Mosquito district dispute drives up legal costs
SALISBURY/BRANDON — A handful of residents led by Chris Fastie of Salisbury is challenging the operating procedures of the Brandon-Leicester-Salisbury-Goshen Insect Control District and running up the legal bills for those communities. The most immediate consequence is a $5,000 spike in the amount the five towns are asking taxpayers to cover in annual budgets — all of which will be decided at town meeting.
Overall, the increase in spending for the BLSG Insect Control District is $36,252 over the prior year’s spending of $121,400. Of that, the district is asking for a legal budget of $25,000, compared to $20,344 it spent on legal costs in 2018.
For much of 2018 and going into 2019, Fastie and a couple other area residents pushed a lawsuit against the insect control district alleging that it did not follow strict state protocol for releasing pesticides. The lawsuit was filed by a New England-based environmental activist group, Toxic Action Center (TAC), which is handling the case for the plaintiffs pro bono. Fastie is an ecologist and an opponent of spraying of the adult pesticides that controls the mosquito population in the summer months.
He has launched a website about pesticide use that has been referenced in his arguments against the district’s practices, and he is the founder of a start-up group called Moosalamoo Woods and Waters — of which he and Woody Little of Leicester and “a couple others” are members. In a recent conversation, he would not say who the others were.
“The TAC is worried about the effects in the community,” Fastie said. “The members (of Moosalamoo Woods and Waters) are worried about the practices of the BLSG and how they impact the water quality and the environment. The BLSG is required by law to demonstrate how they impact those areas and they didn’t do it,” he said — an allegation the BLSG denies.
Specifically, the Toxic Action Center has filed a lawsuit questioning the legitimacy of the permit granted to the BLSG from the Agency of Natural Resources. The TAC recently tried to get an out-of-court settlement with the BLSG, but neither side could agree so the suit is moving to a court trial.
Of the five towns, all but Salisbury have included the full amount of the BLSG funding in the town’s budget. The Salisbury selectboard opted to approve in its proposed municipal budget an increase in what the community pays to the BLSG, but the board also is asking voters to approve an additional $5,500 — roughly the cost of additional legal fees anticipated this year — by a special article. Salisbury selectboard budgeted $20,000 for BSLG expenses in 2019-20, an increase of $1,000 over the 2018-2019 expenses.
The town of Brandon has included the requested amount $6,700 in the budget for next year and other towns in the district included the increased amounts in their proposed budgets as well.
“The TAC has pro-bono lawyers,” said Ben Lawton, chairman of the BSLG board. “We have had to hire lawyers to fight this case. We’ve spent about $25,000 in legal fees so far and we expect to pay at least that much or more before this is over. The state declined to get involved in the lawsuit so it was left to us.”
Lawton said the TAC made several demands of the BLSG during negotiations that would put too much of a burden on the minimal resources of the district.
Some of those demands include eliminating the use of adulticide and having an opt-in system rather than the current opt-out system.
The opt-in system would require the BLSG to get residents to opt-in for roadside spraying instead of the opt-out system that is in place now. The BLSG said that would require a tremendous burden on them since only about 100 residents in the district currently opt-out, while several thousand residents prefer to have their homes sprayed.
Currently, the district posts notices of intent to spray by 2 p.m. on the day they plan to spray. Requirements for testing levels of mosquitos keep them from posting notices earlier.
“Other places may be able to do that (send out text-alerts and other notifications) but they have much more resources than we do,” Lawton said. “Alameda County in California has a mosquito district that is about the same acreage as we are and they have a budget of close to $5 million.”
The BLSG was formed in 1978 and consists of the towns of Brandon, Leicester, Salisbury, Goshen, and Pittsford, all of which lie in 7,000 acres in the Otter Creek watershed. Their mission is to reduce the levels of mosquitos for a better quality of life and lowering the potential of mosquito-transmitted diseases.
The BLSG uses a combination of both larvicide and adulticide to fight mosquitos. The state provides funds for larvicide, up to $70,000, and the member towns provide funding for the adulticide.
Like the names suggest, larvicide kills the mosquitoes while they are still in the larva stage, and adulticide kills adult mosquitos. Larvicide is applied by aerial spraying or by dropping small, handheld treatments into pools, while adulticide is applied using ultra-low volume spraying from a truck driving down roads.
According to that BLSG’s annual report, another mosquito district in the state, the Lemon Fair district in Cornwall and Weybridge, receives the same amount of state funding for larvicides despite the BLSG having four times more treatable acreage.
The BLSG has said that it is working with state representatives to get more funding to apply more aerial treatments of larvicide. Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Florence, said he is in the process of requesting more funding.
“I had an official meeting with the Appropriations Committee on Friday,” Shaw said. “We are seeking to get more parity in funding per acre between Lemon Fair and the BLSG.”
On a more personal note, Lawton hopes that no resident in the district will ever have to go through the nightmare he went through. In 1989, Lawton’s wife, Claudette, was bitten by a mosquito and contracted a neuroinvasive virus. She went from being perfectly healthy that morning, to hospitalized by 7 p.m. that evening.
Claudette laid in the hospital unconscious for two months. When her health finally returned, she had to learn to walk again. Lawton got into the business of mosquito control a year later.
“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that,” Lawton said. “She’s recovered since, but it was very worrying.”
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