ROCKINGHAM >> A member of the Select Board left a meeting early in tears over a disagreement with Town Manager Chip Stearns about the wooden remains of the Bartonsville Covered Bridge.
"This is of value," said board member Ann DiBernardo. "People of Bartonsville think this bridge debris is of value, and you knew that. The fact that you knew it and you didn't care. You chose not to communicate that information, and I don't know why. Why did you think that this would not be important to us when for five years we asked about this? When people of Bartonsville asked about it."
Later in the meeting, DiBernardo, a former Bartonsville resident, began to cry after relating the amount of time that Bartonsville residents had put into the bridge, which was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene five years ago. She later packed her belongings and left in the middle of the meeting, saying, "I can't take anymore of this, this is unbelievable."
The Bartonsville Covered Bridge was washed away by the Williams River during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The remnants of the bridge were recovered but ended up in the possession of Vermont League of Cities and Towns' Property And Casualty Intermunicipal Fund, according to Stearns.
An unknown amount of debris from the 145-year-old bridge was buried at the Rockingham gravel pit about two months ago. Stearns also "donated" about 80 feet of trusses to Tim Andrews, owner of Barns & Bridges of New England, located in Gilford, N.H. No members of the Select Board knew about any of this, according to DiBernardo.
According to Stearns, at a Joint Board Meeting on May 31 this year, he was told to by Kelly Kindestin, Manager Property & Casualty Claims of VLCT to dispose of them.
"After being exposed to the elements for several years, the wood deteriorated to a point where it was no longer structurally sound and lost much if not all of its salvage value," said Director of Risk Management Services at VLCT, Ken Canning, in an email to the Reformer on Wednesday. "Because the debris was stored at our member's premises we asked them to dispose of the remaining debris and send us a bill if they incurred any expenses in doing so."
Stearns says he was given no instructions of means or methods except that the hazardous materials needed to be addressed properly.
"We had just completed moving the stump debris and I was asked about the bridge before the equipment left the pit. It was moved at that time," Stearns told the Reformer on Wednesday afternoon by email.
Susan Hammond, a former member of the Select Board, addressed a letter to Stearns on July 31, and it was read aloud at Tuesday's meeting by Bellows Falls resident and former trustee, Deborah Wright.
"We were all shocked to find out that the insurance company had given you instruction weeks ago to 'get rid of them,'" stated the letter. "We were even more shocked to learn that you chose to tell no one about this directive and took it upon yourself to instruct the highway department to bury what was left in the pit."
Stearns explained that in September of 2014, Hammond told him Bartonsville residents were not interested in the wood and this past week was the first he heard that they were in fact still interested. Stearns further stated that he felt he did not need to inform the Select Board about this action as the bridge remains are not owned by the town.
Several residents of Bartonsville who showed up to Tuesday's meeting said they were in fact still keen on the remains and did not know it was not an option to keep them until they read in a local publication that the debris had been buried or given away.
Hammond's letter further indicates that the residents have had intention to use the remains if they were presented with such an opportunity.
"For nearly five years, the residents of Rockingham had their hands tied about what could be done with the large amount of trusses, chords, siding, and timbers that were recovered at great expense after Irene. They sat in town pit in limbo and sadly rotting away," Hammond's letter stated.
Hammond continued to explain that over the last five years, she has been asked "many times" from people who were interested in using the bridge's remains for various projects.
VLCT wanted to try to sell the remains for a high price, but the town was not going to pay the $16,000 if there was not a town purpose for them. A Kiosk idea was suggested but Hammond said that idea "died years ago."
"Since there was no more kiosk idea we could not use the funds raised for the covered bridge just to buy remains we had no immediate use for," Hammond said in an email. Hammond went on to add, "Because the Kiosk fell through did not mean residents in Bartonsville did not want the remains or care about their future, we just did not have funds to pay for them from the insurance company that I recall was asking for a crazy price."
The wooden remains were buried nearly two months ago at the town's gravel pit in Rockingham, next to the vacated Vermont State Police barracks. In addition, according to Stearns, that pressure-treated timber and creosote-treated timber of the bridge were removed and donated to people in New Hampshire, which included a bridge on private property and repairing a barn.
Chairman Lamont "Monte" Barnett asked the Board on Tuesday if members were interested in pursuing the matter outside of the meeting, and if so, how? Barnett said it could go forth with an investigation and contact the town attorney. DiBernardo was quick to vote yes to make a motion for an investigation, while other members of the Board, such as Stefan Golec, suggested taking a "slow" approach and possibly going through old meeting minutes, Fact TV videos, emails and such on his own time to see if this was simply a "miscommunication."
"This may not have occurred in a malicious manner or whatever, I think we need to take a step back, take a breath, cool off a bit. It looks like a couple people here are heated and... re-evaluate once we get more information, I don't think we have enough information," said Golec.
Resident Jim Mitchell claimed that he had filed a complaint about Stearns and that an investigation is underway. In response to Mitchell's comment, Golec said he did not see the point in spending more money on an investigation if one is already underway.
The Board decided to table the matter until Sept. 6.
Stearns noted that he is willing to retrieve the wood himself if necessary to make the matter right, even though he said he felt he did nothing wrong.
"My commitment to retrieving the remains in the White Mtns is real," Stearns stated in an email addressed to several parties including the Reformer and members of the Select Board. "I have arrangements being made with the owner and a hauler. I need someone in Lower Bartonsville to take possession of the un-used timbers which I will retrieve from the NH projects and the debris being picked up by the hauler in the White Mtns. Please contact me with a commitment for placement as this is going to happen very soon. If it returns to the town pit then the Selectboard will have to take possession."
He asked that people not take this as a "guilty reaction," but rather that this type of action is common from him when there is a need, he will help.
Contact Maddi Shaw at 802-254-2311 ext. 275.