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News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 28, 2014
Voters approve flood plain map challenge, reject fund transfer for winter roads

by Rich Hewitt

There could be weeks of tough sledding next winter now that voters have rejected a move to transfer funds from surplus to the winter roads account.

At a special town meeting Monday, August 25, just a handful of voters rejected a request to transfer $25,000 from surplus to help the town cover the cost of winter sand and salt for the roads. The tough winter last year had eaten into the funds budgeted for this year’s purchase of salt and sand, and the selectmen had recommended the transfer in order to stockpile the usual amount of sand.

The town usually puts up about 3,500 cubic yards of sand, according to Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris. There are about 900 to 1,000 cubic yards of sand left over from last winter, and the selectmen recently accepted a bid from Skip Eaton to purchase up to 2,700 cubic yards of sand. Based on Eaton’s bid, that amount of sand would cost $43,000 and that does not include the cost of the salt purchase. Billings-Pezaris said there is just about $41,000 remaining in that account.

“We’ll just do with less,” she said Tuesday. “We’ll do as much as we can with what we’ve got. I hope people will get decent tires on their vehicles and slow down. It’s going to be tough traveling.”

Much of the discussion at the special town meeting focused on whether the town needed to purchase as much sand as selectmen suggested and, as a separate issue, whether the town needs to use as much salt as it does.

Gene Eaton argued that the amount already on hand was more than the 900 to 1,000 cubic yards that Billings-Pezaris had estimated. He also suggested that much of the salt mixed in with that sand has been washed away and that the town would need to mix in more salt with that stockpile as well as with any new sand the town purchases.

The town generally purchases about 450 tons of salt at about $70 per ton. Bill Turner questioned whether the town needed to use that much salt on the roads. He suggested that there is some evidence to show that the use of salt contributes to the poor conditions on the roads and that the town might consider just plowing and using sand without the salt. Turner added that he had just junked a 2004 vehicle because it had rusted out, a problem he blamed directly on the salt used on the roads.

Selectman Chris Betts said that reducing or eliminating salt would draw a raft of complaints from local motorists.

“For every one person who has that opinion,” he said, “there’s 10 that will call up and complain why aren’t the trucks out.”

Doug Johnson suggested that the selectmen schedule an open discussion of that issue to see if there really is opposition to reducing the amount of salt used on the roads.

“Let’s look into it,” he said. “The response might surprise us.”

That, however, was a discussion for another time. By a show of hands, voters rejected the request for the transfer of funds.

Billings-Pezaris said the following day that she had reviewed the budget figures that day and it appears that, based on Monday’s vote, the town will only be able to purchase about 1,500 cubic yards of sand along with the salt to mix with it.

“We don’t know what this winter is going to bring,” she said. “The road crew tries to get out there and take care of the roads, but it’s going to be tough this year.”

In other action, voters authorized the transfer of $22,000 from surplus to fund the town’s appeal of the most recent federal flood plain maps. The biggest concern voters had about the use of the funds was that the appeal only covers a part of the town and not all of the areas that are affected by the new maps.

The $22,000 will be used to hire an engineer to prepare the highly technical appeal on three sections of the town: the downtown area, Burnt Cove, and Moose Island. Those sections, where much of the town’s businesses, tax base and employment is located, were among areas that were moved into a high-risk category under the new mapping process.

Selectmen explained that the cost to appeal the maps for the entire town would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars. Selectman Ben Barrows said there was reasonable justification for the expenditure on the three areas identified because of the impact the new flood designations would have, not only on property owners in those areas, but on the entire town. Selectmen noted that although individual property owners would almost certainly face higher insurance premiums if the proposed designations stand, the new maps will also result in more stringent building requirements in the high-risk areas, which could limit both residential and commercial development, reduce property values and, in turn, reduce property tax revenues to the town, which will affect everyone.

In response to a question, Selectman Evelyn Duncan said the appeal will develop more detailed maps of the three areas, and that information could benefit other residents whose property is in other high-risk areas.

Several residents raised concern about using public funds for the benefit of private property owners.

“I wonder if that’s the right thing to do,” said Doug Johnson. “Should the people who don’t benefit be asked to pay for it?”

Johnson suggested that if this appeal was needed, the affected property owners could be asked to contribute to the cost.

While one property owner said she would contribute “in a heartbeat,” others suggested it was dangerous for a town to try to think about determining who pays for things based only on who it benefits. Some pointed out that the town has expenses that everyone pays for through their taxes, even though they don’t benefit directly.

The final hand vote on the issue was 17-7 in favor of transferring the funds. Billings-Pezaris said Tuesday that, because there is a deadline for filing the appeal, she already had signed the contract for the appeal that day.

Voters also authorized the town to negotiate a right of way over the town-owned Woodland Cemetery to prove access for a cell tower company and for the Stonington Water Company to property owned by David Duncan. The cell tower company is interested in installing a tower on the Duncan property that would provide cell service to the downtown area. The water company plans to make repairs on the “cross-country” supply line that runs across that property.

Voters also agreed to accept a small parcel of property on Memorial Lane from George and Margaret St. Amand which will clear the ownership of that road for the town. The town will be responsible for developing the boundary line agreement for the property.