Monday February 18, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- Selectboard members on Friday agreed to try to craft an out-of-court settlement in a long-running dispute between the town and a Schoolhouse Road couple.

In a special session, the board rescinded a previous vote to send two representatives to defend the town in Vermont Environmental Court. And officials also agreed to enter into mediation with the affected property owners, John and Lori Thibault.

"It seems like a logical step for us," Selectboard member Steve Glabach said.

Under normal circumstances, the case may not have attracted much attention: The Dummerston Development Review Board in September denied the Thibaults’ variance applications for a fence, a deck and an above-ground pool.

The couple appealed to Environmental Court.

But the matter sparked a dispute between the review board and Selectboard members who said the ruling was unfair. The Selectboard initially declined to defend the town in court, then later appointed two review board members to do so.

The issue came to a head at a Feb. 6 Selectboard meeting where discussions about the case spilled into accusations of conflicts of interest. When it was pointed out that Selectboard Chairman Lewis White and the town’s road foreman are cousins, White said he would resign.

There since has been an outpouring of support for White. He submitted a resignation letter, but the remaining Selectboard members on Wednesday refused to accept it.


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Also, there apparently are continued hard feelings between the Thibaults and the review board.

An e-mail to the Selectboard from Lori Thibault prompted Friday’s meeting. In it, she detailed an Aug. 30 phone conversation with review board Chairman Herb Rest and said she felt "intimidated ... and at times, I felt like he was making fun of us, because he felt like he was holding all the cards and could tell me what to do."

Rest quickly issued a detailed response saying he simply was placing a "courtesy call" to Lori Thibault before the board had issued its written decision.

"The entire phone communication was done with the greatest respect, as would be expected from a representative of the town," Rest wrote to the Selectboard.

"Indeed, I went out of my way in suggesting possible alternatives for the applicant to consider so that the intent of the construction might be accomplished while remaining compliant with the zoning laws," Rest added. "At no time was there condescension, and the tone was conversationally professional."

As it turned out, Friday’s session did not deal with the substance of those e-mails. Instead, the four remaining Selectboard members worked through the details of how to structure settlement talks with the Thibaults and their attorney, Walter French.

French said the town had painted itself into a legal corner, first by waiting too long to appoint a court representative and then by improperly sending two review board members to represent the town.

"It’s my position that the town is still not a party to the Environmental Court matter," French said.

But French also said he believed the court would welcome a settlement between the Thibaults and the town.

"If we reach a compromise solution, we could resolve this," he said.

The Selectboard voted unanimously to enter into mediation with the Thibaults. But if those talks fail, the matter may go back to court.

"If we didn’t reach a settlement, we’d be right back to where we are today," French said.

Selectboard member Zeke Goodband said the board will address its differences with the Development Review Board at a later date.

"The DRB’s performance was been brought up several times in this issue that’s arisen," Goodband said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.