HALIFAX -- Only a few seats were empty at Town Offices on Tuesday night while the Selectboard and Planning Commission went over protocol regarding an upcoming Act 250 hearing on the proposed schist quarry.
Commission member Sirean LaFlamme became chairwoman of the commission later in the evening but first spoke of concerns involving potential ex parte communication.
"I got a call from a concerned community member who got together with some more concerned community members and went over the Act 250 binder and made cliff notes. She wanted to bring them right over to me. I decided right there that I was a little uncomfortable with that," LaFlamme said. "I'm wondering when is the appropriate time to receive things, information or evidence from people? I did not open it."
Approximately four months ago, an envelope with notes related to an Act 250 permit application for Russell Denison's property on Jacksonville Stage Road was mailed to the Town Offices for the commission. LaFlamme noted that the Zoning Board of Adjustment would be looking at an application for continuous use permit when it is filed. That application was not yet submitted.
LaFlamme's concern was addressed by Windham Regional Commission Senior Planner John Bennett, who was hired through a municipal planning grant to assist the commission with updates to zoning regulations. He pointed out that documents LaFlamme was citing were addressed at town boards when processing an application in a quasi-judicial capacity and making a ruling.
"That might be something significantly different than a planning commission participating in an Act 250 proceeding because you don't have any quasi-judicial power there," he said. "If you haven't received an application for a conditional use permit, that may not be an issue you have to worry about yet. Once you do have it, then those waters are going to be very muddy."
The envelope was eventually opened. Doing that in a transparent fashion was suggested by Selectboard member Earl Holtz.
"As I look at it right now, it's very innocuous," he said.
Commission member Margaret Stoltzman pointed out it was not likely that there would be any new evidence from opening the envelope. LaFlamme said she did not want it used against the commission.
Stoltzman made a distinction. She said the ZBA, made up mostly of commission members, will be looking at the zoning regulations for the local permit application while the commission will be primarily involved in seeing how the Act 250 permit application lines up with the Town Plan.
Referring to a conversation the board previously had with town attorney Bob Fisher, Edwards said by statute, the Selectboard and Planning Commission will be parties to the Act 250 hearing.
"He said you don't necessarily need to have a cohesive joint approach but generally they're on the same page," Edwards said. "He said the super majority of projects are approved. It is up to us to decide what we have concerns about. Some people get stuck on for or against but there's a lot of in between and reasonable conditions put forth can undo adverse effects. Suggestions from the town can help the district commissioners decide, if they approve the project, what conditions must be met."
Ten pieces of criteria were listed on a sheet of paper at the meeting, which are used for reviewing environmental impacts of proposed projects. There are also 32 sub-criteria items. Each will come up during the Act 250 hearing even if only to say, it does not apply to the project.
Weighing in on the project's impact on roads and the maintenance of roads will be a major part of the Selectboard's role in providing input during the hearing. The board has already received a traffic study from the Windham Regional Commission and held a special meeting to look at culverts that may be affected by the potential project. The culverts leading to the site are all owned by the town.
There are concerns about road width as large trucks would be traveling to the site, which could make it difficult for emergency vehicle access.
A site visit is scheduled with District Environment Commissions representatives at Denison's property for Sept. 9 at 5 p.m. Attendees at the meeting said the site visit will require a two and a half mile walk to get there. According to Bennett, the hearing will likely be recessed after the site visit and a continuation would then be scheduled.
"It isn't an automatic timeline," he added.
Holtz spoke of the importance of town officials recusing themselves if there is a conflict of interest. Edwards said the Act 250 hearing won't stop due to town officials reserving any opinion.
"If the Planning Commission doesn't feel comfortable saying these are the town's interests as a whole, the town is a party. And I'm going to tell you, I have concerns," she said. "I'm going to present information about those concerns at the Act 250 hearing because it's my understanding that it's our role to present a perspective on what the impact on the town as a whole and taxpayers will be."
A binder with project details has been kept at the Town Offices, giving town officials and residents the opportunity to review it. The information it contains was submitted for the Act 250 permit.
"I'd highly encourage you to meet again as often as you feel necessary to hash through this stuff," said Bennett.
On Aug. 26, another joint meeting of the commission and Selectboard will be held at 7 p.m. to discuss the project.
A vacancy on the commission was noted as John Brimmer resigned last week. His request to stay on the ZBA was approved by the Selectboard on Aug. 5. Edwards said one man had already shown interest in filling the position.
"We don't have a strict deadline by which to make an appointment for that position," she continued. "We obviously have a concern as the Act 250 hearing is coming."
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.