Some in Hanover Fret Over Open Space on Eve of Water Works Vote
By Susan J. Boutwell
Valley News Staff Writer
HANOVER – Residents say they don’t know enough about a plan that would have the town take over the private, $20 million Hanover Water Works Co., a proposal that goes before Town Meeting voters on Tuesday.
Some say the lack of information available on the proposed municipalization of the drinking water system has persuaded them to vote against the plan.
However, supporters say there’s plenty of time to develop the details, which would have to be drawn up before a second town vote – tentatively set for fall – could seal the deal.
“There is simply not enough here to say yes to,” said resident Robin Carpenter.
But resident Jim Hornig disagreed. He said he’s confident details will be forthcoming.
“I guess I have some faith in the process,” Hornig said.
And it’s not just residents taking sides.
The town’s Conservation Commission is withholding support for the proposal while the private, nonprofit Hanover Conservation Council supports it.
And the League of Women Voters of the Upper Valley, while not taking a position, is urging residents to attend the meeting.
“I really strongly encourage people to come and get themselves informed as to what we’re getting into,” said League President Barbara McIlroy of Hanover.
The Water Works vote is easily the biggest draw for next week’s annual meeting, said Selectboard Chairman Brian Walsh.
“I don’t think there’s anything else on the warrant that’s going to generate as much interest as this,” he said. (See Town Meeting preview, right.)
Town Manager Julia Griffin said she’s predicting “a classic, complex, Hanover discussion.”
Hanover’s Central Park
Concerns about the proposal, which would make the private water system a municipal entity, don’t center on the plumbing. Rather, residents say they are worried about the off-limits Water Works land that surrounds three reservoirs which are the source of drinking water for Dartmouth College and 1,700 homes and businesses in Hanover that don’t get water from private wells.
The property, much of which is surrounded by a chain-link fence put up decades ago to keep people out, is the largest undeveloped piece of land in town, what one resident called “Hanover’s Central Park,” albeit a park in which no one is welcome.
Conservation Commission Chairwoman Judith Reeve said her board has voted to withhold “support because the proposal does “not deal with the land and management of the land.”
Reeve said the commission would like to see study of ways to permanently protect the land.
The private Conservation Council has the same land concerns, said President Betsy McGean of Hanover. But she said her board of directors supports the municipalization plan as a way to begin a public discussion of protection of the land.
“We see this as an opportunity. We don’t want to derail what could be a very good proposal for the town,” she said.
McGean said the council would also like to work with Water Works officials to explore ways that the land could be used, for example as a park.
The land, currently zoned forestry and recreation, couldn’t now be developed. But McGean said zoning is easily changed – by town vote – leaving little real protection on the land.
“We don’t consider zoning a permanent protection,” she said. “If you’ve got long-term conservation in perpetuity, you would avoid 50 years down the road that the town or college might feel (the need to) reverse the zoning and build a law school or playing fields or a new school. The push for development is down now. But it will be back.”
The municipalization plan would give the town ownership of the water system, now owned by the 116-year-old Water Works Co. Dartmouth College owns almost 53 percent of the company and uses about half the water the system supplies. The town owns the rest of the company, which is run by town employees under a contract with the Water Works.
User fees pay the costs of running the system, with no money collected from those not on the water system.
The proposed change comes in part because Dartmouth wants to get out of the water business, said Bob Donin, Dartmouth’s general counsel and a member of the Water Works board.
“It’s not part of our core mission,” he said.
The water comes from three reservoirs that feed a filtration plant on Grasse Road, which then distributes it to users, mostly in the downtown area. The proposed change would give the town the filtration plant, four water storage .tanks, two pump stations, the reservoirs and almost 50 miles of water lines for $1.
Making the system a town operation could bring efficiencies that would save as much as $200,000 a year, Griffin has said. In addition, the system would no longer have to operate as a private utility regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, and would be eligible for lower municipal borrowing rates and reductions in other costs.
The water system would continue to run as an enterprise account, with its costs paid for by water system users. In addition, the town would ask the legislature to allow the water system to make an annual payment in lieu of taxes to the town to make up for the $280,000 property tax payment the Water Works now pays, so there would be no cost passed along to taxpayers, Griffin said.
The other part of the municipalization deal would have a new, not-yet-created entity take ownership of 1,440 acres in the watershed that surrounds the three reservoirs. The organization would be structured differently from the current land ownership of the Water Works, with the new arrangement giving the college and town equal title to the property.
A 50-50 split would be a significant benefit for the town over the current 52.8 percent college ownership and 47.2 percent town stake, said Walsh.
“Most anybody would tell you that a minority position … is much, much, much weaker than a 50 percent position,” he said.
But it’s the unformed entity that’s put some voters off. They want to know who would be on the organization’s board, how and by whom its members would be chosen and whether the entity would operate according to state open meeting laws, in short, how transparent the group would be.
Resident Kari Asmus said town officials should have had hearings on the matter before deciding what to put before voters next week. That way, they would have had “more time to respond to concerns,” she said.
Said Carpenter, “It’s not that I’m against municipalization. There are a number of cost savings and efficiencies. It may be a good thing to do. The problem is that there are so many particulars which are completely unknown.”
“I think the proposition ought to be turned down,” he said. “You have to know that the deal is before you can do it.”
‘Permission To Pursue This’
In order for the proposal to be approved, voters have to twice vote in favor of it – next week and again in the fall. And they have to approve it by a two-thirds vote each time. Tuesday’s vote, if approved, would give the town the authority to proceed with the transaction, said Griffin.
“‘All we’re asking for at town meeting is permission to pursue this,” she said. “The second town meeting vote is the definitive vote.”
They’ve put together an amendment to the warrant article in which they will tell voters that their decision Tuesday “shall enable the Selectmen to negotiate an agreement with Dartmouth College,” and that the agreement will “be brought to a second Town Meeting in the fall for a vote,” Griffin said.
She also said officials are trying to find out whether the fall vote can be done by daylong ballot voting to allow as much participation as possible.
Town officials say they want to get the deal completed before James Wright retires next month and Jim Yong Kim takes over as president of Dartmouth.
“I have no idea where the new president would be on this. I can’t imagine this would be high on his list of priorities,” said Walsh, “Were I in President Kim’s position, I wouldn’t make the water company a top priority, especially if the people of the town had just voted down something like this.
Donin said he thinks municipalization of the Water Works would continue to be a priority for Dartmouth after Wright retires.
“I can’t say that the college would be any less interested in this in the future,” he said.
Then there’s Walsh’s part in the proposal. He’s been working on it for 10 of the 13 years he’s been on the Selectboard, including a four-year stint on the Water Works board.
However, if voters turn the plan down, Walsh said he’ll wash his hands of the matter.
“I would have no interest in putting any more effort in on it,” he said. “It would be hard for anybody to think they could come up with a better proposal that would gain public support and support of the college as well.”
And there is a second timing factor to consider, said Griffin. State law won’t allow residents to vote on another municipalization proposal for at least two years after a defeat.
Griffin said the delay was probably “a bit of a breather” written into the law on the assumption that municipalization of a private utility is often a hostile action taken by a city or town against a private company. The breather would give the utility time “before they could possibly be tackled again by a municipality,” said the manager.
“If we do not get two-thirds approval, then that’s it for now,” she said.
Published in the Valley News on Saturday, May 9, 2009