October 24, 2014

Williston picks House incumbents

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Town charter changes approved

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

As Assistant Town Clerk Kathy Smardon posted the results of Tuesday’s election outside the Williston Central School gymnasium, a small group huddled around to read them.

“Oh, wow. Mary, congratulations,” challenger Mike Quaid said to Rep. Mary Peterson, hunched over next to him reading numbers. “You and Jim are going back.”

Williston voters on Tuesday decided for the third time to send Democrats Mary Peterson and Jim McCullough to Montpelier to represent them in the House of Representatives.

“I think Jim and I both worked really hard and we were getting a really positive response and had a lot of help along the way,” Peterson said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do now, roll up our sleeves and get started.”

Peterson led the candidates with 2,621 votes, followed by McCullough with 2,442. Williston Town Clerk and Republican Deb Beckett, in her first race for a state position, garnered 1,655 votes. Quaid, a Republican who served as Williston’s representative from 1998 to 2002, earned 1,441 votes.

In 2002, the year in which McCullough and Peterson first won their seats, Peterson also led the pack – only 223 votes ahead of Quaid, then the incumbent. In 2004, McCullough and Peterson were re-elected by a 2-1 margin against Republican challenger Shelley Palmer. That year McCullough garnered the most votes.

Quaid said he was surprised by the big differential in this year’s results.

“From the feeling we were getting from the people and the general makeup at the top of the ballot, I thought it would be a lot closer than it was,” Quaid said.

Beckett said she would have preferred to come out in one of the top two spots.

But, she added “it would have been a whole lot worse if there was no choice for voters.” She said she was pleased with the good voter turnout.

About 65 percent of Williston’s registered voters turned out for Tuesday’s election – compared to 63 percent 4 years ago, the last non-presidential election year.

Local ballot items proposing three amendments to Williston’s town charter all passed by hefty margins.

The first change, authorizing a local options tax, would be used only in the event state law allowing the tax is repealed, or if the 70 percent of the money currently allocated to the town is reduced. The local options tax generated roughly $2.8 million for Williston last year.

The second item changes the Cemetery Commission and the Old Brick Church Trustees from elected to appointed boards; it also eliminates positions, such as a surveyor of wood and timber and a weigher of coal, that have not been needed for years.

The final item allows the town to create employment agreements with police and fire chiefs, allowing the town to dismiss an employee not meeting expectations.

Williston’s vote tallies could have been used to accurately forecast the winners in all but two state and national races.

Williston resident Martha Rain-
ville, running for U.S. House of Representatives, narrowly won her hometown, but lost statewide to Democrat Peter Welch. The race for state auditor was still too close to call, according to various media outlets, as of Wednesday morning.

Like the rest of Vermont, Independent Bernie Sanders raced ahead of Republican Rich Tarrant for the open U.S. Senate seat.

Splitting some tickets, Williston and Vermont voters supported Republican incumbents Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie. In other statewide races, Democrats handily won: Deb Markowitz was re-elected as Secretary of State and Bill Sorrell was re-elected as Attorney General. State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding also was re-elected.

For Vermont Senate, Democrats Jim Condos, Ed Flanagan, Ginny Lyons, Hinda Miller and Doug Racine, and Republican Diane Snelling received the top votes. Lyons, a Williston resident, said she was pleased with the strong support she got among Williston voters.

Democrat T. J. Donovan will be the new State’s Attorney for Chitten
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Study links IBM manufacturing to cancer deaths

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IBM says study is flawed

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Workers in the computer manufacturing industry are at greater risk of death due to cancer, according to a recently published study – a claim disputed by International Business Machines Corp., the source of the data used for the study.

Published Oct. 19 in the journal “Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source,” the study was based on 31,941 IBM employees who died between 1969 and 2001 and had worked at least five years. Subgroups of workers at plants in Vermont, New York, Minnesota and California also were analyzed. Boston University environmental health professor Richard Clapp authored the study.

The study found higher levels of deaths from cancers of the brain, central nervous system, kidney, skin and pancreas among male manufacturing workers. Among women working in manufacturing, the numbers of deaths from kidney cancer and cancer of lymph and blood cell tissue were elevated, the study says.

Clapp said in an interview that though the written study does not detail plant-specific data, his analysis found that workers at the Essex Junction, Vt., plant showed elevated levels of brain cancer. About 2,000 employees currently work in manufacturing at that plant, according to an IBM spokesman.

Clapp said the study is not “conclusive proof” that there is a connection between the chemicals used in chip processing and increased rates of death from cancer among computer manufacturing workers.

“We can’t say exactly what it is that might be causing excess deaths,” Clapp said. “We don’t know about individual chemicals. We can’t isolate out solvents… But it’s more evidence.”

Clapp’s work indicates that the few studies that do exist about workers in computer and semiconductor manufacturing showed excesses of certain cancers, but that the study samples were small. Clapp’s analysis, however, is based on the largest database of its kind available to date, according to the study.

Earl Mongeon, who works in manufacturing at IBM’s Essex Junction plant, said he is not surprised by the study’s assertion that manufacturing workers exposed to solvents and other chemicals are at higher risk for cancer.

“The stuff we work with at IBM is pretty nasty,” said Mongeon, who is vice president of IBM’s workers’ union. “I used to hand-dip the stuff in the acid tanks.”

Mongeon said substances used include sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen peroxide, ammonium hydroxide, and gases from arsenic. Mongeon has worked at IBM for 28 years.

IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind said he could not respond to questions about Clapp’s study beyond a written statement produced by the company. The statement says the study is “based on flawed methodology and woefully incomplete data.”

The basis of the study is what is known as IBM’s “corporate mortality file,” data on IBM employees who died between 1969 and 2001 and who qualified for pension and death benefits.

IBM was required to produce the data for analysis as part of a lawsuit. Workers in California sued IBM, alleging manufacturing conditions led to cancer. The data on which Clapp’s study was based ultimately was not allowed as evidence in the trial. IBM won the case.

Clapp acknowledges in the study that the plaintiffs’ attorneys obtained the raw data from IBM, and that he was paid to review it. He says it does not affect how the data was analyzed, however.

“The law firm did not design or conduct the study, nor review or approve the manuscript,” Clapp wrote in the study. “The author received no remuneration for the preparation of this manuscript.”

IBM initiated its own lawsuit to prevent publication of Clapp’s study, but lost.

Clapp disagrees with IBM’s assertions that the study’s data is incomplete and the methodology flawed. Clapp said the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, meaning professionals in his field reviewed and required changes to the article prior to its publication.

One of the reviewers was Robert Herrick, a co-author of a previous IBM commissioned study on cancer rates. Herrick’s pre-publication comments say “in general I think this is a very interesting manuscript that is a well-written presentation of an important set of findings.” Herrick required a number of changes to the manuscript prior to its publication.

IBM also said in its statement that a study of IBM plants by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Harvard University (the latter conducted by Herrick) found among its workers overall lower mortality rates and a lower risk of cancer than the general population. A review of those studies published by “Occupational Health and Safety,” a national magazine, indicates employees in certain work groups were at elevated risk of specific cancers, however.

Clapp, who worked for nine years as the director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry, said the reason for his research is simple.

“My goal in all of this as a public health research person is to figure out a way to prevent unnecessary deaths,” he said.

[Read more...]

Essex church seeks sanctuary in Williston

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Plans call for 168,000-square-foot building

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A local church wants to construct a new facility in Williston that could hold 1,500 worshippers in a building bigger than a big-box store.

Essex Alliance Church has filed plans with the town for a 168,000-square-foot structure on Vermont Route 2A. It would be located north of Taft Corners, near the Meadow Run subdivision.

The new church would house a sanctuary, administrative offices and other facilities, as well as parking for 611 vehicles. Plans also call for 10 duplex units that could house church staff or guests.

More than 2,000 people consider Essex Alliance to be their church, said the Rev. Scott Slocum, the church’s lead pastor. The current facility on Old Stage Road in Essex only holds about 500 people. The church also conducts Sunday services at Essex Outlets Cinema to accommodate more people.

“We have become pretty adept at utilizing space,” Slocum said. “But the bottom line is we believe we have a lot a people who want to come, but they can’t. We turn people away every week.”

The new church would be almost 50 percent bigger than Wal-Mart’s 114,000-square-foot store in Williston.

The building is designed to be big enough to serve the Essex Alliance’s needs for decades to come, Slocum said.

“We really don’t just want to build a church for today,” he said. “We want to think about future generations.”

Essex Alliance is almost large enough to be called a “megachurch,” which is defined as a church that has at least 2,000 people attending regular weekly services. Beyond their size, such churches also stand apart from traditional houses of worship because they offer amenities such as gyms, arcades and even food courts.

But Slocum said megachurches have little in common with Essex Alliance. He said his church does not aim to be the biggest. It simply wants to minister to its congregation’s spiritual needs.

Slocum acknowledged that some people are wary of Essex Alliance’s relatively large size and services. But he said what is important is that people feel comfortable and welcomed and noted that Essex Alliance only seems big because most churches in the state are small.

“We’re only a megachurch by Vermont standards,” he said.

Essex Alliance has 250 people who have taken the classes required to become a formal member of the church. Many more, however, consider it their home church, Slocum said, with more than 2,000 people listed in the church’s membership directory.

An average of 1,400 people attend Sunday services, Slocum said. That number rises to about 1,800 for Easter and Christmas. The new church’s sanctuary – Slocum also calls it an auditorium – would hold between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

He attributed Essex Alliance’s popularity to its efforts to be relevant to members’ daily lives. For example, he recently gave a series of sermons titled “Power, Money and Sex.”

“What we are trying to say is that God has answers that make sense, that the Bible has answers that make sense in today’s world,” he said.

Essex Alliance Church is noteworthy for its informal Sunday services. The church’s Web site invites people to wear whatever they wish to services, whether it’s blue jeans or a suit. Those attending the cinema services are urged to pick up a cup of coffee to drink during the sermon.

“We work hard to make sure your experience at Essex Alliance is relevant, welcoming and not pushy,” the church’s Web site said. “Our services feature contemporary music with a live band and occasional dramas or multi-media presentations that introduce the theme of each message.”

Essex Alliance Church was formed 40 years ago, initially conducting services in a school before moving to its current site in 1972, according to Slocum.

It is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical Protestant denomination with national offices in Colorado Springs, Colo. Essex Alliance is one of three Alliance churches in Chittenden County; the others are in Hinesburg and on North Avenue in Burlington.

Slocum said the new church could include recreational fields, a gymnasium, church offices and spaces to accommodate the church’s many activities for teens, adults and seniors.

Slocum said Essex Alliance also has been forced to turn away participants from some of its more popular groups and activities, so the roomier Williston church would also help meet those space demands.

But the new church will not include a school. Slocum said schools tend to set the agenda for churches and restrict the availability of space for both church and community groups. He also feels religious schools distance churches from their communities by taking students out of the public school system.

A housing development called Brandywine was originally planned at the 50-acre site where the church would be located. The project received the town’s approval, but was unable to secure an Act 250 state land-use permit, according to D.K. Johnston, Williston’s zoning administrator.

Plans for the new church have yet to receive even an initial review by the town. The Development Review Board would have to approve the project before anything can be constructed.

The proposal may face opposition from nearby residents who have long complained about the growing traffic congestion along Route 2A, which the church could worsen.

Slocum emphasized that Essex Alliance wants to listen to Williston residents’ thoughts about the facility. He said the church is eager to fit in with the community.

“We are willing to answer any question, and we are an open book,” he said. “It’s the same approach we’ve had for 40 years in Essex. We’re very sensitive to the community."

[Read more...]

Local farm crops dinged by wet summer

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Most local farm crops have taken a hit in quantity and quality this year, according to several Williston dairy farmers.

With fall harvests nearly complete, farmers say it’s clear the wet spring and summer negatively affected the crops they need to feed their cows this winter.

North Williston Cattle Co. yields are down 10 to 15 percent, according to Mary Whitcomb, wife of Lorenzo Whitcomb, the farm’s co-owner. Quality, however, is fine, she said. Conant’s Riverside Farm only harvested 65 percent of the corn they expected, and 85 percent of the hay, according to co-owner Kim Conant. Quality, he added, is “pretty decent.”

“We’re going to have enough (feed for the cows), but it’s going to be a lot closer than what we’d like to be,” Conant said. “We’re going to have to cut into our reserve that we carry over for situations like this.”

Mike Fontaine, who owns a farm on North Williston Road, said he has enough bailed hay, but is about 25 percent short on corn and chopped hay. He said he is hoping he’ll have enough feed to last the winter. If he doesn’t, he may have to consider unloading some cows.

“We’ll get by,” he said. “We’ll feed them rocks,” he joked, nodding his head in the direction of a big pile of them.

The quality of Fontaine’s crops has suffered, he said. He likes to see hay with a protein content of 20 to 22 percent, he said; recent tests show his chopped hay at 16 percent.

Farmers cut crops like hay multiple times during the summer so the hay continues growing. Wet weather and muddy fields make it hard to harvest; if hay stays in the field past its maturity, many of its nutrients are lost into the soil.

“That means (the cows) are not going to produce the milk that they should be,” said Michael Bruce, a dairy farmer on Oak Hill Road.

This year he said he’s already seeing that. Normally each of his cows produces 40 pounds of milk a day, Bruce said. Currently they’re yielding an average of 37.

“If it’s three pounds a cow (a day), it can add up pretty fast,” Bruce said. “That’s less money.”

To offset the loss in protein, both Bruce and Fontaine said they’ll need to buy higher-quality, more expensive grains than usual.

All of the farms received some grant money from the state government in the last five months. Early in the summer, the governor and legislators announced an $8.9 million emergency relief package, most of it targeting dairy farmers.

None of the four farms have pursued the federal low-interest loans made available after the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated Vermont a primary natural disaster area in June. Fontaine said he’s exploring that option this week.

Conant said that though the price of fuel has come down, it wasn’t early enough to affect the cropping season. Milk price predictions for winter, he said, are still lower than what it takes to produce the milk in Vermont.

Fontaine agreed.

“The price of milk still sucks,” he said. “That’s been the biggest kicker for us.”

[Read more...]

Town receives Homeland Security grant

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Grant would pay for six more firefighters

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Williston has received Vermont’s first-ever federal grant for the purpose of hiring six full time firefighters over at least the next five years, according to officials.

The SAFER grant, which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, totals $621,000. The grant is given in increments each year for five years with the assumption that the town will eventually take over the cost of the firefighters’ salaries. The grants are awarded to fire departments around the country “to help them increase the number of frontline firefighters with a goal of ultimately attaining 24-hour staffing, thus assuring the community has adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards,” according to the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program Web site. The SAFER program began in 2004 and is part of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program and is under the purview of the Office of Grants and Training of the Department of Homeland Security, according to the site.

Town Manager Rick McGuire announced the grant at Monday’s Selectboard meeting as he was discussing the draft capital budget for fiscal year 2008. One of the capital projects proposed is an ambulance for Williston, which Fire Chief Ken Morton has long advocated. McGuire said a study on the feasibility of an ambulance service would be conducted soon. If the Selectboard decides to move forward with the grant, the ambulance service would be voted on at Town Meeting.

“Look at the numbers and the follow-up study … and make a decision on whether or not it’s something you want to put before the townspeople for a vote,” McGuire advised the board.

“This is big for Williston,” said Fire Chief Ken Morton after the meeting. “We really have to take a serious look at this because not to would be a huge mistake.”

Morton said with the revenue generated from an ambulance service, “we can pay for six full-time employees for 10 years at little or no cost.”

Including Vermont, 36 states received the awards. Morton said it is the first time a Vermont town has won the award.

CAPITAL BUDGET

The draft capital budget outlines the long-term physical development of the town for the next six years. In the latest version, McGuire laid out plans for new parks, renovations to Town Hall, a police chief’s car, numerous road and sidewalk improvements, and even the long-anticipated community center.

“It’s a project that’s been talked about around the community for quite some time,” McGuire said of the center.

He said that Williston residents Carroll and Joanne Lawes have expressed an interest in raising funds to help build the center. McGuire discussed creating a Community Center Task Force to assess the need and cost estimates for building it. He stressed that the majority of the funding for the center would come from sources other than the town.

“Whether this project ever moves forward or not depends on the success of the fundraising,” McGuire said.

LANDFILL UPDATE

McGuire also offered a brief update on the proposed regional landfill. He said the town is planning a meeting with the Chittenden Solid Waste District to discuss a potential buyout of the Host Town Agreement, which requires the town to support the landfill. The town has received several million dollars from the District since the agreement was signed in 1992. That meeting will take place Nov. 20, McGuire said.

McGuire also shared the contents of a letter from attorney Paul Gillies regarding the legality of condemning land that has already been condemned. At a previous meeting, a resident asked if it were possible for the town to claim eminent domain on the land already claimed by the District (which is technically its own municipality) for the landfill. Gillies investigated the possibility, but concluded that it was not a viable option.

“I fear there is no legal authority for one government to take land belonging to another government,” Gillies wrote.

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Local Veterans remember

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The plane was on fire.

High over enemy territory, surrounded by Allied bomber planes, American pilot J. Francis Angier had no control over the starboard engines.

German artillery had just hit the B-17 bomber. His crew could not extinguish the fire. The right wing suffered a gaping hole.

After hitting the “bail out” bell, Angier watched the third engine and right landing gear fall away from the plane. Debris struck the face of one sergeant as he bailed out.

Hoping the other nine crewmen had already jumped, Angier tried to steer the plane away from the rest of the squadron. He lost all control.

The plane exploded. Angier, 21, was knocked unconscious. His body began to plummet toward the ground.

That was Oct. 25, 1944. Now 83, Angier shares his war experiences through talks and his book, “Ready or Not: Into the Wild Blue.” The autobiography details how his early life experiences prepared him for, and helped him survive, his World War II service.

Angier is one of roughly 800 veterans living in Williston, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.

Nov. 11, this Saturday, is Veteran’s Day, a state and federal holiday honoring the men and women who have served the nation, in and out of combat. There are hundreds of stories about Williston veterans. Here are three.

Blazing trails

Growing up on a farm in Hawaii, Ruth Dean had no intention of being the wife and mother she was expected to be.

“I wanted to see the world. I wanted to do things I had never done before,” Dean, 63, said.

College was her goal, but poverty was a barrier. In November 1961, at 18, Dean made a decision that would estrange her from her father for years: She joined the U.S. Women’s Army Corps. Thirty-one years later, she retired with the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Army National Guard.

Like 29 percent of Williston veterans, Dean served in the Vietnam War. She intercepted enemy radio communications and processed records as troops went to hospitals or were discharged.

After the war, Dean sought a civilian job in San Francisco, hoping that would put her on track to college. Not long after, she was in the Army reserves, and then on active duty again. In 1971 the Army National Guard, which did not enlist women until the late 1960s, asked her to become its national female recruiting coordinator.

For four years, Dean traveled the country speaking at universities and high schools, state fairs and women’s expos, boosting the Guard’s female force.

After moving to Williston in 1975, Dean joined the Vermont Army National Guard. Two years later, she became the first woman to attend the U.S. Army Sergeant Majors Academy, the highest military school for senior non-commissioned officers.

“I hated most of the time I was there,” the soft-spoken Dean said. “I was the only female.”

An outcast among her classmates, and kept at arm’s length by faculty who feared they’d be seen as favoring her, Dean persisted. She learned battlefield maneuverings and military planning she’d never personally witnessed since women were not allowed in combat. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class of 335.

Eight years after graduation, Dean became the country’s first female Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army National Guard; she oversaw troops at the Camp Ethan Allen training site in Jericho.

“I really believe that I was qualified to have been promoted sooner,” Dean said, “but I think that most of the commanders were afraid…because they were not sure whether the men would accept that and follow a leader that was a female.”

Dean finally earned the college degree she had so desired, graduating from Trinity College. And she and her father reconciled.

“He finally admitted that he was very proud of me,” Dean said.

Though it was difficult for women to get beyond a certain rank, Dean said she watched women gain more acceptance in the Guard prior to her retirement in 1992.

“My legacy is my service to my country as a female,” Dean said. “As a woman, I did contribute as much to my country as any American could. I wasn’t in war, I didn’t fight, but I served.”

Camaraderie

Talking about his trips to Oklahoma City, Mike Coates’ eyes light up. Every other year, the 74-year-old Korean War veteran travels to the Sooner State for a reunion with the 45th infantry division, also known as the Thunderbirds.

“Once you’ve been through a situation, a combat situation, there’s a camaraderie that sets in that’s something that’s never lost,” Coates said. It’s been over 50 years since he served with the Thunderbirds. “The loyalty to your unit, to your buddies, just never goes away.”

Coates joined the Army Reserve in 1951 while a college student. After his first year in college – “a lousy experience,” he says with a laugh – he joined the Army. It was an opportunity to travel and see things, he said.

Intensive infantry training and counter-intelligence school were his first tasks. Then, in the spring of 1952, he found himself in the Korean War doing infantry intelligence, setting up combat patrols, and doing reconnaissance work.

That spring, 50 percent of the men in his division were injured or killed, Coates said.

“Guys that I knew were gone,” he said quietly. “That was the hard part.”

After 13 months of service in Korea, Coates was a military police patrol sergeant in Illinois for a year. Not wanting police work as a career, he returned to Vermont and St. Michael’s College. He joined the National Guard, for which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry. He served three years in the 43rd division for the 172nd infantry.

Save the American flag hanging outside, a visitor to the Coates home would not necessarily know of his military experience until stepping into the finished basement. Rows of books – one shelf each for the Korean War and World War II, and for the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars — reflect Coates’ avid study of war history.

“I’m so well aware of the sacrifice of the troops in the Revolution to make our country what it is,” he said. Americans have the freedoms they do, Coates said, because of soldiers’ service over the last 230 years.

The military has had a big impact on Coates, especially as a construction manager.

“I always learned the lessons I learned of taking care of my people,” he said. “You take care of the people that you’re responsible for. In turn, they’ll take care of you.”

Sacrifice

Like Angier, about 22 percent of Williston veterans served in World War II. One of the many things that probably make Angier stand apart, however, is how he survived.

After the B-17 exploded and Angier began hurtling toward earth, he regained consciousness about two miles closer to the ground, he estimates in his book. He still had enough time to open the parachute. That saved his life. The impact from the speed at which he hit the ground, however, left him with injuries that affected him for his 47 years as a farmer in Addison, until now.

Today, outside his home in Chelsea Commons, flies a black flag that says “POW/MIA” and “You are not forgotten.”

Sitting in a burgundy-colored, leather rocking chair, with an American flag in the corner behind him, Angier does not focus on the seven months of unimaginable conditions he faced as a severely injured prisoner of war.

He talks instead of the three members of his crew he lost the day they were shot down.

Angier said Veterans Day is important to remind people of the cost of defending the country.

“I think people take it for granted too much today,” Angier said. “We have everything in this country. People die trying to get here. No one has risked their lives trying to go away from this country.”

[Read more...]

Sale wires cable subscribers to telecom giant

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Comcast takes over Adelphia accounts Nov. 9

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Your cable television company has changed, but the rates and channel lineups will remain mostly the same – at least for now.

Comcast Corp. officially takes over Adelphia’s cable subscribers Thursday, Nov. 9. The change occurs more than a year after the $17.6 billion sale of Adelphia to Comcast and Time-Warner was announced. Under terms of the deal, Comcast assumed service for Adelphia’s 100,000-plus Vermont customers.

Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said rates will remain the same. One new channel, CN8, which will carry local sports and other programming, is already airing.

Programming could change in coming months, but Goodman said it is too early to tell when and if there will be major changes in the channel lineup.

He touted Comcast’s commitment to customer service and cutting-edge content.

“The official change to Comcast represents a lot more than a new uniform or a new name on the side of a truck,” he said. “We provide the best programming and service available anywhere.”

Not everyone is upbeat about the change in ownership. Critics of increasing consolidation in the cable industry warn that Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and broadband Internet provider, has the power to raise rates at will and to determine what content is offered.

The sale of Adelphia, which was under federal bankruptcy protection, benefited customers in the short term because they faced a loss of service, said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union in Washington, D.C.

But she is wary of the long-term effects of the sale, which included swaps of service areas between Comcast and Time Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable company.

Those arrangements allow each telecom giant to enjoy geographic dominance in parts of the U.S., Kenney said, which in turn helps sidestep competition.

“The bottom line is it allows the companies to consolidate territories and to some degree set prices,” she said. “Consumers in the end take it in the wallet.”

Kenney acknowledged that satellite companies provide some competition. But she pointed out that satellite service is sometimes not available in mountainous areas without a clear view of the sky.

Massachusetts’s experience with Comcast may provide a preview of what Vermonters can expect from their new cable provider.

Alicia Matthews, director of the Cable Division of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunication and Energy, said the transition to Comcast went smoothly after the company bought AT&T Broadband a few years ago.

“When changes (in programming) happened, they happened gradually” over the period of several months to a year after Comcast took over, she said. The company told customers well in advance when channels were going to be added or subtracted.

Prices have increased for Comcast subscribers in Massachusetts, Matthews said, but no faster than they did under AT&T. The rate hikes have typically been 6 or 7 percent a year, on par with cable price increases nationally.

Goodman flatly denied that subscription rates will rise in Vermont, but he declined to give any long-range price forecasts.

“We’ve said in every public forum that prices will not change as a result of this transaction,” he said.

However, some fees will increase. Correspondence sent to Adelphia customers in September said Comcast will “reinstate” a $1.99 fee for upgrading or downgrading services, such as adding or deleting premium channels.

Comcast will also charge a $100 deposit for set-top boxes that include a digital video recorder, the letter stated. Goodman said the deposit would apply only to new customers.

Billing cycles will also change, but customers will still have 30 days to pay. Those who use automatic bill payment will have to inform their bank about the new Comcast account number. Payments for such customers will now be debited 25 days after the statement date.

The first change in content has already taken place for local Comcast subscribers. CN8 will broadcast University of Vermont hockey games and other programming on channel 18 in Chittenden County. It replaces Adelphia’s preview channel.

Next month, Comcast will add thousands of programs to the existing video on-demand service, which is available to those who subscribe to digital cable. Goodman said more than 7,500 programs – movies, sports, CBS network shows – will be available, 90 percent of them free.

Starting next year, several new channels will be added, including high-definition offerings, Goodman said. But he declined to name specific channels, saying it was too soon to know what content will be added or subtracted.

Customers who use Adelphia’s high-speed Internet access will be required to alter computer settings to use Comcast’s broadband offering. The company will send letters and e-mail within the next week instructing customers on how to change their settings.

Comcast offers two levels of Internet service – 6 and 8 megabytes per second – that are higher speeds than Adelphia provided. Goodman said customers will be allowed to continue with their existing level of Internet service at the same price.

The Vermont Public Service Board imposed requirements on Comcast when it approved the Adelphia sale last year. Comcast must construct more than 1,500 miles of line extensions and continue to offer public access channels.

The sale makes Comcast by far the state’s largest cable company and continues the trend of fewer and fewer cable providers within Vermont and elsewhere in the U.S., said Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington which operates Channel 17, Town Meeting TV.

“In 1984, there were 50 cable systems in the state,” she said. “Now there are just a handful.”

[Read more...]

Sale wires cable subscribers to telecom giant

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Comcast takes over Adelphia accounts Nov. 9

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Your cable television company has changed, but the rates and channel lineups will remain mostly the same – at least for now.

Comcast Corp. officially takes over Adelphia’s cable subscribers Thursday, Nov. 9. The change occurs more than a year after the $17.6 billion sale of Adelphia to Comcast and Time-Warner was announced. Under terms of the deal, Comcast assumed service for Adelphia’s 100,000-plus Vermont customers.

Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said rates will remain the same. One new channel, CN8, which will carry local sports and other programming, is already airing.

Programming could change in coming months, but Goodman said it is too early to tell when and if there will be major changes in the channel lineup.

He touted Comcast’s commitment to customer service and cutting-edge content.

“The official change to Comcast represents a lot more than a new uniform or a new name on the side of a truck,” he said. “We provide the best programming and service available anywhere.”

Not everyone is upbeat about the change in ownership. Critics of increasing consolidation in the cable industry warn that Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and broadband Internet provider, has the power to raise rates at will and to determine what content is offered.

The sale of Adelphia, which was under federal bankruptcy protection, benefited customers in the short term because they faced a loss of service, said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union in Washington, D.C.

But she is wary of the long-term effects of the sale, which included swaps of service areas between Comcast and Time Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable company.

Those arrangements allow each telecom giant to enjoy geographic dominance in parts of the U.S., Kenney said, which in turn helps sidestep competition.

“The bottom line is it allows the companies to consolidate territories and to some degree set prices,” she said. “Consumers in the end take it in the wallet.”

Kenney acknowledged that satellite companies provide some competition. But she pointed out that satellite service is sometimes not available in mountainous areas without a clear view of the sky.

Massachusetts’s experience with Comcast may provide a preview of what Vermonters can expect from their new cable provider.

Alicia Matthews, director of the Cable Division of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunication and Energy, said the transition to Comcast went smoothly after the company bought AT&T Broadband a few years ago.

“When changes (in programming) happened, they happened gradually” over the period of several months to a year after Comcast took over, she said. The company told customers well in advance when channels were going to be added or subtracted.

Prices have increased for Comcast subscribers in Massachusetts, Matthews said, but no faster than they did under AT&T. The rate hikes have typically been 6 or 7 percent a year, on par with cable price increases nationally.

Goodman flatly denied that subscription rates will rise in Vermont, but he declined to give any long-range price forecasts.

“We’ve said in every public forum that prices will not change as a result of this transaction,” he said.

However, some fees will increase. Correspondence sent to Adelphia customers in September said Comcast will “reinstate” a $1.99 fee for upgrading or downgrading services, such as adding or deleting premium channels.

Comcast will also charge a $100 deposit for set-top boxes that include a digital video recorder, the letter stated. Goodman said the deposit would apply only to new customers.

Billing cycles will also change, but customers will still have 30 days to pay. Those who use automatic bill payment will have to inform their bank about the new Comcast account number. Payments for such customers will now be debited 25 days after the statement date.

The first change in content has already taken place for local Comcast subscribers. CN8 will broadcast University of Vermont hockey games and other programming on channel 18 in Chittenden County. It replaces Adelphia’s preview channel.

Next month, Comcast will add thousands of programs to the existing video on-demand service, which is available to those who subscribe to digital cable. Goodman said more than 7,500 programs – movies, sports, CBS network shows – will be available, 90 percent of them free.

Starting next year, several new channels will be added, including high-definition offerings, Goodman said. But he declined to name specific channels, saying it was too soon to know what content will be added or subtracted.

Customers who use Adelphia’s high-speed Internet access will be required to alter computer settings to use Comcast’s broadband offering. The company will send letters and e-mail within the next week instructing customers on how to change their settings.

Comcast offers two levels of Internet service – 6 and 8 megabytes per second – that are higher speeds than Adelphia provided. Goodman said customers will be allowed to continue with their existing level of Internet service at the same price.

The Vermont Public Service Board imposed requirements on Comcast when it approved the Adelphia sale last year. Comcast must construct more than 1,500 miles of line extensions and continue to offer public access channels.

The sale makes Comcast by far the state’s largest cable company and continues the trend of fewer and fewer cable providers within Vermont and elsewhere in the U.S., said Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington which operates Channel 17, Town Meeting TV.

“In 1984, there were 50 cable systems in the state,” she said. “Now there are just a handful.”

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Crash caused by pilot, traffic controller errors, report says

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Small plane downed near Oak Hill Road in Williston

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A pilot’s mistakes and an air traffic controller’s failure to notice low-altitude warnings were factors in a plane crash last year in Williston, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board concludes.

The Nov. 22 crash occurred in a wooded area not far from homes on Partridge Hill, a dirt road off Oak Hill Road just south of Interstate 89. The plane was on a landing approach to Burlington International Airport when the crash occurred, killing pilot Donald Roberge of Ellington, Conn.

The NTSB report released last week cited Roberge’s failure to follow proper flight procedures as the primary reason for the crash. But the report also cited as contributing factors an unnamed air traffic controller’s failure to notice alerts that showed the plane’s landing approach was too low and a delay in telling the pilot to climb.

The alert system gives controllers both audible and visual alarms when a plane is flying too low. The system emits a five-second beeping tone and flashes a green low-altitude warning.

Steve Walsh, an air traffic controller at Burlington International Airport and local union representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said he has spoken with controllers who were on duty when the crash occurred. He said they never heard the alarm.

A replay of the radar display indicated that the low-altitude warning did flash, the NTSB report said. But Walsh said no alarm was heard when audio recordings of the incident were reviewed.

Without the audible alarm, a controller may never notice the radar warning is flashing, he said. Controllers are also monitoring the sky though windows in the control tower and tracking other planes’ positions.

“The controller has got a lot of things to be scanning,” Walsh said.

Roberge, 49, held a commercial pilot’s license. He had 479 hours of flight experience and 92 hours of instrument flight time, the NTSB report said.

Roberge left Hartford-Brainard Airport in Connecticut at 5:30 p.m. He was flying alone in a four-seat, two-engine Piper Aztec aircraft. It was snowing, with the wind blowing at 17 mph and gusting to 23 mph.

At 6:22 p.m., Roberge first contacted the arrival controller, according to the report. He was told to maintain course.

Control of the plane then was handed off to the local controller at Burlington International Airport. Roberge was cleared to land on runway 33.

At 6:43 p.m., the arrival controller, who had continued monitoring the plane, noticed a problem, the report said. “Hey, that Aztec is a little low on the approach there,” he said.

But he told ground control, which directs runway traffic, rather than the controller who guides landings, the report said. Sixteen seconds later, he notified the correct controller. A second later, the landing controller ordered the pilot to “climb immediately.”

There was no response. Roberge’s airplane had disappeared from the radar screen five seconds earlier, according to the report. The plane first struck 30-foot-tall trees, then crashed in a field.

Nearby residents said they heard what sounded like a plane with engine trouble, followed by a loud boom and a fireball. It was snowing heavily at the time.

The NTSB’s inspection of the plane showed no evidence of mechanical failure.

Departures and arrivals at Burlington International Airport show up as symbols on a radar screen, Walsh said. But he said when an accident occurs “the human aspect hits you in the gut.”

“The (air traffic controller) involved feels terrible,” Walsh said. “It’s the last thing anyone wants to happen.”

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Town suggests shared parking between school, business

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Williston School Board last week was asked to consider sharing a school parking lot with a local business.

Town Planner Lee Nellis and Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston asked board members to consider a new driveway connecting the Old Brick Café and Williston Central School parking lots. The café is in Williston Village across from Town Hall and adjacent to the Old Brick Church.

Old Brick Café owner David Herskowitz earlier this year proposed enlarging his parking lot by buying .17 acres from the school. Nellis told the School Board the town cannot approve that plan because the parcel is a wetland area of Allen Brook, an impaired watershed.

“There’s certainly no need to pave that wetland when there is enough parking (nearby),” Nellis told the board.

Herskowitz could build a one-way driveway linking the café’s lot with a school-owned parking lot that sits directly behind the Old Brick Church, Nellis said. That lot is used by school visitors and library staff.

A written shared parking agreement, Johnston said, could allow the school to lease parking to Herskowitz at certain times of day, with a presumption space would be available. An agreement could include financial payment to the school, he added.

An inventory by town officials indicated there is sufficient parking for staff in the parking lot west of the school, Nellis said. More parking also is available close to the recreation fields.

“We’re here to suggest to the board that a shared parking arrangement is of benefit to the community,” Nellis said. “We need to have a civics lesson here and an environmental lesson.”

School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby lauded the idea of not paving over a wetland, but expressed reservations about a driveway linking the two lots.

“If you only allow him one way access between his lot and our lot, all of those cars have to go in front of the school” when they exit, Sundby said. “And that’s a K-8 building.”

Parents who drop off and pick up their children already generate traffic there, according to Nellis.

Sundby said she doesn’t like that either.

“We’ve had this problem all along, but this is going to add to it,” she said.

Board member Holly Rouelle questioned if there would be sufficient parking on Saturdays when soccer games are being played and parking is at a premium.

Nellis said he did not see that as a problem. Once the new police station is built across the street from the Old Brick Café, he said, there will be even more parking in the area. Lunchtime Tuesday through Friday could cause the greatest conflict, Nellis said. The café is not open on Mondays.

Williston Central School Principal Jacqueline Parks said she wants to look at how many staff members are using the lot in question. She said they already have been asked to park in the west lot, meaning that when the front lot is full, it is being filled by visitors.

Liability and monitoring of a shared lot could be concerns, Sundby said.

The board decided to discuss the issue further at its Dec. 7 meeting.

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