RUSSELL The Chicoine and Unger families of Russell are being sued by William Hull, developer for the proposed Russell Biomass, in Boston land court after a summons was served to the families in late November.
The Chicoines alleged it is a strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP) suit due to their public opposition to Hull's proposed Biomass. Hull argued it is not.
"It is not a law suit," John Boss, public information officer for the Russell Biomass, said to Reminder Publications.
Hull claims to be the owner of Frog Hollow, the road in which the Chicoine and Unger driveways run off. Hull said he is concerned as to the engineering of the Chicoines driveways.
"If we lose this lawsuit then the only way we will be able to access our homes is by helicopter," Jana Chicoine said.
Hull said that he purchased Frog Hollow Road from its previous owner, Howard Mason, 1.5 years ago. It is the only road in the town that leads to the public dump.
Boss said information in the land deed grants town residents the right to travel the road to get to the dump.
"This means that 1,600 people living in Russell can use the road to get to the dump accept for the two families," Jana Chicoine said.
"It clearly has an implication to Russell Biomass, but is only of a civil nature," Boss said.
Boss claims the issue is over driveway engineering and issues that Hull has with the Chicoine's driveway. When asked, however, if Hull was concerned about the engineering of the Unger's driveway, who were also served the lawsuit, Boss said he did not have an answer.
"Lawsuits like this are happening all over the country," Jana Chiccoine said. "This is typical cooperate behavior and standard of the business plan."
The Chicoines and Ungers
Jana and John Chicoine are major players in the Concerned Citizens of Russell, an organization that has publicly opposed the placement of a biomass power plant facility in Russell. Hull has been petitioning local and regional officials for permit exemptions to build the plant in the town.
The Unger family has been assisting individuals in filing with the Department of Telecommunications and Energy (DTE) in Boston for intervenous status to participate in the DTE's hearings regarding zoning exemptions for the biomass plant.
Jana Chicoine said officials cited this case as having the highest amount of intervenous participants filed in a DTE case in Massachusetts history.
Both families have retained lawyers in regards to Hull's suit against them. The Chicoines have hired Alan C. Seewald of Amherst. Seewald has filed a response in Boston landcourt on the case and has told the court they believe it to be a SLAPP suit.
"It draws you into an arena that you can't compete in," Jana said. "It chills your freedom of speech. The target almost always wins the suits but they lose their health, savings and home sometimes and very often lose their desire to petition the government."
"As a PR guy I couldn't imagine a worse scenario for us," Boss said. "He [Hull] has offered to go into mediation and that doesn't cost anything, but they have not responded to that."
"Based on what Mr. Hull has said to us in his sweet love letters we decided not to do this [mediation]," Jana said.
"Roads are a real complicated area, roads and the right of way is probably one of the most complicated in the law to look at," Attorney Bradley Moir of Moir and Ross in Westfield said. "It seems that it is almost just a coincidence that Hull's access road has these two people on it. In the end it comes down to a factual question but Hull should not be prohibited."
The Chicoines said that they have requested assistance from the local selectmen , but have been refused assistance.
"We [Board of Selectmen] have been advised by town council that this is a civil issue between the Chicoines, Ungers and Hull and the town should not get involved," Paul Malek, Russell Selectman said.
Malek said Selectmen meetings on Tuesday nights have brought crowds of locals who are, "continuously bringing up the biomass situation."
"It is continuous talking," Malek said. "Opponents do not want it [Biomass] under any rhyme or reason. If it [Biomass] is safe and does not create a health risk then it will create tax benefits, employment opportunities and scholarships," he said.
"We feel that state government establishes the permit process and if it can be safe and not harmful and if it cannot then it will not be granted. We let the experts decide," Malek said.
"They can yell or scream about the thing being a SLAPP but I doubt they can prove that," Hull said.
Hull said that he hopes to utilize Frog Hollow Road as an alternate route for trucks if the Russell Biomass is constructed.
"If the town allows it [Frog Hollow] as an access route then I will donate it [the road] to the town," Hull said.
Malek said he would like to see if the Biomass passes zoning exemptions before commenting on acceptance of Hull's offer. The current route for the proposed Biomass is on Main Street, claimed by Russell residents to be historic.
Hull said he has offered mediation with the Chicoines on several occasions but they have always refused.
"I am sick of their mud slinging. There are no facts behind it. They put their driveway in illegally," Attorney Michael Pill, representing Hull said. "These people are as dishonest as any I've ever seen."
The Chicoines claim that they received proper permitting from town officials in constructing their driveway.
"They are lying through their teeth about that one," Pill said.
A letter from Thomas Lagodich, town building inspector, on Dec. 19 approved the Chicoine's driveway. "If the town has made a mistake then it is not the town's fault.They have to put up or shut up. If the town issued a permit and then made a mistake this is not an issue. The Chicoines should not have done this [built driveway] on their own. They should not blame their own screw-ups and their own misdeeds on the town of Russell," Pill said.
What is a biomass?
A biomass plant is one that burns organic materials such as wood to create energy. Opponents argue that material burned will include construction and demolition materials that will harm health and environment.
A recent regulation change proposed by the state Department of Energy Resources permits the use of municipal solid waste to qualify as a biomass fuel.
Opponents of the biomass plant said the plant would emit tons of smog-forming pollution, sulfur dioxide, and small particulate matter in a valley that already has some of the worst air quality in the state. In addition, the proposal would require 840 one-way diesel truck trips each week to deliver fuel to the plant.
"You have to go back and you have to analyze how it [the road] was created and how it was used," Moir said. "There are certain rights such as 'Adverse Possession' that say if you use someone property for over 20 years and it is not permissive use then you can either own it or continue to use it." "It truly is a backyard issue. All of the stuff about environmental impact is being used to scare up opposition," Boss said. "John and Jana don't want the project down stream and across the river from them.. He [Hull] offers if the alternative access road achieves then Russell Biomass will purchase their home at a fair market value- an example of how Russell Biomass is trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number."
"We are asking Mr. Hull publicly to please regain his senses and drop this nightmarish lawsuit against our families, it is not going to help him get his power plant in," Jana said. "All of this costs money which Mr. Hull has a lot of and we don't. I am not going to stop trying to protect innocent people that would be harmed by this power plant but I am concerned about our families enduring stress and financial burden."