By MARK KOBZIK
While the clock on appealing a December federal court ruling ticks away, Shelburne residents are split as how they think the town should move forward.
And last week, the possibility for an out-of-court settlement gained traction as the selectboard reached out to Vermont Railway Inc. offering to discuss the matter.
A statement from the board dated Jan. 11 and released by Town Manager Joe Colangelo said: “As a result of further discussion by the Shelburne Selectboard in executive session during the Jan. 9, 2018, selectboard meeting, the four members of the selectboard involved with the Vermont Railway matter have decided to approach Vermont Railway Inc. to discuss the possibility of a non-court-ordered mediation session.”
Apparently the board decided to take this new tack during a closed-door part of its meeting last Tuesday night but it didn’t say so publicly until Thursday.
Colangelo said the new approach did not change anything about the board’s previous decision on Jan. 2 to appeal the latest court ruling using a $20,000 grant from the nonprofit Vermont Natural Resources Council to cover the town’s legal expenses.
The railroad’s lead attorney, Marc Heath, said he isn’t sure formal mediation is the best means for ending the dispute, but the railroad is interested in discussions with town officials.
“Vermont Railway has always been in favor of settling this matter out of court,” Heath said.
As of Wednesday morning, no meeting had been scheduled yet between town and railroad representatives, town officials said.
Work towards a court appeal appeared to be moving forward. When reached Wednesday, Town Attorney Claudine Safar said: “At this minute, an appeal has not yet been filed, but we anticipate it will be filed by the end of the day [Thursday].”
So far the town has spent more than $400,000 fighting Vermont Railway and its development of a salt storage and handling facility just north of the village adjacent to the LaPlatte River. In the process, opinions in the community have become divided over concerns about the development such as noise, water pollution, and aesthetics.
For example, following presentations and tours at the salt sheds on Jan. 6, attendees offered differing opinions. Their reactions ranged from frustration to satisfaction over the answers the railroad officials provided.
Melissa Fletcher lives off Bay Road in a neighborhood that feels the full effects of the railroad as a neighbor. Fletcher attended the salt shed tours that she described as “a good show” while not seriously addressing the issues.
She said her conversations with Selden Houghton, the go-to contact at Vermont Railway and intermodal fleet manager, have been frustrating. Fletcher said she asked questions at the meeting about noise, containment of sodium chloride, and other concerns, and only received what she considered non-answers and promises to fix problems.
Fletcher said she supports continued litigation due to what she perceives to as unwillingness by Vermont Railway to act on neighbors’ concerns. Fletcher was skeptical about the selectboard’s offer to talk directly with the railroad. Fletcher said while she believes court is not the best route, it’s necessary since she believes the railroad continues to ignore residents.
Linda Riell, a regular attendee at selectboard meetings who would like to see the town end the court battle, said she supports Judge William K. Sessions III’ ruling on the town hazardous waste ordinance. The latest go-round in court focused on a newly adopted ordinance that considers salt hazardous and would drastically curtail the railway’s salt operation. The court ruled that the ordinance does not apply to the railroad.
“There is a need to discuss concerns such as noise and the monitoring of test wells, and that will not be addressed if the town continues on its path against the railroad,” Riell wrote in a statement delivered to Shelburne News.
Riell said a problem with ongoing litigation is that it has a very narrow focus and would not likely cover concerns such as noise and impact the salt facility may have on the Laplatte River.
Peg Rosenau of McCabe Circle said those broader issues are real. “Our neighborhood has been particularly impacted by the intensely loud and disruptive vibrational banging that is used to free salt from rail cars. It is affecting our property values, our quality of life, and even our health and wellbeing. We have complained about this repeatedly to Vermont Rail,” she said.
Rosenau said responses from the railroad have been inadequate while the noise hasn’t improved. Answers from Wulfson have ranged from “we’re looking into that” to “you may have to put up with that,” she said.
“I appreciated the effort put into arranging the tour and the opportunity for dialogue, but the big takeaway was that Shelburne residents are entirely at the mercy of Vermont Rail’s goodwill and whim for many zoning considerations that in a typical situation would be protected by local oversight,” Rosenau said.