July 23, 2014

Struggling Catamount considers development

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July 17, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff �

All is quiet during a recent Friday afternoon visit to Catamount Outdoor Family Center. Only the faint rustle of leaves and the distant chirp of birds can be heard at one spot along the 20 miles of trails that run like veins through the 500-acre facility.

The silence is almost startling, especially if you've just come from bustling Taft Corners, Vermont's biggest retail center, located just a few miles west.

Catamount's unspoiled land has played a central role in the town's history. Thomas Chittenden, Vermont's first governor and Williston's founder, built a two-story brick home here in 1796. Farming has come and gone, but the rolling landscape framed by distant mountains remains much as it was more than two centuries ago.


Observer photo by Greg Elias
Lucy and Jim McCullough pose near a pond at Catamount Outdoor Family Center. The couple is considering developing a portion of the 500-acre facility to ensure it remains financially solvent well into the future.

But change may be coming. This spring, a master plan outlining development possibilities was completed. While offering few specifics, the conceptual plan suggests that development could include dozens of residences, a "magic building" to support recreation programs and other structures.

Despite rising property taxes and increasing maintenance expenses, Jim and Lucy McCullough have stubbornly clung to the land, which Jim's great-grandfather bought in 1873. Since opening Catamount in 1978, they have tried nearly everything to keep it financially viable. They've grown Christmas trees, built an ice-skating rink, opened their home to bed-and-breakfast customers and converted the operation into a nonprofit.

Thousands of people visit the recreation center each year, paying daily use fees or buying annual memberships to bike or ski on the trails. Summer camps attract hundreds of youngsters and generate additional revenue.

Still, Catamount remains on shaky financial ground, with expenses exceeding revenue by nearly $50,000 in 2006, according to the nonprofit's tax return, a public record. The 2007 tax return has not been filed, but Lucy McCullough said Catamount's financial picture improved last year.

Yet user fees haven't been generating enough revenue to cover rising expenses, Jim McCullough said. Catamount has also been less than lucrative for the four family members who work there. Combined, they drew only $67,611 in salaries in 2006, according to the tax return.

So the couple, who operate the center along with their daughter, Abbie, and her husband, Eric Bowker, are considering development. But they vow to resist the kind of cookie-cutter subdivision or high-priced homes that have replaced so much former farmland in Vermont.

"If we just needed to capitalize, which we do, that would be a solution," Jim McCullough said. "We've got a hilltop that you could put a dozen million-dollar home sites on. Then that dozen families would have that hilltop. Then tens of thousands of people — into perpetuity — would not get to use it again."

 

Plan short on specifics

A 23-page master plan completed in May provides a broad outline of potential development but leaves specifics to be decided later.

At least 75 percent of the currently undeveloped land will be set aside for "wildlife habitat, recreation and natural serenity," according to the plan. Portions of the remaining land would be developed in a "sensitive and appropriate manner."

Development could include an unspecified number of residential units. One part of the plan indicates that septic systems could serve at least 80 homes on one part of the property. Another section calculates a total of 40 to 44 housing units.

The plan deliberately omits specifics because it remains to be seen how the various elements will fit together, said Jim McCullough. The idea is to get the right mix to preserve recreation opportunities and open land.

"We're not doing this for housing," he said. "We're doing it to create the working landscape that supports the needs of the community and Catamount."

Development could also include a 7,800-square-foot "magic building," which would serve as an indoor refuge for those participating in outdoor recreation. It may contain office space and locker rooms with showers. Other buildings could house an indoor ice skating rink and pool.

The plan talks at length about minimizing the impact of development on the environment and Catamount's natural beauty. Clustered housing on small lots are one possibility, as are live-work units for Catamount employees. Power for the magic building and indoor pool could be provided by wind turbines or solar panels.

Permitting process

Before anything is built, however, plans will have to clear numerous permitting hurdles.

Catamount is located in the town's agricultural-rural zoning district, where only farming and limited residential development is permitted. The district allows a maximum of one home for every two acres, which would in theory permit more than 200 homes to be built.

But other zoning restrictions further restrict development, said David Yandell, chairman of the Williston Planning Commission.

"The truth is, there is no likelihood it will ever be developed that densely," Yandell said.

Recent changes to Williston's land-use ordinance gives properties like Catamount a chance to work outside of the conventional zoning. Called the specific plan option, the provision could allow Catamount to propose development that includes "substantial public benefits" and in return be exempt from zoning requirements. The ordinance lists a commitment to conserve open space among the factors that qualify as a public benefit.

But a specific plan also triggers a more stringent review process. Approvals are needed by the Planning Commission and the Selectboard. A citizen committee would be formed to provide input on plan particulars.

Catamount has yet to formally submit an application to the town. Lucy McCullough said the nonprofit's board is scheduled next month to talk about when that application should move forward.

Community resource

Much is at stake, not just for Catamount, but for the community as a whole, said Williston resident Rick Blount, who serves on the nonprofit's governing board. He said Catamount, which he has frequented for 20 years, is the kind of place that separates Vermont from other states and Williston from other suburbs.

"I've become more and more aware of what an amazing resource it is, and how endangered this type of place is, not just in Vermont but everywhere," he said.

He said Catamount's continued existence speaks volumes about Vermont values and the McCulloughs' commitment to the land.

"They could make a lot of money selling the place," he said. "But they are thinking generations down the road."

How long can Catamount hold on with revenue-producing development likely years away? The McCulloughs said they don't know. It is clear, however, that the couple, who lease their land to the nonprofit, face increasing financial pressure.

A recent town-wide reappraisal increased the assessed value of their land by 64 percent. That will likely result in a steep property tax hike. The McCulloughs have appealed the appraisal.

Stepped-up fundraising efforts may help. Catamount received about $40,000 in donations in 2007, Lucy McCullough said, roughly double the previous year's amount.

The McCullough's said they hope the plan will keep Catamount open for public recreation and the land in their family for generations to come.

"My family has had the goal since the early 1900s, well before I was born, to have the property under a single manager anActive Imaged family ownership," Jim McCullough said. "So we want to honor that with this plan.

"Catamount was our land-use experiment. People will tell you today that the highest and best use of farmland in Chittenden County is to sell it for development. But we disagree." �

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State sides with school administration on hours of instruction

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Parent group asks officials to release detailed audit info

July 17, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The Vermont Department of Education released a report Tuesday reinforcing the Williston School District's internal audit that calculated the hours of instruction students receive in science and social studies.

In a letter addressed to the parent group Williston Schools Re-Configuration Campaign for Change and copied to Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney, DOE Acting Commissioner Bill Talbott wrote, "Based on all of the information that the Vermont Department of Education has within its possession, and based upon the above investigative steps, I do not find a basis, at this time, to conclude that the Williston School District is materially out of compliance with the School Quality Standards … and the State Board of Education Rules and Practices."

The DOE issued the letter in response to a complaint, lodged last month, against the school district by Campaign for Change. The group asked the state to look at four areas: the hours of instruction in science and social studies in the upper houses, the hours of instruction in all subjects in the lower houses, whether or not teachers in the district are instructing subjects they've been licensed for, and if Williston students are receiving an equal and adequate education as detailed in Act 60.

A state law, Act 60 is the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, part of which requires schools to comply with School Quality Standards. The DOE monitors compliance.

The news is a victory of sorts for the administration, which has said the district uses integrated learning to help meet or exceed the state mandated 120 hours per year in each core subject — English, math, science and social studies. Campaign for Change has argued the hours of instruction for science and social studies, which meet half the year in most upper houses, is not meeting state requirements.

"We kind of expected it," Nardelli said of the DOE's findings. "I don't know if that report is going to satisfy everybody, and I think there are still some questions that will come up with the Frameworks Committee."

The Conceptual Frameworks Committee is a recently formed group of administrators, parents, teachers and students that will develop a plan for the future of the school district.

Ann Smith, a member of Campaign for Change, said she was disappointed by the DOE's findings, stating she had hoped the department would have done more investigating.

"They didn't do their own audit," Smith said. "They just took (the administration's) word for it."

Jeff Smith, Ann's husband and another member of Campaign for Change, hopes to explore an appeal process with the state.

"We're not going to let this go," he said. "Ethically, I just can't. Our kids are being left behind."

Fighting for information

Last week, Campaign for Change invoked Vermont's Open Records Law asking the administration to provide a more detailed audit report on hours of instruction in science and social studies, as well as in English and math. Also requested were reports on gender equality per house per grade.

The administration released a report on science and social studies in the upper houses on Friday, but the parent group is still awaiting word on the rest of its request. According to the Open Records Law, the administration has two days from the date of the request to release the information.

Jeff Smith believes there's "no way" the school is meeting grade level expectations in science and social studies. According to Smith, his son, a student in Phoenix House last year, did not receive the 108 hours of direct instruction in science the administration said he did. Based on his son's schedule, Smith figures only 80 hours were taught.

"To put it bluntly, I'm not very happy," Smith said. "I just don't trust anyone associated with that school anymore."

Sarah Hibbeler, a parent and member of Campaign for Change, believes the difference in hours of direct instruction and integration for each house will bolster the opinions of parents who believe there is inequality between teams.

"Would you rather be in the house in the very low end of this range?" Hibbeler asked hypothetically.

Nardelli believes the houses are fair and equitable, even with the different hours of instruction. He said each house tailors its teaching to student strengths, and to have the same standards for all could be a large mistake.

"We can't box kids in," Nardelli said. "It would lead to a tremendous failure."

Kevin Mara, another member of the parent group, is becoming impatient with the administration for not releasing the rest of the requested information, especially the information on gender equality.

"I'm kind of at a loss," Mara said. "I'm trying to stay communicative and objective, but it feels like road blocking."

Nardelli said the administration is checking to see if it can release the gender information requested. He said there's no report per house compiled for gender equality. He said he believes there may be lines the school can't cross in releasing information, since it could compromise the identity of students.

Mara, a community member of the Frameworks Committee, looks forward to having discussions within the group.

Hibbeler is also waiting to see where the committee takes the conversation.

"Frameworks is where everything is sitting right now," she said.

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Right to the Point

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July 17, 2008
By Mike Benevento

We decide the Axis of Evil’s fate in November

 

In his 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush singled out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as sponsors of terrorism and seekers of weapons of mass destruction. Coming a little more than four months following Sept. 11, the speech justified the three as potential adversaries in the War on Terror. More than six years later, the upcoming presidential election will help influence the fate of those three nations and the prospect of peace throughout the world.

In his address, Bush observed, “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

At the time of Bush's address, Iraq was America's biggest threat. Since then, many claim that Bush lied about Iraq's WMDs as a pretext to invade Iraq.

How quickly (or politically conveniently) they forget. Iraq has been using WMDs since the 1980s. Saddam used chemical weapons during his country's war against Iran and against Iraqi Kurds — with horrific results.

In December 1998, President Clinton launched air attacks against Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. He justified attacking Iraq by declaring, “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons.”

In 2003, President Bush, the United States and its allies backed up Clinton's declaration, invading Iraq and toppling Hussein's evil regime. Although restoring order has not been quick or easy, Iraq has a budding democracy, the country is being rebuilt and the surge has reduced the violence.

While political debate rages on about the next steps, the past year's successes yield hope for a democratic, independent Iraq. However, victory or defeat lays in the hands of the next president — with Republican candidate John McCain pushing to stay the course and Democratic candidate Barack Obama calling for rapid withdrawal.

Concerning Iran, in his speech Bush warned, “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons (of mass destruction) and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom.”

Because Iran under the Shah was a longtime American ally, its people do not harbor hostility towards America. In contrast, the leadership, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believes differently. Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map and for America's destruction.

Defying the United Nations Security Council, Iran pushes hard to become a nuclear state. The country is the world's leading supporter of state-sponsored terrorism. Since America supports Israel's right to exist, many believe that before President Bush leaves office, the United States, Israel, or both will attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

Once again, Americans divide mainly along party lines as to how to deal with Iran's emerging threat. While conservatives like McCain want to eliminate Iran's nuclear and terrorist programs, Obama and other liberals aim to talk with Iranian leaders to gain their cooperation.

Looking across the globe, during his 2002 speech Bush noted, “North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.” It has been a major player in state-sponsored terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation. Indeed, in 2006, it defied the United Nations by testing nuclear munitions after stern warnings to the contrary.

The United States and four other nations have negotiated during the past four years with North Korea to eliminate these programs. Unlike Iran and Iraq, it appears that the Communist regime is responding positively to diplomatic carrots and sticks.

Within the past several weeks, North Korea gave China an account of its nuclear activities. According to USA Today, it agreed to disable its biggest nuclear facility in return for fuel oil and economic aid. The country also agreed to inspections of its nuclear facilities. In response, President Bush announced that he would lift U.S. trade sanctions and remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Since Bush's Axis of Evil speech, the War on Terror's results have been mixed. The upcoming presidential election will very much influence the war's outcome. Either the Democrats capture the presidency and return to a more isolationist America, or the Republicans remain in the White House and continue to defend America's interests throughout the world.

Come November, the choice is ours.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor's degree in Military History and a master's in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.

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Hundreds question new property values

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Average increase was 31 percent

July 10, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town of Williston has heard nearly 800 appeals so far from people dissatisfied with their new property appraisals.

Officials attribute much of the unhappiness to homeowners who can't believe their values have increased amid a widely publicized meltdown in the national housing market. Vermont has largely escaped the falling home values seen in other states, although foreclosure filings have increased and prices have leveled off.

"There is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds," said Fred Webster, a member of the Board of Listers, which is responsible for overseeing property valuations. "That's giving them a lot of worry."

Listers last week finished hearing 278 grievances from property owners disputing values set by the town-wide reappraisal.

Those formal grievances were prefaced by a round of informal hearings presided over by Town Assessor Bill Hinman. He did not know the precise number of informal grievances, but said they numbered roughly 500.

Among those appealing was Ann Mongeon, whose Bittersweet Circle condominium was appraised at $316,780. The value was reduced on appeal, although she declined to say by how much.

Mongeon said she was surprised to see her property value rise despite the housing market's downturn.

"If you went out and sold my home today, I don't think you can even get the appraised value," she said. "You kind of want to say to them when you go over there, 'What world do you live in?'"

But town officials said the reappraisal reflects changes in value over the past five years and cannot account for what may happen in the future. They say many residents were mollified once they understood that values were based on sales of similar homes.

"It's an education process," said Board of Listers member Gerry Huetz. "People just don't realize how much values went up in this town."

The reappraisal determined that property values in Williston rose by an average of 31 percent. There was a big disparity, however, between residential and commercial property. Residential values jumped by 43 percent while commercial properties rose just 20 percent.

That difference, which town officials acknowledge will lead to a shift in the tax burden from businesses to homeowners, had one resident crying foul.

"The whole thing was orchestrated so that commercial properties underpaid," said Jeffrey Haslett, who lives on Eastview Circle and is president of the neighborhood association. He said the value of his condominium rose to $220,760, a 44 percent increase.

The town is motivated by a desire to keep and attract business so that it can continue to enjoy revenue from the local option tax, Haslett said.

Differences between commercial and residential property reflect market realities, town officials said. Commercial values, which are based on income as well as sales of comparable property, have simply increased less than homes.

The appeal process began after property owners received notice of their new values last month. They were first given a chance to meet informally with assessors.

Many of the 500-odd grievances were settled at that point, Hinman said. Some property owners continued the process by meeting with the Board of Listers, and others elected to skip the informal meetings and take their grievances straight to the listers.

Written decisions on appeals are scheduled to be mailed to residents this week, Webster said. Those still unhappy with their appraisals can appeal to the town's Board of Civil Authority, which is expected to begin hearings in early August. Those who have not already appealed, however, cannot now dispute their appraisals, Hinman said.

Underlying concerns over appraisals is uncertainty about property taxes. The municipal tax rate has been set at 20 cents per $100 in valuation, but the education tax rate, a much bigger factor in property tax bills, has yet to be released by the state. That number should be available within the next few days.

Tax bills will then be mailed to residents, likely no sooner than the end of next week, said Town Clerk Deb Beckett. Since by law residents must be given at least 30 days to pay, she said the usual deadline of Aug. 15 will be pushed back.

Mongeon, who lives on pension and Social Security checks, has seen her annual property tax tab rise from $50 to more than $4,000 during her five decades in Williston.

She said she is "pretty happy" with how the town handled her appeal. Rising property taxes, however, continue to cut into her fixed income.

"The taxes are just too high," she said. "I'm not struggling to pay the bill. But it hurts a little bit."

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