October 25, 2014

Resident finishes first in writing marathon

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Submission in national event was Vt.’s wordiest

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Mark Twain once advised writers that “when you catch an adjective, kill it.” But Williston resident Steve Mount couldn’t delete adjectives – or nouns or verbs or any other type of word – if he was to finish a novel in 30 days.

Mount recently participated in the National Novel Writing Month, also called NaNoWriMo. Participants attempted to write a 50,000-word novel during November. Those who did were declared winners.

For Mount, that prodigious output came easily. By mid-month, he had polished off his first novel, equivalent to a 175-page book. He went on to write another novel and wound up with 101,932 words, the most among 183 participants in Vermont.

“I’ve written small things before, but nothing approaching this length,” he said. “I actually wrote two novels. Whether they are any good is another story.”

Quality was beside the point, according to the event’s Web site.

“Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output,” the site explained. “It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, write on the fly.

“Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing,” the site says. “By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

Mount said he built his writing routine around the fact that he had little else to do after work during the month. He and his family were staying at his parents’ house while they moved from one Williston home to another.

That meant Mount did not have to cook, clean or shop because his parents took care of those tasks. So he sat down with his laptop computer each night and wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more.

The first night, he pounded out 3,000 words. “I’m thinking to myself there’s no way I can keep this up,” Mount said.

But he did, completing the first novel, “The Story of Jack” in about two weeks. He said it is about a man trying to come to terms with the death of his entire family.

He finished the second novel, “Spade,” about a man who wakes up on the bathroom floor with a broken nose and no recollection of what happened, on Nov. 29.

He said he edited the first novel to clean up the plot. The second piece was submitted virtually as is. Neither story was edited for brevity.

Of the Vermont participants, only one approached Mount’s word count. Someone from Norwich with the screen name Damkianna produced 91,381 words. The next closest total was 56,623.

Mount was among nearly 80,000 writers who participated in the National Novel Writing Month. Collectively they produced nearly a billion words.

Those who produced 50,000 words received a certificate, an icon on the event’s Web site and bragging rights.

Mount, 38, is computer programmer for GE Healthcare, the company that bought IDX Systems. He has a wife, Karen, and three children.

Mount has some writing experience, having served as a reporter and an editor of the Vermont Cynic, a student newspaper at the University of Vermont. But he had never written anything longer than a term paper before completing his novels last month.

Among his favorite writers is Stephen King, who is also known for his considerable output. The famous author crossed Mount’s mind as he was writing his novels.

“I said to myself, ‘What would Stephen King have done?’” Mount said.

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Moving toward zero waste

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Early American Indians understood the concept of zero waste in a way few modern-day Americans do.

After hunting a buffalo and eating its meat, for example, they did not bury the remains. The hide was used for tepee covers and dresses. Muscle sinew was used for bows. Horns became cups and ladles; bladders became pouches and medicine bags. Even the buffalo’s own waste was used as fuel for fires or for ceremonial smoking.

Though the average Vermonter today generates the equivalent of one buffalo in waste a year – 2,000 pounds, or one ton – we aren’t nearly as ingenious in our reuse and recycle efforts as our early counterparts.

Local and national waste experts say that can change.

“I can market about 90 percent of what’s in your trash bin,” said Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a Colorado-based nonprofit that focuses on zero waste initiatives internationally. “What does that do to your current landfill life? What if you achieve 90 (percent waste reduction) within the next five years, seven years? … We need to understand that every investment we make in our zero waste system is actually an investment in doubling the life of a current landfill.”

For some in Williston, there may be extra motivation to invest in doubling the life of Vermont’s current landfills. Williston trash currently gets trucked to Coventry and Moretown, but the Chittenden Solid Waste District hopes to construct a new landfill in Williston to accommodate Chittenden County trash. The landfill, planned for Redmond Road, would start operating in 2011 at the earliest, according to district officials.

Lombardi, who visited Vermont earlier this fall to meet with solid waste district representatives and state officials, said he compliments Vermont and Tom Moreau of the Chittenden Solid Waste District for all of the “good work” that’s been done so far.

“( Vermont’s) done a lot,” Lombardi said by phone last week. “You’re so much better than Colorado or the whole Rocky Mountain West. You’ve taken this ‘end of pipe thing’ pretty far. It’s time for you all to go upstream.”

“Going upstream” includes approving local ordinances and resolutions supporting zero waste goals, Lombardi said. It is cities, states and nations making decisions based on the assumption that waste – including toxic waste – is not necessary.

The European Union, Lombardi said, has outlawed six toxic chemicals from packaging components. South Korea has banned non-biodegradable packaging. Styrofoam is no longer allowed for restaurant take-out containers in Oakland, Calif, he said.

“If it costs them a nickel more, that’s going to get passed down to the customer,” Lombardi said. “But guess what, you’re going to pay more than a nickel to maintain a landfill or incinerator.”

Julie Hackbarth, a solid waste section chief of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Waste Management Division, agrees that packaging is part of what stands in the way of Vermont meeting its waste reduction goals.

For the last five years, Vermont has hovered around a diversion rate of 30 percent – meaning that 30 percent of the residential and commercial waste generated is diverted from landfills through recycling, reuse or composting.

But that’s a backwards slide from the mid-1990s when the state’s diversion rate hovered around 35 percent. And it’s far from the state’s goal to keep 50 percent of municipal trash out of landfills by 2005, according to a Vermont Agency of Natural Resources report analyzing its 2001 solid waste management plan.

“Many of the factors affecting the diversion rate are beyond the control of ANR (Agency of Natural Resources) and cannot be addressed solely with Vermont-specific programs,” the report reads.

Donna Barlow Casey, executive director of the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District that serves communities around Montpelier, gave an example.

“Why should citizens and municipalities bear the burden of attempting to fund the recycling of computers, for instance?” Barlow Casey wrote in an e-mail. “Why aren’t computers designed for multi-year upgradability, expandability, and recyclability?”

Manufacturers should bear responsibility for ensuring their packaging can be reused and recycled, zero waste supporters say.

Hackbarth said the Agency of Natural Resources is in the process of hiring consultants to help the state focus waste prevention improvements. Partnerships with other states and organizations may be key to making progress, she said.

Barlow Casey, whose district has adopted a zero waste philosophy, said if she were a legislator she would introduce legislation requiring Vermont to adopt a moratorium on landfills for the next 10 years. Following that, she would introduce more stringent “pay as you throw” legislation; that, she said, would force more creative approaches.

Some contend that getting to zero waste is impossible in modern society, so why even bother trying? Lombardi said zero waste is a journey, not a destination.

Barlow Casey agrees:

“It’s interesting to me that the dialogue around zero waste shifts to prove how it can happen rather than ‘Wow, if we can achieve half of that, we would be even further along.’”

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New radio station signals more competition

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Town grants approval for antenna in Williston

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A Connecticut company has won approval for an antenna that will beam a new radio station to area listeners, adding to the cacophony of signals in an already crowded market.

Impact Radio Inc. plans to broadcast locally at 97.5 on the FM dial. The company is headed by partners John Fuller and Arthur Belendiuk, who operate two stations in the New London, Conn., area. Fuller said he does not yet know the new station’s call letters.

The Williston Development Review Board granted approval last week for the antenna. It will be located on an existing 100-foot-tall communications tower on Brownell Mountain near the St. George town line.

Earlier this year, Fuller said he submitted the winning bid of about $925,000 during a Federal Communications Commission auction of new frequencies. He and his partner received a 25 percent discount off that price under FCC rules because they own five or fewer stations.

The new station is licensed in Bristol but its coverage area will extend from that town to just south of St. Albans.

Fuller is still mulling the station’s format, but he said he will not duplicate anything already aired locally.

“To be honest with you, I’m leaning toward the eclectic genre,” Fuller said. “It would be a little upscale, something the area doesn’t have.”

He said the station may play some jazz and perhaps other types of music. That would follow a radio industry trend of mixing genres to appeal to listeners with diverse musical tastes.

Local radio veterans said the new station will find intense competition in what is a relatively small market. Depending on the exact location, Chittenden County listeners can receive between two and three dozen stations on the AM and FM bands.

Arbitron ranks the Burlington-Plattsburgh market 138th largest in the nation, just behind Palm Springs, Calif. and just ahead of Atlantic City-Cape May, N.J. The local market has 317,200 potential listeners age 12 and older.

“It’s kind of congested,” said Dan Dubonnet, senior vice president for Hall Communications, which owns five area radio stations, including WOKO-FM and WIZN-FM.

“Welcome to the fray is what I’d say,” said George Goldring, who began his broadcasting career with WJOY-AM in 1961.

Goldring, who still works as a part-time disc jockey, called the market “oversaturated” and noted that the area has more radio stations per capita than Boston.

But Fuller is undaunted by the competition, which increasingly includes not just terrestrial stations but satellite radio and Internet stations.

“I think every business is getting more competitive,” he said. Fuller added that a station with quality content and a genuine commitment to the market will do well.

Fuller owns WBMW-FM, a soft-rock station, and WWRX-FM, which plays hip-hop. Both stations have studios in Ledyard, Conn., a few miles from New London.

The new station is licensed in Bristol, but will likely have a studio in Williston or a nearby town, Fuller said. It will initially employ 10 to 12 people. It will broadcast 8,800 watts, a much lower power output than the area’s most powerful 100,000-watt stations.

Drawing and keeping advertisers in such a crowded market is difficult, said Dubonnet, who started his radio career 25 years ago. The trick is to find a niche that will attract both listeners and advertisers. But with so many stations, most of the obvious formats are already taken.

“It’s not easy running a radio or TV station in such a small area,” Dubonnet said. “Basically, the strong survive.” But he noted the intense competition is a boon for listeners.

Goldring said many new stations are started by owners who intend to “flip” or sell the stations shortly after they are launched. But Fuller said he’s “putting forth too much time and effort to just flip it.”

Fuller, 42, started in the radio business in the early 1980s. He said his first job was filling in for the regular disc jockeys at the University of Rhode Island station on Saturday nights so they could hit the bars.

He thought of Vermont as the location for a new station because he has come here to ski at Jay Peak and Stowe for years, he said.

Fuller is now scouting for studio space. He initially hoped to begin broadcasting in the next few months, but he now thinks getting regulatory approval and launching the station could take a year or more. He said the station should be on the air no later than the first quarter of 2008.

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Illegal signs a constant source of frustration

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Ordinances difficult to enforce, officials say

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston explained his recent odd behavior by telling police he was frustrated by illegal signs, court records show.

Johnston was spotted by police shortly before midnight on Nov. 24 in the parking lot of The Furniture Place in Shelburne. He was hitting the building with an unidentified object, according to a police affidavit filed in Vermont District Court. Signs advertising the business were scattered near the building.

Johnston pleaded innocent to a charge of driving under the influence stemming from the incident.

Johnston is hardly the only one annoyed by the proliferation of illegal signs. Municipal officials in Chittenden County say the signs, typically advertising a short-term sale and placed in a median or near an intersection, are a constant irritant.

“They’re not signs technically, they’re litter,” said Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis. “Everyone is frustrated. All the other towns have the same problem.”

Off-premise signs advertising a business are usually illegal under local ordinance and state law, particularly when placed in a road’s right of way. But town officials in Williston and other towns have no practical way to enforce the rule.

Under state law, municipalities can threaten $100-a-day fines. The process of collecting the money, however, is unwieldy and lengthy, hardly worthwhile for a sign that may be here today, gone tomorrow.

Johnston declined to discuss the drunk-driving charge. Nor would he comment on illegal signs in general.

But according to the police affidavit, Johnston replied “I was angry” when he was asked why he hit the building. Johnston told the officer that he had just returned from collecting signs he found throughout the area advertising The Furniture Place. Eight to 10 of the signs were tossed on the store’s front steps and one was jammed between the double doors.

After further questioning, Johnston shared more of his feelings about the signs with police.

“ Johnston dropped his hands to his side and began to discuss his frustrations with the store,” the affidavit said.

Scott Gustin, Williston’s previous zoning administrator, likened enforcing the ban on temporary signs to the carnival game of Whack-A-Mole. Gustin said as soon as he uprooted and carted away illegal signs – still the town’s main method of enforcement – more sprouted up.

“The very nature of temporary signs made it virtually impossible to enforce the ordinance efficiently,” said Gustin, who now works for the city of Burlington.

Area towns typically have detailed sign regulations. In Williston, for example, the ordinance spells out the rules in exhaustive detail.

The problem comes with enforcement.

State law requires the town to first notify the business it is violating the ordinance. The business has seven days to respond. If it agrees to remove the sign, the problem is solved.

But the business can appeal to the town’s Development Review Board. That appeal takes roughly 60 days. If the board rules there was in fact a violation, the business can appeal that decision in Vermont Superior Court.

South Burlington may have at least partially solved the sign enforcement problem. The city issues tickets akin to traffic violations to businesses that ignore the sign rules, said Zoning Administrator Ray Belair.

“The other way takes months to go to court,” he said. “This way you can get their attention long before they would take it down.”

The city sometimes warns first-time offenders before issuing a ticket, Belair said. But for a business that repeatedly violates the rules, the fines can be substantial.

The initial ticket carries a $25 fine if the recipient chooses not to contest it, $50 if it is contested. If the challenge fails, the violator must pay the larger amount plus court costs. Repeat violations bring escalating fines up to the maximum $500 allowed under state law.

But even that system is not without its shortcomings. Sometimes businesses don’t pay fines, Belair said. Signs left up only over a weekend may escape city’s notice.

Still, the system works well enough to keep the problem manageable. “It’s not out of control, but some of the signs still slip by us,” Belair said.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire said staff members have discussed moving to a ticket-based enforcement for illegal signs. But he has yet to ask the Selectboard to alter the ordinance.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” he said.

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Zoning administrator pleads innocent to DUI

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston pleaded innocent last Thursday to a charge of driving under the influence.

Vermont District Court Judge Christina Reiss ordered that Johnston be released from the court hearing on standard conditions. Those conditions include no driving without a valid license and no purchasing or consuming alcohol.

Defense attorney Robert J. Kaplan argued to the judge that the prohibition of alcohol did not seem appropriate given that Johnston is “well on his way in life” and has no prior criminal convictions; a more appropriate condition, Kaplan said, would be not driving while under the influence of alcohol. The judge still imposed the condition.

Johnston’s attorney said he had no comment about the case after the hearing.

Johnston is scheduled to appear in district court next month for what is known as a civil suspension hearing. That hearing will determine if Johnston may keep his driver’s license or if it will be suspended. The remainder of the criminal portion of the case may also be addressed during the same hearing, according to prosecutor Justin Jiron.

“There’s a standard offer,” Jiron said, referring in general to a defendant who is convicted for driving under the influence. “Probably a fine, probably some probation, and some alcohol counseling.”

The average fine for a person convicted of driving under the influence (first offense) in Chittenden County was $322 in 2004, according to the Vermont DUI Statistical Resource Book 2005.

At civil suspension hearings, Jiron said, the majority of people do lose their driver’s licenses. Typically licenses are suspended for three months, Jiron said, unless the defendant refused to take a breath test for blood-alcohol content in which case the suspension is often for six months.

Police considered Johnston’s blood-alcohol test a refusal, according to the police affidavit that did not become public until last Thursday. Johnston offered “a small breath of air” twice, according to the affidavit. “ Johnston’s two attempts looked more like ‘puffs’ than a full exhale,” the affidavit reads.

Johnston was arrested by Shelburne police officers on Nov. 24 just before midnight outside of The Furniture Place on Shelburne Road, according to police. Johnston caught the attention of Officer Bruce Beuerlein, according to the police affidavit, because Johnston allegedly was striking the front of the furniture store building with an unknown object. Beuerlein said in the affidavit he could detect a strong odor of intoxicants coming from Johnston and that Johnston’s eyes looked very watery and he swayed slightly. Johnston told the officer he’d had four or five glasses of wine in the preceding two or three hours, according to the affidavit.

Though Johnston was not in his vehicle at the time the police officer approached him, Johnston’s car was running, the affidavit says.

Johnston’s next scheduled court appearance is on Jan. 3 at 2 p.m.

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No home for the holidays

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Two families lose everything in fire

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Judy Benoit, 65, was the only one home when the fire broke out last Wednesday night. With black smoke filling the kitchen, Benoit grabbed the family dog and tried to get out of her upstairs apartment.

The smoke was thick like chocolate pudding, Benoit said. “I could feel pressure against my face, I could feel my throat close. There was no way you could see anything.” Benoit believes she passed out, letting go of the dog’s collar, as she fell down the outside staircase. She woke up at the bottom of the stairs next to the propane tank.

The tank later exploded. The fire consumed the house on Chapman Lane, and then it collapsed. Two Williston families lost their homes, and virtually everything they owned. Judy Benoit, her son Shawn, 30, and his girlfriend Molly McHugh lost their apartment above the garage of the farmhouse owned by Lynne and Stephen Moon. The Moons and their daughters Hayley, an eighth grader, and Aubrey, a high school senior, lost the home that’s been in Lynne’s family for more than 40 years. Fire officials say an electrical problem underneath a kitchen was the cause of the fire.

The families lost the things of daily life that many of us take for granted and rarely think about – clothes, dishes, bath towels and beds. But they also lost the things that can’t be replaced.

“There was so much of my parents in that house,” Moon said. “So much history and family heritage and so much of my mother.” Moon’s mother passed away eight years ago in January.

Both families lost much-beloved pets. The Benoits lost their three-year-old Boxer, who climbed out of Judy’s grip when she fell. The Moons lost Chester, a lhasa apso who would have turned 11 on Saturday, and Gabby, a rabbit. The whereabouts of two of the Moons’ cats is still unknown. The other two cats – Tommy and Griffin — made it out, and are now safe at home.

The outpouring of community support has been overwhelming, both families said.

“Things are being thought of before we think of them and just provided,” Moon said. “The night of the fire before we even left the scene we had two cars full of stuff – groceries, clothing, bedding.”

A lot of support has coalesced at Williston Central School for the Moon family.

“I have had children come in and give gift certificates that were given to them,” said staff member Dee Goulette. “I have had children that have donated birthday money.” Two boys went door-to-door in their neighborhood and collected $419, Goulette said. A kindergartener came in with three dimes, a nickel and two pennies to drop in the collection box.

“When you go through something like this it completely renews your faith in human kindness and just how a community comes together,” Moon said.

Both families said they are grateful for the outpouring of support. Still there is a long road ahead to rebuilding their lives.

Shawn, who does social work in Montpelier, also is a student at Champlain College and has two on-line classes that start Jan. 9; his brand-new computer and all of his books were among the things he lost.

Judy Benoit did not have renter’s insurance, according to her daughter Tina Benoit, so the details of the Moon’s homeowner’s insurance policy will be critical. Judy Benoit is staying at the Hampton Inn in Colchester until she can find a new home, possibly in a senior community.

The Moons are now in a furnished rental house in Colchester where they will stay until they can rebuild, an effort Moon said will start as soon as insurance agents say the debris can be cleared.

Christmas plans for both families have changed. Judy Benoit’s four children and their families had planned to gather at Benoit’s for “a big Grandma/Nana meal,” her daughter Tina said. The Moons usually hosted Lynne’s extended family for Christmas. Both families have moved their gatherings to other relatives’ houses.

Sitting in the rental house Tuesday afternoon, the youngest Moon, Hayley, laughed as Tommy the cat wrapped his front paws around her arm and gnawed on her wrist.

“You always say you shouldn’t take things for granted, but nobody really realizes that until something like this happens,” Hayley said.

Benoit shared similar sentiments. She sustained “quite a few bruises, but nothing major” from her fall, she said, and it took three days for the smoke to get out of her respiratory system.

“I’m just thankful to be alive,” she said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
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