State may move employees to Williston

current building causes health problems

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Some state workers who are now housed in a building blamed for health problems may move to Williston.

The state has been looking for new office space for about 140 Agency of Human Services employees who currently work at 1193 North Ave. in Burlington, said Steve Gold, the agency’s deputy director.

Among the potential locations is the former Rossignol building on Industrial Avenue in Williston. Agency officials say they may divide the employees between that location and other office space in Burlington.

“That (Williston) space, were it available, is definitely an option,” Gold said. “We would strongly consider moving there at least some of the staff now working on North Avenue.”

The move would be temporary while the state constructs a new building, officials say. It will address workers’ concerns that the current location is causing respiratory illnesses.

But there’s a catch with the Williston location. The building, which was shuttered following Rossignol’s merger with a California company, is located in an industrial zoning district that permits offices only as an accessory use. Town ordinance would have to be changed to allow the state’s move.

Earlier this year, Burlington architect J. Graham Goldsmith proposed converting the 144,000-square-foot building into a small business incubator. The idea is to provide inexpensive space for fledgling businesses. That proposal would also require a zoning change.

Town Planner Lee Nellis is currently rewriting Williston’s zoning ordinance, and one of the changes may allow more office use in the industrial district. Nellis said the state could wait for the rewrite or apply to have the building rezoned before the new ordinance is adopted.

The Planning Commission considered the matter on Tuesday night. Chairman David Yandell said the commission agreed in principle to alter zoning by allowing a greater proportion of office use in industrial buildings.

“We just see the need to loosen up the zoning a little bit to allow the owner more flexibility to attract tenants,” Yandell said.

Both the Planning Commission and the Selectboard must first hold public hearings before officially changing the zoning. Yandell said the commission could schedule its hearing as soon as the end of this month. The Selectboard has the final say on zoning changes.

Tom Sandretto, the state’s deputy commissioner of Buildings and General Services, said new space is needed soon to ease employees’ worries about their health. He emphasized, however, that the situation is not comparable to the case in Bennington, where a state building was shut down after workers claimed to have contracted serious illnesses.

“It’s not a sick building,” Sandretto said. “But the history is that there have been indoor air quality complaints for a number of years.”

Employees have reported sinus problems, respiratory infections and asthma, said Conor Casey, legislative coordinator for the Vermont State Employees Association.

“People in the building have gotten used to being sick,” Casey said. “It’s really a pretty bad situation.”

Dividing the state workers between Williston and Burlington could provide a workable solution for the thousands of people in Chittenden County the agency serves each year, Gold said.

The North Avenue building includes offices for the Health Department and the agency’s Family Services Division. More than half the people who use the agency’s services come from outside Burlington, Gold said.

If the state leases the Rossignol building, Gold said the agency would work with the Chittenden County Transportation Authority to smooth bus service. Though there is a stop in front of the building, riders coming from Burlington must transfer buses to reach Williston.

It would take at least two years to construct a new office building for the employees, Gold said. But the state wants to find an interim home for the employees as soon as possible. If it takes several months to get a zoning change in Williston, he said the state may have to look elsewhere.

“I think the hope is to get settled in a new place sometime this summer,” Gold said. “We can’t make employees wait much longer.”