May 28, 2020

Town planner resigns position

Lee Nellis moving to Oregon

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis will quit his job and move out of state so his wife can attend law school in the Pacific Northwest.

Last week, Nellis informed Town Manager Rick McGuire that he intends to leave in July. Nellis said he gave more than two months notice so the town would have ample time to find his replacement.

Nellis said there is still a “1 or 2 percent chance” that he will stay at his job if his wife, Karen, changes her plans to attend school in Oregon. She is still awaiting word on other law school applications.

“I’m kind of along for the ride,” he said.

McGuire said Nellis gave him his letter of resignation last Wednesday. The opening was advertised on an Internet bulletin board for planners, and McGuire said by the following Friday afternoon the town had already received two resumes – one from Nebraska and one from Washington state.

Nellis said his decision to quit came after his wife decided to attend law school in Eugene, Ore. She had applied to other schools, including Vermont Law School in Randolph. She was accepted there, but the commute would have been too long for Nellis to continue working in Williston.

Nellis has worked for the town almost exactly three years. He moved from California to Vermont when he started in May 2004.

Nellis had nearly three decades of experience in planning-related positions when he came to Williston. He had worked as an assistant professor and authored a book on planning.

His experience as a planner was mostly in small communities in the western United States, with much of his work concentrating on growth management.

During his time in Williston, Nellis helped rewrite the town’s Comprehensive Plan, which received kudos for being well-organized and readable.

He is currently revising the town’s zoning ordinance and assembling an application to get state growth center status for the Taft Corners area. Nellis said a draft of the new zoning ordinance would be completed and the growth center application filed before he steps down.

McGuire said because Nellis came from a different region of the country, he had a unique perspective on the growing pains Williston has experienced over the past several years. Primarily through his work on the Comprehensive Plan, McGuire said Nellis will continue to influence the town for years to come.

“Lee’s experience had a very big impact on us,” McGuire said. “His input will be felt far in the future.”

McGuire said he would likely follow the procedure used to hire Nellis, narrowing down the initial applicants with telephone and in-person interviews, then conducting additional interviews before selecting someone to fill the position.

Nellis said his job, like many in the planning profession, was taxing, with long hours and an erratic schedule. But he added that there isn’t a better place in Vermont to work as a planner, both because of the top-notch town staff and the interesting challenges posed by Williston’s relatively rapid growth.

He said he would likely work in a planning-related position in his new home. But Nellis said at least for the immediate future he looks forward to just spending more time with his infant son and supporting his wife as she works toward her law degree.

“I’m sure I’ll find something to do that is equally complicated,” he said. “That seems to be my destiny.”

[Read more…]

Superfund process: Super slow?

Williston site in early stages

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When representatives of federal agencies visited Williston in September 2005 to discuss the Commerce Street Plume Superfund site, local residents might have reasonably expected more information in the following 12 months.

Representatives of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said they expected to release their public health assessment the following spring. The federal report would summarize if the Superfund site exposes people to potentially harmful hazardous substances. (A Vermont state official said last week there is no immediate risk to human health at the site.)

Also at that time, an Environmental Protection Agency official said the agency hoped to contact companies or other parties potentially responsible for the hazardous waste site the following spring. The EPA, responsible for administering the national Superfund program, attempts to identify those responsible for certain hazardous waste sites to assist in their cleanup or containment.

Twenty-two months later, neither agency has met those estimated goals, though officials at both say they’re only a few months away from doing so. Those same officials said in recent interviews that estimated time lines are necessarily imperfect given unique circumstances at each site.

“No single site has followed every one of those steps the way one would have thought,” said Karen Lumino, EPA New England’s remedial project manager for the Commerce Street Plume.

The site

From 1960 to 1984, liquid waste containing heavy metals and solvents was disposed of off and on into an unlined lagoon and a leach field at 96 Commerce St., just south of U.S. Route 2.

Mitec Systems Corp. discharged waste from electronic and microwave components manufactured on the site, which they leased from 1979 to 1986, according to the EPA Web site. The State of Vermont found the company responsible for violating hazardous waste regulations after a Mitec employee reported the discharge practices to the state in 1982.

In April, 2005, the site was added to the National Priorities List, identifying hazardous waste sites the EPA believes require additional investigation and potential cleanup or containment.

As recently as 2002, state monitoring found elevated levels of 13 metals and 11 volatile organic compounds, including trichloroethylene (TCE). Elevated levels of TCE consumed in drinking water over many years can cause liver problems or increase the risk of cancer, according to the EPA.

Michael B. Smith, a hydrogeologist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said because the contamination is so far underground – and because they believe it isn’t moving – that people are not at risk, unless they install a well.

Agency responses

Steve Richardson, an environmental health scientist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, acknowledged the draft of the public health assessment has taken longer than he expected.

Last summer, the agency sent some residents and media representatives a summary of the site and the agency’s responsibilities there.

“The public health assessment for the Commerce Street Plume site will be ready for public review and comment by the fall of 2006,” the flyer reads.

Last fall, Richardson said by phone the report would be ready by late November or December. At the end of last year, he said he expected it would be complete by the spring. This month, he said he is “shooting for” the end of September.

Richardson said two things have prevented the agency responding more quickly.

“Some other sites I’ve been working on took priority because of high-profile issues,” he said. Some of those sites have urgent public health hazards, unlike the Williston site, he said.

Electronic data passed along by the state also has slowed the agency’s work, Richardson said.

“It’s not a well-organized thing,” Richardson said of the more than 10,000 pages of electronic documents he received. “It’s pretty time consuming to get through all that and sort through and get the data.”

EPA’s Lumino said her agency expects to notify this summer the parties potentially responsible for the Williston hazardous waste site.

“A unique set of circumstances about this site have caused us to need to take additional time during this phase,” she said. “Every site is unique…. It’s very hard once you get in there and start doing the work to predict how much time (a step will take).”

Once the parties are notified, they have the opportunity to present evidence contradicting the EPA’s findings. Then the EPA works with those parties to develop a plan for cleanup or containment for which the parties should pay.

The national picture

A report released this spring by a national nonprofit news organization alleges the Superfund initiative nationally has lost momentum and funding. EPA officials concede inflation has eroded the power of their consistent budget, but disagree that the agency has any less commitment to cleanup work and recovering the cost of that work from polluters.

The Center for Public Integrity, which identifies itself as a non-partisan and non-advocacy organization committed to investigative journalism in the public interest, has over the last two months released portions of a report titled “Wasting away: Superfund’s toxic legacy.” The investigation, according to the report, was based on data obtained from the EPA through more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with dozens of experts in and out of the agency.

The Center’s investigation found that the startup rate of cleanup work in the last six years is only one-third as high as the previous six years. The number of sites reaching what the EPA calls “construction complete” in the last six years was roughly half that of the previous six years, the report said.

Betsy Southerland, the Superfund program’s director of assessment and remediation division at the EPA, said when the Superfund program started in 1983, no other federal or state agencies were authorized to do cleanup work, so even simple projects went through the Superfund process. Now, states no longer have to refer to Superfund if they have voluntary cleanup programs, she said.

“So what’s happening in recent times is very large, very complex, very expensive sites are the only ones coming to Superfund for cleanup,” Southerland said.

Looking ahead

Dave Deegan, a spokesperson for the EPA New England regional office, said that Superfund “definitely is a long, slow process.”

“We well understand that communities want to see something get done, finalized, stop having to worry about it, even if it’s something as simple as paying attention to the work that is done,” he said. “We try to do the work publicly and transparently so that people can follow it.”

[Read more…]

Teacher contract mediation fails

Parties move to fact finding

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Mediation last week failed to result in a new contract for teachers in Chittenden South Supervisory Union, of which Williston schools and Champlain Valley Union High School are members.

“We made progress in the mediation, there’s no question about that,” said attorney Scott Cameron of Zalinger Cameron & Lambek, P.C. Cameron is the chief negotiator for the CSSU School Board negotiating team. “The two issues that are getting the most attention are salary and health care. … The board and the association are still a fair distance apart, especially on salary I’d say. The health care is getting closer.”

Members of the CSSU School Board and the local education association met with mediator Ira Lobel, a former commissioner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, last Wednesday. Lobel is often called upon to mediate teacher contract disputes in Vermont when early negotiations fail to yield agreement. Parties in Chittenden South began negotiations in November for a contract to replace the one expiring June 30.

Details from the mediation are confidential, as neither party is bound to the offers made, Cameron said.

Christopher Hood, President of the Chittenden South Education Association, said teachers are “exceedingly disappointed” they’ll be starting the year without a contract.

“We know that budgets have already been approved in all of the towns that would more than adequately fund a reasonable settlement,” Hood said.

Hood said the association would be open to meeting again with the boards even as both parties move forward with the next step in negotiations, hiring a fact finder.

A fact finder will review comparable local teacher settlements and towns’ ability to pay for increases. Cameron said both parties have a month to prepare their fact-finding positions. The fact finder then will require roughly a month, Cameron said, to review points of discrepancy and issue recommendations. The fact finder’s report is confidential for the first 10 days after the parties receive it, in hopes an agreement can be reached. If not, the report becomes public.

Comparable teacher settlements are likely to be the most influential to a fact finder’s work, Cameron said. A fact finder report issued last year in neighboring Chittenden East Supervisory Union showed that other recent local teacher settlements gave roughly 4 percent annual salary increases. (Chittenden East is comprised of schools in Bolton, Huntington, Jericho, Richmond and Underhill, and Mount Mansfield Union High School.)

Over the last three years, CSSU teacher salaries have increased 4.55 percent each year. The Chittenden County average over the same period is 4.66 percent, according to data provided earlier this spring by CSSU. The average salary this year for a full-time teacher in Williston schools is $60,924; the average CVU High School teacher salary is $57,768.

Teachers’ contributions to health care premiums were a sore point among some Williston voters in the last budget cycle. The Chittenden East fact finder acknowledged that 20 percent contributions “may soon become the norm,” but that currently 10 percent contributions are more prevalent.

CVU High School and Williston teachers contribute 10 percent of the premium cost of either a single, two-person or family insurance plan. The current county average is 11 percent, with the teachers’ share increasing slightly next year, according to CSSU data.

[Read more…]

Survey uncovers Williston

UVM students find town’s hidden nature

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston’s landscape holds many surprises.

An unusual forest features long views and trees that seem to be shedding their bark. Spear points unearthed along the proposed route of the Circumferential Highway show that humans lived here thousands of years ago. Before it became a commercial center, Taft Corners was a historic crossroads that featured several taverns.

Those were among the findings of University of Vermont graduate students after a semester-long survey of Williston’s physical, ecological and cultural landscape. The students presented the results during a meeting last week at Williston Town Hall.

The program is called PLACE, short for Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Education. It aims to educate residents about their own towns.

Williston was especially ripe for such a study because it is a community in transition, a place that provides a contrast between intense development and bucolic landscape, said Walter Poleman, PLACE program director and senior lecturer with UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

“Generally, we survey rural towns,” Poleman said. “What was really appealing about Williston is that there is a lot happening as far as natural history goes that is not apparent, especially to people in the county who don’t live there.”

Williston, of course, is best known as the home to many big-box stores. But some 75 percent of the town’s 30 square miles is undeveloped and rural.

That came as a surprise to Jesse Fleisher, one of the 10 students who worked on the project.

“My only real knowledge of Williston was it was a place I passed through on the interstate,” he said. “I saw Taft Corners, and I thought that was all of Williston. I didn’t realize how much more there was. It turned out to be a pretty fascinating place.”

The PLACE program inventoried several categories of natural features, including soils, vegetation and wildlife. It also looked at how Williston’s cultural history impacted the landscape.

Poleman said the study revealed connections between those elements that may give Williston residents a new perspective on their town.

“We feel strongly that such an integrated and inclusive educational effort fosters both a sense of community and a sense of place – a potent combination that leads to a more informed and creative planning process,” said the project’s Web site, The site goes on to say that such an approach may allow community members “to transcend the divisive nature of many land-use debates.”

Poleman acknowledged that place-based landscape analysis will not by itself solve the battles over development that have raged in Williston and elsewhere in Chittenden County. But he said the information may allow residents to find common ground through an understanding of how the town’s geography and natural resources shaped land use in the past and suggest its best use in the future.

UVM students worked with members of the Williston Conservation Commission during the months-long survey process, said Carrie Deegan, the town’s environmental planner.

Deegan said she and Conservation Commission members were already aware of much of the information gathered by students. But an interactive map showing natural features can now be accessed by residents through the program’s Web site, which she said may head off questions planners might otherwise answer about the location of wetlands and other natural features.

“Now this is something they can do at their own home,” Deegan said.

Among the natural features that might surprise even long-time residents is a wooded area near Five Tree Hill. Called a dry oak-hickory-hop hornbeam forest, it has little undergrowth, allowing visitors to see long distances through the trees. Shallow soil and a relatively warm microclimate foster growth of the unique shagbark hickory tree.

Another unusual find were arrowheads and spear points in the path of the proposed Circumferential Highway. They were dug up by archeology students surveying the highway route a few years ago, Poleman said.

The PLACE program started in the late 1990s as a collaboration between UVM and Shelburne Farms. Initially, a series of field trips was offered to Shelburne residents.

The first official PLACE project took place in Richmond in 2001. Since then, programs have been conducted in Thetford and Jericho.

The survey and analysis in Williston is just a prelude to the program’s community outreach effort, Poleman said.

Six Williston teachers have already signed up to learn more about the town’s geology and natural history during professional development sessions scheduled for next month, Poleman said.

Fleisher expects to work with the Conservation Commission throughout the summer. He said one site of particular interest is wetlands near Williston Central School. Workshops for the general public will be held next fall.

The hope is that residents will contribute to the study, sharing their knowledge of Williston’s natural and cultural history while they learn more about their town, Poleman said.

Fleisher said Williston, wedged between the Champlain Valley and the foothills of the Green Mountains, has a surprisingly diverse landscape. He said residents who learn about the physical landscape and cultural history will feel a deeper connection to Williston.

“The more knowledgeable and interested people are in their town, the better stewards they become to their land,” Fleisher said.

[Read more…]

Study of Circ Highway options released

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The original Circumferential Highway design does the best overall job of relieving traffic congestion, according to a study of road-building alternatives released Tuesday.

The study marks the third step in a five-part, court-mandated Environmental Impact Statement. The analysis considers a plethora of alternatives to the original Circ design, comparing how each would affect traffic, safety, the environment and many other factors.

“This is a little like American Idol,” said Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Neale Lunderville at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “You start with a list of alternatives and pare them down.”

The analysis looks at 10 options as well as a no-build alternative. The options fall into three categories: build a limited-access highway or a boulevard along the originally planned Circ route between Interstate 89 in Williston and Vermont Route 117 in Essex; widen Vermont Route 2A to three or four lanes through Williston and Essex; or construct a hybrid that uses parts of each approach.

Results of the analysis are mixed. Some of the Route 2A and hybrid options do better in categories such as safety, cost and environmental impacts. But when it comes to traffic relief, the original Circ design beats the other options, albeit sometimes by only a narrow margin.

For example, building the Circ would reduce backups along Route 2A, avoiding a failing level of service (defined as a wait of 80 seconds or more) at all intersections during morning and afternoon rush hours. Three intersections currently fail, and six would fail by 2030 without any new road construction, according to the analysis.

Some of the other options, however, work nearly as well. For example, the hybrid option that calls for widening Route 2A to three lanes, replacing traffic lights with roundabouts and building a street along the Circ route also eliminates failing intersections.

All the other alternatives leave one or two failing intersections.

As for improving traffic flow between Route 2A intersections, the Circ finishes only in the middle of the pack. Two of the Route 2A widening options and two of the hybrid alternatives do better.

A limited-access Circ is best at speeding the commute between Williston and Essex Junction, according to the analysis. When all possible routes between the two towns are considered, building a limited-access highway would cut the average travel time between the two towns by 7-15 percent. Other options show small improvements ranging from 10 percent to 0.5 percent.

The analysis said the Circ options have a clear advantage in two other categories: moving truck traffic off local roads and relieving congestion on North Williston Road, which some motorists use instead of Route 2A.

The study marks the latest development in the long-running Circumferential Highway saga.

The highway as originally proposed was supposed to be a 16-mile bypass running from Williston to Colchester. Only the middle segment in Essex has been built.

Work on the Williston segment had started in May 2004 when a federal judge ordered construction to halt until a new Environmental Impact Statement could be completed. The former study dated back to the 1980s.

Transportation officials presented results of the new analysis during a pair of meetings in Burlington and Essex on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. A third session is scheduled in Jericho on Thursday.

A draft of the Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled to be released in July. A 45-day public comment period follows, during which a public hearing will be held.

The final EIS and selection of the preferred alternative is expected by spring 2008.

But don’t expect highway construction to start then. Lunderville said he is nearly certain that opponents will sue to stop construction no matter which option is picked. That could delay the project by months or years.

[Read more…]

State may move employees to Williston

current building causes health problems

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Some state workers who are now housed in a building blamed for health problems may move to Williston.

The state has been looking for new office space for about 140 Agency of Human Services employees who currently work at 1193 North Ave. in Burlington, said Steve Gold, the agency’s deputy director.

Among the potential locations is the former Rossignol building on Industrial Avenue in Williston. Agency officials say they may divide the employees between that location and other office space in Burlington.

“That (Williston) space, were it available, is definitely an option,” Gold said. “We would strongly consider moving there at least some of the staff now working on North Avenue.”

The move would be temporary while the state constructs a new building, officials say. It will address workers’ concerns that the current location is causing respiratory illnesses.

But there’s a catch with the Williston location. The building, which was shuttered following Rossignol’s merger with a California company, is located in an industrial zoning district that permits offices only as an accessory use. Town ordinance would have to be changed to allow the state’s move.

Earlier this year, Burlington architect J. Graham Goldsmith proposed converting the 144,000-square-foot building into a small business incubator. The idea is to provide inexpensive space for fledgling businesses. That proposal would also require a zoning change.

Town Planner Lee Nellis is currently rewriting Williston’s zoning ordinance, and one of the changes may allow more office use in the industrial district. Nellis said the state could wait for the rewrite or apply to have the building rezoned before the new ordinance is adopted.

The Planning Commission considered the matter on Tuesday night. Chairman David Yandell said the commission agreed in principle to alter zoning by allowing a greater proportion of office use in industrial buildings.

“We just see the need to loosen up the zoning a little bit to allow the owner more flexibility to attract tenants,” Yandell said.

Both the Planning Commission and the Selectboard must first hold public hearings before officially changing the zoning. Yandell said the commission could schedule its hearing as soon as the end of this month. The Selectboard has the final say on zoning changes.

Tom Sandretto, the state’s deputy commissioner of Buildings and General Services, said new space is needed soon to ease employees’ worries about their health. He emphasized, however, that the situation is not comparable to the case in Bennington, where a state building was shut down after workers claimed to have contracted serious illnesses.

“It’s not a sick building,” Sandretto said. “But the history is that there have been indoor air quality complaints for a number of years.”

Employees have reported sinus problems, respiratory infections and asthma, said Conor Casey, legislative coordinator for the Vermont State Employees Association.

“People in the building have gotten used to being sick,” Casey said. “It’s really a pretty bad situation.”

Dividing the state workers between Williston and Burlington could provide a workable solution for the thousands of people in Chittenden County the agency serves each year, Gold said.

The North Avenue building includes offices for the Health Department and the agency’s Family Services Division. More than half the people who use the agency’s services come from outside Burlington, Gold said.

If the state leases the Rossignol building, Gold said the agency would work with the Chittenden County Transportation Authority to smooth bus service. Though there is a stop in front of the building, riders coming from Burlington must transfer buses to reach Williston.

It would take at least two years to construct a new office building for the employees, Gold said. But the state wants to find an interim home for the employees as soon as possible. If it takes several months to get a zoning change in Williston, he said the state may have to look elsewhere.

“I think the hope is to get settled in a new place sometime this summer,” Gold said. “We can’t make employees wait much longer.”

[Read more…]

Reluctant residents stall sidewalk projects

Some don’t want super-sized paths in their yards

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

In 2004, Williston voters resoundingly approved a $2.6 million bond to pay for new sidewalks. The bond, passed by nearly a 2-1 margin, was supposed to speed construction, allowing the sidewalks to be finished within three to five years instead of decades.

But now, more than three years later, only a piece of one sidewalk has been completed. The delay is mainly due to residents’ reluctance to allow the walks to run through their front yards.

“We’ve got right of way issues with every sidewalk in town,” said Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden. “We’ve come up against a fair amount of resistance in some areas.”

In at least one case, there has been barely any progress at all. On Mountain View Road, just two of roughly 43 property owners have granted easements for a sidewalk, Boyden said.

It’s not that the town hasn’t tried. Boyden said every single property owner along each sidewalk route has been contacted, some repeatedly.

In addition to Mountain View Road, sidewalks are planned on U.S. Route 2, on Vermont Route 2A, near the Meadow Run subdivision and on North Williston Road. Only a portion of the Route 2 sidewalk has actually been constructed.

North Williston Road residents have said they want the sidewalk, which would run between Route 2 and Mountain View Road. They noted traffic has greatly increased along their road in recent years, and a sidewalk would ensure pedestrian safety.

But plans for that stretch and the others call for a larger recreation path, which will cut roughly a 20-foot-wide swath through yards. The path itself would be about 10 feet wide and require about twice that much space when buffers are included, Boyden said.

A standard sidewalk is about 6 feet wide, and with the buffer requires an easement of about 10 feet.

The width of easements needed to construct sidewalks varies from one part of Williston to another. It depends on topography and the width of the existing public right of way along each road.

The North Williston Road path would run through Kerstin Hanson’s property. She said many of her neighbors have small front yards to start with, so a wide path would have a dramatic impact.

“For some people, you’d have the path running up to their front doorstep,” she said. “We want this, we just don’t want it to take over our property.”

Jim Chicoine, who lives on North Williston Road near the intersection of Route 2, said he already has a sidewalk along one side of his property. A wide path would leave him partially landlocked.

“I understand the need to extend the bike path, but the original plans just didn’t work,” he said.

Property owners on North Williston Road and elsewhere also worry about the effect a sidewalk would have on stormwater drainage and vegetation. In some cases, mature trees will have to be cut down.

Boyden said the town has offered to mitigate impacts with drainage improvements and plantings, but he acknowledged that decades-old trees cannot be replaced.

The wider recreation path provides more room for simultaneous use by bicyclists, walkers and runners. Standard sidewalks are designed mostly for pedestrians. Still, Boyden said, residents’ cooperation is needed to construct anything, so the town is willing to make accommodations.

Hanson said the town and North Williston Road residents have tentatively agreed to a narrower path that is about 6 feet wide. She and her neighbors complimented the town for listening to their concerns.

Negotiations elsewhere in Williston have been equally arduous. Two property owners along Route 2, for example, have refused to provide an easement, preventing construction of part of the sidewalk planned from Blair Park to North Brownell Road, Boyden said.

He said the Selectboard has a long-established policy of not paying for easements. Instead, the town has appealed to residents’ sense of civic duty by mentioning that the sidewalk funding was approved by voters and then offering to make accommodations.

“You can’t drive things down people’s throats and hold a gun to their heads,” Boyden said.

The town still hopes to acquire the North Williston Road easements and begin sidewalk construction there before fall, Boyden said. Also scheduled to be constructed this year is part of the segment between Blair Park and North Brownell Road.

Other sidewalks will likely have to wait until at least next year, particularly the Mountain View Road sidewalk and the remaining Route 2 segment, which are on hold until residents provide easements.

Chicoine said he sympathizes with the town’s travails in getting sidewalk easements.

“I feel for them, too,” he said. “They are trying to make everyone happy, but that’s never going to happen.”

[Read more…]

Shooting for fun

Williston gun club offers learning clinics

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Penny Finnegan jumps when a gun goes off nearby.

Emptying the spent shell from his shotgun alongside Finnegan, Shelburne resident Zack Burris, 18, prepares to aim again at the clay targets hurtling into the field before them.

“I’m scared to death,” Finnegan acknowledges, lining up for her turn behind the trap house for her first go at trapshooting.

The 64-year-old Williston resident has never shot anything before, she tells instructor Parker Brown. Except for in video games, she adds.

With eyeglasses resting atop her close-cropped white hair, Finnegan places the butt of the shotgun in the crook of her shoulder as instructed. Brown tells her to rest her face against the back part of the gun. When she is ready, she calls out “Pull!”

A target is mechanically released out of the trap house in front of her. Within seconds of the start of the “pigeon’s” flight, Finnegan pulls the trigger, breaking in midair the roughly 4-inch neon orange disc.

“Pull!” she calls again moments later.

Finnegan waits longer this time, the target hurtling away from her at roughly 50 miles an hour, before pulling the trigger and shattering the target.

“I think you could have waited another couple of days,” Brown jokes with her, noting it’s easier to hit the targets when they’re closer. “I can’t argue with the results, though.”

Finnegan was one of six who turned out Sunday for a “Learn to Shoot” clinic sponsored by the North Country Sportsman’s Club. A middle-aged couple from Underhill, two young adult brothers from Shelburne, and a Williston teen rounded out the class. The 54-acre club, located off Old Creamery Road in south Williston, will be offering clinics weekly through August as a way to get more people interested in the sport of trapshooting, according to club secretary and Williston resident Cindy Pease.

Trapshooting originated in England around 1750, according to the Amateur Trapshooting Association Web site. Real pigeons were used as targets until the population neared extinction; fake birds were then introduced, and eventually clay targets. The sport got its start in America in 1831.

The sport, which has an Olympic competition, requires a shooter to stand at least 16 yards behind the trap house. In the first part of the lesson Sunday, targets launched directly in front of students. In the latter part of the lesson, the trap house launched discs in five directions randomly. Within seconds, shooters must locate the target and pull the trigger in anticipation of where the target is moving. Generally, Brown told students on Sunday, a target will move roughly five feet between the time a trigger is pulled and when the shot gets there.

“You’ll probably poke a few holes in the sky,” Brown said.

Before walking onto the field Sunday, students also learned about gun safety (“in trapshooting, unlike football, there’s never been a fatal accident,” Brown said), how to hold a gun (“with a firm grip, not a death grip”), and how to aim (move from the hips up). Each 28-gauge shell contains about 350 pellets, Brown said, and it takes only three pellets to break a target.

“You’ve got a 100 to 1 shot,” he said.

The 90-minute clinics cost participants $10, which covers the use of a gun, hearing protection, eye protection, and enough ammunition for 25 targets.Part of the costs are covered by a $1,000 grant the club received from the Federation of Sportsman’s Club. Children under 10 are not advised to participate in the sport. A parent or guardian must accompany clinic participants under 18.

Williston resident Josh Paquette, 14, was the only youth participating Sunday and he brought his own gun. Josh nailed three out of five targets in his first round, aiming straight out over the trap house. He struggled, however, when the launcher oscillated, randomly sending the targets in various directions.

“It didn’t turn out as well as I planned,” the Mater Christi School eighth grader said after he’d wrapped up class. “I didn’t really concentrate; I shot before I was ready.”

This wasn’t Josh’s first try at the sport, and he’ll be back, he said. His family, who lives on Sunset Hill Road, is within hearing range of the club.

“Our attitude is if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” his mother, Linda Leavitt, said Sunday. “Since we hear all this noise anyway, we figure we might as well be a part of it.”

Finnegan can hear club activity from her home on Oak Hill Road as well. She’s known about the club ever since she moved to Williston in 1970, she said, but Sunday was her first visit. Now she plans to join. Though afraid of guns, she’s an avid horse rider and has always been intrigued by the sport of mounted shooting – shooting targets from atop a horse.

“I guess I’m a cowgirl at heart,” Finnegan said. “I don’t want to hunt. I don’t want to kill anything. But shooting targets seemed fun.”

North Country Sportsman’s Club is open for practice on Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. January to March and on Sundays April to December 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The club is also open Wednesdays 4 p.m. to dusk, April through October.

[Read more…]

School budget passes by 73 votes

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth put her hand on her chest and audibly exhaled Tuesday night upon hearing that the Williston School District budget passed.

The $15.69 million budget passed 668-595 (53 percent-47 percent), a margin of 73 votes. The budget proposed on Town Meeting Day – roughly $287,000 larger – received support from 44 percent of voters. Town Meeting Day had a higher turnout.

“A huge thanks to all the people that did get involved this time,” Worth said of voters who came to School Board meetings in March and April to share concerns and suggestions.

Worth said the board still needs community involvement in the fall, including at four public forums that will be scheduled to study areas for possible further cuts: food service, transportation, class structure, and facilities.

“These won’t be the last cuts,” Worth said. “We do want their involvement to see why the votes are so low.”

Leaving the polls Tuesday, a number of voters who were asked declined to comment on how they voted. Those willing to comment largely had voted in support of it.

“I think they came up with a budget that’s representative of what’s needed,” George Vandevord said. Vandevord and his wife, Caroline Vandevord, both said they supported the budget. The retired couple has lived in Williston seven years.

Parent Kort Longenbach, who’s lived in Williston 13 years, echoed the Vandevords’ sentiments. He said he felt the board had made some reasonable cuts given the time they had, and he supported the budget. However, he advised the board to step further back next year to look at how they can better contain growth so that percentage increases are lower.

“I think the budget growth is somewhat high given everyone else’s income,” Longenbach said. “I think they need to really step back and look at what the key drivers are, be creative about what they can do, look at what some of the external factors are driving the budget.”

Denise Keefe, who’s lived in Williston 50 years, voted no on the budget.

“I hope our message gets through that we’d like teachers to pay more for their health insurance,” she said.

Teachers in Chittenden South Supervisory Union, which includes teachers in Williston, currently contribute 10 percent to their health insurance premiums. That contract expires June 30. Teachers and school board members are currently negotiating a new contract.

Frank Pavlik, 46, supported the budget. He went through Williston schools himself decades ago, as did his kids, who are now in college, he said.

“The school does a good job, and I don’t appreciate protest votes,” Pavlik said. “When they want to try to save something in the pocketbook they vote a school budget down but there are a lot of things that could be addressed besides school budgets to decrease our taxes and our out-of-pocket expenses.”

Norman Rapoport, a Williston resident for 35 years, said he supported the budget because it’s important to support the school system. He added, however, that it didn’t surprise him the budget failed the first time because of high costs. Though Rapoport supported the budget the first time, too, he said it was important to him to see the School Board make an effort to pare it down after it failed.

“If they didn’t make an effort, I think I would have felt otherwise,” he said of his vote of support.

Worth acknowledged she was concerned about how the vote might turn out, but was relieved the School Board can now move forward with other work. She, like several others on Tuesday, commented on the low voter turnout.

Nearly 19 percent of registered voters cast ballots Tuesday, compared with 24 percent in March.

The vote outcome is not final until 30 days from Tuesday’s vote. By state law, voters may request reconsideration of an article within 30 days of a vote by submitting a petition signed by 5 percent of registered voters.

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The suite number does not exist. The phone number is not in use. And the Williston Development Review Board never approved the construction of a group of high-rise buildings reminiscent of Manhattan.

But the Web site of “Bid Assist” attempts to make its viewers believe it’s a bona fide company, based in Williston, which serves as a middleman for consumers making on-line purchases.

“It’s certainly not the skyline of Williston,” Vermont Assistant Attorney General Elliot Burg said, referring to a picture of office buildings on the company’s Web site, adjacent to their alleged address and phone number. “Maybe it’s the skyline in the year 2075.”

The facts, as researched by Observer staff, suggest the business is virtual in more ways than one.

Bid Assist’s building address is 300 Cornerstone Drive – the same building as the Observer offices, and across a parking lot from vBay, a legitimate business (with a real office – we can see it out the window) that assists people with neither the time nor expertise to sell goods on eBay, an online auction service.

Bid Assist’s suite number, 38, does not exist, according to Mel Israel, controller for Allen Brook Development, Inc., which is responsible for 300 Cornerstone Drive. Israel also confirmed no entity by the name of Bid Assist leases space at the location.

The business is registered neither with the Better Business Bureau nor the Vermont Secretary of State. The Web site domain names ( and are registered to Privacy Protect, an organization that conceals Web site registrant identities. The recording at Bid Assist’s listed Vermont phone number also does not inspire confidence: “This number is not in use. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”

The company claims to negotiate and pay for merchandise a consumer wants using the consumer’s eBay login information. It then has the merchandise shipped to a warehouse, and has the consumer pay them for the services. Bid Assist claims to ship to countries that online sellers won’t.

The company’s pricing structure alone is “foolishness,” according to vBay owner Wes Paro. “It doesn’t ring true,” he said.

The “couriers,” according to Bid Assist’s “Careers” Web site page, receive $60 per handled package, and not less than $1,520 per month, for up to eight hours of work weekly.

Burg said he “would have very serious concerns about doing business with this Web site in the absence of some kind of confirmation that it’s legitimate.” Beyond the fraudulent company address, the request for eBay passwords is a red flag, he said. Login information, Burg said, is something “people should absolutely avoid sharing with a third party,” a point reiterated by eBay itself.

An eBay spokeswoman confirmed that Bid Assist is not an authorized partner service. Burg said the Attorney General’s Office gets complaints about Internet fraud, including auction-related fraud, “all the time.” He has two pieces of advice for online shoppers at eBay or other online sellers.

“Do not go off-site – the quickest way to get scammed is to link to somebody’s personal e-mail,” Burg said. “Secondly, don’t wire money … You have no protection. Once the money is wired, it’s gone.”

Burg also advised people beware of entities that are “phishing” for personal information – whether it be bank account numbers or eBay passwords. Those scams, he said, often come in the form of an unsolicited e-mail.

A blogger who alerted the Williston Observer to Bid Assist received such an e-mail, offering him a job with the company “founded by three Stanford University graduates” and “officially registered in March 2004 with the Vermont Department of Corporations.” No such department exists.

“Deception Spotter,” the blogger, believes Bid Assist is not a “phishing” expedition, but a job scam.

Other than to say he speaks English, doesn’t live in the U.S., and may accurately be referred to with the pronoun “he,” Deception Spotter refused to identify himself for fear of being targeted by criminals for spoiling their scams on his Web sites: and

The blogger said for years he’s wanted to help solve the problem of spam.

“The predatory nature of spam began to offend me…so I decided to document as much of this activity as I could,” he said in an e-mail.

As spam laws have taken effect, he believes the effect has not been less spam, but more sinister efforts. Bid Assist, he believes, is one such example where people are scammed into becoming “mules” or go-betweens involved in re-shipper fraud.

Internet job scams are on the increase, according to a Better Business Bureau advisory issued in March.

“Complaints to the Better Business Bureau span dozens of sites, to include employment advertisements listed on well-known, legitimate job sites such as Monster, CareerBuilder and Yahoo Hot Jobs,” the BBB advisory reads. “A common denominator in all online job scams is the employer’s lack of interest in meeting the employee.”

Of all the tip-offs that Bid Assist may not be legitimate, perhaps the biggest is that these virtual Willistonians have no need to meet their employees. Vermonters, after all, are a congenial bunch.
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