ANR seeks $21K fine over salt shed permit

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BENNINGTON — The town will pay a $20,925 penalty for beginning construction on a highway sand and salt shed in 2017 without a final state wetland work permit.

The fine and terms of an agreement with the state Agency of Natural Resources were posted Wednesday and will now be subject to a 30-day public comment period.

The state's proposed assurance of discontinuance conditions concerning the violation could afterward be filed with the Vermont Environmental Court and become a judicial order. The matter also could be appealed to the court.

The fine, which had been expected although the amount was unknown, is slightly less than half the maximum for a wetlands permitting violation, or $42,500.

In January 2018, Town Manager Stuart Hurd, admitted during a Select Board meeting that he had approved the construction start months earlier without consulting the board and before the final wetlands permit was in hand. He said the 6,400-square-foot building was constructed according to conditions that had already been worked out during the permitting process.

Hurd said Wednesday afternoon in an email, "We believe that the fine is a little stiff, given that the project actually reduces potential negative impacts on the wetland buffer. However, this is a negotiated settlement; therefore we have agreed to it. We appreciate that we can pay it over time."

He added, "There are some funds remaining in the [construction] bond account which will mitigate the impact on our taxpayers. We look forward to putting this behind us. We also look forward to working with the agency to improve the process of achieving a wetlands permit in a timely fashion."

Under the settlement agreement, the town will pay the fine in 24 monthly installments, beginning after the commenting period and the agreement is entered as an Environmental Court order.

Reacting to the state's announcement, Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said in an email, "None of us deny that our town staff should have waited for the final permit to arrive — a verbal approval of any kind is never good enough. The Select Board addressed this mistake to our satisfaction at the time. We are confident that the lesson has been duly communicated and expect that this will not occur again."

He continued, "The state [wetlands program] was very slow; our people were impatient with the weather; a mistake was made; we dealt with it. Time to buy some lumber, build a bridge, and get over it."

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Resident Mike Bethel, a frequent critic of Hurd's handling of the project and the permitting, issued a statement Wednesday calling for the manager to personally pay the fine.

"Mr. Hurd should pay the fine and whatever legal costs that led up to the fine," said Bethel. "The citizens of Bennington did not do this."

Among points listed in the state-town agreement are that:

- "Without formally admitting or denying wrongdoing or liability, respondent [the town] agrees to this settlement of the violations alleged in order to resolve all outstanding disputes."

- Respondent agrees that the violations alleged are deemed proved and established as a `prior violation' in any future state proceeding that requires consideration of respondent's past record of compliance, such as permit review proceedings and calculated civil penalties under [state law]."

Hurd said in January 2018, shortly after the permit had arrived, that he took a gamble by authorizing construction of the $425,000 shed near the town highway facility on Bowen Road, believing the necessary permit would be received in time.

He said the shed project had "very competitive bids" with savings between $60,000 and $70,000 but also "a tight timeline."

Had the town not moved ahead with the work, Hurd has said, "we would have lost contractors, the competitive pricing, and set the entire project back several months, most likely resulting in higher costs."

Bennington voters in March 2017 had approved a $3.2 million bond to purchase the former Plasan North America site at 78 Bowen Road under a plan to redevelop the building as a new public works facility. Part of that plan was to build a new shed to store sand and salt, road materials that were kept at an aging storage facility on Orchard Road.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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