Conservation Group And Gas Station Owner Become Unlikely Allies In Environmental Case

Dec 21, 2016

The Conservation Law Foundation filed in Vermont environmental court Wednesday to join a trio of cases related to the state’s planned redevelopment of the Colchester exit of Interstate 89, and the group has an unlikely ally in its efforts.

All three cases stem from legal challenges brought by Skip Vallee, the owner of R.L. Vallee, which operates the Maplefields chain of gas stations and convenience stores.

Vallee is involved in legal challenges to environmental permits issued for the development, and his critics have accused him of using environmental concerns as a means of obstructing developments that might harm his business interests.

Chris Kilian, a senior attorney at CLF, said CLF got involved in the cases to add their voice to Vallee’s in asking for assurances that the $9 million project will meet environmental regulations, especially for stormwater runoff.

“And seeing [the cases] go forward, and seeing the way the issues have been politicized, we felt like we needed to weigh in and try to assure that the substance of these issues is fully and accurately considered,” Kilian said.

Kilian said CLF’s specific concerns have to do with how the proposed development will deal with water pollution from runoff. He said the current plan doesn’t address chloride pollution, doesn’t fully address phosphorus in stormwater runoff, and doesn’t sufficiently address increased stormwater flows caused by new paved surfaces.

The goal of CLF’s involvement, Kilian said, is not to stop the redevelopment project from happening, but to ensure it’s done with appropriate protections for the environment.

“We think that there can be a good design, and good stormwater control measures that protect Sunnyside Brook and don’t add more phosphorus pollution to Lake Champlain, and/or a set of mitigation that could assist in those efforts,” Kilian said. “But jamming the project through on a political basis where instead of focusing on key issues, people are focusing on who is bringing the case or some alleged bias or business interest is not the way to go. And in reality, Skip Vallee … in this particular instance has raised some very valid concerns.”

Kilian acknowledged that CLF doesn’t always find itself on the same side of an argument as the owner of a chain of gas stations, but said Vallee has shown an interest in water quality in Lake Champlain beyond bringing legal challenges in environmental court.

“We always like to say that environmental issues are not partisan issues, and I think that’s been true over time in Vermont. Certainly we have concerns with continued reliance on fossil fuels and how to deal with climate change, and those are big issues that we may or may not see eye to eye with Skip Valle on,” he said.

Kilian said it’s important to pay attention to the issues Vallee is raising, and also to consider Vallee for more than just the challenges to the Colchester project (and the related plans for gasoline sales at Costco, which Vallee fought).

“We kind of have to take people at face value. We have seen more than just litigation around Exit 16 coming from the family, and regardless they have raised very important issues for Sunnyside Brook and Lake Champlain,” he said.

Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.