Improbable as it seemed last spring, when Gov. Phil Scott dropped Vermont’s emergency public health order, the overwhelming majority of Vermonters were receiving Covid vaccinations and case counts dropped to a trickle, the pandemic persisted in casting a shadow over 2021.
Sweet normalcy was in the air during the warm weather months: the return of Williston’s Fourth of July festivities, for example, and the full reopening of public schools in August.
Then surging case counts in the fall wreaked havoc on school attendance, contributed to a crippling labor shortage and supply chain backup, and harkened the return of mandated mask-wearing.
We’re going to take the following review of Williston news in 2021 in reverse chronological order, as the news from the fall and early winter is more representative of where we are at heading into 2022 than the false positives of last spring. May the new year bring with it lasting resilience and usher in a post-pandemic era.
— Jason Starr
Mask mandate returns
The Town of Williston joined several other municipalities when the selectboard voted unanimously on Dec. 7 to re-mandate that masks be worn in public indoor settings. While Gov. Scott had rebuffed calls for a statewide mandate, he did sign a bill passed by the Legislature in November that gave municipalities the authority to institute mandates.
Williston’s mandate will expire Jan. 21 unless the selectboard votes to keep it in place. The board carved out exceptions for children under age 2, people with disabilities that prevent them from safely wearing a mask, people while eating or drinking in a restaurant, people temporarily removing their masks to communicate with a group of people, and for places of worship.
Town Energy Committee takes shape
Williston leaders took the first step toward implementing the town’s Energy Plan with the creation of a seven-member Energy Committee. The selectboard appointed four members and continued to take applications through December to fill out the committee’s ranks.
The committee is tasked with implementing the energy plan, a 2019 document that lays out steps for Williston to reduce fossil fuel use and increase renewable energy production.
Residents interested in moving the energy plan forward hailed the decision, but pressured the board to hire a full-time energy coordinator to work with the committee.
Rep. Jim McCullough said the committee will be “a ship without a rudder” without an energy coordinator to lead its efforts.
“This is a position that is going to really pay off and save money for individuals and for the town,” resident Gerry Davis told the board.
Fire Department sounds the alarm on staffing shortage
Williston’s Fire Chief Aaron Collette said his department cannot currently meet the fire protection needs of the community and requested at least nine new firefighters in the next annual town budget.
The request is backed by a staffing needs assessment the department contracted out to a California-based consulting company. The assessment said nine new firefighters is the minimum immediate need. It recommended ramping up staff by nearly 40 full-time firefighters over the next five years.
The need is precipitated not only by the town’s continued commercial and residential growth — the population has increased by roughly 150 people annually over the past five years — but also by a precipitous decline in on-call firefighters to augment the full-time staff. Over the past five years, the department has gone from about 30 on-call firefighters to eight currently.
“I’m not sure we are as prepared or well-equipped as many of our citizens think we are,” Collette said.
CVU football team gets first title shot
For the first time in Champlain Valley Union High School history, the Redhawks football team earned a spot in the Division 1 state championship game. Despite a loss Nov. 13 in a snowstorm to Essex, the season marked a remarkable turnaround for the program in head coach Rahn Fleming’s second year at the helm.
CVU used a dramatic, last-minute touchdown pass — quarterback Max Destito to receiver Jack Sumner — on fourth down in the state semifinals against Hartford to advance to the title game. Oliver Pudvar connected on the extra point to give the Redhawks the one-point win.
“It is a thrill for our kids,” Fleming said after the semifinal game. ”It’s a memory they’ll get to keep for the rest of their lives.”
Hotel-to-Housing plan approved
The Champlain Housing Trust won approval from town planners to convert the Marriott TownePlace Suites hotel on Zephyr Road into homeless transition and low-income housing.
Renovation efforts are now underway to convert hotel rooms into 72 studio and one-bedroom apartments. About half will be kept perpetually affordable at 80 percent of Chittenden County’s median income and the other half subsidized for people transitioning out of homelessness.
The Champlain Housing Trust purchased the property for $13.4 million with help from Vermont Housing and Conservation Board grants and federal pandemic recovery funds.
“We are looking forward to adding new affordable apartments to Williston and Chittenden County in this great location,” said Champlain Housing Trust CEO Michael Monte. “It’s so difficult for so many people to find any available homes, much less those affordable to low-wage workers or those who are unhoused.”
The Champlain Housing Trust will staff an on-site property manager.
The Edge closes Williston location
The Williston location of the Edge Sports and Fitness — with its indoor swimming pool, fitness center and physical therapy services — shut its doors Sept. 30. The business consolidated operations at its other three Chittenden County locations.
The 58,000-square-foot facility at 115 Wellness Drive is in the town’s industrial zone and will be converted to another use under new ownership, according to Edge CEO Michael Feitelberg. He said the impact of the pandemic made operations in Williston unsustainable.
The building is listed by VT Commercial real estate as warehouse/industrial space.
“Don’t miss out on this opportunity to occupy one of the best located industrial facilities in the greater Chittenden County area,” the listing advertises.
300-home development announced for church parcel
Snyder Homes submitted plans with the town to build 300 homes on the vacant 54-acre Essex Alliance Church property off Route 2A.
The Essex-based church had previously planned to build a new campus on the property. Snyder Homes has experience building in Williston at Finney Crossing and the Creek’s Edge neighborhood.
Plans for the parcel include townhomes, apartments and senior housing; preserved wetland buffers around the Allen Brook; a 4-acre park; and a rec path that would provide a key north-south connection between Taft Corners and Essex Junction.
“These home types address a wide spectrum of the market and accommodate a diversity of tenants, from mature families to young singles to independent living seniors,” Snyder Homes wrote in a description of the neighborhood filed with the town.
Town history book published
The Williston Historical Society released a photographic history of the Town of Williston using its own archived photos and submissions from longtime residents.
The book, published by Arcadia Publishing, has eight chapters and roughly 200 images reflecting the town in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was compiled by longtime Williston school teacher Richard Allen.
The historical society held book signings at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library and Williston Central School in August and September.
Finney Crossing lures L.L. Bean
Finney Crossing developers broke ground on a new commercial building and confirmed that L.L. Bean will be relocating its Burlington store there. The 25,000-square-foot building along Route 2 is expected to be complete next summer. L.L. Bean, the outdoor equipment retailer headquartered in Maine, will anchor the building, which has room for between two and four other commercial tenants.
L.L. Bean opened its Burlington store in 2014. Stalled construction of the adjacent Burlington Town Center contributed to the company’s decision to leave the city.
Williston receives federal windfall
Williston’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) began to flow into town coffers. The $3 million sum amounts to nearly one-third of the town’s annual budget and gives local officials broad discretion on spending it.
The state is due $1.25 billion from the legislation with about $200 million going directly to local municipalities ($32 million in Chittenden County).
“This provides the opportunity for municipalities to make their own investments based on the needs of their communities,” Gov. Scott said.
Williston town leaders have yet to allocate the funds.
Marshall Avenue bridge reconstruction begins
The Marshall Avenue bridge connecting Williston to South Burlington closed for a five-month rebuild, causing a traffic detour to Route 2. The cost was split between the two municipalities.
The bridge, which was damaged by heavy rains in 2017 and 2019, was rebuilt wider for enhanced pedestrian crossings and reopened to traffic in December.
Full Fourth of July celebration returns
After a cancellation in 2020, the return of Williston’s annual Fourth of July parade, ice cream social and Town Band concert seemed to signal a post-pandemic return to normalcy.
Residents gathered unencumbered by social distancing and face coverings, and the festivities went on as planned. The only hitch was a rainy Friday evening that cancelled the outdoor library book sale.
“The town is so ready to be able to socialize, to enjoy an event together,” said Town Band leader Chapin Kaynor. “It was so nice that it could come together.”
Herbicide clears milfoil from Lake Iroquois
The herbicide Procellacor was applied June 28 to the Williston side of Lake Iroquois in the Lake Iroquois Association’s attempt to eradicate invasive Eurasian milfoil. The lake was closed to swimming for the day. Two weeks later, the milfoil had mostly disappeared.
“The effect has been profound,” Lake Iroquois Association president Shannon Kelly said.
The association is considering applying to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation for a permit to use the chemical in other parts of the lake in 2022.
State emergency order lifted
Vermont’s emergency public health order was lifted June 14, ending all statewide pandemic-related restrictions after 15 months. State officials touted Vermont’s best-in-the-nation vaccination rate as the reason it was safe to return to normal.
“Our regular customers have never seen my face, so it’s nice to see everyone smile and see their expressions,” said Vermont Meat and Seafood employee Spencer Snipes as he worked his first maskless shift.
As Covid cases resurged in the fall, Gov. Scott rejected calls from some lawmakers to re-impose statewide restrictions, but he did sign a bill passed by the Legislature in November giving municipalities the authority to re-impose mask mandates. The Town of Williston was among several towns and cities that instituted a mask mandate in indoor public spaces in December.
D’Agostino appointed to selectboard
The Williston Selectboard chose Greta D’Agostino from a group of 10 applicants to fill the remainder of the selectboard term vacated by Joy Limoge. The seat will be up for election in March.
D’Agostino is a justice of the peace and serves on the Williston Community Justice Center Board.
“It is important that we continue to have female representation on the selectboard,” she said.
Ishams star in Netflix documentary
Netflix premiered a documentary series featuring Williston’s own Ginger and David Isham.
The series, “My Love,” follows couples in six different countries, exploring relationship longevity. A filmmaking crew from California followed the Williston couple throughout 2019 to produce the one-hour episode.
“I said to David ‘we have to do this. We owe it to the future generations of the Isham family to do this,’” Ginger said. “I just thought what fun it would be … We wanted to show our state and our town and the quality of life we have living here.”
CVSD hires new superintendent
The Champlain Valley School District Board of Directors announced the hiring of Rene Sanchez as the district’s next superintendent.
Sanchez began his role on July 1, succeeding Elaine Pinckney, who retired in June. He came to Vermont from South Bend, Ind., where he was an assistant school superintendent. A father of three, Sanchez has a connection to Vermont through his wife, Jean, a Vermont native and graduate of UVM.
The district hired a consultant to help find candidates, and Sanchez was among two finalists the board interviewed. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, a law degree from Ohio State and a master’s of educational administration from the University of Texas.
Limoge resigns selectboard seat
Joy Limoge resigned her seat on the Williston Selectboard with one year remaining on her term, citing personal and professional reasons. She had been on the board since 2016.
“My personal and professional workload precludes me from giving the selectboard the time it deserves,” she said.
The board received 10 applicants for the position, and chose Greta D’Agostino to fill out the remainder of the term. The seat will be up for election in March.
BLM flag approved for Town Hall
The Williston Selectboard, in a 3-2 vote, approved the flying of the Black Lives Matter flag at Town Hall for a three-month period. In June, the board unanimously extended the action through March 2022.
Joy Limoge, who joined board member Gordon St. Hilaire in opposing the original action, said she received hate mail as a result of her no vote. A month later, she resigned her position on the board.
Board chairman Terry Macaig said the flag was raised “to recognize the harm caused by the evils of racism.”
Cristalee McSweeney said the flag will be “a reminder of the obligations we as white people have to our BIPOC (black indigenous, people of color) neighbors and serve as an invitation to live with greater integrity — standing up for what is right, what is fair, for what is just.”
CVU police officer position terminated
School administrators decided to end the police officer position at Champlain Valley Union High School at the end of the school year. School officer Matt Collins, a member of the Shelburne Police Department, had served two years in the position.
Originally conceived as a safety measure — having an armed officer in the school — the position was cut amid changed thinking about the relationship between police and people of color.
“There was a lot of discomfort with the idea of a firearm in the building,” CVU Principal Adam Bunting said. “We know what that emotional state does for learning. It’s something all schools need to be conscious of.”
Town Meeting pivots to universal mail-in balloting
The Williston Selectboard approved a plan to mail Town Meeting Day ballots to all Williston voters in a pandemic-related shift in the way Town Meeting Day is typically conducted.
The typical meeting in the Williston Central School auditorium was cancelled in March, and voters were encouraged to send their ballots in by mail, or by using a newly installed drop-off box outside Town Hall. In-person voting remained an option during election day.
About 60 percent of the 1,313 ballots cast were sent in by mail.
Planners tackle Taft Corners rezoning
The town’s planning and zoning department embarked on a yearlong, consultant-led effort to rework the zoning rules in Taft Corners. The “My Taft Corners” project aimed to codify new building standards with input from residents to envision the look of Williston’s commercial core for the coming 20-50 years.
The work led to the planning commission’s drafting of a “form-based” zoning code for the area — design standards that prescribe the look of buildings rather their uses. The new code has yet to be taken up by the selectboard.
“The damage has been done a little bit with existing box stores, and we have the opportunity with this plan to figure out what our version of a modern urbanist architectural style will look like and sculpt our own future in that way,” said Emily Morton, a member of the town’s Historic and Architectural Advisory Committee.