October 20, 2014

St. George mulls zoning changes

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Public forum scheduled for Wednesday

April 1, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

St. George will hold a public meeting next week on new zoning that steers development toward the center of town and away from hillsides and farmland.

The forum is scheduled for Wednesday, April 23 at 7 p.m. The session, scheduled to last about two hours, will be held at St. George Town Center.

Officials hope the hearing will prompt comments from residents on the proposed changes, which reduce allowable density in much of St. George while increasing density in the middle of town along Vermont 2A.

St. George, with about 750 people and 2,300 acres, has a fraction of the population and land area of most Chittenden County towns. Except a few businesses, a mobile home park and some small subdivisions, it remains largely undeveloped.

"We are probably the only town in Chittenden County that has a clean slate," said Planning Commission member Connie Kendall. "We get to start fresh to a great extent."

The new land-use rules would create seven zoning districts. Roughly half the town would be in either the rural district, which allows one unit per 10 acres, or the limited development district, which permits only one unit for every 25 acres. The current zoning has five districts, with the most restrictive one allowing one unit for every 10 acres.

Kendall noted that topography plays a significant role in the zoning. She said low-density districts are dominated by hills and ridges, including Mount Pritchard.

The new zoning eliminates the recreation district while creating others. The new village center and village residential districts permit denser development than what is allowed in that area — a sliver of land straddling Vermont 2A near the municipal offices — under the current zoning.

In the village center district, as many as 20 units would be allowed per acre. The highest density now allowed in any district is about three units per acre.

Spurred on by development

With two new subdivisions now undergoing the development review process and more projects potentially on the way, updated land-use rules are urgently needed, said Planning Commission Chairman Scott Baker.

"We are expecting pretty heavy pressure to develop farmland," he said. "The wave has come."

The proposed subdivisions, nine units each, are located on property that comprises roughly a quarter of the developable land in town, Baker said.

Dan Pillsbury has proposed one of the two subdivisions. He owns 160 acres of land in St. George. He closed his dairy farm operation in 2006 and now hopes to develop some of the land.

Pillsbury, who is also on the town's Planning Commission, said he generally likes the proposed zoning. But he wonders how he and other large landowners will be compensated for new restrictions on their property.

A portion of his land would under the new rules be restricted to one unit per 25 acres. Some of the land lies along a hilltop with views of Lake Champlain, Pillsbury said, making it an attractive site for homes.

Baker said the town is looking at ways to offset the impact stricter zoning would have on some landowners. The town could award density bonuses for those who cluster development on just a portion of their property, Baker said. Or it could allow the transfer of development rights from one property owner to another.

In any case, he added, the new zoning would not affect the proposed subdivisions, which would be grandfathered under the current rules.

In writing new land-use rules, St. George is combining its subdivision and zoning regulations into one unified document. A new town plan was passed about two years ago.

The subdivision rules were written in 1980 and zoning was established in the '80s, so there are conflicts between the town plan's broad goals and the outdated land-use rules, Baker said. The idea is to dovetail zoning with the town plan.

Kendall said the Planning Commission hopes residents will also provide guidance on issues related to allowable uses in each of the zoning districts. Still being considered is whether to permit large retail stores, automobile dealers and industrial facilities.

Kendall acknowledged that the zoning changes may provoke pointed commentary. She said she welcomes the input.

"Folks may come in with strong opinions about the density of their property," she said. "I'm really looking forward to that discussion."

[Read more...]

Firefighters, police in contract talks

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Officials mum on negotiation details

April 10, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston public safety employees are negotiating contracts that will set pay and benefits for the town's only unionized workers.

Talks began Monday on a revised agreement with the town's police officers. The current contract, which expires July 1, covers 13 full-time officers and two dispatchers. They are represented by Teamsters Local 597.

Negotiations with Williston's four full-time firefighters started about two months ago, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

The firefighters, hired in 2006 to supplement a contingent of volunteer on-call firefighters and rescue workers, are negotiating their first contract. They voted in November to join the International Association of Fire Fighters.

McGuire and union representatives declined to provide specifics on the negotiations. Each side cited ground rules that forbid public comment unless talks reach an impasse.

"I really can't say anything," said Capt. Tim Gerry of the Williston Fire Department. After several negotiating sessions, Gerry said he is pleased with progress so far.

McGuire said because the firefighters' contract involves starting from scratch, the process is more difficult and time-consuming.

"There's lots and lots of issues to talk about because we're starting a whole new agreement," he said.

Gerry said talks haven't even touched on wages and benefits yet because both sides are still trying to hammer out work rules and responsibilities.

The full-time firefighters — Gerry, Keith Baker, Ryan Prouty and Sean Soper — are currently paid from $17.72 to $21.04 an hour.

If history is any guide, talks with the police union could be contentious. In 2005, negotiations reached an impasse after just a month.

Police claimed they were among the lowest-paid officers in Chittenden County and considered picketing. A mediator and a fact finder were employed to break the stalemate. A new agreement was finally struck in December 2005.

Contract talks in prior years were also contentious. And there have been other tensions, including grievances that officers claimed amounted to a pattern of harassment in 2004.

Detective Sgt. Bart Chamberlain declined to comment on what pay and benefits officers are seeking in the negotiations. He was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reaching an agreement before the current contract expires.

"We're hopeful everything will go well," he said.

The pay scale for police ranges from $18.04 an hour to $27.64 an hour, depending on years of service and rank. Dispatchers' pay is between $16.22 and $21.40 an hour.

Duane Messier, who as business manager for Teamsters Local 597 will help negotiate the police contract, said the first order of business is to find items in the existing contract that will remain unchanged.

Although he would not talk specifics, Messier said the general goal is to ensure Williston officers' pay and benefits stack up to compensation received by officers in other Chittenden County towns.

McGuire said he will try to look out for taxpayers' pocketbooks and still be fair to employees.

"Anytime you negotiate a contract there's an effort to balance interests," he said. "You want to keep costs down. But you also want to make sure pay and benefits are competitive or you end up with problems with the organization. Either you have higher turnover or lower morale. And that has a cost to the organization, too."

[Read more...]

Zoning administrator D.K. Johnston stepping down

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Resignation agreement to govern employee’s references

 

An outgoing town employee has struck an unusual agreement that forbids bad references from his bosses.
Williston zoning administrator D.K. Johnston signed the resignation agreement last month. The seven-page document was also signed by Town Manager Rick McGuire and Johnston’s immediate supervisor, Town Planner Lee Nellis.
Much of the agreement is written in thick legalese common to contracts. But the heart of the agreement concerns provisions for references.
Town employees “shall not make any negative or derogatory comments about Johnston or the performance of his work with the Town,” the agreement states.
Known among human resource professionals as a “non-disparagement clause,” it permits town officials to simply state what position Johnston held and for how long. The clause also allows Nellis to provide a positive letter of reference that is pre-approved by Johnston, then give verbal references consistent with the letter.
The agreement requires Johnston to be paid for accrued vacation, compensatory time and personal time – 151 hours in all. He will continue to be covered under the town’s insurance policy through the end of the year.
Williston officials were tight-lipped about the circumstances of Johnston’s departure from a job he held for almost 3.5 years. It is unclear whether he was asked to resign or quit.
“It’s not quite that clear cut,” McGuire said. “I guess it was a decision by both parties that it would be best if he moved on to another position.”
The agreement states the town wanted to restructure the zoning administrator and assistant town planner positions held by Johnston and that they “will no longer exist in their present form.” 
Reached at home, Johnston declined comment on the agreement, although he did thank members of the volunteer boards he worked with during his tenure.
“I think the agreement kind of speaks for itself,” Johnston said. “I’m really not allowed to say anything.”
The agreement forbids any statement by Johnston or town employees that “impacts negatively on either the Town’s or Johnston’s reputation in the community.”
Under the agreement, Johnston is allowed to continue working for the town of Williston through June 30 as assistant town planner. McGuire said Johnston is still “doing some work” for the town.
But he is no longer zoning administrator, a position that has among its duties enforcement of the town’s land-use rules. Nellis said he has for now taken on the zoning administrator’s responsibilities.
Johnston is currently paid $23.71 an hour, said Susan Lamb, the town’s finance manager. The total payment for accrued benefits will therefore be $3,580.21. Lamb noted that all employees are paid for accrued benefits when they leave.
The agreement allows Johnston to resign before June 30 and still collect the pay that would be coming to him through that period as well as the accrued vacation and comp time.

Non-disparagement clauses
Employment experts say resignation agreements, while not routine, are becoming increasingly common.
“It’s really to avoid future litigation that relates to what can be an emotionally charged situation,” said Bill Reynolds, general counsel with the Vermont Department of Human Resources.
The state of Vermont employs about 7,000 people. Reynolds estimated that more than a dozen resignation agreements are struck with state workers each year.
Mark Heyman, president of Cope Human Resources in Burlington, said resignation agreements have in the past been more common in the private sector than in the public sector, but that is changing.
Heyman said non-disparagement clauses are often used to smooth over disagreements that arise when employees leave.
“In general, nobody wants bad things to be said about them,” he said. “In employment disputes, there are very often going to be contested facts.”
Contracts that restrict what can be said by and about a former employee let private firms avoid situations that can turn into public relations problems, said Heyman, formerly deputy counsel with the Vermont State Employees Association. But he acknowledged that such agreements with public employees raise more complex issues.
“The difference in the public sector is there is an interest in knowing about the way government works,” he said. “The public’s right to know needs to be balanced with the employee’s right to privacy.”
A common way employers avoid problems is to simply refuse to give detailed references. Heyman estimated more that 75 to 80 percent of private firms now have policies against providing references that go beyond confirming dates of employment and job duties.
The town of Williston appears to be headed in that direction. Earlier this month, the Selectboard discussed a draft policy that would require employees to sign a form releasing the town from legal liability before receiving a detailed reference.
Johnston’s departure was complicated by the fact that under state law zoning administrators are appointed, not hired like most municipal employees. The statute requires planning commissions to recommend candidates, who are then appointed by selectboards to three-year terms.
Johnston’s term ends June 30. McGuire said the Williston Selectboard was advised of Johnston’s pending departure and the agreement.
Johnston was hired by the town in December 2004. The job has at times thrust him into the middle of heated land-use disputes. He has dealt with issues ranging from a disagreement over whether a Little League scoreboard should be permitted in the town’s historic district to enforcement of rules against temporary signs.
Nellis said the zoning administrator position as currently configured is both stressful and frustrating, so the town is considering changes to make the job more appealing.
Most of the zoning administrator’s duties involve answering questions from the public about land-use rules and attending board meetings. Enforcement has in practice been a relatively small part of the job, Nellis said, but is perhaps the most difficult duty.
“Time-wise, enforcement is a very minor component of the position, but stress-wise it makes a huge impact,” he said.
 

[Read more...]

Zoning administrator D.K. Johnston stepping down

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Resignation agreement to govern employee’s references

 

An outgoing town employee has struck an unusual agreement that forbids bad references from his bosses.
Williston zoning administrator D.K. Johnston signed the resignation agreement last month. The seven-page document was also signed by Town Manager Rick McGuire and Johnston’s immediate supervisor, Town Planner Lee Nellis.
Much of the agreement is written in thick legalese common to contracts. But the heart of the agreement concerns provisions for references.
Town employees “shall not make any negative or derogatory comments about Johnston or the performance of his work with the Town,” the agreement states.
Known among human resource professionals as a “non-disparagement clause,” it permits town officials to simply state what position Johnston held and for how long. The clause also allows Nellis to provide a positive letter of reference that is pre-approved by Johnston, then give verbal references consistent with the letter.
The agreement requires Johnston to be paid for accrued vacation, compensatory time and personal time – 151 hours in all. He will continue to be covered under the town’s insurance policy through the end of the year.
Williston officials were tight-lipped about the circumstances of Johnston’s departure from a job he held for almost 3.5 years. It is unclear whether he was asked to resign or quit.
“It’s not quite that clear cut,” McGuire said. “I guess it was a decision by both parties that it would be best if he moved on to another position.”
The agreement states the town wanted to restructure the zoning administrator and assistant town planner positions held by Johnston and that they “will no longer exist in their present form.” 
Reached at home, Johnston declined comment on the agreement, although he did thank members of the volunteer boards he worked with during his tenure.
“I think the agreement kind of speaks for itself,” Johnston said. “I’m really not allowed to say anything.”
The agreement forbids any statement by Johnston or town employees that “impacts negatively on either the Town’s or Johnston’s reputation in the community.”
Under the agreement, Johnston is allowed to continue working for the town of Williston through June 30 as assistant town planner. McGuire said Johnston is still “doing some work” for the town.
But he is no longer zoning administrator, a position that has among its duties enforcement of the town’s land-use rules. Nellis said he has for now taken on the zoning administrator’s responsibilities.
Johnston is currently paid $23.71 an hour, said Susan Lamb, the town’s finance manager. The total payment for accrued benefits will therefore be $3,580.21. Lamb noted that all employees are paid for accrued benefits when they leave.
The agreement allows Johnston to resign before June 30 and still collect the pay that would be coming to him through that period as well as the accrued vacation and comp time.

Non-disparagement clauses
Employment experts say resignation agreements, while not routine, are becoming increasingly common.
“It’s really to avoid future litigation that relates to what can be an emotionally charged situation,” said Bill Reynolds, general counsel with the Vermont Department of Human Resources.
The state of Vermont employs about 7,000 people. Reynolds estimated that more than a dozen resignation agreements are struck with state workers each year.
Mark Heyman, president of Cope Human Resources in Burlington, said resignation agreements have in the past been more common in the private sector than in the public sector, but that is changing.
Heyman said non-disparagement clauses are often used to smooth over disagreements that arise when employees leave.
“In general, nobody wants bad things to be said about them,” he said. “In employment disputes, there are very often going to be contested facts.”
Contracts that restrict what can be said by and about a former employee let private firms avoid situations that can turn into public relations problems, said Heyman, formerly deputy counsel with the Vermont State Employees Association. But he acknowledged that such agreements with public employees raise more complex issues.
“The difference in the public sector is there is an interest in knowing about the way government works,” he said. “The public’s right to know needs to be balanced with the employee’s right to privacy.”
A common way employers avoid problems is to simply refuse to give detailed references. Heyman estimated more that 75 to 80 percent of private firms now have policies against providing references that go beyond confirming dates of employment and job duties.
The town of Williston appears to be headed in that direction. Earlier this month, the Selectboard discussed a draft policy that would require employees to sign a form releasing the town from legal liability before receiving a detailed reference.
Johnston’s departure was complicated by the fact that under state law zoning administrators are appointed, not hired like most municipal employees. The statute requires planning commissions to recommend candidates, who are then appointed by selectboards to three-year terms.
Johnston’s term ends June 30. McGuire said the Williston Selectboard was advised of Johnston’s pending departure and the agreement.
Johnston was hired by the town in December 2004. The job has at times thrust him into the middle of heated land-use disputes. He has dealt with issues ranging from a disagreement over whether a Little League scoreboard should be permitted in the town’s historic district to enforcement of rules against temporary signs.
Nellis said the zoning administrator position as currently configured is both stressful and frustrating, so the town is considering changes to make the job more appealing.
Most of the zoning administrator’s duties involve answering questions from the public about land-use rules and attending board meetings. Enforcement has in practice been a relatively small part of the job, Nellis said, but is perhaps the most difficult duty.
“Time-wise, enforcement is a very minor component of the position, but stress-wise it makes a huge impact,” he said.
 

[Read more...]

WCS janitor charged with stalking student

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Croteau had been previously 'disciplined' by school

April 3, 2008

By Marianne Apfelbaum

Observer staff

A longtime Williston Central School janitor has been charged with aggravated stalking of a 13-year-old, female student. Before he was arrested on Monday, the school went into a modified lockdown mode in what police called a "precautionary measure."

Norman Croteau Sr., 47, of South Burlington was arrested April 7 after an investigation that began on April 3 when school officials called police.

A student told a school counselor on April 2 that Croteau, "was always following her and had been saying some very inappropriate things to her," according to a police affidavit. School principal Jackie Parks told police "she was aware of previous incidents with girls reporting Croteau staring," and he had been "formally disciplined for these actions" in the previous school year, the affidavit states.

Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli refused to discuss why the police were not notified at that time, calling the matter a personnel issue. Though Nardelli declined to discuss the specifics of Croteau's case, he said disciplinary measures may include a letter in an employee's file, but a lot depends on the specifics of the incident, the employee's "attitude toward the situation" and his work history.

Parks told police she "was taking the allegations very seriously as (the girl) was a very good student and is found to be very creditable with all the teachers and staff members that interact with her," the affidavit notes.

Attempts by the Observer to reach Croteau and his attorney were unsuccessful, but according to the police affidavit, the janitor told police he had "no interest in (the girl) and that the statements that (the girl) had made are not true."

The school placed Croteau on "paid administrative leave," pending the outcome of its own investigation and the court's findings in the case, according to Nardelli.

Croteau has been employed at the school since June 1997, according to Cid Gause, an administrative assistant at WCS. Nardelli said a background check on Croteau was never done because mandatory checks were not required until shortly after he had been hired.

Police Chief Jim Dimmick told the Observer Croteau has no criminal history.

The allegations

On April 4, police interviewed the girl who brought the complaints against Croteau and her parents at their home. The girl told police that on March 31, she went into the girls' bathroom at the school; shortly thereafter someone knocked on the door and asked if anyone was inside. She loudly said, "Yes," but Croteau "entered the bathroom anyway," according to the police affidavit.

Croteau told the girl he was "looking for a big mess," looked around and left the bathroom, the affidavit states. Croteau then allegedly entered the bathroom again in the same manner, saying he "could not find the mess." The girl went to wash her hands at the sink furthest away from him, and Croteau said he had found the mess on a toilet seat; "instead of taking paper towels from the dispenser that was right next to him," he walked across the bathroom and took them from the dispenser right next to the girl, according to the affidavit.

The girl told police she was so scared she "left the bathroom without washing the soap off her hands and without getting her backpack and other belongings." She told police she waited until Croteau had left before retrieving her things.

In a second incident on March 31, the girl told police, she was in a hallway by herself when Croteau came near her and "made it look like" he was changing a trash bag. The girl told police the janitor then said, "There's a room upstairs if you want to go." The girl headed for the library, where she was afraid to leave because he may have been waiting for her, according to the affidavit.

A third time on the same day, according to the affidavit, the girl said Croteau was in the library "staring at her."

The behavior allegedly continued the next day.

On April 1, the girl told police, she "altered her route" in school to avoid the boiler room where Croteau might be, and instead walked past the school office. But Croteau saw her and started following her, according to the affidavit. The girl found other students in the hallway, and one of them told the girl, "I think this guy is watching us," the affidavit states. When the other students left, the girl again altered her route to avoid Croteau, the affidavit notes.

In another incident on April 1, the girl said she saw Croteau by the gym doors and he "moved his head in a gesturing motion," as if trying to lure her into the gym, according to the affidavit. She walked past him and he began to follow her, so she walked "faster and faster" to get to the library, according to the affidavit.

At about 11:45 a.m. the same day, the girl told police, she was walking down a hallway and saw Croteau following her. He caught up with her and said, "Hi" in a low voice, then, "Oh, shoot," when a woman walked around the corner, the affidavit states.

While the girl was walking with another student, again on April 1, Croteau allegedly came up to them and said, "Don't tell anyone. I don't want to get fired," according to the affidavit.

Three more incidents allegedly followed on April 2: According to the affidavit, Croteau "put his arms around himself in a hugging motion" and "used his pointer finger to motion (the girl) over to him;" the janitor approached the girl as she was heading to lunch and said, "I have my cell phone number if you want it;" and, while in the cafeteria, Croteau took his cell phone and pointed it at the girl and her friends and it "looked like he was taking a picture." At that point, the girl and her friends went to report the behavior to the school counselor, according to police.

During the police interview at her home, the girl told officers that Croteau had been staring at her and following her for about a year, according to the affidavit. She also told police she doesn't feel safe in school and has had to alter her everyday activities to avoid contact with him.

In a separate interview included in the affidavit, another student told police Croteau "follows and looks at girls a lot," and makes her "feel very uncomfortable."

School lockdown

Police went to Croteau's home on April 7, but he was not there, said Chief Dimmick. A family member was there, and the police decided to enact a modified lockdown at the school in case the family member notified Croteau, who was unaware at that point that a police investigation was under way, Dimmick said.

Parents were notified via e-mail that a lockdown was enacted, but no details were provided. Based on questions from parents, the Williston Police Department posted more information on its Web site, www.willistonpd.com.

"Mr. Croteau made no direct threat on the school or any student, but the Police Department did not want him just showing up without notice with this emotionally charged issue under investigation," says a statement on the Web site. "We felt at a minimum, we owed it to the 13-year-old student who came forward to ensure that there was not a chance encounter in a hallway or public area in the building. Mr. Croteau had been placed on leave by the school last week, and asked not to go to the school, but he still had keys to the building."

The school has discussed changing the locks on the doors "as part of the budget process," but has no immediate plans to do so, Nardelli said.

Contrary to rumors, police say Croteau was never at the school on Monday.

The charge

Croteau agreed to meet with police on April 7 at the police station, where he denied the allegations from the student. After questioning on Monday, police arrested Croteau and he was transported to Chittenden County Correctional Center, where he was held on $10,000 bail, according to Dimmick. He was released after his arraignment on Tuesday, Dimmick said, and is scheduled to appear in court in May.

Because the alleged victim was under 16, the stalking charge against Croteau was elevated to "aggravated" stalking. If convicted, Croteau faces up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $25,000, according to police.

The school is short on janitors: Nardelli said at least one or two are out with work-related injuries, in addition to Croteau's absence.

"If we could find a replacement as a sub (for Croteau), we would," Nardelli said.

He would not comment when asked if he would re-instate Croteau if the janitor is acquitted of the charges.

[Read more...]

Mother charged with DUI after reporting child missing

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April 3, 2008

By Marianne Apfelbaum
Observer staff

After a massive search last Thursday evening at Williston Central School, a young child — reported missing by his mother — was discovered to be safe in the care of a family friend. The boy had never been at the school, according to police.

Scores of Williston residents, along with police and fire officials, descended on the school at 6:30 p.m. to search for the boy.

His mother, Jennifer Guczek, 26, of Williston, told police she had parked her car at the back entrance of the school, and left her 4-year-old son locked in the car while she went in to pick up her daughter. When she returned to the car, she told police her son was gone. She alerted school officials, who called police.

Police and fire officials, including the Vermont State Police Canine team, sprung into action, quickly mobilizing to search the school, school grounds, waterways and nearby bike path.

Word quickly spread and town residents attending activities at the school and at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library gathered to help with the search. Parents and children yelled the child's name in the school's hallways and classrooms. Some huddled in small groups, visibly shaken, discussing where they should look next.

As part of the investigation, an "Amber Alert process was being formulated," according to police, and a criminal investigation was started in case the child had been abducted.

"Being a grandparent … just the fear of what might have happened … I just thought the worst, that he was kidnapped," Williston resident Ken Kaleita, a former New Yorker who helped with the search, told the Observer this week.

But Kaleita was impressed with the response to the emergency.

"In Vermont, it seems everybody pulls together. It's a really great place to live," he said. "But I was disturbed afterward (to learn) that the mother might have a DUI."

Guczek was taken to the Williston Police Department for a debriefing at 7:12 p.m., where police "immediately recognized that she was under the influence of alcohol," according to police reports.

A subsequent blood-alcohol test registered .139, and Guczek was charged with driving under the influence and released to her family with a citation to appear in court, according to police. The legal limit in Vermont is .08.

Guczek had told police that she brought her son with her to the school, "even recalling a conversation with him to stay in the car, not open the doors, etc.," according to Police Chief Jim Dimmick, responding to the Observer's questions in an e-mail.

In fact, police say the child was never with Guczek at the school, but instead at a friend of Guczek's the entire time. The friend's mother works at the school, and at some point during the search called her son to ask if he wanted to come and help, according to police.

"He then indicated that he had the child," Dimmick wrote in his e-mail.

Shouts of relief filled the air minutes later when the man showed up in the school parking lot with the child in his arms, about an hour after he was reported missing, and just as it was getting dark.

"Williston Police feel Ms. Guczek felt strongly that her son was actually missing and made the report based on what she felt had occurred," according to a press release from Dimmick.

No other charges have been filed against Guczek, but the Department of Children and Families was notified of the incident, Dimmick said in an e-mail.

Guczek could not be reached for comment.

Police say Guczek has no prior convictions for driving under the influence, but according to a police affidavit, she was charged and convicted in July 2004 for retail theft at Wal-Mart. The affidavit notes that Guczek, who was at the store with her two children, then ages 4 and 3 months, was "concealing items into and under her baby's blankets."

The affidavit states that Guczek went to the register and paid for some of the items, and left the store without paying for the others that were hidden. Wal-Mart loss prevention personnel confronted her outside the store, and she said she "forgot to pay for the items," which were valued at more than $100, according to the affidavit.

Police responding to the scene said she was evasive, the affidavit states.

When police threatened to call Social and Rehabilitation Services (now known as the Vermont Department of Children and Families), Guczek called her parents to come and care for her children, the affidavit notes. Police also discovered a bag of marijuana and four other "controlled substances" in her purse, according to the affidavit.

[Read more...]

Hoehl Family donates $1 million to Stern Center

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April 3, 2008

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The Stern Center for Language and Learning received the largest single donation in its history last week. The center announced the Hoehl Family Foundation would give   $1 million to further expand the center's mission of aiding students who have trouble with traditional learning methods.

"I can't thank the Hoehl Family enough for their contribution," said Dr. Blanche Podhajski, founder and president of the center, at the March 27 press conference. "We're really very thrilled to extend the Stern Center boundaries even further."

The new donation will help to lower costs for eligible students, Podhajski said. Much of the money will also offset other operational costs, such as instructional fees and the workshop costs for teachers, she added.

The Stern Center, based in Williston and with a location in White River Junction, is a nonprofit organization that helps students of all ages with literacy and other learning issues. The center works to aid students who don't learn as well through traditional methods of instruction become more successful in their schooling. Students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia and autism, routinely use the Stern Center for help in English, math and with study skills, Podhajski said.

Teachers and educators can get professional development from the center to bring newer and specialized learning techniques into their classrooms, she said.

According to Podhajski, the Hoehl donation will be made over a four-year period. The money will establish the center's new Cynthia K. Hoehl Institute for Excellence, named after the wife of IDX Systems co-founder Robert Hoehl. The Hoehls have donated money to many organizations in the past, including the Committee On Temporary Shelter, also known as COTS, and the Flynn Center in Burlington, as well as donating the money to build the Hoehl Welcome Center at St. Michael's College.

"Without (the Hoehls), Vermont wouldn't be what it is," said Gene Richards, a board member for the Stern Center. "They're real Vermonters. They invest in this state wisely."

A history of good deeds

The Hoehls' son, John, represented the family at the press conference. He said his mother, Cynthia, grew up in Burlington and has worked as an educator all her life. She is currently helping tutor students in Immokalee, Fla., Hoehl said.

"The gift is just the natural progression of the way mom has lived her life," he said.

Podhajski called Cynthia Hoehl a "dear friend," saying that Hoehl had been an educator in many fields for many years.

"She knows how important it is for teachers to be the best at what they do," she said.

More than just generous philanthropists, the Hoehls have a personal connection to the Stern Center — John and Cynthia are board members, and John's son Jack has been a student at the center. John said he noticed Jack having learning problems with reading during the second grade. Jack was falling behind with his grades and started acting out more, Hoehl said.

"Reading was such a problem for him, it was causing problems in behavior," Hoehl said.

Hoehl was already a Stern Center board member when he brought Jack in for help. Jack was set up with an instructor who helped him approach reading in a different way.

Hoehl wasn't sure what techniques the instructors used to improve Jack's reading skills, all he knows is that it worked. His son, now in fifth grade, reads at a high level and it shows in his grades, Hoehl said.

"The center made a huge difference in his whole school experience," he said.

Work at the Stern Center

Helping students does not come cheap. It costs $80 an hour for a student to receive specialized instruction, a cost that will be reduced by 20 percent, thanks to the Hoehl donation, Podhajski said.

The new Institute of Excellence will also establish scholarship programs for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year, she said. The center already has its own program set up for families with incomes less than $80,000. Podhajski hopes the donation will allow for more accessibility to the center, which annually tutors 900 students.

Hoehl said a lot of what attracted his family to the Stern Center was its commitment to the future, as well as being leaders in research.

"The research explosion in the last 20 years has been very dramatic," Podhajski said. "(Cynthia) found the research we were doing compelling."

Much of the research has focused on brain scans of alternative learners, Podhajski said. Different parts of the brain show activity in students who don't learn in the traditional manner. Studies are just being completed in how to teach those students more effectively, she said.

"It's an exciting time here at the Stern Center and the Hoehls are a huge part of it," Podhajski said.

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Healthy hearts might as well jump

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April 3, 2008

By Greg Duggan
Observer staff

For each of the past five years, students at Allen Brook and Williston Central schools have raised more money than any other Vermont school district during the American Heart Association’s Jump Rope for Heart event. On Friday, March 28 nearly 400 rope-skipping youngsters were shooting to make it six in a row.

With speakers in the Allen Brook gymnasium blasting everything from punk rock to the Macarena to the hokey pokey, hundreds of students took turns jumping rope for three straight hours.

For their efforts, the students collected donations to benefit the American Heart Association. The money goes towards research and education, said Russell Beilke, the association’s youth market director, with some funds returning to the schools for physical education equipment.

“It’s an education based event with an underlying fundraiser aspect,” Beilke said.

“Every child understands the purpose,” said Jennifer Oakes, a Williston physical education teacher and the school district’s athletic director. “It’s for them to get exercise and raise awareness of heart disease and stroke. To get active helps the heart and the lungs get healthy.”

Students formed groups of seven to 10 and took turns skipping rope. At least one person from each team had to be jumping for all three hours of the event. Some went solo, swinging the rope over their heads and under their feet. Others, like Olivia Werner, Meghan Walker, Madeleine Serafini and Eve Wilson, took a team approach, with a member holding each end of the rope and other students hopping in the middle.

“I wanted to do it because you get exercise and help people in need,” said Ananth Malladi, one of the participants.

“I’ve done it before. It gets your heart moving,” said Alia Rousso as she held her hands to her chest.

This year’s event included more than 260 students from Allen Brook and more than 120 from Williston Central, said Oakes. Beilke and Oakes also credited the greater number of parents and volunteers for their involvement.

“We continue to have more and more kids involved. It’s huge,” Oakes laughed. “Yeah, it’s huge.”

The students had raised $18,500 at the event, and when physical education teacher Cathy Kohlasch announced the number the gym erupted in cheers from the students.

By this week, Oakes said outstanding donations should bring the total to more than $20,000.

Whether or not the amount will earn Williston the top fundraising spot for a sixth straight year remains to be seen. More than 160 schools in Vermont participate in a Jump Rope for Heart event, and Oakes said the American Heart Association announces the totals in the fall. Regardless of where Williston finishes in the fundraising totals, Oakes said the town can be proud of itself.

“This is unbelievably generous of the community of Williston,” she said.

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Compost controversy clouds recycling efforts

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Intervale Center plans to halt existing operation

April 3, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

When opposition to a landfill erupted, Tom Moreau was already looking for other ways to handle Chittenden County's waste.

Moreau, general manager of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, long understood that the size and cost of the landfill being considered in Williston would be reduced if more trash was reused, recycled or otherwise diverted.

But now, instead of mulling waste reduction, Moreau is trying to stop a flood of new waste flowing into landfills elsewhere in the state.

State regulators say Vermont's largest composting operation, the Intervale Center in Burlington, violated environmental protection rules. The center, which processes almost 20,000 tons of food scraps, non-recyclable paper and other material, said it wants to stop composting, which could mean CSWD has to handle more waste.

"I needed the Intervale compost thing like I needed a shot in the head," Moreau said. "This issue did not come at the right time for us."

Chittenden Solid Waste District, headquartered in Williston, operates and contracts with private companies to run transfer stations, drop-off centers and material reuse facilities where residents and their haulers take their trash.

CSWD, which is responsible for handling all the county's waste, is currently considering a local landfill so refuse no longer has to be trucked to facilities outside the county.

But the long-planned landfill has over the past couple of years generated opposition. A lawsuit has been filed seeking to overturn a 1992 agreement between the town of Williston and CSWD that allows a landfill to be located here. Anti-landfill groups have formed.

Into this already clouded waste disposal picture stepped state regulators, who accused the nonprofit Intervale Center in Burlington of failing to obtain a required Act 250 land-use permit.

The Intervale Center wants out of the composting business because it would be too expensive to conduct the archeological studies needed to get the permit, said Don McCormick, the organization's associate director. The center instead plans to focus on other parts of the operation.

The nonprofit is still accepting compost, but perhaps not for much longer. CSWD would then have to decide what to do with tons of discarded food waste and other material that is now turned into high-priced fertilizer.

Composting and critics

The compost controversy comes as the waste district faces opposition to a planned landfill on Redmond Road in Williston. Critics say it is not needed, arguing the district should instead put more money and energy into efforts to divert waste, such as recycling and composting.

Williston resident Craig Abrahams, vice president of VOCAL, Vermont Organized Communities Against Landfills, said state law requires the waste district to reduce waste before employing landfills. Abrahams asserted that the district has enjoyed annual surpluses of around $1 million and that money should have been used to divert and recycle waste, not buy land for a landfill. If recycling was a higher priority, he said, CSWD might already have an alternative to the Intervale Center's compost operation.

Moreau said surplus revenue has been set aside for long-term capital projects. He said the district has in that way avoided borrowing money and paying interest.

While acknowledging that part of the surplus – $4 million – was designated for the landfill land purchase, he said considerable money also has been plowed into initiatives to divert waste.

Moreau said until residents recycle 100 percent of what they use and funding is available for the technology to process it all, landfills will continue to be needed.

Recycling rundown

Residents and businesses already recycle some two-thirds of their cans, bottles and newspapers, according to CSWD. One goal is to up that percentage, Moreau said.

A bigger potential source of recycling is biodegradable organics, which includes items that can be composted. That type of refuse comprises 28 percent of all material the waste district sends to landfills.

But diverting even some of that waste from landfills won't be easy because of what is known in solid waste circles as the "yuck factor."

"If we're only getting 65 percent of recyclables, how are we going to get people to scrape spaghetti off their plates, put it in a fruit fly-infested bucket and take it down the street in their car?" Moreau said.

The Intervale Center's move away from composting now means that CSWD must find a place for tens of thousands of tons of additional waste. The operation accounts for 92 percent of the material composted in Vermont each year.

Moreau has proposed CSWD take over the composting operation, continuing in the Intervale as a stopgap measure. During a meeting last week, Moreau said, lawyers representing the Vermont Attorney General's Office and two state agencies indicated they might be willing to grant "transition time" on permits to allow the compost operation to continue without interruption.

While CSWD wants to continue recycling the waste, the location and method remains unclear.

In the long run, the district will likely process organic waste by using anaerobic or compost digesters, Moreau said. The technology, however, could cost millions and also comes with permitting issues.

If the district is unable to find a cost-effective, long-term solution, it is still possible material that is now composted in the Intervale could wind up in a landfill, Moreau said.

Back to the future

On Wednesday, the Intervale Center's governing board was slated to meet and possibly make a final decision on when it will quit the composting business, McCormick said. Results of the meeting were not available before press time.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District also faces decisions. Should it move the composting operation elsewhere? Should it stop composting and convert to some other technology to process that waste?

One thing seems clear: Large-scale composting is unlikely to take place in Williston. Last month, Mike Coates, Williston's representative on the CSWD board, asked the Williston Selectboard how it would feel about the town hosting a composting facility.

Coates said he only asked the question because a fellow board member raised the possibility. He said the idea was obviously impractical because it would bring a firestorm of opposition amid the ongoing landfill controversy and increase traffic on the town's already overburdened roads.

Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi had a curt reply to the query. "I don't think it would be appropriate," she said.

Though there was little discussion and no formal vote, Town Manager Rick McGuire said it was obvious that other board members were of a like mind.

"They were all shaking their heads the same way," McGuire said.

Trash totals

Here are the types of waste generated in Chittenden County but disposed of in landfills elsewhere. The numbers, which cover the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, exclude waste that is recycld or otherwise diverted.

Waste type                                     Tons/year             % of total            

Curbside recyclables                            22,437                        16.0            
Other recyclables                                 23,050                        16.4            
Biodegradable organics                       39,230                         28.0
Residue                                               55,633                         39.6

Source: Chittenden Solid Waste District

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Compost controversy clouds recycling efforts (April 3, 2008)

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Intervale Center plans to halt existing operation

April 3, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

When opposition to a landfill erupted, Tom Moreau was already looking for other ways to handle Chittenden County’s waste.
Moreau, general manager of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, long understood that the size and cost of the landfill being considered in Williston would be reduced if more trash was reused, recycled or otherwise diverted.
But now, instead of mulling waste reduction, Moreau is trying to stop a flood of new waste flowing into landfills elsewhere in the state.
State regulators say Vermont’s largest composting operation, the Intervale Center in Burlington, violated environmental protection rules. The center, which processes almost 20,000 tons of food scraps, non-recyclable paper and other material, said it wants to stop composting, which could mean CSWD has to handle more waste.
“I needed the Intervale compost thing like I needed a shot in the head,” Moreau said. “This issue did not come at the right time for us.”
Chittenden Solid Waste District, headquartered in Williston, operates and contracts with private companies to run transfer stations, drop-off centers and material reuse facilities where residents and their haulers take their trash.
CSWD, which is responsible for handling all the county’s waste, is currently considering a local landfill so refuse no longer has to be trucked to facilities outside the county.
But the long-planned landfill has over the past couple of years generated opposition. A lawsuit has been filed seeking to overturn a 1992 agreement between the town of Williston and CSWD that allows a landfill to be located here. Anti-landfill groups have formed.
Into this already clouded waste disposal picture stepped state regulators, who accused the nonprofit Intervale Center in Burlington of failing to obtain a required Act 250 land-use permit.
The Intervale Center wants out of the composting business because it would be too expensive to conduct the archeological studies needed to get the permit, said Don McCormick, the organization’s associate director. The center instead plans to focus on other parts of the operation.
The nonprofit is still accepting compost, but perhaps not for much longer. CSWD would then have to decide what to do with tons of discarded food waste and other material that is now turned into high-priced fertilizer.
Composting and critics
The compost controversy comes as the waste district faces opposition to a planned landfill on Redmond Road in Williston. Critics say it is not needed, arguing the district should instead put more money and energy into efforts to divert waste, such as recycling and composting.
Williston resident Craig Abrahams, vice president of VOCAL, Vermont Organized Communities Against Landfills, said state law requires the waste district to reduce waste before employing landfills. Abrahams asserted that the district has enjoyed annual surpluses of around $1 million and that money should have been used to divert and recycle waste, not buy land for a landfill. If recycling was a higher priority, he said, CSWD might already have an alternative to the Intervale Center’s compost operation.
Moreau said surplus revenue has been set aside for long-term capital projects. He said the district has in that way avoided borrowing money and paying interest.
While acknowledging that part of the surplus – $4 million – was designated for the landfill land purchase, he said considerable money also has been plowed into initiatives to divert waste.
Moreau said until residents recycle 100 percent of what they use and funding is available for the technology to process it all, landfills will continue to be needed.
Recycling rundown
Residents and businesses already recycle some two-thirds of their cans, bottles and newspapers, according to CSWD. One goal is to up that percentage, Moreau said.
A bigger potential source of recycling is biodegradable organics, which includes items that can be composted. That type of refuse comprises 28 percent of all material the waste district sends to landfills.
But diverting even some of that waste from landfills won’t be easy because of what is known in solid waste circles as the “yuck factor.”
“If we’re only getting 65 percent of recyclables, how are we going to get people to scrape spaghetti off their plates, put it in a fruit fly-infested bucket and take it down the street in their car?” Moreau said.
The Intervale Center’s move away from composting now means that CSWD must find a place for tens of thousands of tons of additional waste. The operation accounts for 92 percent of the material composted in Vermont each year.
Moreau has proposed CSWD take over the composting operation, continuing in the Intervale as a stopgap measure. During a meeting last week, Moreau said, lawyers representing the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and two state agencies indicated they might be willing to grant “transition time” on permits to allow the compost operation to continue without interruption.
While CSWD wants to continue recycling the waste, the location and method remains unclear.
In the long run, the district will likely process organic waste by using anaerobic or compost digesters, Moreau said. The technology, however, could cost millions and also comes with permitting issues.
If the district is unable to find a cost-effective, long-term solution, it is still possible material that is now composted in the Intervale could wind up in a landfill, Moreau said.
Back to the future
On Wednesday, the Intervale Center’s governing board was slated to meet and possibly make a final decision on when it will quit the composting business, McCormick said. Results of the meeting were not available before press time.
The Chittenden Solid Waste District also faces decisions. Should it move the composting operation elsewhere? Should it stop composting and convert to some other technology to process that waste?
One thing seems clear: Large-scale composting is unlikely to take place in Williston. Last month, Mike Coates, Williston’s representative on the CSWD board, asked the Williston Selectboard how it would feel about the town hosting a composting facility.
Coates said he only asked the question because a fellow board member raised the possibility. He said the idea was obviously impractical because it would bring a firestorm of opposition amid the ongoing landfill controversy and increase traffic on the town’s already overburdened roads.
Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi had a curt reply to the query. “I don’t think it would be appropriate,” she said.
Though there was little discussion and no formal vote, Town Manager Rick McGuire said it was obvious that other board members were of a like mind.
“They were all shaking their heads the same way,” McGuire said.

Trash totals
Here are the types of waste generated in Chittenden County but disposed of in landfills elsewhere. The numbers, which cover the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, exclude waste that is recycled or otherwise diverted.
Waste type                     Tons/year    % of total   
Curbside recyclables        22,437        16.0   
Other recyclables             23,050        16.4   
Biodegradable organics     39,230        28.0
Residue                           55,633        39.6
 
Source: Chittenden Solid Waste District
 

[Read more...]