Citation724 A.2d 1022
Case DateJuly 31, 1998
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

724 A.2d 1022

Richard TOWNS

No. 97-162.

Supreme Court of Vermont.

July 31, 1998.

Motion for Reargument Denied November 9, 1998.

Gary S. Kessler, Waterbury, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

John L. Franco, Jr., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellant.

Present MORSE, J., MARTIN and KATZ, Superior Judges, ALLEN, C.J. (Ret.) and GIBSON, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.


Defendant Richard F. Towns appeals from a decision of the Environmental Court affirming a determination by the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources that Towns

724 A.2d 1023
had operated a solid waste management facility without proper certification in violation of 10 V.S.A. § 6605(a). Among other claims, Towns contends that the Secretary's action was barred by the statute of limitations. We conclude that the court failed to make critical findings and conclusions relating to the statute-of-limitations issue, and, therefore, reverse and remand for further proceedings


In 1972, Towns purchased five acres in the Town of Johnson and constructed a home on the site. Because the rear foundation of the house was laid adjacent to a steep embankment, Towns commenced to deposit stumps, construction debris, and demolition material as fill to create a usable backyard. He also used solid waste to fill a small swimming hole located in the front of the property. Towns continued to dump materials on the site until he sold the property to Christine and James Wilkens in June of 1987.

Although Towns had informed the Wilkenses of the existence of the fill prior to the sale, and assured them that it was "safe and legal," they remained concerned about potential safety hazards to their children. Thus, as the trial court found, "[w]ithin a few weeks of purchasing the property . . . Mrs. Wilkens inquired about the legality of the fill with the Attorney General's Office." Mrs. Wilkens testified that she spoke with someone "involved in environmental issues." She identified herself and the property in question, and explained her concern about the fill that Mr. Towns had been dumping on the property. She was asked, in turn, a series of questions about the condition of the site. Based upon her responses, she was informed that such dumping was a common occurrence in Vermont, and that the State would not take action because the fill was covered, was not visible from the road, and was not leaching into water. In April of 1989, Mrs. Wilkens again contacted the Attorney General's office to express her concerns about the dump site, but again no action resulted.

In 1992, the Wilkenses attempted to sell the property. A prospective purchaser was concerned about the fill, however, and arranged to have several test pits dug to determine its contents. A friend of the prospective purchaser contacted James Coyne, an environmental enforcement officer for the Agency, who came out to observe the dig. Each of the pits revealed the presence of solid waste. Several years later, in September 1996, the Secretary issued an administrative order alleging that Towns had constructed and operated a solid waste disposal facility without certification in violation of 10 V.S.A. § 6605(a). The order required Towns to engage a consultant to "develop a site remediation plan," remove the solid waste, and restore the site to grade by depositing clean fill.

Towns appealed the administrative order to the environmental court. Following an evidentiary hearing, the court affirmed the Secretary's determination that a violation of 10 V.S.A. § 6605(a) had occurred, but vacated and remanded the order to clarify the remediation section. The court ruled that its finding of a violation represented a final judgment. V.R.C.P. 54(b). This appeal followed.


Towns renews on appeal a number of defenses that he asserted before the environmental court, including claims that there was no violation under the applicable law, and that the action was time-barred. Because we conclude that the case must be remanded for further findings on the statute-of-limitations issue which may, if favorable to Towns, be dispositive of the entire proceeding, we decline at this juncture to address Towns's alternative contentions. These claims may be renewed on appeal in the event the trial court determines that the State's action was timely.

The applicable statute of limitations is set forth in 10 V.S.A. § 8015, which provides that environmental enforcement actions "shall be commenced within the latter of: (1) six years from the date the violation is or reasonably should have been discovered; or (2) six years from the date a continuing violation ceases." The trial court determined that Towns's violation — operating a solid waste facility without certification — had

724 A.2d 1024
ceased when Towns sold the property in 1987, and therefore was not of a continuing nature. The Secretary has not challenged this...

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