May 26, 2018

Burning down the house, on purpose

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Erika Mellmann felt a brief moment of sadness last Thursday as firefighters burned her favorite room in the house, the office.

Mellmann had stopped by her property on River Cove Road to check the mail. Smoke poured out of the garage. Firefighters wearing oxygen masks rushed about.

Mellmann took a few pictures, but the real impact of her family’s decision to donate their house to the Williston Fire Department for training, she said, was on the first day of training three days earlier.

“There was a lot of excitement; we’d been talking about it for months,” the Williston resident said. But “the first time I see flames in the window of my daughter’s room – my daughter’s two-and-a-half – there was a fleeting moment of ‘oh, there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

Every two or three years the Williston Fire Department acquires a structure to use for training exercises, according to Fire Chief Ken Morton. This year, the Mellmanns – Erika, her husband, Joerg, and their two children ages six and two – donated their 1,800-square-foot raised ranch home. Over the last two weeks, Williston firefighters have conducted training exercises there on search and rescue, ladder use, and equipment use.

“There’s definitely way more benefit to being able to do a live fire than when you just smoke up a building somewhere,” firefighter Keith Baker said. Unlike with smoke machine-simulated fires, Baker said, in a real fire staff can see thermal layers, how a fire grows and how smoke changes as the fire gets hotter “so it’s not a surprise necessarily when they go into fire on a real call.”

Having a house with carpet and curtains on which to train is rare, Morton said. (The law requires some pieces of the house to be removed before burning, such as propane and oil tanks and petroleum products like roof shingles.)

The Mellmann donation came because of space needs. With a home-based business and occasional foster children, Mellmann said family members often felt like they were “on top of each other.”

They looked at renovating the house or buying other property in Williston, but both options were expensive. (Currently they are surrounded by 400 acres of relatively undeveloped land, Mellmann said, and they love the location.) In talking with friends and neighbors, someone suggested they burn the house down and start over.

“It was kind of a joke at first,” Mellmann said, “but it started to make more and more sense.”

They did consider deconstructing the house through Recycle North’s Deconstruction Program; the program sets aside reusable materials for later sale. That was going to cost the family, Mellmann recalls, over $16,000. Burning down the house was free. And there’s a tax break.

Under federal law, a house donation to a nonprofit entity like a town fire department is tax deductible, according to the Mellman’s accountant, John Scheer.

“This is not a typical situation,” Scheer acknowledged. “I was a little nervous when they told me about this.”

In his 25 years as a CPA, Scheer said he’s never seen this before. But after doing the research, he said, it seemed straightforward: An appraiser must certify the value of the house on IRS Form 8283, for non-cash charitable contributions, and the fire department also must sign to acknowledge the “donation.” After that, the tax filer may claim the appraised value of the house as a deduction, up to 30 percent of adjusted gross income each year (up to five years) until the full house value is reached.

“As times goes on, more and more of this is going to happen,” Scheer said.

For the Mellmanns, rebuilding will give them more house, dollar for dollar, than if they had renovated, Mellmann said. The modular home they have ordered has a delivery date of early August. Until then, the family is combining several living arrangements: renting a condominium, house sitting, going on vacation and living in a camper on the property.

Mellmann said her six-year-old son was apprehensive about having his house burn down; he was especially concerned about the fate of his fish. Once he understood he could keep his fish and all of his things, however, he wanted to watch the fire. Mellmann said her son was excited for the bulldozers to arrive for excavation.

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Selectboard shelves bridge weight limit removal

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The North Williston Road bridge will continue to have a 24,000-pound weight limit imposed on it, the Selectboard decided Monday. A motion to lift the restriction was not seconded and the issue died. For the moment.

Gary Grzywna, owner of Grzywna Construction Inc., sent a memo to Public Works Director Neil Boyden and the Selectboard in February, asking them to lift the restriction on the bridge, which crosses the Winooski River into Essex from Williston. Grzywna said the closure of the bridges in Richmond make it extremely inconvenient for him to get across the river and is hurting his business. However, residents say lifting the restriction would cause a large increase in truck traffic, disrupting the neighborhood, possibly damaging historic homes in the area, and causing safety hazards for children and bikers.

After a public hearing last month, the board looked into a conducting a study prior to making a decision on the bridge. However, some members thought it was not worth it.

“I have reservations about spending money on a study because my fear is that the study would come back and say the bridge is fine for trucks and we’d be back where we are now,” said board member Judy Sassorossi. McGuire said the study would likely cost the town $5,000-$6,000.

After some discussion, Selectman Andy Mikell made a motion to remove the weight restriction temporarily and revisit the issue in nine months. But the other board members kept silent and the motion died.

The board’s inaction appeared to irk Grzywna, who was present in the audience.

“Out of two million people I’ve talked to in Montpelier, Mr. Mikell is the only one who’s stepped up to the plate and tried to deal with this issue,” Grzywna said before leaving the room.

McGuire said the issue is dead for now.

“Never say never,” he said. “But for the moment that’s the end of it.”

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Rec. dept. broadens background checks

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Williston Recreation Department this summer will begin conducting national background checks on its employees, volunteer coaches and coaching assistants working with youth. In recent years, the department’s background checks covered only Vermont criminal records.

Earlier this year a Williston recreation basketball coach who had a clean Vermont record was found to have a criminal record in New York. Williston resident Kaseen S. Smith, 31, has pled not guilty to charges of aggravated domestic assault, aggravated sexual assault, domestic assault, and attempted disarming of a police officer. A police background check showed Smith was charged with domestic assault in Binghamton, N.Y. in 1998; a conviction for assault with intention to cause physical harm resulted, according to a police affidavit.

“This whole incident caused the recreation committee to take another look at background check policies,” said Kevin Finnegan, director of the Williston Recreation Department. “We’ll do this with anyone who works with children who works with our department.”

Prior to this summer’s staff, the department ordered background checks through the Vermont Criminal Information Center, which provides state background checks free of charge to organizations working with vulnerable populations. Finnegan said Recreation Committee member Tim O’Brien suggested the department use ChoicePoint’s Volunteer Select Plus, a service used by Williston Little League. ChoicePoint is a for-profit company providing identification and credential verification services.

The service provides an instant check of multiple criminal record sources, according to the company’s Web site: county criminal records; federal fugitive files; Department of Corrections prison, parole and release files; Office of Courts records; state criminal records; and sex offender registries from 33 states and the District of Columbia. The service also confirms identity through a social security number check.

“It’s important to keep the kids safe,” Finnegan said of the checks. “These kinds of (recreation) programs are the kind that can attract dangerous people.”

The Recreation Department will pay roughly $5 for each record check of which there are about 200 annually, Finnegan said. Even high school students working as day camp staff or as assistant coaches will be checked, Finnegan said, though he noted those checks may not be foolproof since juvenile records often are sealed. Record checks are done annually on returning employees and volunteers.

Finnegan himself is responsible for collecting signed waivers from volunteers and employees so that he may submit record check requests, he said. Any information gleaned through those checks is confidential, available only to him and, if necessary, members of the recreation committee. Applicants with records are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Finnegan said.

“Certainly anything violent, anything involving children, they couldn’t work with the department,” Finnegan said. “There’s certainly some gray areas in there. People come back with fish and game violations, 20-year-old petty theft…we have to make that call.”

In addition to background checks, Finnegan said parents should be reassured by the fact that all employees go through a one-week training program that includes safety expectations; for example, children may not use a public restroom without it first being checked for safety by a staff member. Children also may not be left alone with a staff member where they cannot be observed by other staff.

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A polluted stream runs through it

Tests shows high bacteria levels in Allen Brook

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Brian Connelly wades into Allen Brook and dips a clear plastic container into the water. Connelly, a summer intern with the town, collects the first of several samples he will take from various places along the stream.

It’s a sunny day on the cusp of summer. Birds chirp as red maples sway in the breeze. The site, at the end of a dirt road outside of Williston Village, seems far away from the bustle of Taft Corners.

It’s hard to believe that a stream flowing through such an unspoiled setting could be polluted. But recent tests showed that Allen Brook has elevated levels of the bacteria E. coli and other contaminants.

Samples taken earlier this month from sites nearer to residential areas produced E. coli levels so high that they were literally off the scale, although those results were not replicated in later tests.

The town of Williston earlier this month began a water testing program to assess the health of Allen Brook. The program, a partnership between the Williston Conservation Commission and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, involves collecting weekly samples from eight sites.

Results after three weeks of testing showed widespread E. coli contamination. The first samples collected on June 5 showed E. coli counts exceeding the state’s strict standard of 77 colonies per 100 milliliters of water at all eight sites. Samples at three sites – each close to residential areas – showed levels of at least 2,419 colonies per 100 milliliters, more than 30 times the state standard. The actual number may have been higher because the levels exceeded the test’s limits.

Two subsequent weeks of testing showed more moderate levels that still mostly exceeded state standards. The June 12 samples showed the stream surpassed the E. coli standard at five of eight sites, albeit at generally lower levels. The June 19 testing indicated high E. coli levels at six of eight sites, with most levels rising from the previous week.

Allen Brook meanders through Williston for 11 miles. Beginning at Sunset Hill, it flows through Williston Village, bending north near Taft Corners and crossing Vermont 2A before it reaches its confluence with Muddy Brook near the Williston/South Burlington line.

Since 1992, portions of Allen Brook have been included on the state’s list of impaired waterways. The state has long known the stream’s health was hurt by stormwater runoff caused by Williston’s extensive development over the past two decades, but had little concrete data on specific pollutants.

Allen Brook is considered a Class B waterway that should be suitable for “aquatic habitat, boating, swimming.”

In fact, swimmers rarely if ever take a dip in Allen Brook, which is mostly too shallow for recreational use. But the town does get calls from people who wonder if it is OK for their children and pets to play in and around the stream, which runs near an elementary school and several subdivisions.

“We’ve got kids playing in the brook, dogs playing in the brook,” said Carrie Deegan, Williston’s environmental planner. “Is it safe? We don’t know.”

Neil Kamman, an environmental scientist with the state Agency of Natural Resources, said “it is way too early” to know what, if any, dangers the water poses based on the limited testing conducted so far. But he said to be cautious, residents should stay away after rain washes potential pollutants into the stream.

“You might not want kids to be in there a day or two after it rains,” he said, adding that most of the time there is “absolutely no threat” to children and pets playing near the stream.

Pollutants explained

E. coli is a type of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans. Tests showing E. coli in a stream or lake indicate the potential presence of waterborne pathogens that can make people sick.

The likelihood of that happening is expressed in terms of probabilities. Swimmers who enter water with Vermont’s highest allowable concentration of E. coli stand roughly a 3 in a 1,000 chance of developing a gastrointestinal illness, according to the state.

State standards for E. coli are considerably stricter than those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA standard is 126 E. coli per 1,000 milliliters of water.

The testing program also looks for the presence of phosphorus and nitrogen. Phosphorus levels exceeded the state standard in some cases, with just the first week’s data available. Nitrogen levels fell well below the standard for the first round of testing.

Data still inconclusive

The data from the first three weeks of testing comes with caveats. Kamman emphasized that the numbers are only preliminary, with just the first week of data confirmed by the state. The plan is to test all summer, and he said the season-long results will provide a clearer picture of the pollution problem.

The numbers can vary greatly in streams depending on rainfall and other variables. Those sky-high E. coli numbers from the first round of tests, for example, came from samples taken after two days of heavy rain, Kaamen said.

That spike, however, could be a useful indicator of what is polluting the stream, Deegan said. If replicated in future tests that follow rain, high numbers could point to land-based sources of pollution rather than waste from waterfowl and beavers.

Deegan said the town has no plans to post areas with elevated E. coli levels. She hopes to eventually publicize test results on the town’s Web site, but that may not happen this summer because the site is being overhauled.

Finding the source

It is possible that the testing will show that Allen Brook is no longer impaired and the state can take it off its list, Deegan said, but she considers that unlikely.

Instead, the tests could help pinpoint which areas need the most help and suggest solutions, Deegan said. For example, if E. coli levels are consistently high at one testing site, the town and state may be able to identify its source, such as a failing septic system.

It is more likely, however, that the pollution sources will be tough to trace to a single, correctable source, Deegan said. In that case, she hopes the program at least will help educate residents about threats the stream faces.

“People need to see the results – it’s a kick in the rear,” she said. “They need to say this is way out of control, it’s not what we want to see in our environment.”


For weekly updates on the Allen Brook water tests, visit and click on Williston Conservation Commission. For more information about what the numbers mean and testing locations, contact Deegan at or 878-6704.

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