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By Lisa Loomis and Erin Post
Each year, the editorial staff of The Valley Reporter reviews the major news stories of the past year with an eye to gauging which stories were most newsworthy and how they affected the citizens and visitors of the Mad River Valley. Here is the list of top news stories for 2006.
1. Sugarbush completes Clay Brook residences/new Gate House and Timbers
Leading off the list is Sugarbush's long-awaited rejuvenation of the Lincoln Peak base area and village, including the construction of the Clay Brook residences. This $60 million project was begun in August 2005 with construction ongoing throughout 2006 and completion occurring earlier this month. There are 61 residences with 110 bedrooms.
The residences, a new post-and-beam Gate House Lodge and the Timbers Restaurant make up the first phase of Sugarbush's renovation of Lincoln Peak. The second phase of that project includes a new guest service center to be built where the interim village is located.
The project is the top story of the year because it marks the largest on-mountain investment to take place in decades and because it ushers in a new era at Sugarbush. It was a mammoth undertaking that involved major earth-moving/sculpting, reworking the road network at Sugarbush, reworking the parking configuration and the base of the ski area. The fact that a high percentage of the residences were pre-sold was also impressive.
2. Faystonians look at high development pressure/bear habitat and subdivision moratorium
2006 was a year that kept the Fayston Planning Commission very busy with several large, multi-lot subdivisions proposed for the Slide Brook basin. That area of Fayston is considered to be among the best bear habitat in the state of Vermont. The planning commission was faced with the task of reviewing two proposed subdivisions in that area, plus several others. In Slide Brook the planning commission denied one project (Robert Crean, who is appealing to Vermont Environmental Court) and approved one for Allan Spector.
Those two subdivisions plus multiple smaller subdivisions prompted a handful of Fayston residents to draft a petition calling for the select board to adopt a moratorium on subdivisions in Fayston. Residents concerned about an increasing rate of development presented the planning commission with a petition asking for a temporary moratorium on multi-lot subdivisions. Petitioners spoke at a November hearing for two projects, one proposed for Center Fayston Road and the other for Old Center Fayston Road.
Enjoying the view from atop Mad River Glen Ski Are in Fayston. Photo: John Williams
The petition, signed by about 75 residents, called for a "more comprehensive land use plan" that would preserve the rural nature of the town, protect wilderness and recreation areas, and "allow for economic diversity among our residents."
In December, the select board opted to take the petition under advisement and suggested residents get involved with the town plan revision in anticipation of a July 2007 deadline.
3. Eat Local Challenge
With regular reports of various outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated foods which take weeks to identify and with people beginning to pay attention to where their meals come from as well as what they contain, residents of the Mad River Valley were enthusiastic about eating locally. The Mad River Valley Localvores successfully organized the first annual Eat Local Challenge in September and carried their momentum through the holiday season with two additional farmers' markets and the 100-Mile Thanksgiving. A second week-long challenge is in the works for late January.
Just over 150 Valley residents signed on for the week-long September challenge, pledging to eat nothing but food produced within 100 miles of home. Local restaurants served 'Localvore-friendly' dishes from September 11 to 17, and schools got involved by serving local meals for students.
Many noted speakers and activists visited The Valley as part of the challenge. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben spoke at the Big Picture Theater. Food activist Sandor Katz visited American Flatbread, and the Round Barn hosted author and 'locavore' founder Jessica Prentice.
In addition to local shoppers learning to make local choices, Waitsfield business owner George Schenk of American Flatbread staged a 'chicken event' challenging a state agricultural department policy prohibiting restaurants from serving locally grown chicken. Schenk wanted to sell American Flatbreads featuring free-range organic chicken grown by his neighbor Hadley Gaylord but was unable to do so because the chickens were not slaughtered at a state certified shop. Schenk staged a chicken event, an act of civil disobedience designed to raise public awareness of the issue and bring attention to the consequences of the state regulation which prohibits one local business from supporting another.
The chicken event resulted in state officials listening and promising to work with Schenk and other farmers and business people to explore creating a mobile butcher shop that could be state certified.
4. Routes 100 and 17 re-paved all summer long - no bikes lanes
As anyone who drove through The Valley this summer knows only too well, Route 100 from Waitsfield north to Moretown was repaved this summer. Route 100, along with Route 17, was not just re-paved, it was ground up, spat out, smoothed over, paved, paved again and smoothed, left uneven, evened out and ultimately, just this month, painted.
The process was long and arduous for drivers as well as those involved in the repaving/reconstruction project. Traffic moved in one direction only for long stretches of the road, leading many drivers to opt for back roads where possible. Delays were long and road conditions were sometimes less than desirable between the various processes used to reconstruct and repave the roads.
To the dismay of many, when all was said and done, the massive project did not yield official bikes lanes for Route 100 (one of the premiere biking routes in Vermont) or Route 17.
State officials pointed out that statutorily they are obligated to provide bike routes where feasible and said that an acceptable middle ground is to widen the paved shoulder and shrink the travel lanes by a foot on each side.
5. Neighborhood watch program formed
A summer marred by burglaries and acts of vandalism prompted Valley residents to organize a neighborhood watch program. The Central Vermont State Police Community Advisory Board and the Local Emergency Planning District #5 organized meetings and trainings at the Waitsfield School and provided watch signs and instructional material. Law enforcement officials from the Vermont State Police and the Washington County Sheriff's Department spoke at the meetings and endorsed the program.
The program trains residents to become the 'eyes and ears' of police and also sets up a means to communicate information between watch participants and law enforcement. Participants received training regarding how to better protect their families and residences from criminals.
The business community also organized a watch program to serve their needs. This grassroots community activism came amidst increasing local frustration over property crimes and vandalism. The Vermont State Police were sympathetic but hampered by understaffing and budgetary issues. The Washington County Sheriff's Department, which provides traffic control in The Valley, cannot perform the type of law enforcement patrol needed to combat home break-ins and acts of vandalism. With the blessing of both agencies, the local Neighborhood Watch program was formed.
6. Warren Elementary School teacher is named Vermont Teacher of the Year
Warren Elementary School third- and fourth-grade teacher Katie Sullivan was named Vermont Teacher of the Year this fall in a ceremony held at the Warren School. Sullivan, a Waitsfield resident, received the state's highest honor in education and was praised for her curiosity as well as the classroom environment she creates.
A 14-year veteran of the Warren school and a teacher for 24 years, Sullivan is an outspoken advocate for diversity and creating learning environments that respect and honor diversity. She's a champion of equity and tolerance in the classroom and outside of it and has long been both an advocate for education as well as the environment.
As the 2007 Teacher of the Year, Sullivan will travel statewide and nationally visiting schools and working with teachers. In addition, she is Vermont's candidate for the National Teacher of the Year award, sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Sullivan will travel to Washington, D.C., this spring for a reception at the White House and will spend a week in Arkansas at Space Camp.
Sullivan has been a teacher for 24 years, 14 of them at the Warren Elementary School. She taught in Philadelphia at Friends Select from 1984 to '91 and in Ripton, Vermont, in 1991/92 before coming to Warren. She was previously honored as the Washington West Teacher of the Year in 2003 and the Environmental Protection Agency's environmental Teacher of the Year in 1999.
She received a B.A. studying environmental education at Pennsylvania State University. As a participant in the Vermont Mathematics Institute, she earned her masters' in education from the University of Vermont in 2003. She has been a Math Network Leader for Vermont's Professional Development Networks since 1995 and is active in many other state, district and school initiatives. Until recently, Sullivan served on the board of directors of the Friends of the Mad River and continues to be a regular volunteer for RiverWatch and other river projects, as well as a participant in several community events such as Valley Vision 2020.
7. Waitsfield drills for municipal water supply
When Waitsfield began drilling a well this summer, it signified a serious first step in realizing a decade-old goal of creating municipal septic and water systems for Waitsfield.
Working its way through a tangle of legal complications over how to drill in a town right of way near where another landowner, Virginia Houston, has tapped into a large aquifer, the town started drilling this summer.
The well is a high-yield well, capable of supplying the 30 to 100 gallons a minute the town needs for a municipal system. The town spent part of the fall working on how to perform draw down tests to determine the impact of the well on surrounding water supplies and has simultaneously moved the septic project into final design phase as well. The two projects will cost $10 million and, when completed, provide municipal sewage and water services to Waitsfield Village as well as hydrants to fire fighting along some town roads.
Creating municipal sewage and water systems are considered to be two critical components to keeping growth in Waitsfield centralized in designated growth areas such as the Irasville and Waitsfield Village districts.
8. Turners close land to lobby legislature and it worked
It may not be possible to fight city hall, but one local farm family effectively took on the state of Vermont by persuading the public to help them lobby for a long promised cattle underpass.
Farmers Doug and Sharon Turner, along with their son Joe, closed their lands for public access and recreation last winter in an effort to lobby the state legislature to make good on a decade-old promise to fund a cow underpass. The Turners move their cows from the barn to their fields twice a day, crossing Route 100 each time. The unsafe situation prompted them to seek state assistance 10 years ago and, although promises were given repeatedly, no funding was ever created nor any follow up took place.
Frustrated, the Turners closed their lands - well used by many different groups for numerous activities - and asked the public to lobby on their behalf. The calls, letters and emails abounded and with the help of local legislators the project has been funded and their lands are now open. Last week, Doug Turner asked the public for one final push to make sure the state follows up on plans to engineer the crossing.
Measuring the amount of river bank erosion along the Mad River
9. Mad River erosion raises larger issues of river morphology for Waitsfield BOS
Last fall, Chris Pierson, owner of the Larrow House in Waitsfield came to the select board seeking help in countering erosion by the Mad River of his Waitsfield Village land. He had lost 35 feet of land in the past five years.
His query led the select board to explore federal hazard mitigation grants to prevent further land loss and potential property damage due to flooding where the Mad River narrows in Waitsfield Village. The board rejected the idea, turning instead to the state agency of natural resources, seeking financial help or some other type of help to mitigate the erosion and prevent further damage.
Pierson also sought state help, seeking permits to extract gravel from the river near his property and use it rip-rap or armor the banks of the river along the front of his property. State permits were denied for extensive gravel extraction but one was given for rip-rapping. During the course of three select board hearings, board members heard from other ANR employees about the interconnected nature of riparian properties and how fragile a river's eco-system is.
Historic human interaction with the Mad River from the late 1800s onward led to straightening of the river, which led to channelization, decreased river access to flood plain, silt deposition and other conditions which are now partially responsible for the damage being done in Waitsfield Village.
10. Moretown officials and Moretown Landfill Inc. negotiate agreement
In October, Moretown officials announced an agreement that provides the town a location for a town garage and conserves town-owned land as deer wintering habitat. The deal allows Moretown Landfill Inc. (MLI) to meet the state requirement to mitigate deeryards affected by construction of an additional cell for waste.
Through terms of the agreement, the landfill agreed to pay the town $101,250 for the development rights to 81 acres of property located behind the Moretown Elementary School. Those rights are to be ceded to the Vermont Land Trust. The agreement also includes a purchase option for an additional 65 acres of contiguous town property. Moretown Landfill Inc. has until August 1, 2012, to exercise this option, at a cost of $81,250.
The third and final piece of the agreement allows the town to lease a roughly two-acre property located off Route 2 as a site for the town garage. The location, which now hosts a barn that may be converted into a garage, is to be leased to the town for $1 per year.
The Moretown Select Board, planning commission, school board, and landfill officials hashed out details of the agreement through a series of meetings, during which planning commissioners and school board members expressed concern about continued public access for cross country skiing, hunting and other traditional activities on the land designated for conservation.
In December, officials learned that property deeds do not contain any restrictions that might have prevented the state from approving the deeryard designation. The town is working with the Vermont Land Trust on drafting a conservation easement.
Officials hope to craft the easement with enough latitude to allow the Moretown Planning Commission to complete a forest stewardship plan for the property. The commission received a grant to complete the plan prior to announcement of the deal with MLI.
Harwood Union Hockey team headed to the state finals for the second year in a row
11. Wood chip heating facility at Harwood Union earns voter approval
Voters overwhelmingly approved in November construction of a wood chip heating facility at Harwood Union. Plans calls for a 1,200-square-foot building to be constructed outside the maintenance receiving area on the east side of the school to house the wood chip heating system and chip storage.
With construction of the facility at Harwood expected to cost roughly $1.68 million, the school stands to recoup about $1.51 million, or 90 percent of the construction costs, through a cost-sharing program with the state. The remaining 10 percent of the cost, about $168,000, is the school's responsibility.
The savings the school realizes by switching from fuel oil to wood chips, expected to be about $50,000 annually, will be used to cover Harwood's share of the capital cost, officials have said. This should allow the school to complete the project with no net impact on the tax rate.
The existing heating system will remain in place, although fuel oil will likely generate only about 15 percent of the school's energy needs in the future. In addition to saving on heating costs, Harwood officials have said the project stands to "reduce dependence on foreign oil" and boost the local economy by sourcing fuel closer to home.
With at least 14 other schools in the state planning similar projects in the same timeframe, Harwood officials planned to move quickly to get the heating system online by October of 2007.
12. Village Grocery changes hands, green space created after 10-year-plus legal battle
This summer the Village Grocery in Waitsfield Village was sold to Troy Kingsbury, who created a green space at the northern end of the store the next day, effectively ending a legal battle that the former owner, David Frank, had fought since he bought the store in 2001. That legal battle, pre-dating Frank, originated with Rob Quinn, from whom Frank bought the store.
Quinn obtained permits for the business which included a planning commission condition calling for him to close the 40-foot curb cut onto Route 100 at the northern end of the Waitsfield Village convenience store and gas station and to create in that new closed in area a green space. Quinn never fulfilled those permit conditions and sold the business to Frank.
When Frank was asked to comply, he balked arguing that to reduce the northern curb cut and create green space would mean the loss of a parking space and would be bad for his business. The issue was tied up in legal machinations until the business was sold to Kingsbury last summer. Kingsbury created the green space the next day, and people regularly take their lunches there for a picnic.
Other stories considered for the top news stories of the year include efforts by Route 17 business owners to rezone a portion of that road through Waitsfield so that new construction requires only one story; Waitsfield's rewriting the zoning for Irasville following the principals of the Smartcode; the denial of a nine condo unit development by the Bragg Hill LLC and the granting of permits for building eight units of affordable housing at Mad River Meadows; longtime town administrator Bill Bryant leaving Waitsfield for Bristol and Valerie Capels taking his position; Warren's design and planning charette, mapping out community concerns for the future of the town; MRVTV, the local public access television channel, beginning broadcast on a second channel; Harwood Union music/jazz teacher Bruce Sklar being cut from the proposed budget and reinstated; Harwood Union coach John Kerrigan's contract not being extended; Harwood Union Principal David Driscoll resigning; and Paul Hartshorn's subdivision in Waitsfield coming back to the town under heretofore unheard of terms from the Vermont Environmental Court.
New Year fireworks explode over Sugarbush's Clay Brook Hotel (underconstruction). Photo: John Williams