Palmer Bridge short-term fix approved, permanent bridge alternative to be decided

Chester Selectboard meeting, Sept. 4, 2019. Photo by Sharon Huntley

CHESTER, Vt. – The Chester Selectboard meeting Sept. 4 was well attended by several homeowners who would be directly affected by the board’s decision on a permanent bridge replacement that would impact three bridges over the Williams River from Route 103 – Thompson Bridge, Jewett Bridge and Palmer Bridge. Each of the three bridges has structural issues and need to be repaired or replaced.

The Selectboard was presented with several alternatives during a presentation by VTrans Thursday, Aug. 29 and, according to the agenda, were going to make a decision on which alternative to select. The document outlines five alternatives with various bridge replacement options. The option that VTrans recommended is identified as Alternative 5. This option eliminates all three bridges with a new off-alignment bridge and would cost $1.8 million. The new alignment would greatly improve safety accessing the bridge from Route 103. Because of their recommendation, the state has offered to pay for 90% of the cost of this alternative, with the town of Chester being responsible for only $182,200. The town would also see savings in future since maintenance would go from one to three bridges. The state would not pay for any other alternatives.

Of concern to the homeowners was that this alternative would require a right of way that would impact their properties. That led to heated discussion on both sides of the debate.

Board Chair Arne Jonynas said that Alternative 5 made sense but that Brian and Amy Mosher had indicated that they were not willing to yield their property rights for a right of way.

In speaking from the floor, landowner Brian Mosher said that if the Selectboard voted for alternative 5, that they were voting against them. He said that his property was a historic landmark and the proposed right of way would go through his backfield and more traffic would be 12 feet from his front door. He also asked who would pay for the attorney’s fees “if you win.”

Jonynas countered, “There’s a lot of things we have to do as a board. Some are not as pleasant as others. We have to make decisions sometimes that upset some people for the good of majority of people. Sometimes that how it works.”

Jersey Girl’s Dairy Farm owner Lisa Kaiman also said that Alternative 5 would impact her, and she would lose up to two or three of her fields that she uses for growing hay and pasturing her cows.

Another impacted resident, Richard Jewett, spoke from the floor saying that the town has a “moral obligation and maybe a mandatory obligation” to at least temporarily repair the Palmer Bridge by winter. The Palmer Bridge has been downgraded to just a 3 ton weight limit, which doesn’t allow for emergency services, fuel trucks, plowing, or sanding.

Board member Lee Gustafson agreed with Jewett’s assessment and suggested the board “spend $89,000 to fix Palmer Bridge for an unknown but extended benefit and if we go with alternative 5 we could keep traffic going without having to run a right of way from the Moshers to the Palmer’s old house.” He said it would give them a window to see what the impact was.

Jonynas agreed that the Palmer Bridge needed to be repaired for emergency services and fuel to get through by winter.

Board member Heather Chase suggested maybe the roads beyond the bridge indicated in alternative 5 could be reconfigured and that once the bridge location was set “how you design the roads around the bridge is a whole other story.” Chase also indicated she would like to tour the properties affected.

Amy Mosher asked the board not to make the decision at this meeting. “It seems you all have a lot of questions and a lot of reservations,” she said. Amy said she wanted to have trust, honesty, and integrity from her Selectboard and have their consideration. She also suggested that the board was being “strong-armed” by the town manager to make a decision right away.

This drew ire from Jonynas, saying that he was offended by the suggestion that the town manager was pushing the vote. “We have an agenda. We go through all the facts and try to make the best decision that we can and sometimes they’re hard decisions,” he said.

After continued discussion, the decision was made to approve the $89,000 to temporarily repair the Palmer Bridge. The board then agreed to table the decision on the permanent bridge alternative until the next meeting. Construction on the project wouldn’t begin until 2023.

Town Manager David Pisha said that he felt confident they would secure financing for the Palmer Bridge repair through People’s Bank, which would result in a $31,000 annual payment for three years.

In other items, the Emergency Service Building is still on track for a bond bank application later this year with two public forums set for Sept. 25 and Oct. 23 in anticipation of a vote Nov. 5.

Abigail Friedman from Vermont League of Cities and Towns outlined her proposal to help with the search for Chester’s new town manager. The proposal included help with formulating a job description, vetting candidates, creating and placing advertisements, collecting applications, assisting with framing interview questions as well as other services. The cost estimate could range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the services needed. The board agreed to work on a job description and decide on the structure of the deciding committee at the next meeting. They would then contact the VLCT to begin the process of working together.

The Chester Town Planning Committee presented the Energy Chapter of the town plan to the board for approval. The resolutions included in the energy plan that outlined reducing overall energy consumption by 15% by 2025, more than one-third by 2050; reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030 and 80-95% by 2050; meeting remaining energy needs from renewable resources by 25% by 2025 and 40% by 2035, and 90% by 2050.

Tim Roper of the Planning Committee said that the goal’s broad concepts and are directly from the Vermont State Legislature. He said that typically a town would establish an energy committee who would take the lead on guiding citizens to accomplish goals. Although not enforceable guidelines, having a comprehensive plan protects the town by allowing them to have more input when statewide projects that impact their town are under consideration. The board approved the chapter. Approval of the entire town plan will be scheduled for a future meeting.

The Selectboard agreed that they would continue to gather costs, both revenue and expenses, of possibly taking over the solar farm array which is up for renewal in two to three years. Once a more comprehensive financial picture is gathered, they will make a more informed decision.

The next Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 18 at the Chester Town Hall, first floor.

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