July 19, 2019

Health of publicly owned trees a growing concern for town

By Kim Howard

Willistonians already are responding to Bill Conn’s work.

“There have been a lot of residents out there asking questions,” said the consulting arborist, who explained that residents have been removing mulch from their trees as they’ve been made aware of problems it is causing. “They want to take care of their trees and keep them healthy.”

Conn has collected data on trees in public right-of-way areas within Williston this month through his work with Trees New England, a South Hadley, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in tree management planning.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said that the town commissioned the inventory and assessment project to ensure a proper tree maintenance plan and to assist with future plantings.

Over the past 10 years, the town of Williston has required developers to include street trees in subdivisions as part of the approval process because of “aesthetics, general appearance, and I think it adds value to both the public infrastructure and to the private property owners,” said Boyden. “That infrastructure is getting bigger every day.”

As of early Monday morning, Conn had inventoried 900 of 1,200 trees and “for the most part the health looks good,” he said.

However, there are some problems.

“A lot of the trees that were planted in the Brennan Woods development were planted too deep and have poor form,” said Conn. “They’ve either had too much mulch put on them or not enough mulch put on them. And they planted only a few species.”

While Conn said he has found at least a dozen different species in the inventory to date, some areas such as like Wildflower Circle have only one type of tree.

The risk?

“It’s a monoculture,” explained Conn. “So if insects or disease come in and like that species, then they just move from tree to tree to tree so the development ends up with no trees because it’s all the same species.”

In addition to cataloguing trees in public rights-of-way, the trees will be mapped on a global positioning system and information will be recorded on each species and their proper care and long-term maintenance. Trees New England will also conduct a training program in September. Staff from the Public Works and Planning departments, and volunteers on the Conservation Commission and Williston in Bloom Committee will learn proper species selection and placement as well as pruning and mulching methods for new trees.

“Getting more education so we know how our existing tree resources should be maintained would be great information,” said Jean Kissner, a member of the Conservation Commission.

Boyden indicated that this process will affect future developments. “As it exists today, the developer or the landscape architect designs, chooses and selects species,” he said. “We’re going to be a lot more involved in that as a result of this.”

The direct cost to the town for the inventory and training program is $2,500, according to Boyden. The total cost of the project — which includes in-kind costs of town and volunteer staff time — is estimated at $10,950. A $4,000 grant administered by the State of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources through the Urban and Community Forestry Grant Program, “Trees for Local Communities,” will supplement the town funding.

“Williston has a lot of young trees so it can save on their budget by taking care of them now rather than waiting until they’re a problem,” Conn said. “I think the town is headed in the right direction by making sure their trees are going to be in the best shape they can.”

Conn said he will complete the inventory process this week. The presentation of final findings and recommendations will be made to the Williston Selectboard in December.

“This whole process is a good investment for the town,” said Boyden. “It’s going to make a better use of taxpayers’ dollars.”

[Read more…]

Fitness club steps into scoreboard fracas

Sports & Fitness Edge offers to pay for $5,000 device

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

A local health and fitness club has approached the Williston Little League about purchasing the electronic scoreboard that stands at the center of a current controversy, offering a potential alternative to Coca-Cola’s sponsorship.

Bob Fredette, the club manager of Sports & Fitness Edge, confirmed Friday that he had contacted the Little League about buying a digital scoreboard for the Community Park field. The scoreboard has an estimated price of $5,000 and would help the local Little League qualify to host regional competitions.

Fredette said the scoreboard represented an opportunity for the still-young fitness club, which is undergoing a large-scale expansion after just five years, to pay back its hometown.

“We’d like to contribute the scoreboard in order to help out the town of Williston,” Fredette said. “We feel that it is important that we make an investment in the community that has supported us so well.”

Coca-Cola has already offered to purchase the scoreboard for the Little League, but has run into resistance from the Selectboard. Zoning rules preclude advertising at the Community Park Little League field, and Coca-Cola would like a logo across the bottom of the scoreboard to illustrate its sponsorship.

Little League officials asked the Selectboard to approve an amendment to the zoning rules to allow for the advertising, but so far board members have largely appeared reluctant. The Little League would also like permission to post advertising banners on the Community Park field fence during the season; the revenue would be split between the league and the town.

In addition to zoning obstacles, some Selectboard members, most notably Chairwoman Ginny Lyons, have expressed concerns about having Coca-Cola as a sponsor for a youth recreational facility. Lyons has spoken of the negative effect she says soft drinks have on children’s health.

Lyons and some other Selectboard members have also repeatedly stated a preference for local businesses serving as sponsors for any advertising at the Little League field.

Lyons sounded pleased at the prospect of a local fitness club sponsoring the scoreboard, though she pointed out that the Selectboard has still not decided whether to allow the structure. She said a sponsor other than Coca-Cola could change how the Selectboard views the proposal.

“We’ve said from the beginning that that’s something we’re interested in looking at,” Lyons said.

Lyons said last week that she was unconvinced by arguments that Coca-Cola New England, a regional facility based in Colchester, qualified as a local business.

“Coca-Cola’s not local,” Lyons said. “I don’t care what anybody says.”

Mike Healey, the member of the Williston Little League Board of Directors who has been involved in the scoreboard discussions, said the Little League still supported Coca-Cola as a sponsor for the scoreboard because it had stepped forward first. However, Healey, who said the Little League has heard from another interested sponsor besides Sports and Fitness Edge, said the Little League was keeping its options open.

“But the issue’s not just Coca-Cola,” Healey said. “It’s advertising in general.”

Fredette said Sports and Fitness Edge would still consider purchasing the scoreboard even if no advertisement is allowed to accompany it.

“We’d like to have something like a logo on that, but if they don’t allow a logo, we feel like everyone in the community will know that it came from us,” Fredette said. “We feel like it’s the right thing to do and that it would be a way for us to help out.”

Last month, several Selectboard members expressed an interest in purchasing the scoreboard with $5,000 of town money — a suggestion that has prompted some strongly worded criticism. Selectboard member Terry Macaig said he had received between 10 and 15 e-mail messages and letters on the issue last week, though not all were negative. The Observer has also received several letters to the editor on the issue, each opposing the Selectboard’s stance.

The Selectboard is expected to take up the scoreboard discussion again at its Aug. 22 meeting.

[Read more…]

Fehrs relishes contrarian

Fellow members frustrated by his go-slow approach

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Jeff Fehrs arrived a few minutes late to the July 25 Selectboard meeting. On the way to the semicircular table where his fellow board members sat, he shook his head with disappointment.

Fehrs’ customary seat is set away from the other board members, who typically gather at the head of the table, while Fehrs sits separated on their right. However, fellow board member Andy Mikell already occupied Fehrs’ chair, and Fehrs’ nameplate was at the head of the table, next to Chairwoman Ginny Lyons’ seat.

Fehrs settled reluctantly into his new place at the table and remarked on the prank. His fellow board members laughed good-naturedly.

Fehrs has grown accustomed to the seat he has held at board meetings for six years. It allows him to spread out his documents and to watch his fellow board members’ faces.

“I get a better sense of what they’re thinking,” he said. In addition, Fehrs acknowledged, the seat has some symbolic value. It sets him apart.

Fehrs has a distinctive style among Selectboard members. It’s not the Hawaiian shirts or the occasional flash of a small earring that brand him as different — though they do present a visual contrast with the other members. Instead, he stands apart because of his many questions, his desire to have lengthy discussions and his sometimes isolated views.

Those traits occasionally frustrate his fellow board members, but Fehrs’ tangents and study of the minutiae of topics can also steer the Selectboard in unforeseen and productive directions.

“Jeff has a different perspective and that’s definitely helpful,” said Terry Macaig, who sits on the other end of the table from Fehrs and who, appropriately, is the least voluble board member.

Macaig and Lyons both acknowledge growing occasionally frustrated with Fehrs’ discussions, but they make the identical addendum: “Jeff obviously has the town’s best interests at heart.”

Macaig notes that Fehrs comes equipped with copious research to each meeting. Lyons said she recognizes that he keeps folders on topics and is “very thorough and careful.”

It’s just that the thoroughness can equal slowness and redundancy.

“Sometimes, he delays things that are pretty much self-evident to me,” Macaig said. “The meetings might end up lasting longer than they need to because of it.”

He’s also stubborn, Lyons said, and can return to an issue or a point again and again.

“He’s not one to readily compromise,” Lyons said.

Fehrs said it “does not make him happy” to frustrate his fellow board members. However, when board members grow visibly irritated with his insistent probing of a topic, it never appears to deter him.

Fehrs, a methodical thinker, said he simply does not want to rush anything.

“If I’m not prepared to make a decision, then that’s an equally bad feeling for me,” Fehrs said.

Fehrs appears to often be motivated by a concern that the board might overlook something or miss an important angle. “Are we missing something?” and “I don’t understand this well enough” are among his frequent refrains.

“It’s not uncommon to see some small detail come back to haunt us — for it to turn into a loophole or into some unintended consequence,” Fehrs said. “I want to fully understand what we’re doing. Sometimes, I think the board makes decisions based just on the big picture aspect of something. But I think the devil’s in the details and we need to make sure we fully understand their impact.”

Lyons said Fehrs’ attention to detail keeps the board thinking of the long tentacles of any decision, because he is mindful of how one decision might affect another.

“He sees connections between everything, so one discussion might lead to 15 other topics,” Lyons said. “That can be very helpful sometimes, but we also don’t want to go too far afield — and sometimes we do. Sometimes the conversation gets prolonged when we need to move on.”

Fehrs argues that many of his questions are not solely targeted for his own understanding of an issue, but to make sure the rest of the Selectboard is considering a certain angle. He also frequently asks questions that appear to oppose his own view of a topic. He constantly asks for more information and different perspectives, particularly from town staff and the members of Williston’s myriad boards and committees.

“I hope it’s a way for the board and the public to understand what the range of things we could be doing is,” Fehrs said.

Mikell’s relatively new presence on the board has provided Fehrs with a kindred soul who also tends to step outside the consensus from time to time. In 2005, there have been eight board votes that were not unanimous. Fehrs was the lone opposing vote four times, Mikell was the lone opposing vote three times and the two both voted against something once.

Fehrs’ votes are not always a simple approval or disapproval. Sometimes, he admits, he votes a certain way to make a statement.

For instance, the Selectboard recently considered a request from developer Al Senecal to transfer sewer capacity from one property to another. Because Senecal had acquired the capacity before the current ordinance prohibiting a transfer was approved, town rules allowed the transfer.

However, once Fehrs recognized that other board members were poised to approve the transfer, he announced that he would vote against it, because he does not believe it is good town business to allow such a transfer.

“I thought it was important to get that view in the record,” Fehrs said.

Fehrs said he does not get upset by fellow board members’ votes, but he is bothered when he believes their decisions have not been fully explored.

“Sometimes, I think we make decisions too quickly and that’s worrisome to me,” Fehrs said.

However, Fehrs said none of the Selectboard members who have served during his tenure have fallen short of his expectations for assiduousness on a consistent basis. Consequently, Fehrs’ disappointment with board decisions has never morphed into ill will.

“If the decision is made and I don’t agree with it, as long as I think the board made it the right way, then I’m not going to feel any need to contest it,” Fehrs said.

Similarly, board members’ frustration with Fehrs never seems to last.

“He wants to make sure the process is done right and I think we appreciate that,” Lyons said.

Fehrs plans on maintaining his contrarian’s role on the Selectboard and will continue acting almost as if he was an outside observer. And he vows to be early to the board’s next meeting.

“I’ll try to get my old seat back,” he said.

[Read more…]


By Marianne Apfelbaum
Observer staff

The twisted metal on the front end of a white pickup perched precariously in a ditch on Monday was the latest reminder to town officials of the growing problem at the intersection of Marshall Avenue and Leroy Road.

With the proliferation of businesses in that area, traffic has increased to the point that the town is looking at ways to improve safety that could include the addition of anything from strobe lights to a four way stop sign.

On Monday morning, a section of Marshall Avenue was closed to traffic for nearly three hours as the Williston Fire Department and hazardous materials crews tried to clean up the spilled diesel fuel from the collision of a tractor trailer and the Chevy pickup driven by Paul Gaboriault.

Gaboriault failed to stop at the stop sign and crashed into the fuel tank of a tractor-trailer driven by John French. Although there were no injuries, a visibly shaken Gaboriault had to crawl from the wreckage of his vehicle. According to Williston police officer Randy Tucker, who was at the scene, the pickup was a complete loss and the tractor-trailer sustained over $1,000 in damages. Officials fear even more serious accidents could occur if something isn’t done soon. “It’s a poorly designed intersection,” said Tucker. “There are an awful lot of accidents for such a small road.”

Williston police sergeant Bart Chamberlain said there have been at least seven recorded accidents, four with injuries, at the intersection since January. Indicating the problem is escalating, Tucker said it was the third accident he’d responded to in the area in just three weeks. “It’s a very high number compared to comparable intersections,” said Chamberlain. “It’s unusual as well because even accidents at Taft Corners frequently don’t have injuries.”

Area business owners share the concern of town safety officials. Frank DeAngelis, owner of Close To Home, moved his business to Marshall Avenue from Shelburne five weeks ago and has witnessed three accidents and several close calls. He is worried about the danger the road presents for his customers. “Someone’s gotta do something. There’s a blind corner with four lanes coming together, and people do speed here. There are lots of near misses…I hear lots of squeals,” he said. “I don’t want my customers to get hurt.”

The situation has led Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton to consult with town officials about solutions. Morton is preparing a summary of the accidents that have occurred that he will give to Town Manager Rick McGuire this week. “Certainly we need to do something more,” said Morton. “Everybody realizes that. The next step just hasn’t been decided yet.”

Morton said one solution is to make the existing markings at the intersection more noticeable. He said there are lots of options including anything from a four way stop sign rather than the current two way design, to a traffic light that includes blinking strobes.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden has been working on the area for some time. “Two or three months ago, we added stop bars, and double stop signs with orange flags on them,” said Boyden. “Unfortunately, the problem continues,” said Morton.

Just last week, Boyden hired a traffic consulting engineer to evaluate the intersection and come up with recommendations to improve the area further. “I hope to have the recommendations in a week or two,” said Boyden.

Help can’t come soon enough for some. Tom Zoller, who works at Trane on Leroy Road, emailed the Observer after the Monday accident to express his concern. He wrote, “The city seems to think that the problem is people not stopping at the stop signs, but my co-workers and I feel it is actually the blind intersection. Either way, the town must do something about this intersection before someone is killed.”

[Read more…]