October 31, 2014

Tension mounts over school budget cuts

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New budget vote set for May 8

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The second vote for Williston’s school budget for the 2007-2008 academic year has been set for Tuesday, May 8.

About 16 community members gathered at Williston Central School on Thursday night to give feedback to the Williston School Board and to learn more details about the $15.8 million proposed school budget that voters rejected earlier this month.

The first concerns raised by audience members were about teacher salaries and benefits.

“I want to know what each teacher makes,” said resident Melissa LaFrance, whose sentiments were echoed by several others in the audience. “Not each teacher is making the same amount. I’d like to know what our principals are making. I want to know.”

The average Williston teacher earns $60,924.

“Remember, that’s for 180 days” of teaching, Elizabeth LaStrada said later when discussing teachers’ salaries.

Several audience members said teachers should pay more than their current 10 percent contribution to health insurance premiums.

“If our taxes go up much more, we will have to put our house on the market and sell,” LaFrance said. “We just cannot afford this. … The teachers here in Williston – and I’m not condemning them, I love the school, I think they do an outstanding job. But you know what? The reality is they need to start paying a little more.”

For about one hour, audience members addressed these topics as well as building maintenance, the number of paraeducators, the number of principals, and the impact of new developments on school enrollment.

Several parents also expressed concern that the school day is not longer and full-day kindergarten is not available, in spite of rising taxes.

Parent Mark Fischer emphasized that the community needs to understand that it will be more expensive to taxpayers in the long run if students requiring special education services don’t get their needs met now.

Currently, of the 30 “high needs” special education students – such as those with autism – in the Williston public school system, 20 are in preschool, kindergarten or first grade, District Principal Walter Nardelli said. That means the numbers of students requiring services is growing, not decreasing, so services must expand to meet those needs according to federal requirements.

“I think that message needs to go out to the community,” Fischer said. “We’re not driving a new Cadillac out of the parking lot. We’re trying to shove all these kids into the Chevy we have.”

Staffing levels explained

Williston schools are on target or slightly behind staffing recommendations by the Vermont Department of Education, according to data presented by District Principal Walter Nardelli. For example, the Department of Education recommends that students in grades four through eight have class sizes smaller than 25; Williston on average has 22 fifth through eighth grade students per teacher.

Among Vermont schools, Williston also has the fewest principals per number of teachers and students, Nardelli said.

State recommendations for everything from guidance counselors to school nurses to curriculum also were reviewed. There are no state recommendations for foreign language at the elementary or middle school level, according to Nardelli. Data did not include the role and number of paraeducators and teaching assistants.

How the budget was built

In building the proposed budget, Nardelli said, “everything is level funded; there’s no new programs, there’s no new anything.” Increases come from fixed costs like salaries, utilities, and insurance premiums, Nardelli said, and expansion of special education services to meet the growing demand.

Those changes, Nardelli said, represented a 6.5 percent budget increase, excluding Medicaid funds for which there are equal expenses and revenue.

“That was really without changing anything except special education,” he said. Roughly $350,000 in special education services was added to the budget; about 40 percent of that is reimbursed from the government.

Roughly $53,400 then was cut in areas such as equipment leasing contracts, gas and electricity, and part of a special education preschool program. Additions costing the same amount were added, Nardelli said. A current first and second grade math intervention position was bumped from a paraeducator to an 80-percent-time teacher to expand teaching hours, Nardelli said.

Other additions included a part-time foreign language teacher, slightly expanding hours of technology staff, adding 10-percent-time to a math enrichment instructor who is qualified to teach students beyond discrete math, and putting funding toward the Connecting Youth mentoring program.

Now, Nardelli said, every part of the budget is “back on the table.” Community members, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members must determine together what Williston education should look like.

“What we have to remember is these are real kids; these aren’t just numbers,” Nardelli said. “What we have to figure out is what can we afford and what is the education we want for them.”

What’s next

The School Board asked administrators to come back this week with recommendations on cutting the budget by one half, one and two percentage points. For every percentage point, approximately $147,000 must be cut.

The School Board is scheduled to meet this Thursday and next. The board expects to approve the new budget on Wednesday, April 11 at their regularly scheduled 7 p.m. meeting at CVU High School.

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Huge project win final approval

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Finney Crossing will contain 356 units

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The largest and perhaps most closely scrutinized subdivision ever proposed in Williston received final town approval Tuesday.

The Development Review Board voted 5-1 in favor of Finney Crossing, a 356-unit subdivision that will also include commercial space. Board member Kelly Barland cast the lone dissenting vote.

The project will be located on a 107-acre former horse farm just northeast of Taft Corners. With a combination of apartments, townhouses, condominiums, single-family homes and commercial and office buildings, it will be the only subdivision of its kind in the area, said developer Bob Snyder.

The project will be built in several phases over a decade. The town will allow about 70 units to be constructed during the next two years.

Tuesday’s approval marked the end of a six-year review process. Snyder said he first approached the town in 2001 with the concept.

Williston planning staff worked with developers for about two years, shaping the project before the formal review began.

The goal was to create urban density, essentially completing what planners hope will become downtown Williston in an area already dominated by commercial development.

“I think it’s very rare for a neighborhood of this size to create this kind of density at an infill site, yet have 45 percent of the space set aside for permanent open space,” Snyder said after the meeting.

Finney Crossing will contain about twice as many housing units as the next largest subdivision in Williston, Brennan Woods, which was also built by Snyder’s company.

The project’s configuration is more typical of an urban area than a suburb like Williston.

For example, the townhouses will be grouped in buildings containing seven or 10 units. The apartments, which will be sold rather than rented, will be located in 40-unit, three-story buildings.

The project is heavily skewed toward multi-unit housing. When completed, Finney Crossing will contain 92 condominiums, 114 townhouses, 120 apartments and 30 single-family homes.

Only the single-family homes will contain more than two bedrooms. At an earlier meeting, Snyder said the development would attract few families with children. He estimated that Finney Crossing would add only 67 children over the 10-year build-out period.

The commercial portion of the project remains less well-defined. The board’s approval permits about 20 acres of retail and office development.

Jeff Davis, whose company will develop the commercial part of Finney Crossing, said after the meeting that it could include two- or three-story buildings, with retailers on the ground floor and office space on upper floors.

The total amount of retail and office space could approach 400,000 square feet. Davis said he has yet to sign any tenants.

Finney Crossing had attracted considerable opposition from nearby residents. Many worried about the impact on traffic. Others were concerned it would overburden municipal services.

But few were present Tuesday to hear about Finney Crossing. The meeting was dominated by a hearing on a huge new facility for Essex Alliance Church.

About 50 people attended a hearing on that project. Virtually all of them streamed out of the room when the Finney Crossing hearing began.

The only opposition came from board member Kelly Barland, who after voting to reject the project said he worried that the town was missing the big picture by not considering the larger implications of recent development.

“I feel that both Finney Crossing and the Essex Alliance Church are good projects,” Barlard said after the meeting. “But I don’t feel confident that traffic has been addressed at a macro level.”

Finney Crossing still must receive a permit under Vermont’s Act 250 land-use law. But Snyder said he was optimistic the project would receive speedy state approval. He said an Act 250 permit application will be filed this week.

The board’s approval of the project covers the first phase of residential development. The developers must return to the board for approval of future residential phases and commercial development.

Snyder said he hoped to break ground on the project in the fall. He plans to begin building homes about a year from now.

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Many flunk Taft Corners spelling test

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Creative usages abound for crossroads

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Taft Corners may be Vermont’s best-known place name. Used loosely to describe anything within about a mile of the intersection of U.S. 2 and Vermont 2A, it is widely associated with big-box stores and debates about sprawl.

But can you spell it? Two seemingly simple words have tripped up historians, advertisers and local media. Even some state and town officials can’t get it right.

Is it really Taft Corners? Taft Corner? Taft’s Corner? Tafts Corners? Taft’s Corners? How about Tafts’ Corners? Each has been used.

“Yes, there is confusion about it,” said D.K. Johnston, Williston’s zoning administrator. “I don’t think the world knows how to spell it.”

Despite the many variations, there is one official usage. In September 1993, the Selectboard considered the matter because someone noticed a sign on northbound Interstate 89 near the Richmond exit had the intersection spelled incorrectly.

“After a little bit of discussion, it was determined that the proper spelling should be Taft Corners,” minutes from the meeting say.

The word was passed on to former state librarian Patricia Klinck, who under state law had the final authority on spelling place names. She agreed with the Selectboard.

Sybil McShane, the current state librarian, said some state agencies, including the Agency of Transportation, were notified, though it is unclear how widely the ruling was disseminated.

Yet to this day, the Interstate 89 sign still misspells the name as “Tafts’ Corners.”

A survey of books, maps and official documents and various publications show the sign’s name confusion is hardly unique.

For example, the latest Williston Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth and development, repeatedly spells it “Tafts Corner.”

Town Planner Lee Nellis said he settled on that usage based on a gazetteer published by the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies. He said the previous plan had it spelled various ways, and he was striving for consistency this time.

Nor are local media immune from the spell cast by the name. Most local newspapers and television stations get it right. But not all.

“The next Tafts Corner?” asked a headline above an online story about development north of St. Albans published by the St. Albans Messenger. The story then refers to it as “Tafts Corners” several paragraphs later.

Williston retailers sometimes get the name wrong, particularly national chains. Men’s Wearhouse recently misspelled the name in television advertisements. Its Web site gives directions to the store at “Taft Corner.”

Kathy Smardon, assistant town clerk, said she regularly fields questions about how to spell the name. She gives a stock answer: “One Taft, four corners.”

People ask about the spelling for numerous reasons, sometimes out of curiosity or to settle an argument, Smardon said. Taft Corners is by far the most frequently asked-about name.

George Gerecke, who was on the Williston Selectboard when it discussed the name in 1993, said he recollected the board wanted to be consistent with similar place names in the area such as Chimney Corners near the Colchester-Milton town line.

The name apparently originated with the Taft family, early settlers in Williston. A map dating from 1868 shows two property owners by that name adjacent to the intersection. An 1886 book, “The History of Chittenden County Vermont” indicates a John Taft settled in Williston in 1818. His grandson George was a Williston farmer.

But even the history books are unclear on the corner’s spelling. “The Williston Story” published in 1961 includes a map that refers to the intersection as “Tafts Corner.”

The saga of that Interstate 89 sign perhaps best shows how the corner causes spelling fits.

North Avenue News co-owner Cliff Cooper said he had long been annoyed about the sign’s spelling, which told motorists to use exit 12 to reach “Taft Corner.” In 2003, he said he mentioned the sign to second-grade students from J. J. Flynn Elementary School in Burlington.

The students, who were studying grammar at the time, reasoned the sign couldn’t be correct because among other reasons there was more than one corner, Cooper said. They wrote a letter to Gov. Jim Douglas.

Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi said the state settled on an alternative spelling after researching various sources. The sign cost $1,305.63 to replace.

It’s tough to know if the state altered the sign back in 1993 when the Selectboard first noticed the goof. Zicconi said he could not determine if it was changed.

Minutes from the meeting say the sign originally read “Taft’s Corners,” a different spelling than reported by Cooper a decade later. Perhaps the state has actually made two changes, both wrong. Or maybe the minutes misstated the sign’s spelling.

McShane said the name has proven unusually difficult to spell because there is no widespread agreement on its usage, even among usually authoritative sources.

“I think despite everyone’s effort to get it right, it’s a moving target,” she said.

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Teacher health benefits

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Local teachers’ contributions to health insurance premiums roughly match the county average for teachers, though area employers increasingly are looking for employees to foot more of the bill.

How much teachers should contribute and the quality of health insurance coverage has been a topic of concern in the community in the wake of Williston’s school budget defeat earlier this month.

“The reality is they need to start paying a little more,” resident Melissa LaFrance said at last week’s School Board meeting. “It’s not just me that’s saying it. There’s a lot of people in this community that are saying it.”

Parent Mark Fischer agreed.

“I’m independently employed,” he said. “For a family of four I’m currently paying $15,000 a year for insurance with a $3,500 deductible. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy.”

Williston and Champlain Valley Union High School teachers currently contribute 10 percent to the cost of the basic health insurance premium. Single, two-person and family plans are all options, ranging from $5,622 to $14,815 annually, according to data provided by Chittenden South Supervisory Union, of which Williston schools and CVU are a part.

Though a 10 percent teacher contribution was typical among virtually all Chittenden County school districts last year ( Colchester, at 20 percent, was the exception), current and future contract years show school boards are inching toward expecting more from teachers.

Chittenden East Supervisory Union, which saw a six-day strike last year in part over health insurance benefits, requires teachers to pay 11 percent of premiums this year; next year it will be 12 percent.

Burlington, Essex and Milton school districts and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union all have similar contracts with teachers contributing, on average, 11 and 12 percent in the next two years.

In contrast, employees of the State of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care contribute 20 percent toward their health insurance premiums. University of Vermont full-time salaried staff members pay on a sliding scale. Those at UVM earning just under $61,000 (the average Williston teacher salary) currently pay 16 percent toward their health insurance premiums. Town of Williston employees pay 10 percent of the premium up to 2 percent of their salaries, according to Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director.

Aggregated state and national statistics indicate that most large and mid-size businesses generally look for employee contributions of 20 percent, said Dian Kahn, a director of analysis and data management in the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration. County-specific information is not available, Kahn said.

Still, premium costs and employee shares do not tell the whole story, according to several individuals who deal with employee benefits.

“It’s really tough to compare plans because they’re all different from each other,” said Harold Schwartz, a State of Vermont human resources director.

Doctor visit co-pays, deductibles, prescription coverage, and mental health coverage are among the variables that make it difficult to accurately compare the quality of coverage between different plans available from different employers.

Some taxpayers at last week’s school budget meeting said they want to see teachers contributing a heftier share of premiums now.

If teachers contributed 20 percent instead of 10 percent, about $80,000 would be saved in the Williston budget, according to Bob Mason, chief executive officer for the supervisory union. That’s roughly half of a percentage point of the $15.8 million Williston schools budget voters rejected on Town Meeting Day.

Negotiating teachers’ contributions is not the answer for Mark Hage, director of benefit programs for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association that assists teachers in the bargaining process.

“The real goal is to make sure all Vermonters have access to high quality affordable health care from birth to death,” Hage said. “That goal is not going to be advanced by having any teacher or state employee or any unionized or non-unionized worker … pay more of their health insurance. What that does is simply shift costs.”

Negotiations for a teachers’ contract to replace the one that expires in June are still underway, according to Scott Cameron, an attorney representing the Chittenden South Supervisory Union school boards. Negotiations will likely continue til May 23, the expected date of mediation, Cameron said in an e-mail.

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Leaping toward fame

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Michaela DePrince, 12, commands attention as she moves around the ballet studio.

The movements of her muscular legs and lean arms are precise. She holds her head high. When she leaps into a mid-air split, otherwise known as a grand jete, the arc of her legs measures more than 180 degrees.

Michaela’s look of focused concentration is broken by her instructor, Vanina Wilson, who reminds her that these rehearsals are a good time to practice smiling. Michaela does, and it is as if the last piece of the performance falls into place.

Michaela, a sixth grader who has attended Williston Central School since September, won second place in the pre-competitive age division of the Youth America Grand Prix regional semi-final competition earlier this month. At the end of April, she heads to New York City for the international competition, the second year she will compete there.

Sitting outside the ballet studio last Wednesday night after more than three hours of practice, Michaela lets her hair down to match her blue jeans and t-shirt from a swimming race. Her toenails are painted a light pink – the color that reminds her of the first ballet dancer she saw at age four, when she was an orphan in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

“I found a dance magazine with a dancer on her tippy toes, as I thought of it,” Michaela said. “As soon as I saw that, I wanted to be just like her if I went to America. … I ripped the front cover off and put it in my underwear and I brought the rest of the magazines to the kids in the orphanage.”

Michaela said that upon her adoption, she showed her adoptive mother the picture. In time, she learned enough English to communicate her dream.

“When I came to America, she told me she’d give me lessons and I had to work hard and if I worked hard I’d become a good dancer,” Michaela said, referencing a conversation with her mother. “And I worked hard. Really hard.”

Michaela was learning ballet within six months of arriving in the United States. First she attended the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, but she quickly outgrew the pre-ballet instruction. She attended a ballet school in New Jersey for two years, before returning to the Rock School. Upon the family’s move to Vermont last year, she began training at the New England Ballet Conservatory.

Wilson, the conservatory’s director, said Michaela’s athleticism is a good match for ballet.

“She’s very advanced for her age group,” Wilson said this week. “She’s at the level where she can take classes with 16-year-old pre-professional dancers. That’s a very unusual physical ability she has that allows her to do the things she does at her age.”

Wilson, who herself is a retired professional ballerina from France, said Michaela, if she pursues ballet professionally, shouldn’t have any problems finding a job.

Her mother said it’s not just dancing that gets Michaela excited about the competitions.

“She meets kids from all over the world,” Elaine DePrince said. “She has friends from Japan and Brazil. She can’t wait to go to New York for that reason. She’s been talking about it for months.”

Ballet itself is Michaela’s first passion. She recently gave up swimming, in spite of winning medals last month at a regional swim competition. Sleepovers and parties with her many friends must be sacrificed if she is to have enough energy for her six-days-a-week of practice.

“Dancing makes me happy, it makes me not think about any of my worries,” Michaela said. Michaela said she used to perform West African dances as a child. “When I used to dance in the orphanage, I felt like I was free. I didn’t feel like anyone didn’t like me. I felt like everyone loved me.”

When asked where she hopes to be 10 years from now, Michaela said in a big ballet company, starting to become famous.

“Well, no,” she says, stopping herself. She waves her hands and gets a big smile on her face. “Just famous. Just famous.”

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Local History Online

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The box Scott Lowe takes from his office closet contains a rarity: an owner’s manual for a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft.

“It’s my pride and joy,” the Richmond resident said.

Ford Motor Co. made the Tri-Motor in the 1920s and 1930s. About 200 of the planes were built; only 500 of the manuals were printed, Lowe said.

If Ford Motor Co. was in Vermont, the manual is the kind of artifact Lowe (pronounced “Lau”) could archive in his proposed new digital museum called Local History Online. Once it’s live, the Web site www.mylocalhistory.org will list Vermont towns, villages and cities. A visitor to the site will be able to click on a location, Lowe hopes, and be able to see everything from photographs and postcards to video and audio archives. Lowe will unveil his digital museum concept this Sunday at the Richmond Historical Society annual meeting and winter program.

A self-identified 11th generation American, Lowe, 48, said history has been a big part of his identity and a major hobby since he was a teenager.

“It is my intention with this digital museum project to spend the rest of my life doing this kind of archiving,” he said.

Lowe has not only the passion but the skills to do so. A professional Web designer, Lowe already has experience putting together a range of Web sites, including those with a historical bent. He created a Web site, for example, in tribute to the Ford Tri-Motor.

The idea of an online local history archive came after volunteering to create the Williston Historical Society Web site a little more than two years ago. Lowe and his family had just moved to Vermont from California, and Lowe thought the project would help him meet people.

“It was then I realized how lively the historical community is in Vermont,” Lowe said.

Lowe’s primary purpose in creating the nonprofit archive is to assist local historical societies in archiving private collections of artifacts otherwise not easily accessible to the public. He said he’ll ensure private collectors maintain control over their collections. Digital images of photographs, for example, will be watermarked or otherwise copy-protected.

Vermont Historical Society Executive Director Kevin Graffagnino said Lowe’s proposal has “wonderful potential for the state of Vermont and our state local history.”

Most of the 196 local historical societies and museums in Vermont are “collecting organizations,” Graffagnino said. “Most of them have things that could benefit from digitizing – documents, photographs, postcards and the like.”

Yet, most also have small staffs or a small volunteer base, so Lowe’s technological expertise could be quite useful to them, Graffagnino said.

“If Scott can bring this to fruition, this will be a service that will be useful to lots and lots of organizations in Vermont,” Graffagnino said. “It will strengthen the collection and accessibility of those collections.”

It could be of great benefit to people outside Vermont, too, according to Richard Allen, co-editor of the Essex Community Historical Society newsletter and a teacher in Williston.

“There are 101 reasons why someone might want to dig into something from out of state,” Allen said. From home genealogy projects to academic study about immigration and settlement patterns, Allen said it isn’t unusual for his organization to get requests from out of town. A Web archive would save money for researchers who otherwise would need to travel to see the artifacts.

Allen said reviewing digital artifacts is not quite as romantic as going to “the musty, dusty shelves of the library and finding that one document or postcard that’s going to break your research” open. However, upon learning of Lowe’s project he said he would see it as “tremendously valuable.”

“(Digital) is so much the way that stuff is going now,” he said.

Lowe said his ability to start working with private collections and other historical societies is about a year away. First he must finish securing Local History Online’s nonprofit status, and he needs to firmly establish a template, which he will do with the Richmond Historical Society. Finding funding for the long-term viability of the project will come in time.

He doesn’t seem the least bit worried about the project’s future. He said his deepest wish is that someday the site would expand to include other states’ local histories.

“I get nothing but enthusiasm, pure enthusiasm from everybody I talk to about this,” Lowe said. “There’s so much about the present and so much about us that’s alive in history. And that’s ultimately what I want to convey about this project.”

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Ho-hum town elections

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Lack of competition ‘disconcerting’

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Despite town efforts this year to increase interest in public service, Williston Town Meeting Day ballots will sport not a single contested race.

Of the 16 elected public service openings to be decided by voters on March 6, ten positions have only one candidate and six positions have none.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said it was “disconcerting” to hear that.

McGuire said the town’s first-ever public service job fair held two weeks ago is a “first step” to increasing interest in running for town government. Previous board members have told McGuire they got involved because someone asked them to, he said.

That was the case with newcomer Laura Gigliotti who is running to replace outgoing Williston School Board member Andy Bishop for a two-year term.

Running for School Board, Gigliotti said, “was something on my own I probably wouldn’t have done.” She was encouraged to consider it, and after doing some research decided she was interested in the position. Gigliotti has a daughter in second grade and a son not yet in kindergarten.

Keith Roy, a helicopter pilot and flight instructor for the Vermont Army National Guard, is running for a three-year term on the Williston School Board, replacing long-time board member Marty Sundby.

“Running for School Board is a way to stay involved in the community and stay involved in my children’s school environment,” said Roy, who has a first and second grader.

No one submitted petitions for lister, cemetery commissioner, trustee of public funds, town agent or town grand juror. In November, Williston voters agreed to eliminate the latter three positions by amending the town charter, but the amendments do not take effect until affirmed by the state Legislature. The Selectboard may appoint candidates to open town positions.

McGuire said he believes that in the short term there is not a “tremendous effect” when open offices have just one candidate.

“Long-term, that’s not good,” McGuire said. “The town relies on volunteers to help guide policies and the future of the town. Without that guidance, most likely people may become dissatisfied with the way things are going; and then they may get involved.”

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Waste district ends landfill buyout talks

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Chittenden Solid Waste District last week ended talks with the Town of Williston about a buyout that could have cost at least $76 million. The buyout, if it had proceeded, would have released the town from an agreement to host a proposed regional landfill.

“It’s a two-party discussion and when one party says they don’t want to talk anymore you don’t have a whole lot of choice,” Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire said. “…That doesn’t mean it’s the end of discussions period, it just means it’s the end of discussions on this buyout option.”

Solid waste district Manager Tom Moreau said it was out of respect for Williston – so as not to string town officials along – that the buyout talks were halted.

“We don’t think this is the best time (to continue the discussion),” Moreau said. “There’s a lot more work to do. We don’t know what the alternatives would be.”

Moreau said the district continues to look at options for reducing the waste stream – from expanding the kinds of recyclables it will accept (plastics Numbers 3-7 are expected to be accepted within the next year) to increasing the amount of organic matter collected.

“There’s a point of diminishing returns,” Moreau said. “There’s a point where if you remove enough, it’s no longer economically viable to build a landfill.”

As research work continues, Moreau said, all alternatives will be considered.

“If the landfill is still a good idea, we’re going to go through with that,” he said. “If the landfill no longer is a good idea, then I don’t think it’s Williston’s responsibility to buy the district out.” Moreau emphasized that is his personal opinion, not necessarily the opinion of the board’s.

Unofficial minutes of the Jan. 24 solid waste district board meeting indicate that Commissioner Paul Stabler of South Burlington said the buyout discussion was done as a “courtesy.”

“There are no viable alternatives to a landfill at this point in time and it is ethically responsible to take care of our own (Chittenden County) trash,” the minutes say Stabler indicated. The parenthetical statement appears in the minutes.

The board did not take a formal vote and nine commissioners were present, Moreau said. According to the District’s Web site, three seats on the 18-member board are vacant.

Moreau said if a buyout was further considered, the solid waste district would not have required Williston to pay back the $1 million it was paid in the early 1990s as compensation for signing the Host Town Agreement. A landfill known as “Phase 3,” run in the early-to-mid 1990s, had an impact on Williston, Moreau said. “We don’t expect that money back.”

Still, the cost of a buyout could have been prohibitive. In a Jan. 19 memo to the Board of Commissioners, Moreau outlined four potential buyout costs. The district’s costs since the host town agreement was signed amounted to over $4.3 million. Hinesburg Sand and Gravel, the business in a legal battle over the land, might require reimbursement for legal expenses, an amount the business had not yet shared with district officials. The proposed landfill is estimated to save the district a net of $72 million over the current practice of transferring waste to the two private landfills. And then there are inflation costs.

In October, McGuire wrote a letter formally requesting talks with the solid waste district about buying out of the “Host Town Agreement.” Williston voters in 1992 approved the sale of town land to the solid waste district and the agreement to host a future regional landfill. Solid waste district officials have said 2011 is the earliest the landfill would open, in part due to an ongoing lawsuit over land with Hinesburg Sand and Gravel. Moreau said he expects a conceptual design for the landfill will be available for public comment in April.

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Online service builds neighborhood connections

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Thousands sign up for Front Porch Forum

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Many have remarked on the increasing social isolation of Americans. The Internet is sometimes blamed, with critics saying it encourages interaction among far-flung strangers while reducing time spent with next-store neighbors.

But a free online service by Burlington resident Michael Wood-Lewis could turn that conventional wisdom about the Internet on its head.

Front Porch Forum (www.frontporchforum.com) is an e-mail newsletter that connects neighbors in Williston and throughout Chittenden County. Those who sign up receive regular messages containing recent posts only from neighbors. The messages can be anything from someone trying to find a car seat for their child to commentary on a neighborhood controversy.

“Our goal is that people feel like they know their neighbors,” Wood-Lewis said.

Wood-Lewis moved with his wife, Valerie, from Washington, D.C. to the Five Sisters neighborhood in Burlington several years ago. After learning he had missed a block party, he wondered how he could improve communication and foster friendships in his neighborhood.

“We were having a heck of a time meeting our neighbors,” he said. “It’s not that it was an unfriendly place – quite the opposite. It’s just that people were busy and on the run.”

So he decided to start a neighborhood e-mail list. Now more than 90 percent of the 350 households in Five Sisters subscribe.

The effort was so successful that he decided to launch Front Porch Forum last year, a Web site that allows people in other towns like Williston to sign up. Now more than 130 neighborhood forums cover every address in the county.

Sitting in his sunny kitchen last week, Wood-Lewis displayed on his laptop computer maps showing the location of each forum. Boundaries were outlined in red and each had a little bubble containing the number of members.

Roughly 3,300 households have signed up, about 7 percent of the county, Wood-Lewis said. In Burlington, some 15 percent of households are members.

In Williston and other outlying towns, the numbers are smaller, at least so far. Only about 9 percent of households in Williston have subscribed.

Brennan Woods, the town’s largest subdivision, is the only neighborhood with large numbers. About 85 percent of the households there are signed up.

That high percentage was achieved thanks to the Brennan Woods Homeowner’s Association, which sent out a group e-mail to all residents saying they would be signed up to Front Porch Forum unless they opted out. No one did.

“Instant critical mass was achieved,” Wood-Lewis said, noting that he is willing to work with other homeowner associations to spur sign-ups.

Lisa Roy, treasurer of the Brennan Woods Homeowner’s Association, said the neighborhood was a good candidate for Front Porch Forum because the vast majority of residents use e-mail. She said the service supplements newsletters sent out by the association.

The forum, which started in the fall, has seen limited activity to date. “My guess is that most people read them, but there’s not a lot of people posting yet,” Roy said.

However, the forum has served as a neighborhood watch, with a post telling people to be on the lookout for teenagers ringing doorbells, Roy said. The Williston Police Department has been asked to use the forum to notify residents about break-ins or other crimes in the neighborhood.

Brennan Woods resident Marty Bonneau submitted a post asking for advice on deep-frying turkey and another one asking for help with a bottle drive.

“I really see it as beneficial because a lot of people are online here,” said Bonneau, who is vice president of the homeowner’s association. “At least for the little things, it’s getting more information out there than usual.”

Front Porch Forum contrasts with other online services such as MySpace because it is narrowly tailored to specific neighborhoods. Only residents can access their neighborhood’s forum, and can send messages only to the group as a whole. All posts are periodically condensed into a single e-mail message and sent to forum members, avoiding a flooded in-box.

Also contributing to the community feel is the fact that all posters are identified by name, street and e-mail address. That helps keep inappropriate messages to a minimum, Wood-Lewis said. He said he has only removed a couple of the thousands of messages posted since the service started.

A typical message falls into the “my cat is lost” category, which includes people looking for help from neighbors in finding some item or service, Wood-Lewis said. But more importantly that type of interaction leads to people getting to know each other and sometimes meeting in person.

“When these things start working, you’re dealing with your neighbors,” he said. “Neighbor-to-neighbor connections grow and multiply.”

How much the venture will grow remains an open question. Wood-Lewis, who previously worked as the executive director for a regional trade association, said running Front Porch Forum has become a full-time job. The only revenue so far has been $50 from a couple of Google advertisements.

But he hopes to sell more ads in the future, perhaps to small businesses that can’t afford the rates charged by large publications but want to target specific neighborhoods.

In the meantime, Wood-Lewis said he is excited about building a sense of community throughout Chittenden County – one e-mail at a time.

“I see it as having a huge potential to spread,” he said.

[Read more...]

Display symbolizes cost of war

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Thousands of flags show U.S. death toll

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

It’s a striking but mysterious sight: thousands of yellow utility flags planted in a snow-covered field next to a weathered barn on North Williston Road.

The display is easily visible to the thousands of motorists traveling the stretch just north of Mountain View Road each day. But what are the tiny flags, which are usually used to mark gas lines, doing there? And why so many?

Pat Brown, who lives in the adjacent farmhouse and owns the property, has the answers.

There are 3,066 flags, he explained, one to mark each American killed in the Iraq war. (The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the number had risen to 3,086.)

“I put them there because I didn’t think the media were reminding people often enough that people are dying every day,” he said.

Brown said he deliberately omitted obvious indications of the flags’ purpose because he wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions.

“I purposely didn’t put any sign out because I just wanted people to think,” he said.

Brown’s views on the war are as opaque as his display.

“I’d rather not say,” he said. “I put it out there because the war is an interesting issue. I don’t think the media are doing enough to teach us about what is going on.”

The flags have drawn reactions from a few passing motorists. Brown said some have stopped to ask about the flags’ purpose. One person driving a military vehicle snapped photographs.

Jericho resident Jill Cronkrite-Potvin sent an e-mail to the Observer asking about the flags, which she passes during her commute to South Burlington. She correctly guessed their purpose but wondered if the newspaper knew anything about the display.

In a follow-up e-mail, she said she first noticed the flags in the early fall.

“I remember thinking that if that is what they symbolized, there would be more every day,” she wrote. “The flags have been a reminder to me of my own father’s service to our country in the Navy during WWII, as well as the sacrifice of more recent veterans and their families.”

Brown, 55, is director of student life at the University of Vermont. He is married to Amy Huntington, a children’s book author. The couple have two grown children.

Huntington said the flags, purchased on the Internet for a couple of hundred dollars, were her husband’s idea. She said she supports the display and its thought-provoking nature.

“It’s so easy to forget (the death toll),” she said. “On the news, you get a little blip that so many people died in Iraq. It’s not an anti-war thing so much as you want people to remember what it’s all about.”

Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the war. Protesters numbering in the tens of thousands marched to the U.S. Capitol on Saturday. Hundreds of Vermonters participated.

Brown said he started displaying the flags after Thanksgiving. He has since occasionally added flags to reflect the latest death toll, most recently on Sunday.

As a college student in the 1960s, Brown said he was involved with Vietnam War protests “until they turned violent.” He said he also protested nuclear power during the 1970s.

Huntington said her husband “is the kind of person who gets fired up” about issues like the war in Iraq.

She also declined to voice her opinion about the conflict, but likened it to Vietnam.

“We remember the Vietnam War,” she said. “And now we have kids. It’s another generation and it’s happening again.”

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