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Compost Happens... or Not



Published April 9, 2008 at 7:48 a.m.

By now, everyone in Burlington has probably heard about the swift response from the Agency of Natural Resources - largely the Natural Resources Board and Act 250 officials - to put the kibosh on the "hazardous" composting operation at the Intervale. You know, they're the same folks who swept in with bureaucratic ferocity when a multi-story section of scaffolding at Vermont Yankee collapsed and thousands of gallons of water spewed onto the ground.

OK, maybe they weren't so swift on that one. But on the subject of organic waste, Vermont's natural-resources squad has made it abundantly clear the state will not tolerate nutrient-laden water washing off piles of rotting food.

The question is: Did politics play a role in the compost center's demise?

Exactly what happened remains murky, but the result is clear. On April 2, the Intervale Center board voted to stop taking any new raw-food waste or other compostable material at the end of this month, and to cease all operations by August 2009. The board is in the process of creating a transition plan with the attorney general's office and the Chittenden Solid Waste District. CSWD stepped in to run the operation - temporarily - when the Intervale fired its compost manager.

The eventual goal is to turn the site back into a green field suitable for farming (which is a more likely scenario than anyone could expect from Vermont Yankee, if and when it's ever shut down).

Don McCormick, the acting director of the Intervale Foundation, told Seven Days this timeframe will allow the material currently onsite to properly compost, without adding more. There's just enough onsite now to meet local gardeners' demands this year and next. "But," said McCormick, "it's now in the hands of the attorney general's office, and we'll see what they say."

The CSWD, which helped get the compost project off the ground more than 20 years ago, is weighing whether to continue composting in the Intervale or find another location, according to CSWD Director Tom Moreau. The former option looks less and less likely.

That's because last fall the state Division for Historic Preservation (DHP) quietly designated Burlington's side of the Intervale in the state register of historic places as an area of archeological significance - known Abenaki heritage sites are scattered throughout it. The designation means any new Act 250 permit for activity in the Intervale would automatically start with the presumption that archeologically significant items are onsite and might be disturbed by said activity. The applicant would bear the burden of proving otherwise - a cost that could easily exceed $250,000, according to Moreau.

It's this historic-site designation that has exasperated city, CSWD and Intervale officials. As the state prepared its case late last summer, it offered little time for rebuttal or dissent from the City of Burlington. In fact, city officials were given less than a week's notice that a DHP advisory board would be holding a mid-September hearing on the designation.

When Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss protested the short notice, the meeting was postponed to October 23. Still, the advisory board waited until a week before that meeting to reveal to the city the evidence it would be presenting. When Kiss asked for another extension in order to prepare, the DHP board said no, and proceeded with its ruling in October.

Kiss is still trying to get clarification on what the ruling actually means for activities in the Intervale, including its community gardens and the McNeil Generating Plant that supplies eco-friendly power to the Burlington Electric Department.

According to a Dec. 18 memo to DHP Director Jane Lendway, Kiss notes, "The decision to move forward on October 23 without granting the additional time we requested seemed unwarranted. We continue to have questions about this process and the identification and delineation of the archeological district."

Lendway said that, while it may seem as if the city was given short notice, DHP had been looking at the Intervale designation since 2006, when it first met with Intervale - not city - officials, to talk about ways to protect archeological resources.

"Our intent has always been to protect acknowledged archeological sites, and these sites were being disturbed," said Lendway.

In fact, Abenaki Chief April St. Francis had given her blessing to the composting project and the Intervale's efforts to keep the ancestral area undisturbed. "We did reach out to the Abenakis, and they felt we were not disturbing the area in a significant way," said the Intervale Foundation's McCormick.

Lendway said the designation was not politically motivated, as some have alleged. Why the intense focus on Burlington? She said portions of the Intervale that lay in Colchester and Winooski were not examined because the division can only study so many areas in a given year. (Only one other site in the state - in Berlin - carries a comparable designation.)

But there's more fueling this conflict: Intervale officials had reason to believe they had already jumped through the archaeological hoop. When the City of Burlington sold land in 2007 to the Intervale Founda-tion via a conservation easement - which included money from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board - a DHP-approved contractor conducted an archeological assessment. That contractor identified several sites in the Intervale that needed to be protected, but also determined that current composting operations were acceptable as long as they did not dig below plow depths. The assessment indicated that only future expansions should be reviewed in the context of underground archeological artifacts.

As a result, the conservation easement specifically carved out an exclusion for the compost operations to continue as is. Several people contacted for this story say that DHP official Giovanna Peebles "signed off" on this easement.

DHP staff normally review VHCB-funded easements when historical sites are involved, said Dave Mace, spokesman for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. For some unexplained reason, a review of this easement was "skipped."

In fact, Housing Commissioner John Hall issued a memo April 7 to inform all parties that DHP did not sign off on the easement variance, period.

But how could the Intervale easement simply be overlooked? The sale of land to the Intervale Foundation was no secret - it became front-page news when some Burlington City Council members voiced concern that the nonprofit foundation was getting a "sweetheart deal."

Was it a coincidence that Intervale staff included House Speaker Gaye Symington (she left the organization earlier this year), or that David Zuckerman, a House Pro-gressive and ag committee chairman, had a farm in the Intervale?

In a closed-door meeting with DHP officials earlier this year, Intervale and CSWD reps walked away with a "clear sense" the DHP's move was arbitrary, political and inflexible.

There's more in this saga for conspiracy theorists. For example, Gov. Jim Douglas' top legal advisor, Suzanne Young, was a liaison between her boss and the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. Commission member Judy Dow, appointed by Douglas, played a crucial role in instigating environmental reviews by the Natural Resources Board and Act 250 officials - even though its statutory authority relates solely to matters of culture and history, not to environmental regulation and enforcement.

And - another coincidence? - the chair of the Natural Resources Board is Peter Young, Suzanne Young's husband.

Conspiracies aside, the zeal with which several state agencies ganged up against the Intervale compost project should send a clear message to any similar operation in the state: Get ready. That is, unless you're Douglas' own brother-in-law, who produces the popular Moo Doo compost. Think state lawyers will be flocking to his operation like hungry gulls?

I wouldn't bet the farm on it.


The Dems' Spring Dance -Just when you thought the Democratic Party had thrown in the towel and was going to give Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie a free pass in November - voila! - House Speaker Symington says she's thinking about a run for guv this fall.

And, Seven Days has learned, Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin will soon announce his autumnal ambitions: another bid for lieutenant governor. If you recall, that's a post he ran for and lost in 2002 in a hotly contested three-way race with Dubie and Progressive Anthony Pollina.

Symington's announcement hasn't deterred Pollina, who has received invitations to speak to Democratic committees in Lamoille and Wind-ham counties. And many observers speculate that a three-way race could benefit a Democrat this time around, rather than Douglas.

Symington and Pollina could combine to keep the incumbent below 50 percent, which would then kick the race to the legislature to decide. And that might not turn out the same for Douglas as it did when he faced Democrat Doug Racine and Independent Con Hogan in 2002.

Symington has had plenty of urging from party leaders, current and past, to make the run. Vermont hasn't had a female governor since Madeleine Kunin in the 1980s, and the speaker has been building a lot of ground support over the years.

It's no accident that the House is now much more liberal and Democratic than it has been in nearly a decade; Symington personally recruited, or helped to recruit, Democrats to run in areas not normally friendly to her party in Vermont. Gains in Franklin and Rutland counties are clear examples. Think of it as a Vermont version of Howard Dean's 50-state strategy.

Some may wonder, though, why Symington would run for higher office when she has a good gig now. Well, think about it. She's been running the House for two terms and is increasingly frustrated with Douglas.

"You can't just sit back and watch things happen and then step in and criticize and call that leadership," she told Seven Days.

But for now, Symington said she's focused on the final month of the current legislative session.

Stay tuned.


Salmon's Run - Demo-cratic Auditor Tom Salmon, who won election in 2006 by ousting one-term incumbent Republican Randy Brock, is set to announce his re-election bid on April 11.

You don't usually see holders of lesser statewide offices announce until summer, but that might be hard for Salmon: If he doesn't do it now, he might have to announce from the Middle East.

That's because Salmon - not to be confused with his father and former Gov. Thomas P. Salmon - is in the U.S. Navy Reserves in its Seabees division. He could be deployed as early as this summer, and could spend the next six to eight months - the rest of his current term, the campaign season, and potentially part of his next term, if reelected - serving overseas. In 2005, Salmon was up for deployment, but the number of troops needed from his unit dropped, and he was spared. He may not be so lucky this time.

GOP leaders, who don't yet have a candidate to run against Salmon, are quietly voicing concern about the impact his absence could have on the office.

But Salmon said he's confident his staff could handle the work, and that he would be in regular contact with them.

"I have a great team here, and we tried this when I was gone for two weeks, where I had no contact," said Auditor Salmon, referencing a recent training mission in Mississippi. "But the thing is, I'll be able to have direct contact with them if I'm deployed. We've made a lot of progress here in the office, and we have a good work plan going forward to accomplish even more."