May 23, 2019

Fact finder confirms police claims

Williston cops among lowest paid, report says

By Marianne Apfelbaum
Observer staff

Williston police officers are among the lowest paid in the area, according to a newly released fact finder’s report. Police union representatives hope Williston town officials will heed the advice contained in the report, and give officers the pay raise they have been seeking since negotiations began earlier this year.

Contract talks between the town and the union reached a standstill Aug. 9 after two meetings with a mediator. Union officials cited pay and health care benefits as the divisive issues. After another failed attempt at mediation, both sides agreed to hire a fact finder.

Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, an alternate steward for the union, received a copy of the 26-page report on Monday, and was pleased with fact finder Ira Lobel’s conclusions.

“The report essentially agreed that we are below the county average,” Chamberlain said. “The recommendation is that if salaries are brought in line with other departments, we should also pay a percentage of our health insurance. We’re in full agreement. This has been our position since day one.”

The report breaks down pay scales for various divisions within the department including officers, dispatchers and sergeants. Using comparable departments – Milton, Colchester and Essex – the report includes charts indicating that Williston’s starting, as well as pay for five- and ten-year veterans, ranks last across the board. Only Winooski had a lower starting pay for officers and dispatchers.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said he had not had a chance to review the report as of Monday afternoon, and would not comment. “We are still in negotiations,” he said.

The negotiations have cost Williston taxpayers a pretty penny. The fact finder’s report alone took three weeks to produce, and cost $5,000, which was split between the town and the police union. The town also had to hire an attorney, which McGuire estimated cost about $4,000. McGuire also estimates he spent about 47 hours working on the issue himself, which, if McGuire were paid hourly for the work would translate to almost $1,600.

McGuire feels it is money and time well spent.

“If you don’t spend the money and time, little things can end up costing a lot of money,” McGuire said.

He cited shift differentials and uniform allowances as examples of items that are not as obvious as hourly wages, but which ultimately have an effect on taxpayers’ wallets.

“It is important to keep an eye on these things, and at the same time provide a competitive wage,” he added.

The Williston Police Officers Association represents police officers, sergeants and dispatchers. The union is a chapter of the Teamsters Local 597, which paid for the police half of the fact-finding report.

Chamberlain declined to release specific numbers from the report until union representatives have a chance to meet with town officials to discuss whether the town will honor the recommendations.

“Although the report doesn’t provide everything we are looking for, the union is willing to accept (the fact finder’s) recommendations, and believe they are a fair balance between what officers deserve and what taxpayers can afford to support,” Chamberlain said.

A meeting between town officials and union representatives to discuss the report is expected to take place in the next two weeks. Once an agreement is reached, a majority vote of approval from the police union, as well as the Williston Selectboard, are required before the police contract is finalized.

[Read more…]

Deck the Halls

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When the Williston Central School chorus sang “Deck the Halls” at its winter concert two weeks ago, there were a few puzzled audience members.

Something was amiss. In fact, something was missing: the word “gay.” Instead of “don we now our ‘gay’ apparel,” the apparel was “bright.”

A school conspiracy to avoid a potentially sensitive issue? Hardly.

The sheet music came that way from the distributor, said chorus teacher Andrea Haulenbeek.

“The kids did notice, a few kids at least,” said Haulenbeek, referring to rehearsals. “They said ‘why are the words different?’ I said ‘I guess the meaning of the word today is different than in the olden days.’”

This local anecdote is reflective, at least in part, of a national discussion about the evolution of language and the holidays. News accounts in the last month have tracked concern over President Bush sending “holiday” instead of “Christmas” cards and U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) telling federal officials that the U.S. Capitol’s previously- named “holiday tree” should be renamed the “Capitol Christmas Tree.”

An elementary school in Dodgeville, Wis., found itself in the spotlight earlier this month when it was threatened with a lawsuit unless it changed lyrics used in an annual school production. A song titled “Cold in the Night” was sung to the melody of “Silent Night.”

Williston’s holiday language debate kicked off after last year’s winter concert. In letters to the editor of the Williston Observer, writers complained that the lyrics of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” had been changed to “We Wish You a Happy Holiday.”

Like “Deck the Halls,” Williston Central School music teacher Kim Thompson said, the lyrics came that way from the publisher. For any changes to sheet music lyrics, she said, technically the publisher must grant written permission.

Haulenbeek said it makes sense the publisher changed “gay” to “bright” in “Deck the Halls” since “gay” is now more commonly used to describe a person’s sexual orientation.

Still, she said in her classroom last week, “I think they should have kept it. A reason we do a few of these traditional Christmas carols is because they’re traditional, they’re historical.”

“Deck the Halls” is a secular Christmas carol, the melody of which is thought to be of Welsh origin. Mozart used the tune in the 1700s for a violin and piano duet.

The lyrics’ origins are difficult to pin down, according to several Internet sources. The English lyrics generally used today were first published in 1881, but were in use earlier. Nonsense word repetition (“fa la la la la”) was a device common in the middle ages. But the lyrics also are reminiscent of songs of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Renaissance.

Haulenbeek selected this version of “Deck the Halls” because it included a partner song.

“It’s very hard to teach kids to sing harmony,” Haulenbeek explained. “Partner songs are good for fifth graders…. [They] learn to stay on their own part while hearing someone sing something different.”

The word change was not noted in the distributor’s catalog from which Haulenbeek ordered the sheet music.

Brian Busch, president and owner of BriLee Music, the publisher of the “Deck the Halls” piece, said “I’ve always told the writers ‘be careful; be careful what you put into print.’”

“A lot of teachers are very afraid now,” said Busch, whose company specializes in choral music for public middle schools. “They are very afraid of texts, of words, of double meanings, of what teachers might think, of what parents might think,” he continued.

Busch conceded that he had never heard any specific concerns from teachers or retailers that caused writers to remove the word “gay.” At the music conventions he attends each year, however, he talks about middle school choral music: “what is appropriate, what works, what gets rid of the double meaning of words where kids might take a certain sense of a text, and twist it around to something else,” he said.

And, Busch noted, as a “little bitty publisher in a great big pond,” finances are a factor.

“I can’t afford to have a piece of music sit on my shelf and not sell any,” said Busch. “I have to be sure that what I do is going to make it.”

David Circle, president for the National Association for Music Education, said that from a music teacher’s perspective, “we shouldn’t be separating the music from the text as it was originally intended.”

“If there are some words that the teacher needs to teach what the meaning is,” said Circle, “then that’s a teaching moment.”

Busch agrees: “Teachers should use the texts of songs number one to promote the language, promote poetry, promote literature, and promote an understanding of language,” he said. “Unfortunately I have the distinct feeling that too many teachers don’t do that.”

Busch said he struggles over these kinds of decisions. When asked if he would grant Williston Central School permission to change “bright” back to “gay” if they asked, he said “truthfully, I don’t care…I’d even write a letter saying (they) have permission.”

[Read more…]

Crematorium, natural burial grounds proposed for St. George

Unique project would accommodate do-it-yourself funerals

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town of St. George wants to attract development to 75 acres of land it owns. But is it ready for a one-of-a kind project that includes a crematorium and gives families a place to bury their loved ones without using a funeral home?

Lisa Carlson, a nationally recognized gadfly on the funeral industry and a Hinesburg resident, has proposed using roughly two-thirds of the land the tiny town owns in St. George Town Center to construct a garden park, crematorium and conference center. A nonprofit organization would be formed to manage the garden park, a natural area where bodies could be buried and ashes scattered.

Carlson’s business would operate the crematorium, leasing the facility to defray operating costs for the garden park. And a conference center would attract nonprofit organizations and perhaps provide space for civic functions.

Unusual proposal

She met with town officials last week to discuss her proposal. While not ruling out the idea, officials suggested it will take time to digest the details and decide if the unusual use is appropriate for a site that was intended for commercial development.

Tom Carlson, chairman of the St. George Selectboard and no relation to Lisa Carlson, said he is not squeamish about the prospect of his town hosting a crematorium. He is instead concerned about the project pushing out other potential uses.

“There needs to be a place for crematoriums in our world,” he said, adding that cremations and other alternatives to traditional burials are increasingly popular. “It’s the scale of the project that gives me pause.”

Marie Mastro, chairwoman of the Development Review Board, said the town first needs to complete an update of its Comprehensive Plan before considering such a major project.

“We told her cannot at this point decide to devote 50 acres of town-owned land to this project,” she said. “It’s such a significant part of the land we’re interested in developing.”

Lisa Carlson has not submitted formal plans for the proposal. Instead, she outlined how the facilities would work in a three-page letter to the town.

Her proposal suggests the town sell 50 acres to a nonprofit that would be formed to oversee the complex. Funding for the purchase could come from the Vermont Land Trust, which provides grants to keep land undeveloped. The town would use sale proceeds to pay for a road running through the land.

Residents would comprise the majority of the nonprofit’s governing board, which might also include a botanist or environmental planner.

The complex would include a garden park, a portion of which would be set aside for “natural” burials, which use a shroud or biodegradable casket to hold remains that are not embalmed. No tombstones or other monuments would be permitted. Instead, burials would be recorded using a global positioning device, and names of the deceased would be engraved on a small plaque placed on a “Wall of Remembrance.” Genealogical information would be posted on a Web site.

Carlson proposes to have the company she is forming lease about one acre of land for a crematorium and caretaker’s cottage. The lease would require the crematorium to pay as much as 40 percent of its proceeds as rent to the nonprofit, helping defray maintenance costs for the garden park.

The final part of the project would be a conference center. The facility, costing an estimated $1 million, could accommodate the many nonprofits doing business in Vermont and host civic groups and municipal functions. It would also generate revenue for the garden park’s upkeep.

Black sheep of the industry

Carlson said her goal is to provide low-cost burial services. Funeral home charges, which typically include a casket, burial vault and other fees, can range from $5,000 to $10,000. She figures the facility she proposes can offer cremations and natural burials for less than $1,000.

Though there are places to scatter ashes, Carlson said there is no public facility that allows both natural burials and cremations in Vermont, and few anywhere in the country. Truly low-cost burials are only available to rural residents, who under Vermont law can bury family members on their own land.

Carlson’s interest in the funeral industry began when her first husband, suffering from a chronic stomach ailment, committed suicide in 1981. She could not afford a full-service funeral or even a basic cremation through a funeral home. One mortician wanted to charge $700 for cremation.

She ended up buying a $60 cardboard casket and driving her husband’s body to a crematorium that charged $85.

Carlson vowed to learn more about the funeral industry and share what she found it with the public. She wrote a 640-page book titled “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love” that outlined funeral laws of all 50 states.

She later branched out into consumer advocacy. She was a board member and executive director of Funeral Consumer’s Alliance and wrote a second book, “I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch.” She is currently executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization.

“I’ve pretty much been the Ralph Nader of the funeral industry,” she said.

She said natural burials and do-it-yourself funerals are a logical extension of the natural childbirth and hospice movements. Though increasingly popular in Europe, natural burials are relatively uncommon in the U.S.

Carlson views funeral home services as a wasteful expenditure for families who are willing to handle their own arrangements. She thinks that even cremations, which comprise about 50 percent of Vermonters’ funeral arrangements, are too expensive, with prices from $1,200 to $2,400.

Carlson is taking a wait-and-see approach on her St. George proposal. In the meantime, she plans to complete plans to incorporate her new company. If St. George is unable to accommodate the project, she will consider other towns.

“It seems like an incredibly good fit for St. George,” she said. “In case it doesn’t work there, I’m sure I’ll do it somewhere else.”

[Read more…]

Cameras will track I-89 road conditions

State says devices won’t be used against motorists

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The state is installing cameras and other instruments on Interstate 89 that will monitor road conditions, allowing crews to quickly decide when and where to plow or apply salt.

The first set of monitoring devices will be placed atop 30-foot metal towers on Interstate 89 between Exit 12 and the Williston rest area, and in the town of Brookfield.

In addition to cameras, the system will include sensors that monitor temperature, moisture and wind. Sensors will also be buried in the pavement.

The data generated by the equipment will be relayed to district offices, allowing Agency of Transportation workers to instantly determine whether to apply salt or send snowplows.

Agency of Transportation spokesman Ian Grossman said motorists need not worry that Big Brother is watching them with the cameras.

“They give a broad angle shot will show traffic in the distance” he said. “They can’t pick out vehicles.”
The cameras cannot zoom or pan. Nor can they record video, Grossman said. Instead, they will record still images that will be updated every couple of minutes.

In fact, he said, the cameras are actually the least important part of the system. The sensors placed under the pavement and mounted on the towers will supply most of the data. “The cameras give a visual confirmation that what the sensors say makes sense,” Grossman said.

The purpose of the system is to save time, effort and money. Currently, road conditions are checked by agency employees who drive the roads. With the monitoring system in place, road conditions can by monitored remotely at district offices via the Internet.

Motorists will also be able access the data produced by the sensors on the Internet or by calling the 511 road information number.

The monitoring system will cost $1.5 million, 80 percent of which will be federally funded.

Over the next five to eight years, the remaining equipment will be installed. Eventually the system, called RWIS, or Roadway Weather Information System, will include 60 towers throughout the state.

The Williston and Brookfield locations were picked as sites to test the system because they represent two very different situations, Grossman said. The Williston site has some of the heaviest traffic in the state; the Brookfield site has especially challenging weather conditions.

Grossman said the Williston and Brookfield sensors should be operating by the end of December.

[Read more…]

Williston wins state spelling championship

Perseverance and practice paid off for a talented group of Williston middle school students as they s-p-e-l-l-e-d their way to victory at the annual Vermont State Spelling Competition on Saturday in Northfield.

The powerhouse team of fifth and sixth graders, who practiced every day after school for several weeks, faced tough competition from fellow regional winners including Green Street; Sherburne; and Derby elementary schools.

The Williston Central School team cast a spell over the competition, marching in unison to the stage in matching blue and gold shirts (the school’s colors) and khaki pants. Taking the lead early in the first round, the team managed to maintain it throughout the contest.

Williston’s biggest challenge came from Calais Elementary, who was just a bonus word away from taking the lead for much of the morning. It was a fight to the finish, but Williston beat out Calais by just 10 points in the “you could hear a pin drop” final round. Williston finished with a total score of 136 out of a possible 144 points.

After an enthusiastic round of applause, the new state champions crossed the stage to accept their medallions and trophy from Vermont Principals’ Association Director of Student Activities Bob Johnson.

The Williston spelling team members are Hannah Apfelbaum; Liam Kelley; Ellie Laukaitis; Greg Meyer; Sylvie Shanks; and Eva Theriault. Enrichment teachers Richard Allen and Betty Poirot got the team involved in the competition, with additional help from parent coaches.

The team’s achievement marks the highest level to which spelling teams can advance. Currently there are no regional or national competitions for teams. However, individuals can enter national competitions, such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The Vermont Principals' Association sponsors co-curricular activities such as the state spelling competition “that support academics and cultivate the high ideals of good citizenship and sportsmanship,” according to its Web site. Williston Central School Principal Thom Fleury is an active member of the association.

[Read more…]

Williston family adopts second Chinese daughter

By Ted Kenney
Special to the Observer

Editor’s note: Attorney and Williston Selectboard member Ted Kenney, his wife and his daughter, Ella, traveled to China recently to adopt their second Chinese baby girl. He sent in these posts, describing his experiences there.

We are hours away from meeting our second daughter, Julia Mei Faith Kenney, in the industrial city of Wuhan, China. My wife, Lucy Miller, our daughter, Ella, and Lucy's sister, Amy, and I, are a bit nervous. We've been through this before when we adopted Ella, and we try to affect the demeanor of grizzled veterans with the 20 other Americans who are in our group waiting for their daughters. I'm now a bit worried that I'm so calm; a number of more experienced parents have told me that they thought they knew how to parent until their second child came along and taught them all over again!

The prospective parents are a bit older in this group than in our first. At ages 38 and 40, Lucy and I are among the youngest couples this time. This might explain why the babies being adopted out are a little older. Julia will turn 1 on Nov. 15; Ella was 9 months old when we received her.

Many of us met each other on the flight from Newark International to Hong Kong. Ella had her third birthday in the Newark airport, with a goody from one of the restaurants and presents that her mother had wrapped and packed in our carry on luggage. After that, it was on to our 8,062 mile, 15 hour, non-stop flight to Hong Kong. As expected, the flight was even more trying with Ella. She couldn't settle down at night and I carried her around the plane for about an hour or so.  There was a significant "in flight emergency" when we could not find her new baby doll; we stood in the back galley area with the flight attendants and an exhausted, frustrated Ella cried for about a half hour. Other than that, and a super-sized meltdown in a Hong Kong traffic jam that was responsible for Ella missing her nap, our 3-year-old has been so well behaved that I fear we're giving a false sense of what parenting is to our travel companions.

The Wuhan streets are clean and crowded, but the air is dirty and you can smell a faint odor of unidentifiable pollution in the hazy air.  It was quite a decision whether to open the window of our hotel room and clear out the odor of cigarette smoke.  There are construction cranes and half-completed building everywhere, and it’s a bit of a fight to walk on the street. Lucy and I went to a store that was a combination of a Wal-Mart, a mall and a grocery store. There was only one cash register – on the third floor, not the ground floor – and we were yelled at in Chinese by a security guard when we tried to go out the wrong way to find the register. We didn't understand him, so he repeated himself, except this time very, very slowly. 

I made a note to myself never to do this (again) to a lost French Canadian tourist.

Julia is one of the thousands and thousands of abandoned Chinese girls this country generates each year.  China still has a "One Child Policy," where each family can only have one baby.  This policy combines with a strong cultural preference for sons, a need for boys for the non-mechanized peasant farming that sustains much of the population, creating a big incentive to abandon a daughter in the hopes that someone will take her to an orphanage. How vigorously it is enforced varies from province to province, with some areas not really enforcing it and some actually engaging in forced abortions. According to one book I read, there are approximately one million missing Chinese women of all ages due to a combination of infanticide, abandonment, and decisions to feed the boys instead of the girls during the famines of the 1950's.

Julia, like Ella, was found in a public place when she was three days old. 

She had a note on her (Ella did not) and we are going to try to get a copy of that note. She was transferred out of the local orphanage three days after being placed there and has been with the same foster family ever since.

The foster placement is extremely rare in China, and we are very grateful that she has been cared for in a more intimate setting. We have been told that we will not be allowed to meet the foster parents. My experience in Vermont Family Court when I had a juvenile defender contract tells me that this is probably for the best for all involved; I've seen some pretty ugly emergency custody transfers where children go into state custody. We wanted to give a gift to the foster parents and will try to do so through the orphanage director.

We received a final update about Julia yesterday. It says that she has formula three times a day, and is already eating some foods like mashed boiled egg, rice porridge, fish and tofu. She is said to get up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. The Chinese start toilet training very early, and the report says that she is partially trained already! (I'll believe it when I see it.)

I am filled with anticipation. Like in a pregnancy, Lucy and I feel bonded to this daughter already, and we are anxious to begin loving her in our arms instead of from afar.

Dateline Wuhan, China:

On Wednesday morning, our group assembled in a bar at the White Rose Hotel called the "Wonderland Nightclub." The babies would be brought to us in an hour.

The babies were brought to the bar's dance floor by orphanage personnel. The second baby in line had started crying when handed to her new parents; all of the other babies immediately joined her. We received Julia about 2/3 of the way through the role call of adoptive families, crying and scared and a little wild-eyed in the chaos of camera flashes, happy parents and crying babies.

She cried for about 45 minutes while we tried to comfort her. She simply would not go to others, including Lucy, or let me even put her down. Other than when Julia was asleep, or when Lucy took her so I could use the bathroom, I was in physical contact/carrying Julia for a day and a half.

Some said she acted this way because I was the first one to hold Julia. Our interpreter thought it was because I looked Chinese. While I've always thought people with a combined French Canadian and Irish heritage have interesting looks, I had never considered us to look particularly Asian. Maybe to an 11-month-old girl from Wuhan, we do.

At Ella's naptime, I took Julia for a walk. The street lights are broken in front of our hotel and it’s a six lane city street with traffic swooping off a rotary. (If people think the rotary at Maple Tree Place is bad, they should see this!) With no traffic controls, the Chinese literally just walk out into screaming-fast traffic and make the cars stop. I cannot express how terrifying it is to cross this street. Wuhan is a city of 8.4 million people, and it felt like ALL of them were driving and walking through that intersection with no rules. Crossing it was like playing a videogame – with human beings.

That night, Lucy and I tried to relax and regroup. We noticed that, after sleeping, and if I was not in view, Julia was fine with Lucy. We decided that I would leave the room the next morning before Julia woke up.

It worked. Julia spent the day with Lucy, and by late afternoon we were all together with no frantic lurching by Julia toward me. It turns out that we have a very happy, curious little girl. She can pull herself to a stand and can walk/"coast" by holding on to your hand or furniture. She smiles a lot and makes great eye contact. It’s obvious that she has been well cared for.

The next day, we went to a Chinese department store. We looked for baby clothes. To buy something, you have to take it to a clerk – there's one every four clothing racks or so – and have her write out a receipt. You then take the receipt to a cashier and pay for the item. The cashier stamps the receipt, indicating that you have paid, and gives you an empty shopping bag. You take the "Paid" receipt to the clerk again – she gives you your new baby socks and you put them in your bag, fighting the headache the process has given you.

While on the tour bus to the store, our interpreter apologized for an "incident" that had occurred. It turns out that two couples in our group were tracked down by the foster mothers of their children. In separate incidents, these women had approached the adoptive parents carrying pictures of the babies and attempted to hold or possibly take the children. I felt a great mix of emotions about this. I can only imagine taking care of a baby and then letting her go. On the other hand, I would not want Julia to have any emotional disturbances after the first two days.

Today we are going on a tour of a park on the Yangtze River. The Yangtze is a HUGE river – I saw ocean-going container ships on it – that is more important to the Chinese than the Mississippi River is to the United States.

As interesting as all of this is, I am anxious to get home with my family.

[Read more…]

Williston expert

Lifelong seamstress makes lap rugs for charity

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Last year, 87-year-old Williston resident Betty Gomnes crocheted 28 lap rugs, and this year she is trying to beat that record with 30 rugs. Gomnes’ has been crocheting the lap rugs – which she donates to charity – during the holiday season for the past two years.

“I figured it would be for some people that are alone, like an institutionalized patient, who perhaps has no family,” Gomnes said from her home in Williston Woods. “This is why I chose that time of year to do it: to give them something to be cheered up for.”

For the last two years, Gomnes has donated her craftwork to The Vermont Respite House on Allen Brook Lane; Hope Lodge of the American Cancer Society in Burlington; and Burlington Health and Rehabilitation Center.

Gomnes does not look for accolades for her time-consuming work; she estimates each rug takes eight hours to make. When she drops off her rugs, Gomnes said, “they don’t even know who I am. They just say ‘thank you.’”

Gomnes learned how to crochet three years ago, though she has decades of needlework experience.

“Mother was always a sewer,” said Gomnes’ daughter, Dianne Shullenberger. “I remember her making quilts from old clothes of mine, and she made my clothes. I just sort of thought all my friends’ moms would sew and make clothes and things until I was old enough to realize that my mom was unique,” the Jericho resident said.

Gomnes said she started sewing about the time she was in sixth grade. She told her mother she wanted to make a dress.

“She said, ‘Honey, you don’t know how to sew,’ and I said, ‘yes, I do,’” Gomnes said.

“She bought me some material. I laid the material on the floor and took a pair of scissors and started to cut. Well, the expression on her face was – I could see it yet to this day,” Gomnes says, laughing. Typically a beginning sewer might carefully trace what they intend to cut, but not Gomnes.

“I had envisioned what I wanted to make, you see,” Gomnes said. “That was the beginning of my sewing.”

Gomnes was born in Edinburgh, Indiana, in 1918. Involvement in 4-H was a meaningful part of her early years, she said, which included winning the grand championship in the sewing division at the Indiana State Fair for a dress that cost her $2.18 to make. Upon graduating from high school, she attended the Pratt Institute in New York City, where she majored in fashion design. She then became a model, and recalled doing a photo shoot for department store chain Montgomery Ward, where she had to wear a fur coat in mid-summer.

“It’s a very glamorous job when you’re young, but believe me you work hard,” she said of modeling.

In 1939 and 1940, she drove vehicles for Ford Motor Co., escorting international dignitaries who were visiting the New York World’s Fair. After moving back to Indiana, she served on the sales force for a fabric gallery. She moved to Vermont in 1987 to be closer to Shullenberger, her only child. Gomnes has two grandchildren and is a recent great-grandmother.

Nancy Davis, an Underhill resident, notes that Gomnes finds many ways besides lap rugs to contribute to the community.

Davis’ mother, Inez Watts, and Gomnes “were like two peas in a pod, always game to take off and do whatever,” Davis said. Before Davis’ mother passed away a year ago, Watts and Gomnes would look for bargains at discount stores like Mr. G’s Liquidation Center, and many of those items would go to charity – whether a food shelf or a Somali Bantu refugee family who had recently moved to the area.

“She’s always thinking of other people that don’t have enough,” Davis said.

A couch in Gomnes’ sewing room is filled with another pet project – several dozen salvaged dolls and toys. For the past eight years, Gomnes has cleaned toys she finds, makes clothes for dolls, and donates everything to Toys for Tots.

Davis said that Gomnes is “a wonderful, caring, loving person” who “gives with no expectations of having anything given back to her.”

Davis, Shullenberger, and a number of their friends from Mountain Mamas, a group of women who pursue outdoor activities together, threw a surprise birthday party for Gomnes at the 1820 Coffee House in Essex Junction last year. The women, who have adopted Gomnes into their group, gave her yarn instead of gifts so she can continue her lap rug work.

“She’s just a very, very special friend to many of us whose moms have passed away or whose moms live away from here,” Davis said.

[Read more…]

Volunteers build goodwill at Respite House

Elfuns’ use grant money to construct new patio

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Vermont Respite House has a new patio, thanks to the hard work of volunteers from the GE Elfun Community Foundation.

The Elfuns, also known as the GE Volunteers, are a group of retired General Electric Co. workers in the greater Burlington area. The group tries to do one large community service project a year, said Ed Finkbeiner, vice president of the Burlington chapter. They must apply for money for projects through the Elfun Community Foundation. This year the group asked for $7,000 for renovations to the Respite House, and they received it.

“You have to have a lot of personal involvement,” Finkbeiner said. “You’ve got to have some sweat equity into it otherwise they won’t give us the money.”

And sweat they did. The volunteers worked for several days constructing the shelves, gutter downspouts and the patio itself. Four Seasons Garden Center, Gregory Supply and contractor Forrest White also helped with construction and planting of greenery around the patio, Keegan said. The volunteers also moved a pergula, or trellis into place.

The new patio looks out over a garden in the inner courtyard, Keegan said. “It was just grass before,” she said. “This creates a whole other place for residents and their families to be together.”

The patio project is part of a larger overall plan, designed by Respite House volunteer and Williston resident Mary Jo Childs. In January, Elfun member Norb Crouchley approached the director of Vermont Respite house, Sharon Keegan, asking if there were any projects she needed done. Keegan told Crouchley about the plan, which involved shelving in the garage, a gutter system and the patio.

“It was a beautiful coming together of community to care for the Respite House and to fulfill some of these special projects that enhance the lives of our residents,” Keegan said.

Keegan said the residents at the Respite House enjoyed seeing people being active and were grateful to the volunteers.

“They said it was beautiful and very special, and would really look forward to sitting out there,” Keegan said. “All we need is another climate.”

Keegan hinted that there are still more elements to the overall plan that have yet to be completed. She said they are looking to build a side courtyard patio, and need help with the stonework, and building a small waterfall.

Finkbeiner did not know what the group’s next project was going to be.

“ We’re going through the process now of developing our request for next year,” he said. “It could be anywhere in Chittenden County.”

The Elfun Community Foundation was founded in 1928 as a way for GE stockholders to keep an eye on the company and to make suggestions regarding GE’s future. The name is an abbreviation for “electrical funds.” In the 1980s, the organization began to focus more on community service and volunteerism. Now the organization boasts members in more than 40 countries and they perform more than 1,100 volunteer projects each year, according to the organization’s Web site. GE has not been in Burlington since 1993, but many former GE workers stayed connected to the Elfuns. Finkbeiner said there are about 113 members who are active in the Chittenden County area.

ounded in 1991, the Vermont Respite House is the only state-licensed home for the terminally ill in Vermont. It is run by the Visiting Nurses Association.

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Town seeks solution for clogged corner

Is roundabout in offing for Route 2 intersection?

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

For an hour or so most weekdays, the usually mellow stretch of U.S. Route 2 through Williston Village turns into a traffic-choked artery.

Eastbound traffic sometimes backs up a mile or more from the thoroughfare’s intersection with Oak Hill and North Williston roads. The cause: a four-way stop sign that can’t handle the crush of cars during the afternoon commute.

The problem has caught the attention of both town officials and residents. Residents have voiced a steady stream of complaints to the town, said Public Works Director Neil Boyden. He asked the state to reconsider the current arrangement and conduct a traffic study.

Now it appears a signal light or a roundabout will eventually be installed to smooth the traffic flow. State, local and regional officials will meet in coming weeks to discuss changes to the intersection.

Meanwhile, motorists wait, sometimes none too patiently.

“We get a lot of honked horns and screeching tires,” said Shayna Fontaine, a cashier at Korner Kwik Stop, which is located at the intersection. "I personally have had a few close calls myself."

An August traffic study by the state Agency of Transportation paints a vivid picture of a dysfunctional intersection. The agency was unable to accurately measure the congestion because there were too many vehicles to count.

“We found the queue so long that we could not see from one end to the other,” wrote Maureen Carr, a traffic analysis engineer for the state, in correspondence to the town.

In an interview, Carr said a mechanical count showed an average of 11,400 vehicles a day traveled the stretch of Route 2 from Taft Corners to the Oak Hill Road / North Williston Road intersection. That works out to 475 vehicles an hour.

Not surprisingly, there was far more traffic during the rush hour. The count showed an average of 866 vehicles on that stretch of Route 2 between 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Of those, the majority — 525 vehicles — were headed east.

The numbers confirm what is apparent to the casual observer: Traffic flows well most of the day, but the four-way stop is consistently overwhelmed on weekday afternoons by motorists heading east out of town, and occasionally in the morning by those going west into Williston.

The four-way stop has served its intended purpose of reducing waiting time and increasing safety for motorists traveling north and south through the intersection, said Dick Hosking, district transportation administrator for the Agency of Transportation. But he notes that four-way stops cannot handle a large volume of traffic traveling along a major thoroughfare like Route 2.

The signs were considered a temporary solution when they were installed almost four years ago. At the time, IBM had filed an application with the town to expand its facility off Redmond Road, and the town wanted the computer company to pay for traffic improvements at the Route 2 intersection and at the corner of Vermont Route 2A and Industrial Avenue to accommodate the increased traffic. But IBM later shelved the expansion plan and instead laid off hundreds of employees.

Before the current arrangement, there was no stop sign at the intersection on Route 2. Instead there was a two-way stop that halted motorists on Oak Hill and North Williston roads. But that produced long waits for northbound and southbound motorists and presented a safety hazard as they tried to squeeze in among the cars zooming by on Route 2.

During an August 2001 Selectboard meeting, town officials said a 25-second delay on Route 2 would be an acceptable trade-off for limiting backups on North Williston and Oak Hill roads. Eastbound motorists now sometimes spend 10 minutes in stop-and-go traffic to reach the intersection.

State transportation officials suggested at the time that a traffic signal was the best solution. But some residents, particularly those living nearby, opposed the idea, saying the light would mar the historic and quaint nature of the village.

The Selectboard narrowly rejected the signal light by a 3-2 margin. The board has since endorsed a roundabout for the intersection, Boyden said.

Hosking said that option may indeed be the most efficient way to handle traffic. But he warned that a roundabout would likely be more expensive than the $300,000 to $400,000 cost of a signal light. A roundabout would require buying right of way, which could include a portion of the land now occupied by Korner Kwik Stop and Williston Federated Church.

Meanwhile, the recent traffic study concluded that the intersection easily met the standard for installing a traffic light.

No matter what option is chosen or who pays, it will likely take a year or more to make changes. If a signal light is picked, the state has a long list of intersections with worse problems, Hosking said, although the town could shorten the wait by using municipal funds. A roundabout would likely take even longer because of the land acquisition issue and engineering challenges.

“From a practical standpoint, a signal makes a lot of sense,” Hosking said.

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Town invokes rarely used power to secure land

Selectboard OKs eminent domain if negotiations fail

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard on Monday invoked the power of eminent domain – the constitutional authority of government to take control of land without the consent of its owner – for the first time in more than 20 years.

“This is not a frivolous motion,” Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons said. “The Selectboard is very concerned about having to do this. But it is something we need to do to ensure access to the public safety building.”

The small, wedge-shaped piece of land in question is on the east side of Talcott Road, and is a key access point to the town’s proposed new fire station. The town needs the land in order to gain approval for the fire station from the Development Review Board, which scheduled to meet Nov. 22. Approval would be impossible if the DRB was not convinced that the town would gain control of the land one way or another.

“The project fails without this piece,” Selectman Andy Mikell said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said the town has been in negotiations for the piece of land, currently owned by the Taft Farms Village Condominium Association, since June, but no deal has been reached.

The Selectboard initiated the process of condemnation, which refers to the town exercising its authority of eminent domain, after meeting in executive session for about 10 minutes at the end of Monday night’s meeting. Eminent domain is rarely used, and has not been employed by the town since the sewer system was installed more than 20 years ago, McGuire said.

However, McGuire stressed that negotiations for the land were ongoing, and were continuing in good faith.

The condo association’s property manager, Scott Michaud, said he expects the association’s board of directors will approve the sale sometime in the next week, and the condemnation process will not be necessary.

“It looks like we are going to sell the land to the town,” Michaud said. “It doesn’t look like it will be any issue whatsoever.”

The piece of land is a triangular parcel with an area of less than 2/10 of an acre. The land’s borders are Talcott Road to the west, the Allen Brook to the north and the tip of the triangle touches U.S. Route 2 to the south. To the east is the parcel of land on which the town hopes to construct a new firehouse.

Eminent domain is a power guaranteed to the federal government and to each state by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. States must demonstrate that the land is needed for “public use,” and the government must provide “just compensation” to the owner.

The Vermont State Statute specifically addresses the process of eminent domain in Title 24, Chapter 57, Section 1952, which says: “A town, city or incorporated village may acquire real property for purposes of a fire house or fire station by exercise of the right of eminent domain…”

If eminent domain is exercised, the town would have to go to court, declare that ownership of the land is a public necessity, and pay the owner fair market value. But board members hope the process will not reach that point.

“We are all hoping the negotiations bear fruit,” Selectman Jeff Fehrs said.

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