August 24, 2019

Invisible housing planned in North Williston

Settlers Village would contain 49 units in sandpit

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Two brothers have filed plans to build an “invisible” subdivision at a sandpit they own on North Williston Road.

Settlers Village would include 27 single-family homes and 11 duplexes. It would be located between the Williston Woods senior housing subdivision and the railroad tracks on North Williston Road. Mike and Dan Fontaine own the sandpit and an adjacent farm next to the Winooski River.

Williston officials in recent years have become concerned about piecemeal development in areas like North Williston, which are in the agricultural-rural zoning district and are not served by public sewer. But Town Planner Lee Nellis said the project’s unique, well-hidden site may help it win approval.

“There’s a piece in the Comprehensive Plan that deals with ‘exceptional’ rural development,” he said. “Projects in the agricultural-rural zoning district that are invisible and on good soils get special consideration.”

The project, of course, will not actually be invisible. But Nellis explained the sandpit’s topography would hide the development from the road and existing residences.

“It’s in a bowl, literally, a bowlful of sand,” he said.

The sandy soil is ideal for creating a septic system, Nellis said. And the nearby farmland would help the project satisfy the town’s open-space requirement for new subdivisions.

Mike Fontaine emphasized that the plan is preliminary and subject to change based on the town’s input. But he said he hoped the project would offer affordable homes for young families who are now priced out of the market.

“That’s really what we’re shooting for is to build a community where young people can live,” he said. “There’s no more kids left in this neighborhood. I can’t even get enough together for a baseball team.”

Kerstin Foley, Mike Fontaine’s wife, said the development would allow the land to be used after the sand runs out and provide retirement money for her family.

“All our assets are wrapped up in the land,” she said, adding that the money will also provide a hedge against an uncertain future for family farms.

Plans call for the project to be built in two phases. The first will comprise 13 units arranged on a cul-de-sac on a used-up portion of the sandpit. The second will include 36 units in the part of the sandpit now in use. The later phase will be built when the sand supply is exhausted, which Fontaine figures will take five or six years.

The subdivision would be accessed via a private road that runs directly off North Williston Road.

Zoning rules require 75 percent of a development in the agricultural-rural zoning district to remain open space. According to the plans, only 60 acres of the total 283 acres will be developed.

Foley said much of the open space is agricultural land near the river, which her family intends to continue farming. Nellis noted that much of that is considered wetland, which could not be developed in any case.

The project will have to be built over several years under the town’s phasing rules. Williston limits new home construction to 80 units annually, and only 12 homes each year may be constructed in the agricultural-rural district.

Some of the homes under that quota have already been permitted. But Nellis said the “pipeline is less full” after the next two or three years, meaning Settlers Village could squeeze in under the cap if it is built out slowly enough.

The unusual land – sandy soil for a community septic system, abundant open space and a hidden location – make it a good prospect for development, Nellis said.

“Of all the parcels of land within the rural part of town, this might be the best for development,” he said.

[Read more…]

Hinesburg Sand and Gravel not entitled to $4.8 M

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Vermont Supreme Court last week upheld a lower court decision that Hinesburg Sand and Gravel Co. Inc., is not entitled to $4.8 million in business losses due to the seizing of their Williston sand pit by Chittenden Solid Waste District. The court also ruled the company is not entitled to interest beyond the fair market value of the land as of January 2000.

The ruling is just one more step in a legal battle that started 15 years ago to create a new regional landfill. In 1992 Hinesburg Sand and Gravel refused to sell 76 acres on Redmond Road, so the waste district began legal proceedings to seize it. Since that time, the parties have been embroiled in legal battles to determine proper compensation.

Last week’s court opinion, according to Chittenden Solid Waste District Manager Tom Moreau, has the potential to delay the start of the landfill’s construction. If the court found the district responsible for paying interest on the value of the land and on millions in business losses, Moreau said, the waste district could be facing roughly $1 million a year in interest payments, forcing them to rush into construction to avoid incurring additional interest.

“This gives us a little breathing room,” Moreau said.

That breathing room, he said, includes looking at developing some new programs to divert more waste from landfills. The CSWD Board of Commissioners was scheduled to meet Wednesday night, after the Observer went to press, to hear the options in light of the ruling.

Hinesburg Sand and Gravel General Manager Tim Casey said the company is “disappointed in what the Supreme Court did” last week, but has not decided if it will file a motion to reconsider the business losses. The company also has the right to request a new jury trial to assess the updated value of the property as of the date of payment, according to the opinion. The waste district has yet to provide compensation since it has not yet taken the land.

In 2003, a jury determined the waste district should pay Hinesburg Sand and Gravel $8.8 million for the seized land — $4 million for the land and $4.8 million in business losses. Appraisal experts for both parties said during the jury trial that the “highest and best use of the property was as a landfill, and not as a sand pit,” according to the court opinion. The experts agreed the property as a landfill was worth about $1.8 million; Hinesburg Sand and Gravel President Paul Casey testified he thought the property was worth $7.5 million, without considering the value of the sand.

The sand pit, the company argued, provides important raw materials for the company’s operations. The waste district had agreed to excavate and stockpile sand from the pit and make it available for up to 30 years, but the Hinesburg Sand and Gravel said it would incur losses to sort and clean the sand. During the jury trial, the company estimated that processing would cost them $5.7 million.

In March 2005, Chittenden Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz ruled the solid waste district did not need to pay for business losses as determined by the 2003 jury decision. Hinesburg Sand and Gravel appealed to the Supreme Court; that appeal resulted in last week’s decision.

Casey doesn’t expect the land battles to end anytime soon.

“We will continue fighting this as long as it takes; we’re not going to give up,” he said. “We would be very happy for them to just go away and leave us alone and give us the property back and pay us the damages of what they’ve caused us.”

Hinesburg Sand and Gravel has 14 days to file a motion for re-argument, according to the company’s attorney, Robert O’Neill of Gravel and Shea.

An earlier federal lawsuit by Hinesburg Sand and Gravel against the waste district was stayed pending the outcome of state proceedings. The company sued the waste district for violating its constitutional rights in the initial taking of the land.


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Fire/EMS volunteers sought

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When Williston native Steve Borah signed up to be a volunteer firefighter 15 years ago, he did so because he wanted to do his part to help in town.

“I wasn’t coaching, I wasn’t teaching, I wasn’t mentoring,” Borah said. “It’s been a fantastic 15 years … It’s really, really rewarding.”

Whether the Town Meeting Day proposal to hire additional full-time staff had passed or failed, the Williston Fire Department would have been looking to add more firefighters and Emergency Medical Services providers to its on-call roster. With the defeat of Article 9, however, the department needs to beef up its on-call staff even more, according to Chief Ken Morton.

“I’d like to see 15 or 20 interested people,” Morton said. “Out of that group, I don’t know what we’re going to find for the type of commitment people can give.”

The commitment is significant, according to both Borah and Morton.

“It is a lot of work, and it is a lot of inconvenience to your life,” Borah said. Calls come in the middle of dinner, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the worst rain or snowstorms, he said. “You get called and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to go do.”

In addition to an application process, applying for the job includes agility and skills testing, a physical and a criminal background check. Firefighters must enroll in a state certification course called Firefighter I, which entails roughly 144 hours of instruction. EMS staff must complete certification for Emergency Medical Technician – Basic, a minimum of 110 training hours.

On-call staff also must attend 16 of 24 trainings the department offers annually. Firefighters must respond to at least 5 percent of all calls – an average of one a week. EMS staff members cover at least one or two 12-hour shifts a week. Generally they also complete a weekend shift a month.

“On one hand, we really want people,” Morton said. “On the other hand, people have to be eyes wide open. We have so many standards to meet.”

Morton said it’s been a few years since the department has done an aggressive recruitment campaign. Three new people have signed on each of the last two years, split equally between fire and EMS.

While the on-call roster has about 30 people on it, including both fire and EMS staff, only two-thirds of those people are active, Morton said. The need for staff grows as the number of calls increases. When Borah started, for example, the department responded to roughly 70 or 80 calls a year, he said; now the department responds to more than 700.

Incentives include payment – base pay is $8 per hour with higher pay for higher levels of certification and equipment knowledge – and a nice facility in which to work, Morton said. Borah said having excellent equipment means staff do their work as safely as is possible.

For Borah, one incentive has kept him “helping out” for 15 years:

“It instills a really good feeling about what you’re doing and what you’re doing for people.”

[Read more…]

Forestry plan will nurture town

Residents’ input sought on planting and care

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

As the weather warms each spring, buds emerge on trees throughout Williston. The town is trying to ensure those trees continue their annual renewal for years to come.

A committee is currently formulating a community forestry plan. The plan will outline a strategy for nurturing the town’s more than 1,300 public trees.

Those trees are in good shape overall, according to an inventory done over the past two summers. But there are some problems, said Carrie Deegan, Williston’s environmental planner.

The inventory found too many trees of the same species in some neighborhoods, making them vulnerable to disease, Deegan said. Some trees need better pruning and maintenance.

Meanwhile, the town is responsible for the many young trees in new subdivisions that have sprouted in Williston in recent years.

So, with the help of a $4,000 state grant, a committee was formed to write a forestry plan. Williston planners are also in the process of rewriting the town’s zoning ordinance, which Deegan said would address the issue by guiding tree types and placements in new developments.

Public trees are located in parks and cemeteries as well as on schools grounds and at town offices. They also include trees in the public right of way.

The right of way varies according to the street or road. But starting from the centerline, it typically extends 30 to 35 feet toward each side of a road.

Trees in the right of way, which can include the grassy island sandwiched between curb and sidewalk often found in subdivisions, are owned by the landowner. But under state law, landowners cannot cut down or even prune those trees without the town’s permission.

“A tree’s status depends on where it is located,” wrote attorney Paul Gillies in a briefing for the Vermont Institute for Government. “If it’s in the public right-of-way … it isn’t yours to cut or split into cordwood without permission of a public official.”

Residents rarely cut down trees in the right of way or on municipal land without the town’s permission, Deegan said. But improper maintenance isn’t unusual.

The problems include “mulch volcanoes” where mulch is piled up around the base of a tree, causing improper root growth and trunk rot; and incorrect pruning, which can cause weak forks and branches.

The tree inventory found other problems. Heritage Meadows, for example, had only one type of tree in the right of way. If insects or disease strike, all those trees could be wiped out.

In Brennan Woods, many of the trees have been improperly planted and maintained, the inventory found. That neighborhood also has limited tree diversity.

About 65 Vermont communities have forestry plans, said Danielle Fitzko, who coordinates the state’s urban and community forestry program. She said the key to making plans work is having consistent funding through the municipal budget and oversight by paid town staff.

Williston’s relatively rapid growth means that a forestry plan will be especially helpful in catching up on tree maintenance and correcting problems, Fitzko said.

Though the town is ultimately responsible for maintenance of trees on public land and in the right of way, Deegan emphasized that she wants to work with homeowners associations and other groups to encourage proper care.

The committee is about halfway to completing a draft of the forestry plan. Deegan expects the plan will be finished in June, after which a public hearing will be held.

In the meantime, she welcomes comments from residents on where they would like to see new trees planted and what subjects should be covered during future workshops. The town is also looking for volunteers to work with trees.

“We’re really at the point where we really could use some public input about where people want to see trees planted in the future,” Deegan said.

[Read more…]


Hearing set on credit union proposal

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A local financial institution has filed an application for a farmers’ market near its Taft Corners headquarters. Meanwhile, a resident firmed up plans for her own market in Williston Village.

New England Federal Credit Union wants to host a farmers’ market on a grassy one-acre site next to its building on Harvest Lane. The credit union last week applied for a town permit.

Williston resident Christina Mead is lining up vendors for her market on the town green next to Dorothy Alling Library. She has received Selectboard approval for the proposal, but must still obtain a permit, town planning staff members said.

New England Federal Credit Union plans to operate its market on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., said Cindy Morgan, NEFCU’s marketing manager. The market is scheduled to open by the end of June or the beginning of July.

The credit union is waiting to see if it receives a site plan permit before determining the precise number and types of vendors, Morgan said.

“We want to know for sure we’re going to do this,” she said. “It’s kind of premature at this point.”

However, Morgan said, the market will have an emphasis on locally grown produce. Some prepared foods and arts and crafts could also be sold.

The credit union’s application indicates that it will reserve a portion of its parking lot for a vendors’ staging area. Morgan said the parking lot also has space for both credit union and farmers’ market customers.

Though it may seem an odd combination, Morgan has said a farmers’ market is actually a good fit with the credit union’s mission to serve the community as a nonprofit. The market could also attract new customers to the credit union.

Mead was initially worried that Williston was not large enough to support two markets. But after talking to Morgan and potential vendors, she was convinced her proposal would still work.

“They didn’t think it was an issue because they are on opposite days,” Mead said.

The market in Williston Village will operate on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mead said. It will open July 7 and run through Oct. 13.

She has already started to sign up vendors. Offerings will include fruits and vegetables, homemade sauces and marinades, flatbread pizza and jewelry.

The idea, Mead said, is to have enough variety to appeal to a wide range of customers. Her only requirement for vendors is that they sell goods made or grown in Vermont.

“We’ll have some really cool, different vendors,” Mead said, noting that she hopes the market will also provide a place for residents to socialize.

The Development Review Board is scheduled to consider New England Federal Credit Union’s application for the farmers’ market on Tuesday, April 24. The hearing begins at 8:15 p.m.

Christina Mead is still seeking vendors for her farmers’ market. Mead invites interested vendors to call her at 872-7728 or send e-mail to

[Read more…]

Circ study coming soon, state says

Planners worried about slow progress

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The long-awaited look at alternatives to the long-delayed Circumferential Highway will be released soon.

That was the message last week from a state highway official to a regional planning group weary of waiting for the slow-moving study.

The governing board of the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization met on April 18 with Ken Robie, project manager for what is now called the Circ-Williston Transportation Project.

Robie updated the board on a study that takes a detailed look at several road projects designed to ease traffic in and around Williston. The study now covers 10 options, which include the originally proposed Circumferential Highway as well as various other designs.

Scott Johnstone, CCMPO’s executive director, said board members had heard little about the study since last year and so asked Robie to provide a briefing. He said the board was also concerned about the state’s failure to budget money for construction of whatever option is eventually picked.

Johnstone said “frustration” was the word that best describes several board members’ feelings about the study. Many others, he said, share that emotion.

“When I talk to folks in the business community and the public at large, that’s what I hear from them, too,” he said. “Opinions vary on what should be built. But the thing that cuts through it with everybody is that it’s time to make a decision.”

The state announced last May that the study, which was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 2006, would not be finished until this spring. Robie said he now expects the detailed assessment of each option to be released in late spring or early summer.

Robie acknowledged that the study has progressed more slowly than originally planned and that the CCMPO board was worried the state did consider it a priority.
“They were getting antsy because there have been no major public hearings since February of last year,” Robie said. “They really hadn’t heard much since last year. So silence, of course, made them nervous.”

Money originally set aside for Circ construction was eliminated from the governor’s proposed budget so funding could be shifted into maintaining existing roads, Robie said.

Johnstone said the CCMPO board, which formulates on a four-year transportation plan, was told the state did not plan on building the Circ or any of its alternatives during that time frame due to an anticipated legal battle over whatever option is chosen.

As originally designed, the Circumferential Highway was supposed to carve a 16-mile arc from Williston to Colchester. To date, only a four-mile stretch of the highway in Essex has been built.

The options considered by the study can be broadly grouped into three categories: build the Circ or another road along the originally planned route; widen Route 2A and/or replace traffic lights with roundabouts; or combine elements of both. Another option is to build nothing.

Over the past few months, the state had added two alternatives to the original list of eight.

The new options include a variation on the original Circ design that uses a diamond-shaped interchange at Mountain View Road. The idea is to lessen the highway’s impact on wetlands, Robie said.

The other new alternative features an exit at the intersection of U.S. 2. The original Circ design called for an underpass with no access to Route 2.

The delay in the study – formally called an Environmental Impact Statement – has already added $1 million to the study’s original $6.3 million budget. Robie did not rule out even larger study expenditures in the future.

Progress has been slow because of the many options, Robie said. Nationally, he said, similar studies typically include only three or four options.

The state and its consultant are also proceeding carefully because they think any number of groups could sue to stop construction – no matter what option is chosen. Vermont Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville told the Observer earlier this year that he considered the study a “litigation defense document.”

In fact, the EIS process started after a coalition of environmental groups called the Smart Growth Collaborative sued to stop the construction of the Circ Highway until an updated study was completed. The last EIS was done in the 1980s, and the group said it was out of date.

A federal judge in May 2004 ruled in favor of the environmentalists. The decision halted preliminary work on the Williston segment of the highway, which would have run between Interstate 89 to Vermont 117 in Essex.

Robie said a trio of public workshops to answer questions about the study will be scheduled in May. He said the detailed assessment of each option will be released a few weeks after the meetings are held.

One “preferred alternative” will then be chosen. The Federal Highway Administration has the final say on what project is finally built.

The Circ as originally designed enjoyed widespread support. Johnstone said previous surveys by the CCMPO showed roughly 70 percent of Chittenden County residents favor construction of the highway.

[Read more…]

Local teacher runs Boston Marathon Monday

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

John Duncan’s 1991 dusty, dark blue Volvo may get almost as much credit as its owner for getting Duncan qualified for the Boston Marathon on April 16.

If it weren’t for the Volvo, Duncan would have missed his chance to run the New York City Marathon last fall, interrupting his goal of running the race every 10 years from 50 to 100.

“Tradition is important to me,” Duncan, 60, said last week. “This is something I had to do.”

If it weren’t for the Volvo, which has 236,000 miles on it, Duncan also would have missed the marathon that qualified him for his dream race, the Boston Marathon.

On Patriot’s Day, when thousands of Massachusetts school children and government officials will be on vacation for the state holiday, more than 20,000 people from around the world will descend upon Boston for the pinnacle of running competitions. Duncan will be among them, wearing bib number 18365.

“I was proud of him,” fifth grader Amanda Beatty said, explaining why she bought “Mr. Duncan” a purple tie with runners on it after he qualified for the Boston Marathon in New York. “He made it to what he wanted to do.”

Various shapes of construction paper hang from the ceiling of Duncan’s classroom in which Amanda is a student. Each shape lists the goal of one of the homeroom student’s goals for the year. Duncan’s goal is visible, too: Run the New York City Marathon in under four hours and qualify for Boston.

Duncan logged all the usual long training runs and months of conditioning that made him physically ready for the New York City race. What his Volvo did, however, was give him a place to sleep a half dozen times on the streets of New York City so that he could run the races he needed to run to get into the New York City Marathon.

Like the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, entry to New York’s race is based on a lottery. Duncan didn’t win the lottery, so realized his only chance to run the race he promised himself he’d run was by joining the New York Road Runners Club.

The Club holds a series of nine races in Central Park; those who complete them gain automatic entry to the New York marathon. Duncan couldn’t afford to stay in hotels that many times, so he had a friend build some curtains for his car and he slept on an air mattress in the back on Riverside Drive.

“I’d have my Powerbar and I’d have my grapefruit there in the morning,” Duncan said. At night, he’d walk to a diner on 100th Street to use the bathroom and have a dish of ice cream before bed.

“I slept like a baby every night,” Duncan said. “Well, most nights. Some nights were pretty hot.”

Duncan did the half-marathons and the five and 10-kilometer races that eventually earned him a slot for the New York marathon. After one of the races, the Run Hit Wonder, he met his music idol, Joan Jett, and secured her autograph and a picture of himself with her inside her bus. At another race, he met a runner and his wife with whom he has become good friends.

“It was more than just running the New York marathon in hopes of qualifying for Boston,” Duncan said. “It was a whole life event.”

Duncan said when he finally ran the New York Marathon, it was more than just him doing the running. He wanted his students to look at him as a 60-year-old and feel inspired to push themselves, too. Some of his students, he said, followed his race progress on the Web that day.

At 3 hours, 56 minutes and 35 seconds, Duncan became one of four Vermonters age 60 or over to qualify for the upcoming Boston Marathon.

Amanda said she thinks her teacher “can do it,” but acknowledged 26.2 miles is a long way. Her teacher’s stick-to-itiveness, however, has made Amanda want to work harder in swimming to achieve her goal – to make it to the state competition for swimming.

Watching Mr. Duncan, Amanda said, has made her think that “anything can be possible.”

[Read more…]