Halifax Select Board defends land deal
HALIFAX — Select Board members are defending what is being dubbed a "shady" deal by some community members as it involves buying land from a board member.
"As members of the Select Board, we have always made decisions for the town's best interest as well as to save taxpayers money," Select Board Chairman Lewis Sumner and Vice Chairman Mitchell Green wrote in a letter about the purchase to the community that was posted Saturday on halifaxvermont.com.
About 10 acres at 637 Hubbard Hill will be purchased for $99,500 if all local and state permits are obtained to run a municipal gravel pit, according to a contract signed in November between the town and Peggy and Brad Rafus. The town is to pay for a survey to be completed and the Rafus family is responsible for an environmental inspection. The closing is anticipated to occur in the middle of July but both parties can provide written notice if they want to back out and the town would get its $5,000 deposit back.
Brad Rafus is the other member of the three-person Select Board. Rafus and his wife signed the agreement as sellers, and Sumner and Green signed for the town.
The town is said to be running out of gravel at its gravel pit. Sumner said with many gravel pits in the area closed, the town would need to go to Brattleboro, Vernon or New Hampshire to get gravel and it would involve a two-hour round trip and cost $18 to $20 per cubic yard to truck it to Halifax. He estimated that the town uses about 5,000 cubic yards a year.
"So it won't take too many years to pay for [the new gravel pit]," he said, "the way we looked at it."
Sumner said the two board members negotiated with the Rafus family and consulted with the town attorney for several months before the purchase agreement was signed.
The board was not hiding the transaction from the community, Sumner and Green wrote.
"A number of executive sessions to discuss negotiations were held during regular Select Board meetings," they said.
State law allows for discussion of land purchases to be held in executive session during negotiations to protect the parties, they wrote. Once negotiations were completed, they said, the purchase agreement and contract were signed during open meeting on Nov. 19. The board answered questions about the deal during a meeting on Dec. 3, said Sumner, who also recalled answering questions for the next couple of months.
Sumner said Rafus recused himself during discussions about the land purchase and when the fiscal year 2021 budget was prepared, and did not attend the meeting when the FY21 highway budget was prepared. Rafus also is the town's road commissioner.
TRANSPARENCY IN QUESTION
The purchase was included under a line item for gravel in the town highway budget, Sumner said. Some community members have questioned whether it should have been presented in a more transparent way.
"This seems unorthodox as any land purchase (by any entity, person or company) is never considered an 'expense' as real estate is a long-lived (forever) asset," Bob Teree of Halifax wrote to the board. "It is not the same as purchasing 1,000 yards of gravel that is consumed in one year (and expensed that same year). Why would such a transaction simply be expensed in the budget versus being noted as a special transaction and capital expense?"
Sumner and Green said that while preparing the budget, they agreed there was sufficient funds to pay for the property so the town would not need to borrow money. They said the board anticipated discussion about the purchase at the Feb. 24 informational meeting ahead of annual Town Meeting on March 3, but no one asked questions or provided comments.
"The vote on the budget at Town Meeting was unchallenged and unanimous," they wrote. "Presently, we have a signed purchase contract."
A letter to the board from Randy and Stephanie Pike of Halifax brought up concerns about potential perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA pollution on the land. High levels of PFOA are believed to possibly lead to health issues including certain kinds of cancers.
Sumner and Green said "to date, the only positive tests have been in the landfill monitoring wells which are situated about 150 to 200 feet lower than the closed landfill itself. All private well tests in the surrounding area, including the well on the Rafus property and the Town Garage well, have been negative."
Robbin Gabriel, town secretary, told the Reformer the letter was a general response to the community discussion on the purchase. The board has not yet responded to the two letters on the issue.
Teree urged board members to hire an expert to make sure the investment was wise. He asked how or if Rafus was involved in evaluating the purchase.
The letter from the Pikes also questioned if Rafus properly recused himself from discussions. They cited town policy stating that "a public officer shall not participate in any official action if he or she has a conflict of interest in the matter under consideration."
"Looking over all this evidence makes this land deal seem shady," they wrote.
Other community members expressed concerns on Facebook.
Sumner told the Reformer he wrote the letter to the community after hearing rumors around town. He said Gabriel helped him get the wording right then Green agreed to put his name on it after reading it.
Sumner feels the price tag for the land is justified. He cited a $2 million gravel pit purchased by the towns of Dummerston and Putney last year.
"I think we've got quite a bit there," he said when asked if he felt the project would be worthwhile.
Attempts to reach Rafus were unsuccessful.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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