May 28, 2020

Hunter education class begins

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

A classroom at Allen Brook School will be filled with would-be hunters on Friday evening.

The hunter education course – required for any new hunter to obtain a license – is one of dozens offered across the state as the fall hunting season gets underway.

Hunters young and old come together for the courses. Greg Paulman, instructor for the Williston class, estimates that as many as half to two-thirds of his course participants each year are youths; there is no age restriction for hunting in the state. Some parents take the course alongside their kids, and some students are adults taking up hunting later in life, according to Chris Saunders, hunter education coordinator with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“These classes have helped and are instrumental in reducing the number of accidents in Vermont and nationwide by at least 75 percent over historical levels,” Saunders said.

“These classes are aimed at producing the safest, most responsible hunters possible.”

Taught by certified instructors, the courses last a minimum of 12 hours. The course offered in Williston starting this week is 18 hours. Paulman said late enrollees are welcome provided space is available; a missed session can be made up through independent work.

Paulman acknowledged that sometimes hunting is not well understood by non-hunters.

“It’s a cultural thing,” Paulman said. “And (for) a lot of people, whether they end up with a deer in their freezer… can make a difference in the amount of meat they have to eat over the winter.”

Paulman said the State of Vermont carefully plans out the number of animals that can be harvested each year to ensure a sustainable population. Some animals that are hunted would otherwise starve to death over the winter, Paulman said.

“Let’s face it: we’re developing places that used to be their habitat,” Paulman said.

Saunders said while all of those things are true, people hunt for a range of reasons.

“For some hunters it is part of a cultural tradition,” Saunders said. “It is about being with family and friends. It’s an important date on their calendar… It’s a very important relationship with nature and getting out in the wild and not just observing things but participating in nature.”

Vermont leads New England for the highest percentage of residents who hunt, according to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Fifteen percent of Vermonters age 16 and older hunt, compared with 6 percent nationally, survey results said. The industry adds to Vermont’s economy. An estimated $52.4 million was spent in Vermont on hunting activities in 2001, according to the survey.

Though perhaps better known for commercial space in Taft Corners, Williston logs its share of successful hunts each year. Over the last three years, an average of 46 deer alone were harvested within town limits. A handful of those were shot by youth.

A town ordinance allows firearms to be discharged in Williston south of Interstate 89, and along a narrow strip of land in northeast Williston, except within 500 feet of buildings, public parks and recreation areas, and roads or footpaths.

Paulman said hunting is generally a safe sport. Falling out of a tree or having a heart attack are the leading causes of injury or death in the sport, though he said there is about as much chance of dying while hunting as while playing baseball.

Hunting licenses are available for $16, or $8 for youth, online through the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Locally, they may be purchased at the Town Clerk’s Office, BJ Guns and Sporting, Dicks Sporting Goods, Powderhorn Sports, and Wal-Mart.

[Read more…]

Workshops will reveal town

First of three sessions to be held Sept. 26

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston’s recent history is a well-worn tale of retail and residential development and the upheaval that comes with rapid growth. But when you start digging, it turns out the town has a far richer, more complex story.

Residents can learn more about their town’s untold human and natural history during a three-part series of workshops starting next week.

Called “Williston Geographic,” the workshops are part of program called PLACE, short for Place-based Landscape Analysis and Community Education. Conducted by the University of Vermont in conjunction with Shelburne Farms, PLACE’s mission is to educate residents about their towns.

“They will be fun, informative, eye-opening and interactive,” wrote Jesse Fleisher, a UVM graduate student who will lead the workshops, in an e-mail. “Our hope is that people will leave knowing more about Williston than they ever did before, that they we will want to learn even more on their own or with each other, and that by sharing knowledge and experience in a public forum we can facilitate an ongoing community dialogue about the current and future stewardship of Williston’s unique cultural and natural heritage.”

All three workshops will be held 7-9 p.m. at Williston Central School’s auditorium. Each presentation will be followed by a field trip on the subsequent Saturday, with the place and time to be announced at each workshop. The schedule:

Wednesday, Sept. 26. “Forests, Fields and Rocks: The Natural Landscape of Williston.” The workshop will include an overview of Williston’s landscape and place it within the larger geographic context of the Champlain Valley and the entire state, Fleisher said. He will also give a timeline of the town’s human history and sketch Williston’s natural history.

Wednesday, Oct. 25. “People and the Williston Landscape: A History of Change.” Fleisher said the session focus on where inhabitants came from and how they shaped the landscape. It will cover Native American settlements, the Thomas Chittenden era and modern times.

Thursday, Nov. 14. “Soil, Water and Wildlife: The Landscape Ecology and Fauna of Williston.” As the title indicates, the final presentation will spotlight Williston’s wildlife. Fleisher said he will discuss how wildlife changed as Williston’s landscape evolved. The presentation will also “try to bring past, present and future together as we wrap up the series,” he said.

Walter Poleman, PLACE director and senior lecturer with UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, emphasized the collaborative nature of the program.

He said the presentations grew out of a semester-long effort by graduate students working with Williston’s Conservation Commission. They inventoried the town’s natural features and looked at how humans impacted the landscape.

In addition, Poleman said eight Williston teachers participated in professional development sessions on the PLACE program, working with Shelburne Farms to learn more about the town’s natural and human history. The idea is to pass the information down to students.

The workshops are not lectures, Poleman said. They will include an interpretive slide show and an opportunity for discussion.

The idea is to encourage an ongoing dialogue that could help shape the town’s future, Fleisher said. He hopes residents will share their knowledge of Williston with each other during the workshops and “maybe fill in the blanks with some interesting pieces (of information) they weren’t aware of or hadn’t thought of before.”

[Read more…]

Voting venue may change

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

For 45 years, voters have cast ballots at Williston Central School. But tight parking and safety concerns made town officials conclude it was time for a change.

Town Clerk Deb Beckett said Williston’s Board of Civil Authority decided last week to move the voting venue. An informal agreement has been struck to hold balloting at the Army National Guard Armory, located just across U.S. 2 from the school.

“For several years, we’ve had issues with parking and safety concerns,” Beckett said. “People are coming and going while students are running back and forth. It’s amazing no kids have been hit.”

There are far more open parking spaces near the Armory, which is located next to Town Hall, Beckett said. Parking at the school is difficult to find when school is in session, which is the case in March and November when elections take place. And she said voters driving to the polls create safety hazards for students.

Motorists arriving at the Williston Central School must navigate the one-way, horseshoe-shaped driveway and then circle parking lots in a sometimes fruitless search for an open space.

Sgt. 1st Class Wendell Morse, who works out of the Armory, said there is an informal agreement to allow voting there. He said a written agreement could be finalized at a later date.

Most activity at the Armory occurs on Friday afternoons and weekends, when training exercises take place. Morse said voting, which is held Tuesdays, would not conflict with military operations.

There are about 50 spaces in the newly renovated parking lot at Town Hall, said Neil Boyden, Williston’s public works director. There are at least 10 spaces around the Armory.

Voting has been held at Williston Central School since 1962, Beckett said. In 1960 and 1961, balloting took place at the Armory. During most of the 1950s, voting was conducted at Town Hall.

At least for the next election in March, Beckett said an informal agreement with the Army National Guard that allows voting at the Armory may suffice. She said she wants to see how the new venue works before striking a long-term agreement.
“Before we make anything permanent I really want to make sure it works,” Beckett said.

[Read more…]

Tentative teacher contract reached

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Representatives for Chittenden South Supervisory Union teachers and school boards reached a tentative agreement last week for a new teacher contract. No details of the agreement will be made public until ratified by local boards and the teachers association. Ratification is expected in October.

“Matters related to collective bargaining are not matters of public record per Vermont’s open meeting and public records law,” Scott Cameron, attorney for CSSU, wrote in an email. Though negotiating parties can agree to disclose details of deliberations or the tentative agreement, he added, that is not the normal practice.

“There are a few hundred teachers in five different schools, as well as a score or two of board members from those same schools who were not on the negotiating team or privy to the details,” Cameron wrote. “They all need to be briefed.”

CSSU includes schools in Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston, and Champlain Valley Union High School.

CSEA President Christopher Hood said in an email that the tentative agreement was reached “as a result of cooperation and compromise.” He apologized for being unable to answer other questions.

The last CSSU teacher contract, a three-year contract that expired in June, granted annual salary increases of 4.55 percent with teachers contributing 10 percent to health insurance co-payments. The average salary last year for a full-time teacher in Williston schools was $60,924; the average CVU High School teacher salary was $57,768.

In 2004, the last time a teacher contract was negotiated, teachers and school boards also could not come to an agreement before that contract expired. That year, just as in this year, mediation failed, and a fact finder was required to make recommendations to move negotiations forward. A contract, which was applied retroactively, was ratified midway through the school year.

This year’s fact finding report was submitted to the negotiating parties on Aug. 29; it will not be made public since an agreement was reached within 10 days, provided the agreement is ratified.

[Read more…]

Sidewalk project put out to bid

North Williston segment planned

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town plans to start work on a North Williston Road sidewalk this fall even though it has not secured easements from all property owners along the route.

Officials said Monday that the project would be put out to bid this week. Construction of the sidewalk, which will run from U.S. 2 to Mountain View Road, could begin as soon as a bid is selected.

But the sidewalk may not be completed this fall, at least not as planned. Three or four property owners along the route have yet to grant easements, said project manager Ken Stone, who is helping the town acquire those easements. Without permission to use a slice of the homeowners’ properties, the town may have to leave gaps in the sidewalk or design detours.

Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden said he’s trying to move the project forward. The North Williston Road stretch is one of several sidewalk projects funded under a $2.6 million bond approved by voters in 2004 but stalled by easement issues.

Boyden said starting construction is not a way to pressure landowners who are holding out on easements. He wants to push forward with the project because further delays may cause cost overruns.

“We’ve got to get it going,” Boyden said. “Every year that goes by, costs continue to escalate. That’s the primary driving force – we’ve got a fixed amount of money.”

He pointed to the public safety buildings project, also funded by a voter-approved bond. The town was forced to ask voters for more money when the project’s original $6.8 million cost ballooned to more than $8 million.

Without the easements, Stone said the town might have to leave gaps in the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians and bike riders out into the road in some places.

“I’m not sure about that,” Boyden said. “We may have to slide it out into the right-of-way.”

The right-of-way Boyden referred to is publicly owned land that extends out from the edge of roads.

Boyden acknowledged that detouring part of the sidewalk into the right-of-way could reduce its appeal, moving walkers and riders closer to passing traffic. The ideal situation, he said, is to obtain all the remaining easements.

The North Williston Road segment is a key link in a series of sidewalks that will eventually allow pedestrians and bicyclists to travel from one end of Williston to the other.

The town previously agreed to narrow the North Williston Road sidewalk to 6 feet to mollify property owners along the route. Some homeowner objected that the originally planned 10-feet-wide recreation path would take up most of their already small front yards.

Williston Recreation Committee member Tim O’Brien said a sidewalk of any size would be better than the current situation, where walkers and riders dodge speeding cars on the narrow, two-lane road. He said sidewalks will connect Williston’s neighborhoods and make it safer to walk and ride around town.

O’Brien won’t let his youngest son ride a bicycle to school along North Williston Road. O’Brien said he instead drives his child to the Brennan Woods subdivision and he rides from there.

In addition to the North Williston Road project, the bond is supposed to pay for sidewalks along U.S. 2, Vermont 2A and Mountain View Road.

To date, only a portion of the U.S. 2 sidewalk has been completed. The rest of the work has been delayed while the town negotiates with property owners.

Those negotiations have moved slowly. On Mountain View Road, for example, only two of the 43 property owners have granted easements. The town wanted to complete the stretch along U.S. 2 this year, but two property owners refuse to grant easements.

When the sidewalk bond was approved, voters were told the funding would allow the town to complete the work in three to five years instead of up to 20 years it would take if the projects were funded piecemeal. Boyden acknowledged that the work has progressed more slowly than expected, but he still hopes that property owners will grant easements so the projects can be completed on time.

“I’m still pretty confident that we can continue to negotiate and get all the easements we need,” Boyden said.

[Read more…]

Rezoning fee prompts concerns

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard reacted skeptically last week to a proposed $1,500 fee for rezoning applications.

The fee is intended to defray the town’s cost of reviewing and processing such requests. A recent rezoning case consumed dozens of hours of staff time and required multiple meetings of the Planning Commission and the Selectboard to resolve.

“This doesn’t happen often in Williston, but when it does it imposes a major burden on the staff,” wrote Town Planner Lee Nellis in a memo to the Selectboard. He estimated that a consultant would have charged $4,000 to process the recent rezoning request.

At a Sept. 10 meeting, Selectboard member Ted Kenney raised concerns about the legality of the proposal.

“What I’m worried about is that it’s not just a neat thing that you have a right to petition your government,” he said. “What we are saying is we’re going to have a tax on it.”

Board member Judy Sassorossi also worried that the high fee could discourage people from seeking changes from their government.

“I would almost applaud residents who came forward,” she said. “The prohibitive nature is of concern to me.”

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said in an interview that he initially favored the fee. But after hearing Kenney’s remarks, he said he began to have doubts.

Still, he is concerned that rezoning cases eat up tremendous amounts of staff time and burden volunteer boards like the Planning Commission.

Rezoning is indeed an elaborate process. It requires public hearings before the Selectboard and the Planning Commission. Planning staff can spend dozens of hours researching the potential changes in land use and providing recommendations.

The fee proposal was prompted by a rezoning request filed last year by Bill Dunn, owner of Hillside East, a business park on Hurricane Lane in Williston. He asked to change zoning from residential to commercial for a 12-acre parcel adjacent to the business park to accommodate a larger facility for Qimonda, a technology company.

Both the Selectboard and Planning Commission eventually agreed to change zoning, but Qimonda ended up moving to another facility in South Burlington.

The rezoning process took “weeks and weeks” of staff time that otherwise would have been spent on other tasks, Nellis said in an interview. Ironically, one of those projects is revising the town’s zoning ordinances, work that has yet to be completed.

Nellis said he has been approached by someone seeking another zoning change. He declined to provide details.

“I don’t want to get people in the neighborhood fired up about something that might not happen,” he said.

Williston charges developers some of the biggest fees in Chittenden County. The fees are designed to defray infrastructure costs associated with new development.

The town levies impact fees for schools, transportation and recreation. The school impact fee alone is more than $10,000 for each single-family home.

But Nellis said his fee proposal wouldn’t affect affordability, since zoning changes generally increase land values.

“The (rezoning applications) you can anticipate will be all about making the land worth more money,” he said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said charging fees to those who use government services helps reduce the burden on taxpayers. But he acknowledged that board members who worry that the proposed zoning application fee would amount to a tax on speech have a “legitimate concern.”

Nellis has been surveying area towns to see if they charge such a fee. He said he has found that Colchester charges almost as much as his proposed fee.

McGuire said results of the survey will be compiled and presented to the Selectboard. He expected the board to take up the issue again next month.

[Read more…]

Restaurant closes after two-year run

New owners sought for Old Brick Cafe

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Old Brick Cafe, a homegrown oasis in a town full of chain restaurants, has served its last meal.

The eatery on U.S. 2 in Williston Village closed for good last weekend after dishing out its final Sunday brunch. Owner David Herskowitz said many factors were behind the closure, but in the end he simply tired of being a restaurant proprietor.

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “I’d rather be a landlord, not a restaurant owner.”

The business but not the building itself has been on the market for about a year. Herskowitz hopes to lease the cafe’s first-floor dining room and kitchen in the historic structure to another restaurateur. He said the Ayurvedic Center of Vermont, which offers holistic health services on the building’s second floor, will continue to occupy that space.

Since opening in March 2005, business at the cafe has been reasonably good, especially during weekend brunch, Herskowitz said. But he has struggled to find and keep quality staff. And he recently learned that chef Jake Williamson, who had worked at the restaurant for almost a year, would be leaving.

Some previous employees weren’t ideal, Herskowitz said, leading to sometimes inconsistent service and food quality. And he acknowledged that he was not always there to supervise the operation.

Online reviews of the Old Brick Cafe have been mixed. Some reviewers at praised the restaurant, while others panned the food and service.

But customers who live and work nearby said they never had a bad meal at the cafe, the only eatery in the village. They said they would miss the convenience of having a nearby restaurant.

Steve Bradish said he could easily walk to the cafe from his home in the village. He and his wife, Linda, ate there once or twice a month.

“We just enjoyed it,” he said. “It was a lively addition to the village. We always ran into someone we knew.”

Williston Central School teacher Julie Longchamp said she, too, ate at the cafe once or twice a month. She and her fellow teachers also frequently picked up fresh-baked cookies at the cafe, bringing them back to school for a shared treat.

“They made the best chocolate chip cookies,” Longchamp said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”

Though the restaurant found loyal customers, the town of Williston itself wasn’t so welcoming.

Herskowitz struggled to accommodate customers in his small parking lot. His attempts to expand the lot were thwarted by town officials, who denied a permit for more parking, saying it would impact wetlands and noting that parking was available across the street at Town Hall.

But Fire Chief Ken Morton and Public Works Director Neil Boyden urged the town to keep cafe customers away from Town Hall’s parking lot. They said those spaces were needed for municipal uses.

Herskowitz said he has no way of knowing if or how much the parking situation affected the cafe. He said over time it could have eroded his customer base and perhaps even hurt his ability to attract employees.

But he also acknowledged that he never planned to spend the rest of his life running a restaurant. He said he enjoyed renovating and converting the historic home, which was built in 1842, but it is time to move on.

Though the restaurant has been listed for sale for about a year, Herskowitz said he has yet to receive a serious offer. He wants to lease the space to a restaurant operator, saying it would be ideal for a chef who wants his own place. But if there is still no interest within the next few months, he said he will consider offers from other types of businesses.

Herskowitz said he will miss his customers. The cafe allowed him to meet new people, and many of them said how much they appreciated having a restaurant nearby.

“I know people are really going to miss us,” he said. “We served a need in town.”

[Read more…]

Public to weigh in on firearms

Proposal considers softening restrictions

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Some town-owned lands could be open to hunting if changes proposed to the town firearms ordinance move forward. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday at 7:35 p.m.

Town Environmental Planner Carrie Deegan said which town lands would be open is “part of the discussion.” Deegan is the town staff person that works with the Williston Conservation Commission, which presented proposed changes to the Selectboard last month.

“I think (the commission is) planning to recommend to the Selectboard that Brownell Mountain, the Hill property and the Burnett property open up to firearms discharge and see how that goes,” Deegan said.

All three of those pieces of land lie south of Interstate 89 and do not get a lot of recreational use, according to Deegan. Brownell Mountain is 109 acres, located on the southern border of town to St. George; the Hill property is 20 acres off of Route 2A; and the Burnett property is 51 acres.

Under the current ordinance, adopted in 1997, firearms may not be discharged in Williston north of Interstate 89, except for a small area in the northeastern corner of town; that portion of the ordinance is not up for discussion.

What is up for discussion is the portion of Williston that lies south of the Interstate. Under the current ordinance, firearms may not be discharged south of the Interstate within 500 feet of any building, road or trail, or in “any public park or recreation area.”

With no definition of “public park,” Deegan said, the commission has used the strictest definition and has not allowed firearms discharge on any town-owned land. Two hunters approached the commission, Deegan said, to consider clarifying the ordinance to be less strict.

The proposal gives the Selectboard authority to close any town-owned land to firearms discharge. Without a specified closing, the proposal says, firearms discharge would be restricted to areas at least 10 feet away from public roads and 100 feet away from marked public trails. Firearms also could not be discharged across roads or trails under the proposal. (The restriction to be at least 500 feet away from any building remains the same.)

“I think the conservation’s real concern is that some of the language in the ordinance is cleared up,” Deegan said. “Whether or not it works out that there will be discharge of firearms on some parcels, I think they’re happy to leave that up to the townspeople.”

Deegan pointed out that some nearby recreational areas, such as the Lake Iroquois Recreation District, are currently open to hunting. Lake Iroquois Recreation District is not town-owned land.

Deegan said recreation areas like Mud Pond Conservation Area could never be open to hunting because the land was sold to the town with conservation restrictions that prohibit it. Areas like Five Tree Hill could be open to hunting if the Selectboard allowed, though Deegan said there were “definitely concerns” by the Conservation Commission about that property since there’s such heavy recreational use.

Selectman Andy Mikell said last month he was unlikely to support the changes, citing citizen safety above recreational pursuits.

Monday’s 7:35 p.m. public hearing will be held at Town Hall.

[Read more…]

Town to revisit property values

Reappraisal process begins in Williston

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Despite a recent downturn in the market, officials say Williston property values have risen rapidly enough over the past few years to trigger a town-wide reappraisal.

The Board of Listers recently decided to conduct the reappraisal. It is scheduled to be completed by mid-May, in time to calculate property tax bills mailed in July.

The reappraisal comes amid falling housing prices, at least nationally. The trend has been less pronounced in Vermont than in other parts of the country, and in Chittenden County the market has merely slowed.

“In some ways it seems like odd timing because things have leveled off,” said Bill Hinman, Williston’s town assessor.

But he and other officials said the town has little choice but to reappraise properties because state law mandates the process when assessed values fall far below market prices. They also note that frequent reappraisals help avoid inequities caused by the shifting real estate market, in which some properties appreciate rapidly while others decline in value.

They also note that putting off reappraisals can lead to a situation like the one that made recent headlines in Essex and Essex Junction, where property values and tax bills skyrocketed. It had been 17 years since the last reappraisal in those towns.

“That certainly won’t be the case in Williston,” Hinman said. “What you saw in Essex was a really big jump in taxes because they didn’t keep things up to date.”

Williston last conducted a town-wide reappraisal in 2003. The reappraisal before that was done in 1993.

Every property in Williston was physically inspected during the last reappraisal. This time, the town will conduct a statistical reappraisal, plugging sales figures and other data into a statistical model to determine values for the town’s roughly 3,900 properties.

No more than about 10 percent of them will be inspected under the contract with Hinman’s company, Hinman and Associates Inc.

Hinman works on a contractual basis as Williston’s assessor. The reappraisal contract represents a separate agreement.

The contract calls for a total of $77,000 in payments – but only if a series of deadlines are met. Missing any one of the deadlines will result in a 3 percent deduction per week from the payment for that portion of the work. The entire process must be completed by May 15.

Multiple deadlines were set because of problems with the 2003 reappraisal. Connecticut-based Appraisal Resource Group was contracted to do the work for $220,900. But the contractor missed its only deadline by more than a month, causing property tax bills to be mailed late. Hearings over disputed assessments were still being conducted after the bills were mailed.

“It caused the town a considerable headache, to put it mildly,” said Board of Listers member Fred Webster.

The state of Vermont requires towns to do a reappraisal when a measure called the common level of appraisal, or CLA, drops below 80 percent. The CLA measures the difference between appraised and market values.

Hinman said the state last year estimated Williston’s CLA at 78 percent. But he said that figure is not up to date because the state uses data from as long as three years ago. He said recent property sales indicate the actual CLA in Williston is closer to 65 or 70 percent.

Officials acknowledged the irony of accounting for increases in property value amid a market downturn. But Webster pointed out that property values have until the past year risen at a rapid clip, so appraisals are still generally well below market prices in Williston.

The town did delay the reappraisal by a year. Listers recommended in June 2006 that the reappraisal start then, but later decided to wait.

After reviewing property sales data over the past several months, Board of Listers member Linda Ladd said it became “as evident as the nose on your face” that a reappraisal was needed.

The reappraisal will also ensure taxes are levied fairly, town officials said. Some neighborhoods and commercial areas rise more in value than others, leading to inequities if appraisals don’t also change.

Ladd emphasized that the appraisal won’t necessarily result in a property tax hike for any given homeowner or business. The tax rate is the other factor in the calculation, and the town usually adjusts it downward by the same percentage that overall property values rise after the reappraisal is completed.

That means that taxes will increase only for those who own properties that have appreciated more than average. Others may see no change or even a tax reduction.

Ladd pointed out that the tax rate is based on municipal and school spending, and those budgets are approved by voters.

“We’re not picking on anybody,” Ladd said. “People need to understand we don’t set the tax rate.”

[Read more…]

Betting on the house

Williston native goes pro in poker

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The odds of Chris Kirkpatrick losing the hand before him were 1 in 436,000.

Three months ago, the 27-year-old Williston native was sitting at a Texas Hold ’Em poker table at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In his hands he held a pair of jacks. The flop was a jack-10-10. The only hand that could beat his was a pair of 10s.

He was so certain he would win, he says looking back, he would have bet his life on it. Instead, he bet $3,000 – nearly double his $1,800 monthly house mortgage payment.

His opponent turned over a pair of 10s.

“I totally felt sick,” Kirkpatrick recalls of the moment.

Playing poker for a living, Kirkpatrick is bound to experience moments when luck just doesn’t run in his direction.

“You’re going to have bad runs,” the former Williston resident said in an interview this week.

Bad runs don’t seem to faze Kirkpatrick too badly, though, as he believes the outcome of cash poker games is roughly 80 percent skill and 20 percent luck. (Tournaments – as opposed to cash games – involve more luck, he said.) With an annual income between $60,000 and $75,000 – and sometimes perhaps more – Kirkpatrick certainly wins more than he loses.

“I make money when I play cash games 70 to 75 percent of the time,” he said. “I lose money 25 to 30 percent of the time.”

Kirkpatrick’s love of poker came late in life. As a kid, he was never interested in his father’s Friday night poker games. Instead, he was into sports. As a Champlain Valley Union High School student, Kirkpatrick beat the state high school javelin throwing record (his father’s) from 24 years prior. He went on to hold the USA track and field junior record for the country.

After graduating from CVU, where his favorite subject was math, he studied for a year at the University of Vermont and then two years at Champlain College, focusing on business. Then fiancé Hannah Boucher of South Burlington (now his wife) wanted to move to Arizona to complete her studies there. Kirkpatrick got a job as the general manager of a manufacturing company.

It was a 2003 Christmas gift of a poker chip set to his father-in-law that started Kirkpatrick’s gambling journey. That night his father-in-law taught him the basics.

“I’m a numbers guy,” Kirkpatrick said. “I loved statistical analysis and that stuff. … Playing poker to me was a lot the same so I loved the game.”

He started to play on and off over the next several months. Then his wife left the country on an internship.

“I was home alone for two months,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’d go to work 9-5 and when I got out of work I’d go right to the casino. I just didn’t want to be home alone.”

Four casinos lie within 30 miles of his house; one is just four miles away. In the first couple of weeks he lost $5-600.

“I got kind of irritated and for a couple weeks didn’t go to the casino,” Kirkpatrick said.

He bought a couple of poker theory books and came up with a simple strategy. He started making money. Within four weeks, he turned $100 into $6,000. He began playing poker 40 hours a week, on top of his day job. In October 2004, he resigned and began playing poker exclusively.

His mother, Linda Kirkpatrick, said this week she giggles when people ask her what her son does for a living.

“When he was a teenager, he used to pick on us about going and wasting money at a casino,” Linda Kirkpatrick said, referring to occasional trips she took with her husband. “And now he’s a professional gambler. I didn’t ever think that would happen!”

Though a mother always worries, she said, she supports her son’s endeavors.

“If he can make a good living at it and have fun, more power to him,” she said.

Chris’s father, however, expresses apprehension a little more readily.

“He kind of hints at times ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” the younger Kirkpatrick said.

For now, Chris Kirkpatrick and his wife have returned to Vermont for at least six months (Boucher was laid off in a corporate merger), Kirkpatrick said. Since he plays primarily online, and only occasionally at casinos, there’s no interruption to his 40-60 hour-a-week poker playing schedule.

While he’s home, Kirkpatrick has high hopes of using his knowledge of poker for good causes. His organization Vermont Poker Pros will be running Texas Hold ’Em tournaments to benefit charities (organizations can readily earn $500 in a night). Players buy-in for $50, with first prize taking $1,000. His second organization – – organizes free poker teaching nights (no chip purchases required to play) at local restaurants or bars. Players can earn points toward a free trip with Kirkpatrick to the World Poker Tour.

To those who’ve never given poker a try, Kirkpatrick says this: “If you have any kind of analytical mind at all, you can be a good poker player.”

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