News

Pandemic creates historic changes in Williston

Going through 2020 editions of the Observer was a surreal time warp. The January and February issues brought news of exciting new summer events, the coming of a new brewery and restaurant, state titles for CVU’s winter sports teams — we had no idea …

The first hint of what the year would bring came from a Page 14 item in our March 5 edition: “State creates COVID virus task force.”

By March 12, Williston Central School had shut down for a two-day deep clean because of the potential exposure to the coronavirus of one of its staff members while on spring break. A week later, every school in the state would be shuttered per emergency order of Gov. Phil Scott. 

By March 19, the impacts of the pandemic came full force. Here are some headlines from that edition: “School district plans for extended closure” … “Brick Church Music Series cancelled” … “CVU’s winter sports season cut short” … “Dorothy Alling Library closes to public”

For the rest of the year, nothing would be unaffected by the pandemic. 

Typically at this time of year, the Williston Observer presents a chronological review of the year’s top stories. But 2020 was a different kind of year, and we now offer a different kind of look back. 

Here is a categorized review of the biggest happenings in Williston in 2020. 

And here’s to a very different 2021. 


CANCELLATIONS

FOURTH OF JULY PARADE AND FIREWORKS

It became clear in May that pandemic health restrictions would not allow for Williston’s traditional Fourth of July celebration. The annual book sale had already been cancelled when town officials called off the annual July Fourth parade down Williston Road. 

The selectboard attempted to salvage a fireworks show with a plan to host a drive-in-style display from a parking lot in Taft Corners. But the police department warned that keeping the peace would be impossible, especially because the show would have likely attracted a regional crowd with so many other Chittenden County towns cancelling their fireworks shows, and the board pulled the plug.

FARMHOUSE TAP & GRILL, FIDDLEHEAD BREWERY AND FOLINO’S

In February, everything seemed on track for late-2020 opening of a second location of the Farmhouse Group’s flagship restaurant, the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, at Finney Crossing in Williston. Joining the Farmhouse in the commercial core of the mixed-use neighborhood would be a second location of Fiddlehead Brewery and Folino’s Pizza.

But by the spring, with pandemic-related restrictions roiling the restaurant industry, both projects were shelved. Fiddlehead is still in talks about an eventual revival of the project, according to Finney Crossing developer Scott Rieley. 

SPRING SPORTS SEASONS

Hope for a shortened or modified spring high school sports season ended in May when school administrators cancelled interscholastic play statewide. Schools had already closed with students moving to online learning. 

Champlain Valley Union High School’s student-athlete participants in baseball, softball, lacrosse, tennis, ultimate Frisbee and track and field were affected.

“We are especially saddened for our 2020 seniors,” a Vermont Principals’ Association statement said.

BRICK CHURCH MUSIC SERIES

The performing arts has been one of the most impacted industries by the pandemic, and the local Brick Church Music Series is no exception. Organizers of the monthly performances at the Old Brick Church in Williston Village have canceled the entire 2020/2021 season. 

There was discussion this fall about the possibility of inviting a performer to live-stream a concert from the Brick Church, but organizers determined they didn’t have the expertise to pull it off. “We have every intention of coming back normally” in the fall of 2021, producer Dave Yandell said. 

INITIATIONS

‘TRUCKIN’ TUESDAYS AT ADAMS; FARMERS’ MARKET AT ISHAM FARM 

Two Tuesday night weekly outdoor summer events were launched in 2020, and they both survived social distancing and gathering size restrictions. The Isham Family Farm announced in January its plans to provide a home for a weekly summer farmers’ market, with fresh produce, ready-made meals, music and children’s activities. 

Although the pandemic curtailed some activities, the market was popular enough to be extended through Sept. 18. 

In another part of town, Adams Farm Market convened a variety of food trucks for its “Truckin’ Tuesdays” series. The series ran weekly through Aug. 25 with takeout options and on-site picnicking. 

GOODWATER BREWERY RESTAURANT 

Goodwater Brewery evolved this year from a brewery with a tasting room into a brewery with a full-menu restaurant. Founded in 2016, the brewery took over a 1,200-square-foot space next door to its Marshall Avenue location and converted it from a warehouse into a dine-in restaurant. Outdoor seating is available seasonally. 

Goodwater brews, cans and distributes about a dozen different beers from the location, which is in the heart of Williston’s industrial zoning district. 

HEALTHY LIVING MARKET AND CAFÉ 

The Finney Crossing neighborhood came to life in October with the opening of Healthy Living Market and Café. The 20,000-square-foot store offers groceries, prepared foods, smoothies and coffee and employs about 65 people. 

It is the third location for Healthy Living, which operates a flagship store in South Burlington and another in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 

DUKE THE COMFORT POLICE DOG 

The Williston Police Department became the first in the state to bring on a therapy dog to help officers in their responses to sensitive cases. Duke, an incredibly cute black Labrador retriever, arrived in May. Under the guidance of Officer Matt Cohen, Duke has appeared at schools and community events serving a community relations role for the department. But his main function is to comfort crime victims, reduce tensions during domestic disputes and de-escalate youth behavioral issues. 

“The idea is to help people in traumatic times communicate with law enforcement,” said Lt. Josh Moore. 

Duke has an Instagram account @k9dukevt. 

NEW OWNERS AT THE OBSERVER 

The Williston Observer transitioned to its third owners in its 35- year history when locals Susan and Rick Cote bought the newspaper from longtime owners Marianne and Paul Apfelbaum. 

The Apfelbaums had owned the paper since 1994; Marianne Apfelbaum continues to work in advertising sales and as a transition consultant for the Cotes. 

The Cotes have lived in Williston for 10 years. They moved from Woodstock, Vt., and prior to that lived in Cincinnati, where they both worked for Procter & Gamble. Rick Cote currently works for Dartmouth College. Susan Cote previously worked for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and an educational publishing company. The couple bought the paper under the name Twin Ponds Publishing. 

CITIZENS FOR RESPONSIBLE GROWTH 

A group of citizens concerned about the pace of growth and loss of open space in Williston convened in February under the banner Citizens for Responsible Growth. The group came together in response to a January blog post from Planning Director Matt Boulanger that reviewed a defunct land development application from the 1980s. The post described a 500-home proposal off Mountain View Road that was never built. It also described a current proposal for 140 homes in a similar location that has received preliminary approval from the Development Review Board. 

The citizens group began meeting in person before the pandemic hit, then continued talking remotely through the summer, eventually pitching a proposal to the Planning Commission to require a 50 percent open space set-aside for land considered for residential development. The Planning Commission rejected the idea. Instead, it endeavored to take a comprehensive look at zoning rules, especially in the Taft Corners growth center, based on a survey it issued over the summer about land development in Williston that received roughly 200 responses. 

PANDEMIC RESPONSE

LAUNCHING FOOD DRIVES

When businesses closed and unemployment rose at the onset of the pandemic, the prospect of rising hunger in the community became apparent. Williston residents responded in April with impromptu food drives. CVU student Ella Kenney organized a food drop-off at Williston Central School that garnered more than one ton of food and nearly $1,000 for the Williston Community Food Shelf. Ignite Church also collected and contributed about 500 pounds of food. 

“We have an enormously generous community,” food shelf president Ginger Morton said. 

FREE MEALS AT WCS

When schools closed in March and kids were learning at home, families were deprived of daily school breakfasts and lunches. The Champlain Valley School District’s food service program responded by launching free curbside meal pickup outside Williston Central School. 

The service was continued through the summer and into the fall with the help of federal coronavirus relief funding. 

CARES ACT COMES TO VT

Vermont received $1.25 billion as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in April. The money came in the form of $1,200 payments to residents, $600 in weekly supplemental unemployment benefits, payroll loans to businesses, housing aid and rental assistance and aid for the child care industry.

A new round of federal stimulus money was passed at the end of December.

RESTAURANTS PIVOT TO TAKEOUT

Gov. Scott issued an emergency directive in March to close indoor restaurant dining, leaving the state’s restaurants to pivot to take-out-only operations. Indoor dining with capacity limits returned in the summer. 

While federal emergency loans and enhanced unemployment benefits were available, the industry and its employees were among the most affected by the pandemic.

“A lot of restaurants don’t know what the future holds,” Sam Handy, owner of Williston’s Grazers and Agave restaurants, said in April.

MAIL-IN ELECTIONS

Secretary of State Jim Condos worked with town clerks to encourage mail-in voting in the November general election by sending ballots unsolicited to all voters in the state. Williston Town Clerk Sarah Mason installed a ballot drop box behind town hall and accepted ballots up until the day before the election. 

The result was record voter turnout — 82 percent in Williston (6,950 of 8,449 registered voters), with the majority voting by mail and just 17 percent voting in person on Nov. 3. 

In December, state lawmakers indicated they will pass legislation to allow for mail-in balloting for Town Meeting Day in March.

SCHOOLS CLOSE, REOPEN AND ADJUST

Like nearly every other indoor communal space, schools were forced to close in March by emergency order from Gov. Scott. Teachers and students turned to Zoom and other online tools to finish out the school year. 

In September, the new school year launched with a variety of remote and in-person learning options — but no sign of when public education would return to normal.

“We’ve had virtually no experience with this, or training, or preparation,” Champlain Valley School District Director of Learning and Innovation Jeff Evans said in April. 

School leaders lowered learning expectations and pared down curricula.

“Although we want students to make progress,” Williston Central School Principal Jackie Parks said in April, “the most important thing is the well-being of your child and family.”

School board member Erin Brady said the loss of face-to-face time with teachers will have a lasting effect.

“There are really critical things like math and literacy that kids are losing a lot of time on, and it’s going to land on our schools next year and in years to come,” she said in December.

VACCINE ARRIVES 

The first shots of coronavirus vaccine were administered in mid-December to Vermont’s doctors, nurses and emergency first-responders. Williston firefighter Dave Auriemma was among the first dozen recipients of the vaccine in Vermont during a Dec. 13 event at the UVM Medical Center. 

Vaccine doses were arriving by the thousands at year’s end, with people over the age of 65 and people with chronic or immune-compromising conditions prioritized for shots after health care workers and first-responders. 

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said the vaccine would be available to most Vermonters by spring. 

“This is truly a pivotal moment in the pandemic,” Levine said in December, “one that should give us hope for the future.” 

PASSINGS

DEB BECKETT 

Deb Beckett, a Williston civic leader and Vermont National Guard member, died in August, five months after stepping down from her elected position of town clerk and treasurer. 

Beckett had developed cancer in 2017, a result of exposure to toxic trash burning pits during a combat tour in Iraq as a member of the National Guard. Raising awareness about burn pit exposure and advocating for VA benefits for affected soldiers became a passion for Beckett in the years before her death. 

Beckett’s contributions to the town of Williston were innumerable, from her service in the Rotary Club and the community food shelf to stints on the Development Review Board and the Tax Abatement Board. The Town Hall Meeting Room has been renamed the Beckett-McGuire Meeting Room in her and retired town manager Rick McGuire’s honor. 

“Deb always had an answer you could trust, guidance you could follow and words to believe in,” said Sarah Mason, who has succeeded Beckett as town clerk. “She has always been a true hero in our midst who has done more for the community than anyone else I know.” 

BOBBY MILLER 

Legendary Chittenden County land developer and philanthropist Bobby Miller passed away in February. Miller is the founder of Williston’s REM Development, which built the business parks on Industrial Avenue and Marshall Avenue. Prior to his death, the company had initiated the sale of most of the Industrial Avenue property, including the parcels on Avenue D. The multi-million-dollar sale to purchaser Unsworth Properties of Burlington was completed in October by Miller’s children, Stephanie and Tim. 

RETIREMENTS

RICK MCGUIRE 

Longtime Town Manager Rick McGuire retired in August, a couple months later than planned. He had announced his retirement in January with plans to step down at the end of the fiscal year in June. But when the pandemic stalled the selectboard’s ability to interview replacement candidates, McGuire agreed to stay on the job longer. 

Ultimately, the board promoted Assistant Town Manager Erik Wells to succeed McGuire. 

McGuire, a Williston resident who led the town for 22 years through population growth and continuous land development, was praised in an August retirement party for his steady professionalism, problem-solving and integrity. 

“In retirement, I plan on continuing to be a part of this wonderful community,” he said. 

TERRY MACAIG 

Rep. Terry Macaig announced in June his plans to step away from the Vermont Legislature, where he served six terms representing Williston. He endorsed fellow Democrat Erin Brady to succeed him. Brady won election to the House in November. 

While Macaig plans to travel to visit family in Florida more often with his winters free of legislative responsibilities, he has no plans to step away from his role as chairman of the Williston Selectboard. 

KEN MORTON 

Ken Morton spent about 40 years with the Williston Fire Department, helping it grow from a group of on-call firefighters to a staff of 16 professional firefighters Morton was fire chief for the past 28 years. Under his guidance, the department began ambulance service, added state-of-the-art firefighting vehicles and oversaw the construction of a new fire station in 2007. 

In September, town administrators hired Aaron Collette from the Burlington Fire Department to replace Morton as chief.

ELAINE PINCKNEY

The Champlain Valley School Board has initiated a search for a new superintendent after a July announcement from Elaine Pinckney that she plans to retire in June. Pinckney, a resident of Williston, has led the district for the past 15 years, helping it consolidate from four separate local school districts. 

Pinckney was named the Vermont Superintendent of the year in 2013 and was previously Vermont’s deputy commissioner of education and a principal in Williston and Stowe.

OTHER NOTABLE STORIES

TOWN FINALIZES NOISE AGREEMENT WITH SHOOTING RANGE

The Town of Williston amended its noise ordinance in April to reflect a negotiated agreement with the North Country Sportsmen’s Club. The amendment allows for expanded Wednesday shooting hours at the club and up to 20 events annually outside of regular hours.

The ordinance prohibits events on the first Saturday of the month in June, July, August and September in deference to noise concerns raised by neighbors near the Old Creamery Road range.

The amendment was negotiated over a period of two years as the selectboard, club members and neighbors attempted to follow guidance from a 2017 ruling of the Vermont Supreme Court. The ruling resulted from a lawsuit over the town’s enforcement of its previous noise ordinance. 

The club’s regular operating hours will be noon to dusk on Wednesdays April 1 to Oct. 31 and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. 

SELECTBOARD GRAPPLES WITH BLACK LIVES MATTER ENDORSEMENT

A group of residents has urged the selectboard to back a symbol of support for the Black Lives Matter movement with a flag at Town Hall or another prominent message such as a roadway Black Lives Matter painting. But in meetings in October and November, the board declined to act. It instead requested more citizen input on the subject, including the recommendation of a newly formed “Community Coalition on Social Justice.”

The coalition includes the Williston-Richmond Rotary Club, the Williston Community Justice Center, the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, Williston Federated Church, Vermont Interfaith Action and the Champlain Valley School District.

Earlier in the year, the school board approved the flying of the Black Lives Matter flag at local school buildings. 

GOLF COURSE REDEVELOPMENT GETS INITIAL NOD

A land development plan to transform the majority of the Catamount Country Club on Mountain View Road into a 141-home neighborhood received preliminary approval at a June Development Review Board hearing. 

The approval allows developers Alex Kourebanas and Chris Senesac to compete for housing unit allocation at the board’s annual growth management meeting in March.

Plans show the neighborhood establishing a new connection between Mountain View Road and Williston Road, via Raven Circle. Three holes of the nine-hole golf course would remain, as would the clubhouse. A neighborhood pool, community center, playground and athletic field are part of the plans. 

F-35 NOISE IMPACTS BECOME REALITY IN WILLISTON

As the Vermont Air National Guard’s full complement of 20 F-35 fighter jets arrived at the Guard’s South Burlington base and flights increased, the intensified noise impact of the jets in Williston, compared to the previously flown F-16s, became apparent.

Higher decibel levels were predicted and publicized over Williston’s westernmost sections, which includes the industrial zoning area and a few residential neighborhoods. But residents from as far away as Lake Iroquois and other rural areas of town complained of decibel levels above 100 during F-35 takeoffs.

“I’m distressed by the noise, my animals are distressed and the wildlife must be petrified,” said Terry Marron, who lives near Lake Iroquois. 

The airport installed noise monitors around runways in July, and more noise monitors further away from the airport are planned. 

Data from the monitors will be used to verify a noise impact map airport officials published last year and underpin claims homeowners will be able to make through the FAA’s Noise Compatibility Program for noise mitigation assistance, including noise-proofing or help selling a home. 

Comment here