BELLOWS FALLS -- A revenue account was established by the Bellows Falls Union High School Board on Monday to raise $50,000 in donations to cover the legal expenses racked up in the struggle to get all permits for the Hadley Field lights.
BFUHS Board Chairman David Clark said there was a unanimous vote to task Chris Kibbe, the superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, with drafting an open letter asking the community for monetary donations and to form a committee for the revenue account. Kibbe told the Reformer he had not completed the open letter as of Wednesday afternoon, but will finish it as soon as possible.
The Hadley Field lights, the first in BFUHS history, were made possible by the financial holdings of longtime Westminster native Alvin L. Southwick, who died in August 2011. Getting the lights on has been a challenge, as several obstacles have been encountered. Southwick's friend Frederick Yates helped Southwick put together his final will and testament, but Westminster resident Ruth Gale complained in August 2012 that the lights were so bright they were shining into her rear bedrooms and attracting bugs to a deck off her house. Gale had written letters to the town in February and March 2012 to express her opposition to the lights because she said they could create additional traffic during baseball games. She has told the Reformer she is the closest abutter to the lights, as her home is along the driveway leading up to BFUHS.
Gale's complaints were the first of a tsunami of problems for the project, including the contractor hired for the installation job apparently failing to ensure all necessary permits were in place before installation. The single permit, which was revoked, issued by the Westminster Development Review Board was not enough for the project -- an Act 250 permit was required. According to then-Town Manager Matt Daskal, DRB members revoked the zoning permit because they believed the light levels were greater than what the permit allowed. They also were concerned about the lights' structural integrity and glare, Daskal said.
In May, the Vermont Natural Resources Board issued a land use (Act 250) permit to the Rockingham Town School District and the WNESU, justifying the installation of the lights. The DRB earlier this month decided to issue BFUHS the final zoning permit it needs for the lights, though its members included one condition. Westminster Town Manager Russ Hodgkins told the Reformer the DRB members insist on being allowed to visit the site within 15 days of the first event scheduled for the field and confirm all illumination measurements given in testimony and exhibits at a previous public hearing. He said the school also must wait a 30-day appeals period before turning the lights on. BFUHS also must research how to fund downward-facing visors for the lights and which company will be charged with installing the visors, though Principal Chris Hodsden said the school will wait to do so until the mandatory appeals period is done.
All of this headache came with $50,000 in legal fees accrued with attorney Justin Sluka. Bellows Falls resident Jim "Jiggs" McAuliffe, who sits on the BFUHS Board, said the request for donations is "kind of a unique thing."
"It is an attempt by the Board to recoup some money it never intended to spend. We were relying on the Alvin Southwick estate to do this work, and they did most of it in terms of getting the lights up, but we didn't get the necessary permits needed in order to do it. So we were in a situation where somebody had to pick up the ball," he said, adding that he knows everyone's intentions were good from the start. He said the Westminster DRB has approved the permit, but has not yet issued it.
"When we accepted the gift (of the lights) we did it with the understanding it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything -- and it cost $50,000 on legal fees," he said. "The only way we get money is from our taxpayers. So we had to use funds in order to pay the fees and this is an attempt to try to 'square the ledger' in a way."
Clark said he is not sure if anything like this has been attempted by the BFUHS Board in the past, but guesses that it is "probably a pretty new venture."
He told the Reformer the response from the public will indicate the amount of community support for the project.
"The way I view it, the high school deficit-spent in order to ensure kids would have the opportunity to play under those lights and I think the community will recognize that fact and help defray that cost," he said. "I'm certainly going to kick in a few bucks."
Clark also said donations will be needed to finance the required downward-facing visors, which he expects to cost roughly $13,500.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.