Voted but not over: petitions aim to bring wastewater vote to town meeting

The Town of Charlotte, VT

At a special meeting earlier this month, the Selectboard voted 4-1 to approve sewer use and sewer allocation ordinances that will allow the town-owned wastewater system in the West Charlotte Village to be leased by private businesses. Two petitions are currently circulating in town, one per ordinance, to disapprove of this Selectboard decision. If the petitions gather enough signatures, the issue will be put in front of voters for a voice vote at town meeting on March 3.

The septic system in the West Village is currently used by Town Hall, the Charlotte Library, the Charlotte Senior Center, which are all public institutions, as well as the private Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services. The issue of wastewater leasing to other private entities arose last summer when the Charlotte Children’s Center and the Charlotte Family Health Center both expressed interest in leasing septic capacity, which is available but unused.

After discussion by the West Village Wastewater Committee and several discussions by the Selectboard, a vote was held in December, and then another on Jan. 6 because of a legal issue, both resulting in the same 4-1 outcome. Board members Matt Krasnow, Carrie Spear, Fritz Tegatz, and Louise McCarren all voted to approve the ordinances; Frank Tenney was the lone vote against them.

According to Town Clerk Mary Mead, the petitions were taken out by Charlotters Moe Harvey, Robert Mack, and Peter Trono. Each petition requires signatures from five percent of eligible voters, in this case 164 signatures, in order to be considered valid and must be presented to the town clerk within 44 days of the ordinance’s approval; in this case, that date is February 19. The Selectboard then has 60 days to present the ordinances for a vote to the town at large at a special meeting—in this case, town meeting, because of its higher attendance numbers.

The Town Clerk is responsible for checking signatures on the petitions and verifying them as the pages come in. Mead and Harvey are married, and she said potential conflict-of-interest issues are addressed as such: “In reality, [Assistant Town Clerk Christina Boohers] and I both do it since it’s also her job as assistant clerk, and it depends on who’s busy and who is not when someone comes in with their petitions.”

Harvey, a former Selectboard member who was part of the original property acquisition and development of the wastewater system, said he wanted the issue to be a voter decision, not a Selectboard decision, because he thinks there has not been enough time or opportunity for discussion.

“My only goal is to let the public vote on it instead of letting the Selectboard make the decision,” he said. He has the institutional knowledge, he said, to understand the town’s original intent for the wastewater system’s location, size, and use. The original septic capacity was part of a larger project that involved a walking trail between Greenbush and Ferry Roads, the sledding hill just south of The Old Lantern, and the three houses that were eventually built across the street from the Old Lantern.

“The original intention of the septic system was for municipal only,” Harvey said, mentioning that at first, it was only the Town Hall and the fire station using it, and the library and senior center were added in following years. “My problem is, I don’t believe the Selectboard. As much as I like those people, they’re not looking far enough forward.”

Harvey also mentioned concerns regarding school facility usage and new rules imposed by the Champlain Valley School district that were raised by Spear during Selectboard meetings: he thinks that in the future, if school usage is limited to school activities only, a town community center that uses a good portion of the septic capacity will be needed for meetings, recreation department usage, and other community needs. “It’s going to be sooner than you think,” he said.

These issues were tackled over the course of discussions about wastewater usage both at Selectboard and wastewater meetings and on the Front Porch Forum community email; Harvey pointed out that not many people attend those meetings, and that an opportunity to discuss the matter and vote on it at town meeting would bring the issue before a greater number of voters.

The matter first came before the Selectboard last summer, after the doctors who own the Charlotte Family Health Center approached the board about potentially leasing septic capacity from the town. Their current building farther west of the village on Ferry Road is too small and inefficient for their space, and they said they will have to move at some point in the near future. In a presentation to the Selectboard last year, Dr. Andrea Regan said the ideal location for their facility is on property in the village center which is currently owned by Charlotte resident Ben Mason.

The cost of building a new septic system is prohibitive, Regan said, and allowing the health center to hook into the existing system would save them enough money to build a facility in the center of town and keep what she said is a valuable resource for community members in Charlotte. The Charlotte Children’s Center, a daycare and preschool, would also request to use the town’s septic system, which would allow them to meet a greater need for childcare in the area than what their current system allows.