2008 leaves lots of questions for future1/8/09

Jan. 8, 2009

Every year brings changes and challenges, and 2008 brought them in droves. On the national scene, President-elect Barack Obama rode to the White House on a campaign of change. And he’s not the only one with his hands full.

All politicians have their work cut out for them in 2009. Effects of an economic recession have been felt locally as well as nationally and internationally. School officials in Williston need not only confront belt-tightening on their budgets, but must also deal with a debate that has raged for much of the year over how to best structure the town’s education system.

Individual residents face stagnant home prices — even as a town-wide reappraisal boosted home values. Local businesses are left wondering about the future as they watch national chains — some in Williston — struggle to stay afloat.

So with a look back at 2008, here’s to wondering what will happen in 2009.

Politics takes center stage


    File photo by Karen Pike
Voters line up before 7 a.m. outside the Williston Armory on Election Day in November. 

The big news in November was the historic election of Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president. But interest in the presidential race drove a poll-packing turnout locally in which two local Democrats were elected as Williston’s representatives in the Vermont House.

Terry Macaig and Jim McCullough cruised to easy victories over Republicans Shelley Palmer and Brennan Duffy. McCullough, a two-term incumbent, was picked on 59 percent of the ballots. Macaig, chairman of the Williston Selectboard, was chosen on 47 percent of ballots. Duffy and Palmer finished third and fourth, respectively, each with more than 1,000 fewer votes than McCullough and hundreds less than Macaig.

Seventy-one percent of Williston’s registered voters cast ballots. That was not a record, but the number of early voters was: 2,371 residents voted before Election Day.

Political veterans also triumphed in a 12-candidate race for six seats representing Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate. Incumbent Ginny Lyons of Williston finished with the third-highest vote tally among the candidates.

— Greg Elias, Observer staff

School configuration debates


    File photo by Tim Simard
Jeff Smith, one of the parents behind the Williston Schools Re-Configuration Campaign for Change, argues in May against configuration changes put forth by the school administration for the 2008-2009 school year.


    File photo by Tim Simard
During a parent and community forum on Nov. 24 hosted by the Conceptual Frameworks Committee, parent Jason Hibbeler uses different colored stickers to vote for the most important configuration criteria the committee should consider in its work.

The Williston School District underwent big changes in 2008, with more changes likely on the way in 2009 and 2010. After a community-wide survey in December 2007 gauged opinions on school configuration and house equity, the school administration decided to close two upper houses and one lower house, shifting students to different teams.

Many parents cried foul at an April School Board meeting, demanding change in the multi-grade system by saying their opinions on the survey were ignored. A blog was set up by the grassroots organization Williston Schools Re-Configuration Campaign for Change to lobby the administration to forego the new configuration, and residents — both for and against the changes — flooded the Observer with letters and guest columns about the issue.

After several community forums in May, hosted by either the school administration or the Campaign for Change, plans took shape for a committee of teachers, parents, community members and students to work on recommendations to the School Board on important issues.

Since the end of July, the Williston Conceptual Frameworks Committee has met twice a month, hammering out recommendations on improved school communication, house equity and a possible new school configuration. Originally, the committee was to present all its recommendations by this month, but that timetable has been pushed back.

A presentation to the School Board and community on communication took place in November. Presentations on configuration and house equity are expected to take place in April or May as the committee continues its work.

— Tim Simard, Observer staff

 Cracks in the economy

The national economy started out shaky in 2008 and stumbled mightily in the fall as a burgeoning housing bubble burst, and banks and mortgage firms collapsed, sending the stock market on a roller coaster ride. By December, leading economists said the country was in a recession and had been for a year.


    File photo
Shoppers leave Linens ‘n Things. The store spent the last two months of 2008 have a going out of business sale.

Several national retail chains fell victim to the economic downturn. Home goods retailer Linen ‘N’ Things closed all of its stores, including its Maple Tree Place location in Williston, after a massive liquidation sale. Circuit City closed 155 stores nationwide in November, shortly before declaring bankruptcy. So far, the Williston location has remained unaffected.

Williston’s sales tax revenue has also declined steadily throughout the year.

But good news does exist. Despite the shaky outlook, the Old Brook Café reopened over the summer under new and local management in the Village, and the national chain restaurant Texas Roadhouse opened in Taft Corners in December. Many local retailers, who held their breath during the holiday shopping season, also reported steady sales, though not as strong as hoped for. Many stores had huge bargains to drive customers in the door.

— Tim Simard

Budgets win easy passage

Williston’s municipal and school budgets won surprisingly easy approval in March, despite tenuous support by local voters in recent years.

Voters OK’d the $7.6 million municipal budget by better than a 2-to-1 margin. The Williston School District’s $16.2 million budget was approved by a 600-vote margin.

The resounding approvals came after years of declining support for municipal and school spending. The municipal budget was approved by a narrow margin in 2007 and the school budget was defeated. School officials then cut $300,000 and the budget passed by 73 votes.

Relatively small increases — the school budget was up just 3.7 percent and the municipal budget hiked spending by 5 percent — may have at least in part spurred voter support in 2008. New expenditures were limited in both budgets, with only one new hire funded on the municipal side.

Voters also passed the $20.7 million Champlain Valley Union High School budget and approved bond referendums for new school buses and roof repairs at Williston Central School.

—    Greg Elias

Planning Department sees massive turnover

It was out with the old and in with the new at the Williston Planning and Zoning Office this year. Three out of the four positions in the office changed hands over the summer as former employees moved on.

Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston resigned from his job in March. Soon after, Johnston was criminally charged with stalking a South Burlington real estate agent. Town officials did not comment on a link between the resignation and Johnston’s legal troubles.

Around the same time, Environmental Planner Carrie Deegan resigned, moving with her husband to New Hampshire after he accepted a new job. In May, Town Planner Lee Nellis announced he would be leaving his job at the end of July to move to Wisconsin, where his wife would pursue a doctorate degree.

By August, a new crop of employees had settled in, with shifts in job duties and titles. Planner Jessica Andreoletti, who came from the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District, started in May. Senior Planner Matt Boulanger, a Vermont native who moved back to the state after working for several years in Montana, started in June. Finally, Planning Director Ken Belliveau started in July after years of planning work in California, Georgia and Tennessee.

Only Planning Technician Carol Daigle remained from the former crew. Belliveau has stated on numerous occasions Daigle was a huge asset during the transitions.

Belliveau has said he and his team hope to make the Planning Office more accessible to the public and easier to work with as Williston changes with the times.

— Tim Simard

 Odds and ends

•    Community action took on a new name in 2008, when residents joined together for the town’s first ever Williston Into the Next Generation event. Known as WING, the event opened one weekend in April with a potluck dinner and discussions about the future of the town. Smaller groups continued meeting throughout the year to celebrate the town’s heritage, investigate possibilities of a community center, explore public transportation options, make Williston environmentally friendly and look into a representative town meeting format.

•    At Town Meeting in March, Williston voters decided the town should join the Chittenden County Transit Authority. The town’s first representatives to the board are Jim McCullough and Al Turgeon. Next up: Determining if there’s a way to improve CCTA service in Williston.

•    The school community received a shock in April when Williston Central School janitor Norman Croteau was charged with aggravated stalking of a 13-year-old, female student. The 47-year-old South Burlington man was charged again later in the month, that time for allegedly stalking a 23-year-old woman who had worked at the school as a paraeducator.

•    A town-wide reappraisal in the spring boosted Williston’s property values by an average of 31 percent. Residential values jumped by 43 percent, while commercial properties rose 20 percent. Many residents and businesses questioned the reappraisal process, and the town heard hundreds of appeals.

•    Williston residents no longer need to travel to Hinesburg or Burlington for food assistance. The Williston Community Food Shelf opened over the summer, and is now temporarily located at Maple Tree Place.

•    Williston suffered what police called the town’s first murder in nearly 20 years. According to police, on Oct. 26 Michael Putnam, 55, of Waterbury forced his way into the home of his estranged wife on Isham Circle and shot the wife’s boyfriend, 59-year-old Gary Smith of Shelburne, before turning the gun on himself.


    File photo by David Yandell
Members of the Dan Skea Quartet, John Rivers on bass and Chris Peterman on sax, perform at the Old Brick Church in Williston for the Brick Church Music Series on Nov. 21.

•    After reopening in late 2007 following a fire that year, the Old Brick Church returned to prominence in 2008 as a cultural center of the town. The building hosted WING events and became the venue for a new concert series, the Brick Church Music series.