Fairlee — When Selectman Jay Barrett walked into the Selectboard’s meeting room two summers ago and saw a chunk of concrete sitting on the table, he had no way of knowing that it might derail his ongoing efforts to install a handicap-access elevator into Town Hall.
But that’s now a distinct possibility, with more than 90 Fairlee residents petitioning to reconsider a voter-approved $850,000 Town Hall renovation project because, say petition organizers, they’re worried that a 265,000-gallon municipal water tank off Bald Top Road — its cracked roof the source of the concrete chunk — could wind up costing the town big money.
It’s a difference of opinion about priorities in Fairlee, and the level of optimism one feels about the town’s prospects to win money in a legal action being brought against the firm that built the water tank in 2004.
John Durgin, 56, is a former ice cream entrepreneur who currently works at King Arthur Flour. He’s the one who drafted and began circulating the petition, knocking on doors and hanging out in 9 degree weather at the transfer station over the course of about a week and a half.
He said his opposition is largely a question of timing.
“You have to prioritize things,” Durgin, a former Fairlee firefighter, said. “If we have five things to do in town right now, the town hall is probably on the bottom of the list.”
Durgin said that, if the town is going to borrow money, it should spend it on things like the water tank and road improvements.
“By and large, the selectmen do a good job,” Durgin said. “I’m not angry at the selectmen. But I’m just dismayed that they’re looking at this project right now.”
The $850,000 renovation project to improve the Colonial Revival town hall along Route 5 in Fairlee Village was approved at a special Town Meeting in February with 58 percent of the vote, 146-105.
The bond is meant to fund what Barrett said is the last, big push to update the building, capping 20 years of using state grants and the town’s capital improvement budget to pay for a host of smaller projects, like a roof renovation, a new sprinkler system, and an upgrade to the electrical system. The town hall was built in 1914 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
In addition to the elevator, the bond money would be used to install a fire-rated staircase leading to the second floor and handicap toilets, among other improvements Barrett said are needed to legally allow the community to make use of the second-floor performance space.
“People are coming home from war that are permanently rendered handicapped, yet they are entitled to the same rights and privileges that you and I are, and it’s something I fully support,” he said.
Barrett said the town is vulnerable to a lawsuit for having a public building that is not fully accessible.
He also said making the 350-seat auditorium useful could pay big dividends to the town, because he believes it could be the largest auditorium with a stage and balcony between Hanover and St. Johnsbury, Vt., and so would become a draw for stage events and film showings.
“That brings people into town, and it brings people to town who frequent our restaurants,” Barrett said. “It strengthens the economic vitality of the downtown.”
Durgin said if the goal is to drive the local economy, the town hall project should be delayed in favor of more pressing needs.
“When people come into town, they look at a lot of things,” he said. “One of the things is the infrastructure, if the roads are horrible.”
Durgin said he is pushing for the revote because when voters approved the project, they didn’t understand the full magnitude of the problems with the water tank.
“If we get a larger group of people who understand what the town is facing for liabilities, I think we might get a very different result,” Durgin said.
Barrett, an architect, doesn’t deny that the water tank is an important issue. He himself called it “as serious a problem as I’ve seen in my 22 years serving this town.”
The story of the tank began in 2000, about five years after Barrett was first elected to the Selectboard.
That’s when the state notified the town that a 100,000-gallon tank, built in 1972, didn’t have the capacity to supply Fairlee’s fire hydrants during possible fires.
In 2001, engineers recommended adding a second, larger tank, an $800,000 bond for which was initially rejected by voters in 2003, and then approved in 2004. In summer of 2004, it was constructed, a 20-foot-tall concrete mass sunk partially into the ground of a hard-to-reach hillside where the older tank also stands.
Both tanks draw their water from a municipal well and pumphouse located behind the Fairlee Diner on Route 5.
Just a year after the newer tank was built, Barrett said, he and others noticed cracks near its top. They hired an engineer to look at it, and were told the problem didn’t appear to be serious.
But in 2015, when divers entered the tank to clean it, they noticed “several large pieces of concrete, sharp and jagged,” on the floor of the tank, Barrett said. “He looked up and noticed other pieces hanging on the underside” of the concrete ceiling, which is made up of a series of 8-inch-thick concrete planks topped off with another 4 inches of concrete.
When the town administrator in 2015 put one of those chunks on the Selectboard meeting table, it sparked a research effort, as town leaders sought to understand why a tank that should last at least 100 years was failing after only 10, as well as what legal recourse they might have to remedy the problem.
They’ve hired engineers from multiple firms, and also engaged the services of Chris Callahan, a specialized insurance attorney from Springfield, Vt., in anticipation of getting into a courtroom with insurance companies that represent the various firms that were involved with the tank’s construction.
The costs for these efforts is beginning to add up. According to the most recent town report, “Water Commissioners voted to transfer funds from the Water Reserve account to cover the cost of the new Water Storage Tank evaluation project, total project cost $42,500.”
“Insurance companies play rough, and they will have very good attorneys,” Barrett said. “I said, ‘We need to get ahead of this thing.’ ”
That’s where the issue sits today, said Barrett, with Callahan and the town in the process of drafting and sending a legal notice to the contractors.
“At some point it will either be mediated or we’ll go to court over it,” Barrett said. “We’re hoping that when the suit is prepared, the other side will ... understand the severity of this and say, ‘We’re better off to just settle it as opposed to protracting it and still ending up at almost the same spot.’ ”
This is where optimism starts to play a role.
Barrett said that though he is limited in what he can say about pending litigation, he is confident that the town “will be made whole,” and that the proactive steps of the legal team will result in the issue being resolved without the affair becoming a big strain on municipal coffers.
He also said it is unlikely that the tank will deteriorate to the point that it can’t be used. Even if it does, he said, the older tank still can provide the town with ample drinking water.
Durgin isn’t such an optimist.
“They keep telling us they hope to come (out) whole on this tank,” Durgin said, but he’s not convinced that the town will recoup its investment in the water tank within any kind of reasonable time frame.
“Even if we got all our money back, we still have to spend ... to construct a new tank,” he said.
The town still owes more than $400,000 on the initial 2004 bond, and the Selectboard has not said what the cost of replacing the tank might be.
Barrett wouldn’t rule out the town being compelled to borrow money to address the issue, but said it was unlikely.
“At some point, we might have to short-term borrow. But is that tank going to collapse or be taken offline by the state of Vermont? No,” Barrett said.
In the annual water department update published in the town report, Chief Operator Lance Colby wrote that the tank “will not be cheap to fix or replace, with estimates between one and two million dollars.”
Barrett on Wednesday praised Colby, a longtime member of the staff, as someone for whom he has “deep respect,” but said he overstepped the boundaries of his job when he chose to share numbers he learned about during a closed-door executive session of the Selectboard with the public.
“Lance is the operator and the Selectboard is more policy, and broader management of budgets and priorities. I appreciate that Lance may differ with me ... but we don’t believe that ... it was really Lance’s position, and especially because we don’t know what the costs are.”
Barrett said it is too early to put a number to the cost of replacing the tank.
The numbers given by Colby, he said, “were somewhat preliminary and somewhat random.”
Barrett said the Selectboard verbally reprimanded Colby for the disclosure.
Durgin said he was upset that Colby was rebuked, and sees it as part of a larger pattern in which he believes the Selectboard minimized the water tank issue in order to make the town hall renovation more palatable to voters.
“The reality is, what Lance put in were the numbers he got from the engineers,” Durgin said. “He told the truth. Why are we giving him any static out of that?”
Barrett said that the numbers were discussed in executive session to which Colby was privy, under an exception to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law that protects the Selectboard from publicly disclosing information that might put it at a disadvantage in litigation, or contract negotiation.
Barrett said that he doesn’t think the revelation has harmed the town’s position.
“I don’t think so at this point. At first I was pretty hotheaded about it,” he said. “But the more I thought about it ... it just scrambles the playing field, locally.”
In the Selectboard update in the same report, members wrote that the water tank issue was “one of 2016’s unanticipated issues. ... One of the long-term solutions that we are considering is a technologically advanced, lower maintenance glass-fused-to-steel tank.”
During a phone interview on Friday, Colby said that he likes and respects the Selectboard members, but he was unrepentant about his decision to go public with the numbers.
“I believe in transparency,” Colby said. “I said the citizens really need to know what they’re up against.”
Colby said the range he quoted was derived from a combination of input from engineers familiar with the project, and his own expertise.
“It’s a ballpark figure,” he said. Colby said his intention in publishing the figures was not to sink the Town Hall project, and that he has declined to sign Durgin’s petition because doing so could put him in a conflict of interest with the town.
With the petition now officially filed with the Selectboard, voters will be asked whether they agree with Barrett, who feels the Town Hall project is important and shouldn’t be derailed by an unrelated issue, or with Durgin, who feels like the Town Hall project is a luxury that shouldn’t be addressed this year.
Barrett said the Selectboard expects to sign off on a warning based on the petition to rethink the Town Hall bond during an upcoming meeting. Once the panel does so, it needs to be posted for 30 days before a vote can take place.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.