November 1, 2014

New sidewalk sections to be plowed

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By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Walking on the bike path and sidewalks this winter should be a little easier for some Williston residents. The Selectboard on Monday approved three sections of the town’s sidewalk and bike path system for winter maintenance.

Each year, Public Works Director Neil Boyden receives requests from residents asking for plowing on certain sidewalks and sections of the bike path. Boyden must review the requests and determine if they are in accordance with the Sidewalk Winter Maintenance Policy. The Selectboard then reviews the requests that Boyden presents to them. The board considers such things as cost effectiveness, links to public transportation sites, and popular demand.

This year, Boyden received and approved three requests. The first request was from residents of Falcon Manor and Eagle Crest senior housing developments. The residents asked for plowing of sidewalks between the two apartment complexes , and along Helena Drive.

The second request was from an individual, Adam Huff of Lamplite Acres. In a letter to Boyden, Huff said he enjoyed walking along South Brownell Road between Williston Road and Marshall Avenue to bring his daughter to daycare, but found last year that the walks were not plowed in the winter.

“Our walk, which was primarily on the shoulder of Brownell Road, was dangerous and difficult,” Huff wrote.

The final request was in the form of a petition from the owners, employees and tenants of various businesses on Marshall Avenue and South Brownell Road, asking for these areas to be plowed. The petition also mentioned plowing Harvest Lane, but Boyden recommended that section be added to next year’s list instead.

Boyden estimated the annual seasonal cost to plow all of the approved sections to be about $3,000.

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New fire, police station plans move forward

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DRB OKs public safety buildings

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The new public safety facilities are one step closer to reality after last week’s Development Review Board meeting.

The board approved – with conditions – the development of a new fire station and a new police station for which Williston voters approved funding last year. The new fire and rescue station will be constructed at the corner of Talcott Rd. and U.S. Route 2; and the current firehouse next to Town Hall will be demolished and a new police station built in its place.

The $6.8 million project is designed to address town needs for the next 25 years, according to Town Manager Rick McGuire.

“Yes, there’s a little more space than we need right now,” McGuire acknowledged at last Tuesday’s meeting. But, he emphasized, buildings like these cannot be added to incrementally every few years in response to growth.

As the town’s population and commercial activities have grown, so have public safety service needs. According to a draft of the Williston Comprehensive Plan, in 2004, the Williston Police Department responded to twice as many incidents (4,218) as it had ten years prior; and from 1999-2004 police saw a 17 percent increase in calls. The fire department experienced similar increases: Rescue calls rose 16 percent and fire calls increased 24 percent from 2000-2004, the plan says.

Town records show that the public facilities are insufficient. In the town’s 2004 annual report, police Chief Ozzie Glidden indicated the current station was designed for half the number of its current employees; in the “officers’ room” – where officers write reports and affidavits – any given officer must share his or her space with three or more officers.

On top of that, Glidden continues, “this space serves as a changing room, lunch room, interview room, juvenile detention area, conference room, processing and police cruiser videotape screening area, temporary evidence room, storage closet, firearm cleaning and unloading station, records department, evidence processing, etc.”

The new 15,000-square-foot police station – the footprint of which is not much larger than the existing firehouse – will provide separate interview rooms and detention areas.

Fire Chief Ken Morton said the new fire station’s location will save driving time. The average drive time to calls from the current station is seven minutes; in contrast, from the new location, 91 percent of Williston locations can be reached in an average of four driving minutes, Morton said. For both locations, response time is longer when fire personnel are not already at the station.

Conditions from last week’s meeting are set to be finalized at next week’s Development Review Board meeting. Zoning permits can be issued after conditions are met. Act 250 permitting is still ahead. McGuire expects construction bids to be invited in January, with construction scheduled to begin in May. The facilities are expected to be completed in 2007.

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Local man walks his own path

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IBM employee gets to work without a car every day

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Paul Bouchard doesn’t have to scrape off his car in the morning or wait for the heat to kick in. That’s because every day for the last two years, Bouchard has made the 7-mile round trip to work under his own power.

In these days of rising fuel prices and greenhouse gases, it seems like a sound environmental decision, but while Bouchard says the environment is important to him, that is not his main motivator.

“The reason why I do it is because it’s healthy,” the 54-year-old Williston resident said. “I think the older I get the more I need some kind of challenge I can do.”

The supply chain advisory planner said he has been biking from his Lamplite Acres home to IBM in Essex Junction for many years, but always drove between December and April because the frozen roads were not suitable for biking. But two years ago he made the decision to walk during those months, and made the total commitment to not use a car for work at all.

Bouchard and his wife, Carol, both own cars, and he said he drives to the grocery store and other places, just not to work. Carol, who works as a part-time nurse at Pediatric Medicine in South Burlington, and as secretary for the Methodist Church district superintendent, does drive to work.

“I don’t try to put my lifestyle on her,” he said.

While he says his top goal is fitness, Bouchard recognizes the environmental benefits of cutting down on driving time.

“I wish that I were more disciplined and didn’t need a car, period,” he said. “But I think the lifestyles that we’re in, it’s very difficult to be completely removed, so you try and do the next best thing, which is reduce.”

The former runner said he figures he saves about 75 gallons of gasoline a year by not driving a car to work every day.

“In itself it isn’t a whole lot, but I like to think you pass the philosophy around,” he said. “You can’t do it all yourself.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released revised health guidelines for Americans, which recommended 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day.

Bouchard estimates his winter walk takes about 40 minutes each way on a good day, and up to an hour and a half on a really bad weather day.

He said he tried going to a gym for about a year, but found that walking and biking were preferable.

“It’s a discipline that I wasn’t very good at,” Bouchard said of working out at the gym. “(Walking) is easier, I’ve got to get to work; got to get home, so it’s really good.”

His commitment has also affected other people in his office, he said.

“Other people have jumped on at work,” he said. “They’ll maybe come in twice a week during the summer, mostly biking.”

Like any commuter, Bouchard faces numerous hazards on his daily trek to work.

A month ago, while riding home during a sudden snowstorm, Bouchard had what he calls his “first meeting with a car.”

Bouchard was riding home from Essex when a car stuck his bike’s rear tire and he fell to the ground.

“My first reaction was ‘Boy, I’m really upset. Why don’t people see me on a bike?’” he said. “I actually feel a little apologetic to the woman because she came out and she says ‘I didn’t see you,’ and I said something like ‘Yeah, I noticed.’ I wish I was a little more polite.”

He said when he bikes to work, the going is usually fairly easy up until the recreational path ends at James Brown Drive, and he has to cross Vermont Route 2A.

“Truckers are better than cars,” he said, “I can sit there for a couple of minutes before somebody lets me by.”

Bouchard said his family, which includes his wife and three adult children Kim, Sara and Nick, all probably think he is a little crazy, but he will continue to walk, bike or otherwise challenge himself in his daily journey to IBM.

“I’m thinking about doing snowshoes this year, and kind of giving it a different twist,” he said.

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Jewish residents celebrate amidst Christmas cheer

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When Bethany Lieberman’s oldest son was about 11 years old, he got “very serious” about being Jewish, according to his mother.

“People would say ‘merry Christmas,’ and my son would say very firmly ‘happy Hanukkah,’” said Lieberman, explaining that her younger son did the same thing.

“They were never rude, but they did go through a year or so where they were very frustrated because it was automatically assumed that everybody was Christian,” continued Lieberman, who moved to Williston three years ago from the Boston area.

According to the American Jewish Committee, about 5,500 Vermont residents are affiliated with Jewish federations or synagogues, more than half of those in Burlington. However, these numbers do not account for unaffiliated Jews. As a result, there is no official count of the Vermont Jewish population.

When Judaism is acknowledged during the month of December, it often is in the form of Hanukkah.

“Often people see Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas, and it really isn’t,” said Judy Alexander, education director at Temple Sinai in South Burlington. “Hanukkah is a minor holiday, but it’s taken on more significance as far as where it falls in the calendar because it is so close to Christmas.”

Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington also pointed to the minor role that Hanukkah plays in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Passover are more significant Jewish holidays.

“The wonder and excitement that many Christians feel around Christmas Eve and Christmas morning has a parallel around Passover for us,” Chasan said.

Sheryl Foxman, who has lived in Williston for 18 years, said there are challenges living in a state where such a small percentage of people understand Judaism.

“The Jewish population has grown, but it will never, ever be what it’s like in a big city,” Foxman said last week by phone. “It’s been quite an experience here. I was like the representative Jew” when her daughters were younger, said Foxman, who explained Jewish high holy days to her daughters’ classes.

Lieberman has had similar experiences. The first year the family lived in Williston, she said her children had sports events and play practice scheduled on high holy days, when Jews are expected to be in synagogue.

“I think that people here try to be sensitive to the differences, but they’re just not fully aware,” Lieberman said.

When major school activities are scheduled on a Jewish high holy day, “the children are forced to make a choice,” said Lieberman, whose family, like Foxman’s, attends Temple Sinai.

“Now a Rabbi would tell you there is no choice. But for a child who is the lead in a play,” that is hard, Lieberman continued. Now Lieberman said she calls schools as schedules are being set to tell them the dates of upcoming Jewish holidays.

Foxman also noted the challenge of living in a world in which time off is granted for Christian holidays – like Christmas – but not for those she recognizes.

“That’s always been hard, when you have these holidays you want to observe but you have to work,” Foxman said. “Or kids (have) homework to do when you want to be festive and hang out with your family.”

Rabbi Chasan said it is important to remember that there are a large number of intermarried families, where one spouse converted to Judaism upon marriage, and as a result there are close family ties to Christians.

“The connections are very personal; many Jews accept with wonder the beauty of Christmas,” Chasan said. “And at the same time, we feel the challenge to define and teach our own culture in the midst of all the red and green.”

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Icy roads, serious accidents cause concern

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By Marianne Apfelbaum and Ben Moger-Williams

The town could adjust its policy on winter road maintenance alerts, following a spate of icy days and two serious accidents.

The latest accident involved Williston resident Kaitlyn George, 51, who is in critical condition with head and chest injuries at Fletcher Allen Health Care. George was driving northbound on Oak Hill Road at approximately 4:20 p.m. on Sunday when she lost control of her vehicle, which went off the left side of the road, police said. George was pinned under the vehicle, according to police, and was pulled from beneath it by passersby, who also alerted police to the accident.

Williston police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain said that speed and alcohol did not appear to be factors in the accident, but did note that the roads were icy and snow covered, and had not been cleared.

On the evening of Nov. 22, snowy and icy roads also caused problems in responding to a plane crash on Partridge Hill, police say. According to police, fire trucks were not able to get up snow-covered Partridge Hill Road. Fire and rescue personnel had to reach the scene on foot, and were able to put out the crash’s ensuing fire with a fire extinguisher.

Williston police acknowledged that the problem of hazardous winter road conditions is a longstanding one. “We are aware that this has been a concern of residents for the past few winters, and we have informed the town,” said Chamberlain. “We recently met with Neil Boyden and Rick McGuire again to come up with a solution.”

Boyden, director of public works for the town, said that during weekends and off-hours, Essex police are supposed to alert the Williston Public Works Department to dangerous road conditions. Essex and State Police also act respectively as dispatchers for Williston Fire and Police Departments on nights and weekends. Williston has two shifts of police dispatchers but no fire dispatchers.

McGuire, Williston’s town manager, said he meets with other town departments periodically to discuss many issues including winter road maintenance.

“This is one of the areas that we’re particularly focusing on,” McGuire said. “We think that our response can be better so we’re going to be looking at a number of different ways of improving it.”

Chamberlain said the roads were so bad on Sunday that officers had to use a town-owned 4-wheel-drive truck to respond to accident calls instead of the police cruisers. “We couldn’t get around with them,” Chamberlain said.

Williston police called Vermont State Police on Sunday morning asking them to get the town to clear the roads, Chamberlain said. The town’s road crew normally works Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. When a need for road clearing arises outside those hours, the procedure is as follows: Requests are funneled through the State Police, then on to the Essex Police Department – which is responsible for calling Williston Public Works to alert them to the need for road clearing, Chamberlain said.

According to State Police, two calls were made directly to Williston’s road crew foreman Sunday morning, neither of which received a response. There is a list of several other road crewmembers who can be called, but those calls were not made, according to Chamberlain.

The administrator for the State Police Williston Communications Center, Jim Cronan, said the center has lists of town highway personnel in five counties to call, so keeping track of calls is difficult on stormy days like Sunday.

“Basically it’s just a scramble,” Cronan said. “In a snowstorm it’s just survival time for us.”

Cronan said he did not know of any problems with communication on Sunday with Williston.

Boyden acknowledged that the State Police had paged foreman Ron Burritt on Sunday, but said Burritt did not receive the page.

“What they should have been doing, is if you don’t get a response, you go down the list,” Boyden said.

The department did receive a call at about 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Boyden said, and the road crews were out by 4:30 p.m.

Boyden said he would make some modifications to the town’s current policy and was preparing to send out a memo to Williston, Essex and State Police this week. Boyden said the memo would advise the departments if they did not get a response 15 minutes after paging the highway foreman, they should begin calling each of the town’s plow truck drivers until one responds.

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Grid streets key to new town plan

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Zoning changes proposed to encourage infrastructure improvements

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston has a problem: too many commuters, too little money for road improvements.

Just 26 percent of Williston residents who work do so in town, according to the 2000 Census. Meanwhile, using state Department of Labor figures, Town Planner Lee Nellis estimates that roughly 9,000 non-residents drive to work in Williston. And that number does not include shoppers traveling to Williston’s many retailers, or motorists passing through on the way to somewhere else.

A draft of the town’s new Comprehensive Plan includes a provocative idea about how to address the issue: change zoning to encourage developers to pay for infrastructure improvements like a network of grid streets around Taft Corners that would reduce traffic along the town’s clogged thoroughfares.

“Williston’s vision of a pedestrian-friendly, design-conscious, mixed-use commercial center cannot be realized if a higher intensity of use is not allowed,” the plan states. “But allowing more intense use can be tied to community benefits.”

The proposal has already drawn opposition from Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons.

She said in an interview Monday that she dislikes anything that could clear the way for more big-box stores.

“I don’t really want to open up old wounds about big boxes,” she said. “I think we’ve been through that and it’s not productive for the community.”

The provision is just one aspect of the proposed Comprehensive Plan, which will be considered during a public hearing later this month. The plan, last updated in 2000, will cover a five-year period running until 2010. In addition to transportation, the plan addresses land use, housing, education, energy and other topics.

But transportation is perhaps the one area where the town needs the most help if it is to realize the vision of community with smooth-flowing thoroughfares that also offer alternatives to driving. Nowhere does the town need more help than with the network of grid streets that the plan envisions connecting thoroughfares like Route 2 and 2A and Marshall Avenue.
Though the old Comprehensive Plan called for grid streets, the new plan for the first time specifies where they should be built. They include a loop road from Zephyr Road off Route 2A to Route 2 across from Maple Tree Place; a street from Route 2 just west of Talcott Road to Sycamore Street; a street from Harvest Lane near Home Depot to Route 2A south of Marshall Avenue; a street linking Marshall Avenue to Wright Avenue near Northfield Saving Bank; and a street connecting Commerce Street and Wellness Drive.

The projects would cost millions of dollars, and the town does not have the financial resources to build them without a major property tax increase or help from developers. Yet they are a key part of the new plan, said Nellis.

“You can’t have the type of development the town wants without the grid streets,” he said. “The grid streets are one of the most important things in the entire plan.”

Changes frozen out?

The town has some clout – and the developers’ self interest – to facilitate funding for the roads, Nellis said. The town can require developers to build some of the roads as a condition of approval for new projects. And without the roads, Nellis said, there won’t be access to some of the projects now being considered.

But for existing developments like Taft Corners Park, home of Wal-Mart and Home Depot, the proposed plan takes another approach.

The plan calls for consolidating zoning districts and relaxing zoning rules for developers who make infrastructure improvements. It states that the numerous zoning districts have not resulted in the dense, infill development envisioned by the previous plan. Instead, the existing zoning has “frozen the ‘big box’ pattern of development in place.”

That statement appears to be a reference to Taft Corners Park, where developer Jeff Davis fought with the town for years to build stores in the project. The town finally struck an agreement with Davis in 2000 that allowed construction of 4 Seasons Garden Center and one more big-box store. The remaining development was supposed to be smaller-scale buildings containing a mix of uses.

4 Seasons was built, but the site where the box store is permitted has remained vacant, as has the remaining open land in the development.
Davis did not return phone messages seeking comment for this story.

Nellis said the agreement hasn’t produced the result the town wanted.

“What they came up with is an agreement that is simply never going to be implemented, except for he can build that one more big box,” Nellis said. (The Selectboard) wants there to be smaller shops, they want there to be different kinds of shops, they want there to be a greater variety of things. That can’t happen with the zoning restrictions they imposed.”

The right incentives

Nellis said the town can offer incentives without adding to the much-criticized box stores that dominate Williston’s retail landscape. Any changes in zoning that benefit developers will come with strings attached.

“So it will never be that we just change the zoning and open it up carte blanche,” he said. “It will always be they can take advantage of some trade-offs and incentives if they choose to do so.”

Lyons said she has no interest in changing the agreement with Davis. She said the town is only about halfway through the 30-year period she believes it will take to build out the Taft Corners area, and she wants to give the existing rules a chance to work.

Lyons favors a different approach to easing traffic congestion: attract better-paying jobs that will allow employees to afford Williston’s relatively pricey homes instead of commuting from far-flung towns.

“We should work with developers to attract higher-paying jobs” Lyons said. “There’s lots of things that can be done with economic development. It’s not just about growth.”

Transportation alternatives

The transportation portion of the plan does not just address road-building. Alternatives to driving such as a park and ride, sidewalks and bike paths, and mass transit are also covered.

The plan calls for construction of a park and ride, more sidewalks and bike paths and additional mass transit. It also urges the town to join the Chittenden County Transit Authority. The town helps fund the existing bus service, but it is not a CCTA member, which would likely require a bigger contribution but would give the town a greater say in routes.

As for sidewalks and bike paths, the new plan maintains the status quo. Voters approved a bond last year that should provide funding for sidewalk and bike path projects over the next five years.

In addition to the grid streets, the plan also calls for several smaller road improvements such as additional traffic lights and turn lanes along existing roads. Unlike road-building projects, the town does have the means to complete much of that work.

The town collects impact fees on new developments, and has $748,298 in the bank earmarked for transportation improvements, according to Finance Director Susan Lamb. That money, perhaps combined with state and federal grants, can fund many of the smaller projects, Nellis said.

“If you’re talking about installing a traffic signal, the impact fees really make a contribution,” he said. “If you’re talking about whole new roads, that’s tough.”

A group effort

The plan represents thousands of hours of work over the past 1-1/2 years by about 40 people, including members of citizen task forces, the Planning Commission and town staff.

Work on the plan started in October 2004 with a kick-off meeting, followed by the formation of the task forces. Individual groups considered three broad topics: housing and growth, land use and natural areas, and transportation and public facilities.

The groups met through March of this year. The Planning Commission then discussed the plan at numerous meetings before unanimously approving the current draft on Nov. 15.

The Selectboard, which has already previewed the document, is required to hold two public hearings on the plan before a final vote on it. The board could make changes to the proposed plan.

The Comprehensive Plan serves as a blueprint for Williston’s future. The state requires municipalities to have a plan if they have zoning. Nellis notes that a law passed last year mandates that plans be consistent with zoning.

“It’s the backstop for all land-use decisions,” he said. “When you’re in the position Williston is in, still trying to catch up after years of rapid growth, you have to have some guide to how you invest your funds and what you do.”

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Gravestones damaged in car accident

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By Marianne Apfelbaum

Gravestones dating back to the 1800s were damaged on Friday night when Kathleen McGuire, 22, of Williston crashed into a section of the East Cemetery on U.S Route 2 in Williston.

McGuire was traveling west before 5 p.m. at about 40 miles per hour when she lost control of her Subaru Outback and slid off the road, according to Williston Police Sgt. Brian Claffy. The car crashed through a chain link fence and into the oldest section of the cemetery, which dates back to 1806 according to Cemetery Commission Chairman Robert Salter.

Police say alcohol was not a factor in the accident, but that the roads were slightly covered with snow and ice. The speed limit is posted at 50 miles per hour on that stretch of road. The cemetery sits at the top of a hill where the road curves slightly. “She may have been traveling a bit fast for the road conditions,” Claffy said.

McGuire, who was wearing a seatbelt, was able to climb out the passenger door and was kept warm with the help of a passerby until help arrived. She was uninjured, according to police, but the car suffered extensive damage, Claffy said.

As for the cemetery, Salter said about four 10-foot sections of fence will need to be replaced, and at least two monuments were dislodged or damaged, as well as an unknown number of grave markers. “The damage was done to some of the oldest gravestones there,” said Salter, who is “kind of in limbo” while awaiting damage estimates, which he assumes McGuire’s insurance will pay for. “I’ve been in this area 50 years,” said Salter. “I’ve never had this happen before.”

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Giant project planned for Taft Corners

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Subdivision could include 200 units of housing

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Continuing a recent rush to develop open land near Taft Corners, a local couple has filed plans for a project that could include more than 200 homes along with retail and office space.

Bur Oak Meadows would be located on an 81-acre parcel off U.S. Route 2, just east of the Williston Driving Range. The project is named for the unusual trees on the property.

The parcel has a small amount of road frontage but runs all the way back to Interstate 89. The landowners are Maurice and Pauline LaPierre of Burlington, who acquired the parcel in 1996. Pauline LaPierre referred questions about the project to her husband, who could not immediately be reached.

Preliminary plans show two alternatives for the development. The first calls for 206 housing units, 45,744 square feet of retail space and 67,900 square feet of office space. The second includes 196 housing units, the same amount of retail space and less office space.

William Chesbrough, vice president of South Burlington-based Dufresne & Associates, the consultant working with the applicant, said the mixed-use project was designed to comply with the town plan, which calls for dense development that includes both residential and commercial space around Taft Corners.

“It will have plenty of parking, a good amount of affordable housing and some light commercial and office space,” he said. “It’s a good fit.”

Both Chesbrough and town officials emphasize that the plans are preliminary and many details remain to be worked out.

Chesbrough said the housing would include townhouses and condominiums, at least 30 percent of which would be affordable.

Town Planner Lee Nellis said the project’s plans “are in the ballpark” for complying with the town plan and zoning rules. “But I’m not saying we will agree with every single aspect of it.”

The town formally received the application last month, but planners and representatives from Dufresne & Associates met in October to discuss the project as part of the pre-application process used for large developments.

Several concerns were raised during the meeting. They included the project’s environmental impact and how housing and commercial spaces would be configured and integrated.

The environmental issues include a handful of small wetland areas at the site and a stand of bur oaks.

The trees are not “endangered or rare, just unique,” said Carrie Deegan, Williston’s environmental planner. Bur oaks grow mainly in the Midwest, and Vermont is on the northern tip of their range, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Chesbrough said the trees would be preserved and the project would minimize the impact on wetlands.

Bur Oak Meadows is one of three developments proposed for the dwindling open land east of Taft Corners.

The biggest project is planned for the Pecor property, site of a now-defunct horse farm across from Maple Tree Place on Route 2. Jeff Davis and the Snyder Companies want to build a development containing more than 350 residential units and commercial space. The project is now navigating the town’s review process.

Another development is planned for the parcel abutting the Bur Oak Meadows site. Al Senecal, owner of the driving range, plans three commercial buildings on the adjacent open land. That project is also still in the review process.

Nellis acknowledged that the projects would place demands on the town’s infrastructure. He said the town can accommodate the new residential developments’ need for water and sewer, and requiring them to include open space for recreation will help avoid crowding at existing parks. With school enrollment dropping the past two years, Nellis said the town will likely have at least a few more years before it has to build a new school.

“The only big question is traffic,” Nellis said. A planned loop road connecting Bur Oak Estates to Maple Tree Place should help, he said.

Nellis also noted that phasing rules require large-scale residential projects to be built over several years. A 10-year timetable has been discussed for completion of Bur Meadows.

He said dense development is exactly what the town envisions for the area.

“The town plan calls for development to be concentrated in the Taft Corners area,” Nellis said. “So there’s going to be a lot of traffic.”

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Fuel aid office sees record first week

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By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

A record number of people flooded to Burlington last week looking for emergency help with their home heating bills.

Tim Searles, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said at least 200-250 people came through the office seeking help, with 59 people on the first day alone. Searles said the previous record was around 45.

Monday, Nov. 28 marked the start of the first week the agency was offering crisis fuel assistance for those who are out of – or in imminent danger of running out of – heating fuel.

“It was the busiest opening week we’ve ever had for crisis fuel,” Searles said.

Households with incomes of 150 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for crisis fuel assistance. In Williston, 40 households have incomes that are between 150 and 180 percent of the federal poverty level, according to Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, poverty-level annual income for a four-person household is $19,350; so 150 percent of the poverty level would be $29,025.

Searles said a disturbing trend was the fact that many new faces were coming in for help.

“We’re seeing more households with full-time wage earners than ever before,” he said. “And we’re seeing people we’ve never seen before.”

The Crisis Fuel Assistance program is a part of the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The CVOEO received about $1 million for the program, which is roughly the same amount as it received last year, Searles said. He said that the money would likely not last past January, but the governor’s office and the Agency of Human Services has promised to come through with more money for the program.

“We do have their assurances that we will not be underfunded,” Searles said.

In November, Gov. Jim Douglas approved up to $10 million in state assistance to augment federal LIHEAP funding, but none of that money went toward the crisis fuel assistance program. However, the governor’s office has teamed up with AARP Vermont, which is funding a home weatherization assistance program, and hinted that other measures could be taken.

“We're pursuing some options that we hope will allow some additional resources to flow to the crisis programs,” Jason Gibbs, Gov. Douglas’ spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We’re not prepared to detail exactly what they might be at this time.”

Last week AARP Vermont announced it was contributing $50,000 for what they are calling “Project Warm Home.” The money will be distributed through the state’s community action offices in the form of $25 gift cards to The Home Depot.

The cards will be available to homeowners who don’t quite qualify for heating assistance or to people on the state waiting list for home weatherization services. The cards can be used to purchase home weatherization supplies such as caulking, weather stripping and insulation products.

It was unclear as to whether the use of the cards for such items would be regulated, but Searles said a better way to save on home energy bills would be to buy energy efficient light bulbs, not window coverings.

The CVOEO office had not received any of the cards as of Dec. 5, but expected to have them available in the next week or so.

For Williston residents who qualify for the program, the cards will be available through Chittenden Community Action in Burlington. Residents who are unsure if they qualify are encouraged to visit the office at 191 North St., Burlington., or call (800) 287-7971.

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Families join together for support and fun

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Playgroup members share common bond

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Four-year-old Shea Tomlinson needed a little help from her mom to get into a purple fairy outfit. Kaleigh Plumeau, 3, was having loads of fun pounding her hands into a red stamp pad and getting ink all over herself. At their monthly playgroup meeting last Sunday, the two girls and their dozen or so playmates were immersed in different activities, but they all share one thing in common: They are all adopted girls from China.

In March, Williston residents Susan Glickman and Lucy Kenney started the playgroup as a way for local families who had adopted Chinese girls to get together. Most of the girls are between ages 3 and 5.

“It’s important for them to see other kids that look like them and families that look like theirs,” Glickman said. Glickman is a former librarian at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, and is the mother of three children, two of whom were adopted from China.

China first officially allowed adoption to the United States in 1992, and since then more than 55,000 Chinese children have been adopted by American families, according to U.S. Department of State statistics.

In fiscal year 2005, the U.S. government issued nearly 8,000 immigrant visas to Chinese orphans adopted into the United States.

One of those visas was for Julia Kenney, who was adopted from an orphanage in Wuhan, China by Lucy Kenney and her husband, Williston Selectman Ted Kenney.

The Kenneys hosted the playgroup last week, and Julia, along with sister Ella, also adopted from China, welcomed about 10 other families into their home.

Meredith Tomlinson of Colchester brought her daughter ,Shea, who “came home” in 2002.

“When we got home we were surprised that there weren’t any groups or organizations that got these girls together,” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson’s response was to start an e-mail group on the Web site Yahoo! for families in Vermont who have adopted girls from China and wanted to connect with each other. She also reactivated a Vermont chapter of the national organization Families with Children from China, or FCC.

Tomlinson said about 65 families have signed up for the Yahoo e-mail list, but she has addresses for more than 100 families all over Chittenden County with adopted Chinese children.

The FCC group in Vermont holds three major events a year for families: Chinese New Year in winter; picnic at the beach in the summer; and an Autumn Moon Festival. The informal playgroup meets about once a month and has about 15-20 families involved, Lucy Kenney said.

The vast majority of orphans coming out of China are girls, due to that country’s “one-child policy.” The policy was created in 1979 as a response to massive unchecked population growth in the 1950s and 60s. It basically states that each family is allowed only one child. Subsequent births can infer civil penalties and create administrative hassles for parents. In some rural areas, if the first child is a girl, couples are allowed to have a second child. But if that child is also female, the family cannot try again.

“A lot of adopted children are second daughters,” Lucy Kenney said.

As a result of the policy, couples looking to adopt boys must usually look elsewhere.

Williston residents Scott Frederick and Betsy Hoza decided they wanted a boy and a girl for their family. After some research, they realized that China was the place to go to adopt girls, but for boys, the best place turned out to be Guatemala.

Frederick, a stay-at-home dad, brought his daughter, Emma, and son, John, both 3, to the group to play. He said there are no playgroups for adopted Latino children, but was happy to discover the Chinese playgroup.

Frederick said he and his wife met the Glickmans on a walk, and noticed their Chinese children, which eventually led to a friendship.

“Whenever you see people like that you gravitate toward them,” he said.

The group also acts as a support group for parents who are waiting to adopt.

Tracy and Carl Schneider of Essex Junction have been waiting for six months for their Chinese daughter, but recently learned they must now wait at least another three months. The Schneiders both say for them – and their biological daughter, Grace – being around other adoptive parents and kids helps them get ready for the adoption.

“You can read a thousand books,” Tracy Schneider said. “But it definitely helps to meet people firsthand.”

Tomlinson said the playgroup is important not only for parents to connect socially, but also for the girls, who are growing up in one of the most non-ethnically diverse states in the country, to have a network of friends from similar backgrounds.

“It might not be that important to them now,” Tomlinson said. “But it will be later, these connections they make as youngsters.”

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