Vt. High Court Clears Path for Woodstock Housing Complex

West Woodstock — A long-running legal challenge to a 36-unit housing complex in West Woodstock was rejected by the state Supreme Court Friday, paving the way for the $8.5 million project.

The court rejected claims over easements and property rights brought by several neighbors opposing the Grange Hill development. Project supporters hailed the victory as the last obstacle to overcome.

“Finally,” said Patsy Highberg, Woodstock Community Trust president, the lead defendant in the case. “I am really excited about the fact that we are able to bring this project forward now.”

Woodstock Community Trust, Twin Pines Housing Trust, Housing Vermont and other boards and commissions have been trying since 2005 to build 28 affordable housing apartments and eight market-rate condominiums along Route 4 near Woodstock Union High School.

“We at Twin Pines are thrilled in clearing this last legal hurdle to the project,” said Twin Pines Housing Trust Executive Director Andrew Winter. “It’s a win for the mission of creating affordable housing and creating affordable housing in Woodstock.”

Phone messages left for neighbors opposed to the project, as well as their lawyer, weren’t returned on Monday.

In the ruling, the justices rejected neighbor Jay Smith’s claim to spring water rights on the property that is now owned by Woodstock Community Trust, which purchased two parcels for the project. The court ruled the chain of title that granted Smith spring water rights was broken in 1938.

The justices also affirmed the trial court’s decision to allow the Woodstock Community Trust to relocate water easements . The high court agreed with the lower court “that if water pipes in an alternative route delivered proper water pressure and did not increase the difficulty and expense of maintenance, there was no reason to prevent the relocation,” according to the ruling.

The justices also dismissed arguments by neighbors advancing “adverse possession” claims — a method of gaining legal control over land by a neighbor who used the land in an “open, notorious, hostile, and continuous manner” for 15 years.” The court ruled the 15-year period had not been met on grounds that no adverse possession claims can be asserted against “lands given, granted, sequestered or appropriated to a public pious or charitable use.” From 1981 to 2005 the land was owned by the Woodstock Baptist Fellowship, later know as The Rock Church.

Friday’s ruling marked the project’s second Vermont Supreme Court victory.

Winter, with Twin Pines, said the end to the legal battle has paved the way to break ground on Grange Hill as early as June 2014. He pegged the project’s cost at $8.5 million, although Winter noted cost estimates can change when projects are delayed.

The housing complex design calls for the construction of 14 new buildings and the redevelopment of the existing Grange Hall — which together will comprise the 36 units. The complex’s landscape is designed around a green with trees and benches, according to a Housing Vermont news release. The release stated less than half of the 8-acre parcel would be developed .

Although he thinks the Vermont Supreme Court ruling marks the end of the legal process for pre-construction phase of the project, Robert DiPalma, a lawyer for Woodstock Community Trust, said a nuisance claim brought by the neighbors could throw the matter back into court down the road. The Supreme Court ruled permits for the project have been issued “through an extensive permitting process” and “we cannot find the development to constitute a nuisance per se,” according to the ruling.

“Theoretically, it could be an additional claim after the project is built,” DiPalma said.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.