes-Rich Funeral Home, Workman and his business partner, David Modica, have proposed to divide the 33-acre tract behind their business into 40, one-third acre lots that would contain a village green, elderly and family housing and commercial, municipal and retail space.

The design abides by the Fairfax Town Plan and has been touted by state officials as a model for villages in designated growth centers across Vermont, Workman said.

He also said the design emerged from his discussions with Fairfax residents. He said he thought it was what they wanted, adding, "We didn't just pull something out of the air."

Some taxpayers suggested that Workman pay for the sewer expansion himself, because he would profit from a major portion of growth in the village area.

"It's something that the same people who support this growth center (concept) are the people who want to build this growth center," said Bob Horr.

Workman said he is a landowner, not a developer, and that he and Modica cannot financially hold onto the land simply because Fairfax residents enjoy it.

"We brought you what you said you wanted, and you're saying, 'No,'" Workman said. "And that's O.K. Fairfax can come to us and buy that land again."

Workman has said the sewer expansion is needed for the second of his two-phase plan. Voter rejection today could mean that Workman would withdraw his design and sell the land to professional developers. According to Workman, some of those prospective developers are interested in filling the tract with nothing but clustered housing.

"That's not what we envision for Fairfax," he said.

Selectman Greg Hartmann reminded meeting-goers that the growth center and sewer expansion would benefit everyone in the village, not just projects that are on the table now.

"This is for the whole town," he said.

Under state law, the vote today is unnecessary, some town officials believe, because Title 24 authorizes selectman to obtain the loan without a bond vote, providing the study is tied to a project that requires it.

But Fairfax Treasurer Donna Meunier refused to sign documents allowing the selectboard to secure the state loan, claiming taxpayers needed a voice in the matter.

Last night, the audience gave Meunier a standing ovation, during which she smiled and covered her red face with her hands.

"I, for one, want to publicly thank Donna for doing her job," said Gina Meigs, whose statement sparked the applause for Meunier.

-- -- -- --Contact Leon Thompson at 524-9771 ext. 112 or via e-mail: leon@samessenger.com