By Eric Francis, Standard Correspondent
WEST WOODSTOCK – The last major obstacle to the construction of “Grange Hill,” a proposed 36-unit affordable housing project slated for two parcels of land near the West Woodstock fire station, was removed on Friday when the Vermont Supreme Court issued a 29-page decision that shot down each of a dozen legal arguments which had been advanced by neighbors opposed to the nonprofit development.
The timing of the decision appears to clear the way for the Twin Pines Housing Trust and their partners Housing Vermont and the Woodstock Community Trust to commence construction of the long-delayed project beginning next summer, something which Twin Pines has already said they planned to do provided they got a favorable ruling.
This actually the second time that a case involving issues surrounding the Grange Hill project has made its way clear up to the justices in Montpelier and this is the second time that Twin Pines and the other development partners have prevailed in their arguments.
In their written decision, which cited property law precedents from two centuries of Vermont cases and even dipped back to the “Code of Hammurabi” which was chiseled into a Babylonian tablet in 2250 B.C., the justices agreed twelve separate times with the previous findings of the superior court which had reviewed the case.
In their first specific ruling, the supreme court found that while neighbor Jay Smith’s property once, beginning in 1915, had rights to a water spring on the land in question a failure to mention it during a 1938 land transfer extinguished any such easement long before Smith came along.
In a lengthy passage that the justices wrote is likely to serve as a precedent for other cases around the state, the court drew a clear distinction between easements that are above ground, such as driveways, and those that are out-of-sight below ground, such as pipes, and concluded that there is more leeway for property owners to rearrange things underground which serve adjacent properties, providing the actual function of the thing being moved isn’t altered. In other words, if a water pipe can be relocated slightly without altering the amount and quality of water that the end-user receives, that is not “unreasonably interfering with the easement holder’s rights.”
With a detailed dissection of the history involved, the court dismissed arguments by neighbors that parts of the property Twin Pines acquired to build Grange Hill, principally those belonging to the former Rock Church that had been on the site, could have been abandoned to the neighbors as the result of a legal doctrine known as “adverse possession.”
The court said that the basic requirement that 15 years had to go by in order to even begin consideration of whether a property had been abandoned had not been met and that the Baptist organization that previously had possession of the property clearly met the standard of “a pious use” that under Vermont law would have exempted the property from such a 15-year countdown in the first place.
Finally, the court concluded that since neighbor David Roy had previously granted the church an unusually large right-of-way over part of his property for use as a driveway by the church he had to have understood it was for the public to enter and exit the property. “The language of the easement contained no restrictions whatsoever on the volume of use (and) we are reluctant to read one into it,” the decision said, concluding, “the proposed use of the right-of-way does not constitute a violation of the easement and therefore (Roy’s) request for an order restricting use to that associated with a single-family residence must be denied.”