October 25, 2014

Board denies appeal of zoning violation

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Homeowner subject to $100-a-day fines

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Development Review Board on Tuesday rejected an appeal from homeowners accused of violating town ordinance by installing a parking area in their front yard.

Scott and Miranda Roth, along with their neighbors, Forest and Erika White, received a citation last month after building what they considered a gravel turnaround in their yards. Both couples live along U.S. 2 in Williston’s historic district, which has strict rules designed to preserve its character and appearance.

The citation said the couples violated a rule that forbids parking spaces in the district’s greenbelt, the area between homes. It also stated that the couples failed to seek the required permit before laying gravel and enlarging the area.

Scott Roth told the Observer earlier this month that he felt that improving the parking area–he called it a turnaround – was routine maintenance, which is exempt under the ordinance and not subject to permitting requirements.

Roth pleaded his case during the board’s session Tuesday night. The Whites’ appeal is scheduled to be heard later this month.

Roth acknowledged that in hindsight he should have sought a permit. But he asserted that it was not a parking lot. “It’s not a parking space, it’s a turnaround,” he said, adding that he only occasionally parks in the space.

Zoning administrator D.K. Johnston, who issued the zoning violation, said it was in fact a parking lot and so was not allowed. “Quite simply put, parking isn’t a permitted use in greenbelt along Route 2,” Johnston said.

Roth claimed he was being unfairly singled out, saying there are several other turnarounds in front of homes in the historic district.

Board member Kelly Barland was not swayed by that argument, noting that the other turnarounds existed prior to the historic district’s establishment in 1988 and so were not subject to the ordinance.

Roth insisted that forcing him to remove it would create a safety hazard. He said traffic has increased greatly in recent years and without a turnaround he would have to back onto busy Route 2.

“If you find I can’t have a parking lot in front, I’m still going to have to turn around somewhere,” he said. “You can’t back onto Route 2. It’s not safe.”

There was also considerable discussion of the turnaround or parking area’s history. Both Roth and the town agreed it existed before the couple bought the house.

Roth said it was unfair to cite him for a violation that was there before he moved in. But board member Scott Rieley said improving and enlarging it triggered enforcement.

Roth offered to compromise by reducing the size of the turnaround, which he said is 26 feet wide and 20 feet long. He said it would be impossible to relocate it behind his home, which he claimed is not large enough and would force him to cut down a huge maple tree.

He also said making the change would cost thousands.

“I can’t afford $8,000 to put parking in the back – and that doesn’t include removing the tree,” Roth said.

Following the hearing, the board held a closed-door session to consider the case. After about 30 minutes, the board reopened the meeting and unanimously voted to reject the appeal.

Barland gave several reasons for the ruling. He said the town’s rules clearly forbid parking areas in the historic district’s greenbelt. He also said the fact that it existed before the Roths bought their house did not allow the couple to continue to violate the ordinance.

Johnston displayed photos of the Roths’ house that he said were taken in 1988 before the historic district was established. They showed there was no parking area in the front yard.

In its ruling, the board ordered the parking area removed within seven days of receipt of the formal notice of decision or else be subject to $100-a-day fines.

The appeal by the Whites, Roth’s neighbors, is scheduled to be heard by the board on July 24.

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Zoning enforcement action riles residents

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Town threatens fines over gravel turnaround

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Scott Roth figured a gravel turnaround would eliminate a muddy mess in his front yard and ease access to busy U.S. 2 in Williston Village. It worked, helping keep his yard dry and allowing he and his wife Miranda to avoid backing onto the busy thoroughfare.

But then they collided with a town ordinance.

The couple and their neighbors, Forrest and Erika White, have been cited for making changes to their historic district properties without a permit. The violation could subject each couple to $100-a-day fines and require them to tear out the turnarounds and replace them with grass.

The ordinance is intended to preserve the district’s historic feel. Both Scott Roth and Forrest White say they support the idea, but feel blindsided by hard-to-understand rules.

“To me it seems a bit unreasonable that we can’t have a turnaround in our front yard,” Roth said. “All we were doing is improving on what we already had. We didn’t realize we had opened up a huge can of worms.”

Roth said he and his neighbors never sought a permit because they thought the work was routine maintenance, which is exempt from the ordinance.

The violation concerns a shared gravel-covered area in front of both homes. Driveways run from it back to each house.

Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston said the turnaround – he asserts it is actually a parking lot because of its size – is prohibited in front of properties along U.S. 2 in the historic district. The district stretches from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church to just east of Oak Hill Road.

Johnston pointed to a section of the ordinance that calls for preservation of the historic district’s “greenbelt,” the area between the road and buildings. Sidewalks and driveways are permitted in the greenbelt, he said, but parking lots are not.

“The greenbelt’s composition is an integral part of Village streetscape,” the ordinance states. “It provides space for pedestrians, softens the impact of traffic noise and pollution, and serves to frame and give a setting to the historic structures and other buildings found in the village.”

Since moving to Williston in 1999, Roth said he has struggled with the bowl-shaped area in front of his house, which collects water and becomes a muddy mire when the ground is wet. And he said both driveways are too narrow to allow vehicles to turn around without running over the grass, making the situation worse.

Roth said it cost $3,000 for his share of the improvements, which included laying gravel and doing drainage work. Forrest White said his cost for just adding gravel was $500.

“I think it blends in pretty well,” Roth said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything egregious.”

Indeed, other historic district residents and businesses have paved and gravel-surfaced areas in their front yards. But Johnston said some are grandfathered in because they existed before the historic district was established in 1988.

Others that once had front parking lots, such as the recently expanded Sew Many Treasures business, have been required to move their lots to the side or back when they were altered.

The zoning dispute comes as the town mulls a second historic district in North Williston. It points out that such districts impose additional rules and restrictions for property owners.

Johnston declined to say whether he thought the enforcement action would hurt support for the proposed district. He did note that North Williston is in an agricultural area and so would likely be governed by different rules.

Roth and White had in past years sought permits for changes to their homes. Both said they thought they knew historic district rules and so were surprised when they received a notice of violation in late May. The Whites were also cited for running a business from their home without a permit.

“We are a little bitter about this because we didn’t understand what was going on,” said Forrest White.

But Johnston said such a blatant violation could not be overlooked. He said he and other members of the planning staff constantly drive by the homes, which are located a short distance west of Town Hall.

Johnston and both couples said they still hope to negotiate a settlement. The town would have to take the case to court before any fine could be imposed.

Meanwhile, the Roths have appealed the violation and White said he and his wife plan to appeal. The appeals will be considered during a June 26 hearing before the Williston Development Review Board.
Roth said he likes living in the historic district and doesn’t mind rules designed to preserve it. But he said the town’s enforcement in his case defies logic.

“We really enjoy living in the village,” Roth said. “We’re close to school, close to everything else. But it just seems with this that common sense has been thrown out the window.”

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Zoning enforcement action riles residents

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Town threatens fines over gravel turnaround

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Scott Roth figured a gravel turnaround would eliminate a muddy mess in his front yard and ease access to busy U.S. 2 in Williston Village. It worked, helping keep his yard dry and allowing he and his wife Miranda to avoid backing onto the busy thoroughfare.

But then they collided with a town ordinance.

The couple and their neighbors, Forrest and Erika White, have been cited for making changes to their historic district properties without a permit. The violation could subject each couple to $100-a-day fines and require them to tear out the turnarounds and replace them with grass.

The ordinance is intended to preserve the district’s historic feel. Both Scott Roth and Forrest White say they support the idea, but feel blindsided by hard-to-understand rules.

“To me it seems a bit unreasonable that we can’t have a turnaround in our front yard,” Roth said. “All we were doing is improving on what we already had. We didn’t realize we had opened up a huge can of worms.”

Roth said he and his neighbors never sought a permit because they thought the work was routine maintenance, which is exempt from the ordinance.

The violation concerns a shared gravel-covered area in front of both homes. Driveways run from it back to each house.

Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston said the turnaround – he asserts it is actually a parking lot because of its size – is prohibited in front of properties along U.S. 2 in the historic district. The district stretches from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church to just east of Oak Hill Road.

Johnston pointed to a section of the ordinance that calls for preservation of the historic district’s “greenbelt,” the area between the road and buildings. Sidewalks and driveways are permitted in the greenbelt, he said, but parking lots are not.

“The greenbelt’s composition is an integral part of Village streetscape,” the ordinance states. “It provides space for pedestrians, softens the impact of traffic noise and pollution, and serves to frame and give a setting to the historic structures and other buildings found in the village.”

Since moving to Williston in 1999, Roth said he has struggled with the bowl-shaped area in front of his house, which collects water and becomes a muddy mire when the ground is wet. And he said both driveways are too narrow to allow vehicles to turn around without running over the grass, making the situation worse.

Roth said it cost $3,000 for his share of the improvements, which included laying gravel and doing drainage work. Forrest White said his cost for just adding gravel was $500.

“I think it blends in pretty well,” Roth said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything egregious.”

Indeed, other historic district residents and businesses have paved and gravel-surfaced areas in their front yards. But Johnston said some are grandfathered in because they existed before the historic district was established in 1988.

Others that once had front parking lots, such as the recently expanded Sew Many Treasures business, have been required to move their lots to the side or back when they were altered.

The zoning dispute comes as the town mulls a second historic district in North Williston. It points out that such districts impose additional rules and restrictions for property owners.

Johnston declined to say whether he thought the enforcement action would hurt support for the proposed district. He did note that North Williston is in an agricultural area and so would likely be governed by different rules.

Roth and White had in past years sought permits for changes to their homes. Both said they thought they knew historic district rules and so were surprised when they received a notice of violation in late May. The Whites were also cited for running a business from their home without a permit.

“We are a little bitter about this because we didn’t understand what was going on,” said Forrest White.

But Johnston said such a blatant violation could not be overlooked. He said he and other members of the planning staff constantly drive by the homes, which are located a short distance west of Town Hall.

Johnston and both couples said they still hope to negotiate a settlement. The town would have to take the case to court before any fine could be imposed.

Meanwhile, the Roths have appealed the violation and White said he and his wife plan to appeal. The appeals will be considered during a June 26 hearing before the Williston Development Review Board.
Roth said he likes living in the historic district and doesn’t mind rules designed to preserve it. But he said the town’s enforcement in his case defies logic.

“We really enjoy living in the village,” Roth said. “We’re close to school, close to everything else. But it just seems with this that common sense has been thrown out the window.”

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Williston teen turns Page

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

On his first day of work in the U.S. Senate, Taylor Bates was forced to sit on the floor.

There were plenty of seats in the staffers’ gallery for Bates and the other new Senate pages that January day. But those in charge of the Senate Page Program had a point to make.

“In the Senate, seniority is everything,” Bates, 17, said on Tuesday. “They were trying to impress upon us as the youngest members of the Senate hierarchy, we were also the lowest members of the Senate hierarchy.”

After four and a half months in Washington, D.C., the Williston resident and Champlain Valley Union High School junior returned home last weekend with fond memories, new friends and a deeper sense of the power of government.

Nominated by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Bates was one of 30 high school juniors nationally to spend his spring semester delivering messages and packages, tallying votes and calling them in, fetching water for Senators, opening doors, and doing anything else that needed doing.

Bates said roughly half the time the Senate floor was silent – for example, when committee meetings were in progress. But he said he saw several “very good floor exchanges” between Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-N.C., on the immigration debate.

“Senator (Richard) Durbin and Senator (Ted) Kennedy were always very impressive speakers,” Bates added.

Bates and his peers lived in a former funeral home, now a dormitory, with a classroom in the basement. Days were long. School for the pages began at 6:15 a.m. and ended by 8:45 a.m. Pages were at work before the Senate was called to order, typically at 10 a.m.

Pages work rotating shifts, one hour on and one hour off, cramming homework into the hours they are not on call. The early shift finished by 6 p.m., Bates said. Once when Bates worked the late shift, the Senate adjourned at 1 a.m. Any adjournments after 10 p.m. meant school was canceled the next morning.

Bates, who was enrolled in several Advanced Placement classes last fall at CVU High School, doesn’t anticipate his senior year will be challenging compared with what he’s just been through.

“I worked 12-hour days with three hours of school and four hours of homework and have been able to survive that and come out of it with good grades,” he said. “I feel more prepared for college. I really feel much more – I feel like I understand people better.”

FORGING BONDS

On the day Bates arrived, he could tell his new peer group was “an interesting slice of the country.”

“Someone would stand up and speak and suddenly the whole room would be filled with this deep southern drawl or a twangy Michigan accent,” Bates said.

Bates’s new best friends are from Mississippi and Washington. Leaving the other pages last weekend was far harder for Bates than leaving home in January, he said. Living together in tight dormitory quarters, in a high-pressure environment, meant a loss of personal space and the forging of bonds.

“Everyone has just developed such a great respect for each other,” he said. “It’s hard to go back to a place where people don’t know you as well.”

U.S. Congressional pages – whether they work in the Senate or the House – must be high school juniors, aged 16 or older. Pages are nominated by one of their state’s senators. Academic standing is among the most important criteria in the final selection of a page.

Being a Vermont Statehouse legislative page as an eighth grader is what strengthened Bates’ interest in applying to work at the national level. After a semester in the nation’s capital, watching how “one person can really change the world,” he said, Bates is looking forward to his future.

“I don’t know if I’d be honored to get to that position,” he said of senators. “I’ll play it by ear, kind of, but I’d like to be in a position where I can help history change, and help it change for the better.”

High school students who will be sophomores in the fall are eligible to apply for the next Senate Page Program deadline (Feb. 29, 2008) for the 2008-09 academic year. Information is available at the following Web site: leahy.senate.gov/office/senatepage.html

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Waste district chief proposes delaying landfill permitting

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By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The head of Chittenden Solid Waste District has proposed shelving permitting applications for a regional landfill in Williston for up to one year.

General Manager Tom Moreau proposed to the Board of Commissioners late last month that permit applications be shelved after the landfill’s conceptual design and economic modeling are completed, according to a Channel 17 recording and unapproved minutes of the May 23 meeting. During that 12-month period, Moreau told the board, waste district staff could focus on enhancing recycling and waste reduction programs.

The board made no decision regarding Moreau’s proposal but is expected to do so at its June meeting. Only eight representatives of the 18-member board were present at the meeting; four positions are vacant.

Moreau said the landfill’s conceptual design process –which includes soliciting public comment – and economic modeling likely would be complete by February 2008. From then until roughly January 2009, Moreau said, waste district staff would focus on programs to further reduce what goes to landfills: construction and demolition material; biodegradable organic matter (such as food scraps); curbside recyclables; and non-curbside recyclables (such as scrap metal and rigid plastics like those used to make kids’ slides). Incentives and cost efficiency programs would be researched, as well as newer technologies. In roughly January 2009, according to Moreau’s proposal, the landfill permitting process would be resuscitated.

Thinking like a voter is in part what brought Moreau to this proposal, he said in an interview. When Chittenden County area voters go to mark their ballots concerning the waste district bond for the landfill (which he said could be three or four years from now), Moreau said he wants voters to know how good the waste district’s recycling and diversion programs are. Right now, virtually all public discussion and media coverage of CSWD is related to the landfill planned for Redmond Road, Moreau said, and the district has many other programs.

“I’m trying to change some of the emphasis,” he said.

Doing both the landfill permitting and the additional research simultaneously may be possible, but it would be “a lot more work,” Moreau said. He expressed concern to the board that if the district does both at once, many people may disregard new or enhanced programs, feeling they can just throw things in the landfill. Staff productivity also would be compromised, he said.

“Productivity would be higher if we’re dealing with one track at a time, and not two tracks at a time,” Moreau said. “You know when we get to permitting it’s going to be total war. What do our marketing people work on today?”

To some, shelving the permitting for a year could look like capitulation to a local opposition group – Vermont Communities Organized Against Landfills – or a demand made last November by Toxics Action Center, a New England environmental advocacy group, to cease landfill planning for one year. Moreau, however, said that isn’t the case.

“I always knew there were alternatives,” he said. “Now I think we have the luxury of having a little time to emphasize them.”

Since November, for example, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of the waste district in a dispute over compensation for land they are seizing for the landfill; that decision, even though it is being contested, means the waste district will not be facing up to $1 million in interest payments for every year they delay construction, Moreau said.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in April also gives waste districts greater flexibility, by allowing municipalities (like CSWD) to dictate that waste be taken to their facility. Other changes since the fall include new leadership at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources; Secretary George Crombie, with whom Moreau worked at the City of Burlington years ago, plans to reorganize the agency. A state legislative work group examining solid waste issues also was approved this past session.

Only four board members made public comments after Moreau’s presentation. Williston representative Mike Coates advocated review of rail alternatives for shipping. Coates also said waste district staff should present a plan indicating what resources would be needed to pursue the two tracks simultaneously or separately. (In an interview, Coates indicated he conceptually supports Moreau’s plan, but isn’t certain of the time line.)

CSWD Vice Chairman Bert Lindholm of Jericho suggested moving forward with the permitting process to show commitment to the landfill. He also suggested Moreau cut in half the number of areas to research for program improvements, and reduce the time frame for research to six months.

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War memorial draws volunteers, criticism

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Veteran’s spouse calls display ‘thinly veiled protest’

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

When is lending a hand perceived as a political act? Jim McCullough may have discovered the answer.

McCullough, one of two Democrats representing Williston in the Vermont House, offered to help maintain a display showing how many U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Located at the North Williston Road home of Pat Brown and Amy Huntington, it comprises about 3,500 yellow utility markers, one for each soldier who has died.

The enigmatic display – passing motorists regularly stop to ask what the markers signify – became a high-maintenance endeavor once spring arrived.

The markers are inserted in a grass-covered field and have to be moved for mowing. Brown said it takes hours to uproot and then replace them.

McCullough figured the couple could use some help. He offered to pitch in himself and wrote a letter to the editor published in last week’s Observer asking for volunteers.

About a half-dozen people had volunteered by Monday. But McCullough’s letter also brought a different type of response from the wife of a U.S. Air Force member who has been deployed in support of the war effort.

“When I read Rep. McCullough’s plea for help I wondered where he was the last time my husband went off to war and the lawn mower broke, or the time he went off and the sump broke and my basement flooded, or the time that my child was sick at school and I had no way of picking him up,” wrote Williston resident Meegan Delphia in a letter to the editor this week.

She said in an interview that her husband, Michael, has served in the Air Force for 32 years. She was hesitant to provide details beyond saying he has been deployed overseas in support of the war effort and expects him to return in the future.

But Delphia didn’t hesitate to express her opinion of McCullough’s volunteer drive and the display itself, which she passes occasionally during travels around town. She wrote in her letter that it is “a thinly veiled protest against the war for our freedom from terrorism.”

The markers do not honor the troops but instead “memorialize death,” Delphia said in an interview. When her children, ages 10 and 12, see the display, she said it reminds them that their dad could die in the line of duty.

Brown said the display was not intended as an anti-war statement. He said media coverage of the war has been superficial and so he felt compelled to point out the war’s effect.

“I just wanted people to think, I wanted people to remember,” he said.

Brown would not say how he feels about the war. He said publicly stating his views would just be divisive.

The markers represent only one facet of the war’s cost, Brown said, because they don’t show the numbers injured both physically and psychologically nor the effect on families of service members and the country as a whole.

“It’s far deeper than just the people who have died,” Brown said.

Delphia was sharply critical of McCullough’s involvement with the display. She said his time would be better spent using his position as a state legislator to get help for service members’ families.

McCullough said he has in fact tried to support the troops and their families. For example, he said he signed a resolution asking for a study of the needs of Vermont National Guard families.

“My heart goes out to her, her spouse and her children,” he said. “I don’t fault her a bit for her anger.”

McCullough said he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, and he knew that helping maintain his neighbors’ display could be viewed through a political prism.

“But I thought it was worth doing anyway,” he said. “I have a responsibility as a town leader to lead people. Any leader who thinks everything he does will be popular is living in a fairy tale book.”

Brown said he has not directly received any negative comments about the display, but many people have stopped to ask about its significance.

The markers were put up last November. Brown said at the time he did not consider they would have to be moved to mow.

“I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t have to put them out in the summer,” he said. “I was kind of hoping we’d be all done (in Iraq) and everyone would be home.”

As of last week, Brown said 3,434 markers had been placed in his field. That number will grow. CNN reported Tuesday that 3,510 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq and at least 25,950 have been wounded in action.

Putting the markers up and taking them down for mowing is nearly a four-hour job, but Brown said the inconvenience pales in comparison to what military families go through.

“Every time I put another flag in the ground I think of a family that has been impacted,” he said. “So it’s not as much work as you might think.”

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Town may mandate parking, showers for bicyclists

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Proposal is part of revised land-use ordinance

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Bicycle commuters may find Williston a more pleasant destination if a proposed addition to the town’s land-use ordinance is adopted.

John Adams, the town’s development review planner, has suggested provisions to serve bicyclists as part of a comprehensive revision of the town’s land-use ordinance. The proposal mandates bike parking spaces – and in some cases even showers for sweaty cyclists – as conditions of approval for new development.

The new requirements would include facilities that “encourage commuting to work on bike,” Adams wrote in a memo to the Planning Commission. “The practice of including these provisions is common in progressive municipalities – including Burlington.”

Under the proposal, bike-parking requirements would apply to most new structures except for single-family homes and duplexes. The number of spaces would vary depending on the size and type of project.

For example, a shopping center or store would be required to have one long-term and four short-term bike parking spaces for every 20,000 square feet of interior space.

The proposal says long-term spaces must protect the bike against weather and include a clothing locker that can be in a different location. Short-term spaces are defined as racks visible from a building’s main entrance to which bikes can be locked.

Requirements for “end of trip facilities” – a changing room with lockers and showers – apply mainly to developments that are large enough to need one or more long-term bike parking spaces.

So a retail store or shopping center with 20,000 square feet of space would be required to furnish one unisex shower and changing facility. Stores the size of Wal-Mart and Home Depot must have one or more shower/changing rooms for each gender.

Such facilities benefit more than bicyclists, said Chapin Spencer, executive director of Local Motion, a Burlington-based nonprofit that advocates for bicycle riders and pedestrians.

“With increasing traffic congestion and global warming, we need to try to develop a true multi-modal transportation system,” he said. “And obesity is on the rise in Vermont and throughout the nation. This type of thing encourages employees to go for runs, for example.

“It’s more about building a healthy workplace than just serving a few people who ride bikes to work,” Spencer added. “But it encourages bike riders, too.”

Adams emphasized that the proposal would apply only to new development. He said the numerical requirements for parking and shower facilities could change as the proposal is further reviewed.

“Right now, the idea is not to place too much burden on small businesses,” he said. Still, he said the threshold for shower facilities may be too high because it rules out such facilities for all but the largest buildings.

The bicycle provision is part of a larger effort to rewrite Williston’s land-use ordinances to conform with the new Comprehensive Plan. Town Planner Lee Nellis and other planning staff members have worked for months on the rewrite, with the Planning Commission and the Selectboard reviewing each section as it is written.

The bicycle requirements are part of the section on parking that sets standards for the number of vehicle spaces for each land use.

Burlington, too, is in the middle of rewriting its land-use ordinances and is also considering mandating facilities for bike riders.

City officials could not be reached for comment. But Spencer said though Burlington currently has no formal rules, it has in the past required some new developments to include bike facilities.

Adams said Williston’s new land-use ordinance is a little more than halfway done. When the entire document is completed, public hearings will be held before the Selectboard votes on whether to adopt the new ordinance.

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Tax rate may rise another 2 cents

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Option tax shortfall could cost taxpayers

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Next week the Williston Selectboard must decide whether to tack on another 2 cents to the municipal property tax rate, or sideline some projects in next year’s budget. Based on first-quarter sales tax revenue, the town estimated Monday it will see a budget shortfall of nearly $300,000.

The town gives an estimated tax rate based on the budget at town meeting, but the actual rate is not officially set until the beginning of the fiscal year, on July 1. A 2-cent tax hike would result in a tax rate of 24 cents per $100 of assessed home value – up from the 22 cents estimated on Town Meeting Day. The current tax rate is 18 cents. However, the board may also decide to keep the 22-cent rate, and, in order to make up the difference, not spend money on certain budgeted items. The board could also raise the rate less than two cents and sideline fewer projects.

If approved, the tax increase would mark a first in recent memory.

“This is the first time since I’ve been manager in this community where the recommendation on the tax rate – at this point – has been higher than estimated in March,” said Town Manager Rick McGuire at the Selectboard meeting Monday. McGuire became town manager in February 1998.

Local sales tax revenue dropped about 22 percent in the first three months of 2007, compared to the same period last year. The drop off – likely caused by changes in state tax law that took effect in January – has officials worried that the town will receive $272,471 less than originally budgeted.

Williston collects a 1 percent local option tax on goods and services, and relies on the tax to cover nearly 40 percent of the town budget. Income from the local option tax also helps keep property taxes at bay. For example, last year, without the tax, Williston residents would have seen a 42-cent tax rate, instead of an 18-cent rate, according to town data.

Since it was put in place in 2002, income from the local option tax has increased virtually every single quarter. McGuire said he knew the tax law changes would likely affect revenue, but not by how much.

“We have no way of calculating the impact,” McGuire said. “We took a reasonable shot, but the impact was far greater” than the town anticipated.

At the beginning of the year, the state removed taxes on some items – like clothing – and began taxing others – like beer. Another change resulted in a rule where items purchased in one town but shipped to a different location would be taxed only in the destination town.

If the Selectboard chooses to increase the tax rate, the owner of a $300,000 home would see municipal property taxes of $720 (not including school tax), or $180 more than last year.

The increase is not a sure thing, however. At Monday’s meeting, the board asked town staff to look into possible ways to reduce the tax shortfall’s impact on the $7.25 million budget. Since the budget was approved by voters, the board cannot change anything, but it can decide to not spend money on certain items. McGuire said town staff this week will work on presenting different options to the board.

The final tax rate will be set at a Selectboard meeting on Monday, July 2 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

Other towns are feeling the effects of the tax changes, too. Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe said his town, which also employs the local option sales tax, was hit by a drop in sales tax revenue.

O’Keefe said the fourth quarter of last year was their highest quarter on record since the inception of the tax in 1999. Revenue hit $402,000, he said. But the first quarter of 2007 brought in the lowest the town has ever seen – only $164,000.

“If this current trend continues, we’ll be 37 percent under,” O’Keefe said. “It clearly begs the question: what do we do next?”

O’Keefe said the town would not increase the tax rate, but would use the town’s $1.1 million taxpayer relief fund, and look into instituting a rooms tax and a meals and alcohol tax, which Williston already has. Williston does not have a taxpayer relief fund, but does have a General Fund Balance, which is used to offset the tax rate. The fund balance is already being used to lower taxes by 3 cents.

WATER, SEWER RATES OK’D

For the first time in five years, the town made no change to the municipal water rate. In a memo to the Selectboard dated June 20, Public Works Director Neil Boyden recommended the water rate for Williston remain at $2.15 per 1,000 gallons of usage. He also proposed increasing the sewer rate for the town from $2.85 per 1,000 gallons to $3.15, an 8.7 percent increase. Boyden said the sewer rate increase is due mainly to rising fixed cost increases and an increase in the wholesale rate at the Essex sewer treatment plant. The board approved Boyden’s recommendations on both items.

In addition, the board approved an increase of 2.2 percent for sewer capacity fees. Purchasers of sewer capacity in fiscal year 2008 will now pay $5.05 per gallon, up from $4.95 per gallon. The increase reflects the rise in inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Consumer Price Index, Boyden said.

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State workers plan move to Rossignol building

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Planning Commission OKs zoning change

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A rezoning request that would permit almost 100 state employees to move from a problem-plagued building in Burlington to a former ski manufacturing facility in Williston won preliminary approval last week.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of a zoning change that would clear the way for the workers to occupy offices in the former Rossignol building on Industrial Avenue. The Selectboard has the final say on the request.

The move involves about 140 Agency of Human Services employees who work at 1193 North Ave. in Burlington. Employees have complained the building makes them sick, with health issues ranging from respiratory infections to asthma.

“We obviously want to pull this off as quickly as possible,” said Tom Sandretto, deputy commissioner of the state Buildings and Grounds Department. “We really need to get out of that building.”

State officials have long promised to move the workers but have struggled to find another location. Now the agency has settled on a plan that would split the employees between the Williston location and another space at 101 Cherry St. in Burlington.

Sandretto said the state will lease the Cherry Street building for a couple of years, possibly with an option to extend the contract for an additional year. He said the lease for the Rossignol building would likely involve a similar arrangement. The state plans to eventually move the workers to a yet-to-be-constructed building.

Rossignol merged with California-based Quiksilver Inc. in 2005. Quiksilver shuttered the building when it consolidated operations the following year.

In February, Burlington architect J. Graham Goldsmith proposed converting the building into a small business incubator that would offer inexpensive office space for fledgling firms. That got the rezoning process started.

It is unclear how or if the state employees’ move would affect the proposed small business incubator. Yves Bradley, a broker working with Goldsmith to lease the space, did not return a phone message.

Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis said there was little debate and no public comment before the Planning Commission unanimously recommended the zoning change.

“Everyone said it seems reasonable to us, and that was the end of the conversation,” Nellis said.

The rezoning involves a small change in the rules governing land use in the industrial district. If approved, offices would be allowed as a primary use for buildings formerly used for industrial purposes. The current rules only permit offices that supplement an industrial use.

Nellis said it is unlikely that any manufacturer will be interested in the building. Vermont, like the rest of the country, has lost manufacturing jobs in recent years as companies move operations overseas.

The state plans to relocate about 95 employees to the Rossignol building, Sandretto said. Most of the remaining workers will remain in Burlington, he said, with most moving to Cherry Street and a few housed in nearby offices on Pearl Street.

One of the major concerns with the move was how it would affect services. The employees will be divided between the two locations so that most of the client services will continue to be available in Burlington, Sandretto said. Many of the workers moving to Williston are employed by the Health Department and travel to clients’ homes. Others have strictly administrative positions.

Sandretto said he was “very optimistic” that the town would grant final approval. The Selectboard is scheduled to hold a public hearing at its June 25 session.

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Shopping center to host outdoor concerts

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Series features local musicians

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

An outdoor concert series that will entertain residents and perhaps boost business begins Thursday, June 21 at Maple Tree Place.

“Groovin’ on the Green” will feature weekly performances on the grassy square inside the shopping center. The concerts will be held each Thursday from 6-8 p.m. through Aug. 2.

Musical acts will cover a variety of genres, including blues, jazz and country. At least two of the groups, blues-rockers Nobby Reed Project and R&B players Starline Rhythm Boys, enjoy local name recognition. Williston resident Stephanie Keesler, a singer-songwriter, will be featured on July 5.

The concerts come as Maple Tree Place’s owner, Illinois-based Inland Group, gets ready to undertake improvements at the green. Plans for the grassy but featureless one-acre square include a band shell and landscaping.

Rich Golder, property manager for Maple Tree Place, said Inland decided not to wait until the project was completed before hosting events. “We want people to use and enjoy the green,” he said.

Kevin Finnegan, the town’s recreation director, said he occasionally hears from musicians looking for a venue in Williston. But he simply doesn’t have the budget to pay for musical talent.

“I think it’s great,” Finnegan said. “Inland certainly has the means to put on a bigger show than the town does.”

Williston does host an annual concert series by the Town Band. Those concerts will take place as usual this summer, with performances each Wednesday at 7 p.m. starting July 3. Concerts are held on the green next to the library in Williston Village.

Golder said the Maple Tree Place concerts are intended primarily as a gift to the community. But he acknowledged that the crowds they attract may also benefit merchants.

“Any time you bring more people to the shopping center, it can be seen as a possible business opportunity – and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Nick Charboneau, co-owner of Mexicali restaurant, said the impact on his business remains to be seen. The eatery is located on the square surrounding the green.

“We’re excited about it, but we are curious to see how much of an effect it will have,” Charboneau said.

He said at one point the shopping center considered holding the concerts on the pedestrian arcade right next to Mexicali’s patio. With the venue a little farther away, Charboneau said, “I think it won’t have a huge impact on us.”

Pam Carter, co-owner of Keeping Good Company, a home decor outlet, said she welcomes anything that will draw more people to Maple Tree Place. The business, tucked away on the pedestrian arcade, has poor visibility due to its location.

“We’re still struggling with getting people to know that we’re here,” Carter said. “We often feel like we are behind a brick wall.”

Keeping Good Company will extend its hours on concert days in hopes of luring costumers, Carter said. The business usually closes at 6 p.m. on Thursdays; it will now stay open until 8 p.m.

Golder expects work to begin on the green when the concert series ends. Inland held a contest last year seeking designs for the project. Williston resident Mary Jo Childs and Judy Goodyear from South Burlington submitted the winning entry.

Their plan was later altered by Inland to free up space for picnicking and playing. It still includes the band shell and some landscaping from the original plan, but eliminates the terraced seating Childs and Goodyear suggested.

The contest rules said the green improvement project could cost no more than $75,000. Childs said at the time her design would likely cost more. She was right: Golder said the price tag has ballooned to about $300,000.

For this summer’s concerts, a portable stage will be erected. Concert-goers are encouraged to bring blankets and lawn chairs.

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