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By Kara Herlihy and Lisa Loomis
Each year the staff of The Valley Reporter comes up with a list of the top news stories of the year. Inclusion in the list is based on a variety of factors: sheer volume of stories written about a topic, importance to one town or all towns, newsiness, etc. The number of hits on news stories on The Valley Reporter website is also considered. Here are this year's top stories.
A footpath that connects Warren village to the Brooks Field was closed this year by Sue Carter, who owns the private property that the path intersects. Warren Select Board members are following through on a petition for declaratory judgment in an effort to gain unobstructed access.
Carter first appeared before the select board on May 12 where several Warren School parents made a case for the reopening of the path that has been utilized by schoolchildren and residents for over 60 years.
Carter said she didn't know why the issue was brought before the select board in the first place.
The path that crosses Carter's property has been used by residents for recreation, students traveling to and from the Warren School, as well as visitors and locals alike on the Fourth of July.
Following the town's issuance of a legal opinion from Attorney Paul Gillies that the path is a public right of way, Carter engaged Attorney Lauren Kolitch to represent her in pending litigation.
The select board informed Carter in July that they intended to hire a surveyor to complete a record map of the right of way for filing in the town land records. Kolitch communicated to the town, in writing on August 12, that the town was not authorized to enter Carter's property for any reason.
The town then filed a preliminary injunction, per the recommendation of town's Attorney Paul Gillies, in an effort to gain access to the footpath. Gillies also recommended that the town hire a surveyor that was "articulate enough to come to court and testify," according to select board member Burt Bauchner.
The petition for declaratory judgment was filed by Gillies on November 23; the motion also requested a ruling that the town of Warren has rights to the path by deed and/or prescription.
The motion filed by the town to the Washington County Superior Court stipulates, "The footpath also allows the students and their families and the teachers of the school to walk to the school without walking on the road."
It continues, "Walking on the side of the road poses safety concerns for individuals, especially the younger schoolchildren."
The town requests that the court issue a ruling that the town of Warren has rights to the path by deed as well as a permanent injunction to prevent Carter from obstructing the public use of the footpath.
It was a good year for agricultural land preservation in The Valley. The 22-acre Kingsbury Farm in Warren (and Waitsfield) was purchased by the Vermont Land Trust with the help of local conservation partners and then sold to the Vermont Foodbank this spring. The Foodbank has been renovating the property, refurbishing the soils and getting ready to grow food for hungry Vermonters next spring.
The 102-acre Bruce family farm on Route 100B in Moretown was also conserved. After 100 years of ownership the Bruce family (brothers Philip, Martin and Ronald) sold the farm to Keith and Rae-Anne LaCroix. The sale was made possible by the simultaneous sale of the development rights on the land to the Vermont Land Trust. The LaCroixes will be growing food on the historic farm. The land straddles the Mad River and includes 72 acres of managed forestland east of the farmstead and a half mile of frontage on the Mad River.
The Bruce farm project was a part of the land trust's Two-Farm Campaign, which raised over $200,000 in private contributions to leverage grants from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to conserve the Bruce farm as well as the Kingsbury Community Farm in Warren, which was purchased last month by the Vermont Foodbank.
The LaCroixes, who have farmed in Williston, Fayston and Brookfield, plan to grow vegetables and raise pork, beef and poultry on the farm, expanding upon Clifford and Cora Bruce's earlier tradition of growing vegetables on the farm for friends and neighbors.
This fall a new conservation project was announced, the conservation of 40 acres of prime ag land north of Waitsfield Village. This project involves conserving portions of the former Hartshorn dairy farm. Waitsfield will contribute $20,000 towards the project.
Property owners Paul Hartshorn and his wife Marie are working with the Vermont Land Trust to conserve 40 acres of land that his son David Hartshorn of Santa Davida farms, raising organic produce and fruits. The development rights will be purchased from the land and ownership transferred to David Hartshorn.
In approving the expenditure of $20,000 from the town's Conservation, Recreation and Restroom fund for this project, board members also proposed researching the legal agreement between the land trust and the Hartshorns and making sure the town is a party to it.
The Vermont Land Trust has applied for Vermont Housing and Conservation Board funds for the project, which will be used with other funds to purchase the development rights on the 40 acres, some of which is open and farmed and other portions of which have pre-existing subdivision lots permitted on them. Those lots were created in a circa 1998 subdivision.
Paul and Marie Hartshorn own the 40 acres in question, plus other parcels of land on which there are currently five permitted building lots. Those lots were permitted in 2007 after a legal battle over whether the town could require new subdivisions to have the potential for road connectivity to other subdivisions.
The 40 acres have been appraised although the appraisal value is private. The funding formula for the project consists of approximately two-thirds of the $350,000 to $400,000 total cost of the project being funded by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and a third of it being funded by the Mad River Conservation Partnership with a donation from the Hartshorns, and additional fund raising, including the town's $20,000 contribution.
The project received preliminary approval from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) in 2007 and said the application for some $300,000 in funding will be submitted to VHCB this month. The local conservation partnership is hoping to bring $65,000 to $70,000 to the table in local leverage for the project. The development rights and land are being offered at a reduced price by the Hartshorns to the land trust, Walker said earlier, noting that they had reduced the price by 21 percent.
A decision from the Vermont Environmental Court regarding a proposed quarry project on Route 100B in Moretown has yet to be issued following a year's worth of contention over unanticipated legal fee expenditures associated with the ongoing litigation.
The quarry is proposed by Rich Rivers for a portion of 93 acres north of Moretown Village on Route 100B. Rivers applied for and was denied town development review board permits for the quarry in 2004 and was denied an Act 250 permit on two criteria, air quality and Town Plan conformance, in 2007. Rivers appealed both and the appeals were merged at the Environmental Court.
Neighbors and quarry opponents Ben and Denise Sanders asked town officials this month where their plans for potential legal expenses are reflected in the current draft of the 2010 budget. "We just want to know where the board is sitting and what you're budgeting for a possible Supreme Court appeal," she said.
Select board chair Rae Washburn told the Sanders that the board has yet to allocate a specific amount as a line item, rather they have money budgeted in the town's General Fund. In addition, Washburn said the board is considering including possible legal expenses into a separate article to be brought before the voters in March.
Members of the Moretown Select Board first convened for an emergency meeting in April to discuss unanticipated legal fees associated with the ongoing quarry appeal process. At the meeting, town officials asked the town's Attorney Ron Shems to explain the additional $8,000 bill they anticipated at the emergency meeting. Shems said he was in the process of preparing a rebuttal to the findings of fact, which was submitted by the April 27 deadline.
Shems said he was well within the $30,000 estimated for 2009, and that he deferred an invoice from November and December until January 2009, per the request of the select board. The total of all invoices is about $18,000, according to Shems, which included the $8,000 bill.
Select board members decided to vote separately on two motions: one to authorize Shems to complete his rebuttal and one to hold a townwide vote to either add additional monies to the budget or, if that does not pass, to find the money within the existing town budget.
In addition to the article requesting authorization to cover legal expenses, town officials also included two separate articles that asked the voters to approve more spending to cover costs associated with the 2008 audit and the new town garage.
All three articles were voted down at a special townwide vote held on June 23. Out of 1,330 registered voters, 144 residents voted no and 89 voted in favor.
Select board members were forced to come up with approximately $50,000 within the existing budget. Several town departments cut funds from their individual budgets to cover the unanticipated costs.
Work to replace the earthen berm dam at the north end of the Waitsfield town pond was completed this summer and the pond was refilled in August. The pond had been partially dewatered since the spring of 2008.
The dam at the north end of the pond failed in March 2008 and the town took action to reduce water levels after an eight-foot sinkhole developed in the dam. That action earned the town a slap on the wrist from the Agency of Natural Resources for illegal discharge into state wetlands. It also earned select board member Charlie Hosford a fine from the state for taking the action. That summer, to comply with the state's enforcement order, the town was required to remediate the damage to the wetland downstream of the pond, reduce water levels in the pond and make plans to replace the 30-year-old earthen dam.
The select board considered a variety of options including restoring the dam and pond to the original configuration, reducing the size of the pond, allowing it to return to a wetland or creating a new type of dam. Ultimately the board decided to bring the issue of pond/dam repair to voters at Town Meeting where, after a spirited debate, voters approved spending up to $100,000 to replace the dam and return the pond to its original state.
Kingsbury Construction began the repair/restoration work last month, having provided the winning bid for the job of $83,913. In addition to replacing the intake/outtake structures and the dam, the project included dredging 582 cubic yards of material from the pond. That material was taken offsite where it will be dried and screened. Emptying of the pond revealed a long sunken rowboat, and during earth work in the pond a particularly viscous patch of mud almost succeeded in eating a backhoe.
A 364-foot bridge in Moretown was closed for one month this year to undergo repairs to the deteriorating deck and failing joints. The bridge remained closed to all traffic for 24/7 construction on July 20 and reopened on August 16.
The bridge was closed by the Vermont Agency of Transportation; traffic was diverted on Route 100 north toward Waterbury, then onto Route 2 east toward Middlesex.
Town officials heard from several frustrated Moretown residents at their July 20 meeting, the first day of construction. Concerns were raised about the increase in traffic over Moretown Common Road, which was open to only local traffic during the construction period.
Many residents called attention to the lack of signage properly directing traffic over the detour route, especially on the Montpelier side, where they assume most of the traffic over the Common Road originated.
AOT representative and project manager Chris Williams was present at an earlier meeting to assure residents and town officials that any disturbance of the roads as a result of the construction will be remedied.
The Vermont State Police and the Washington County Sheriff's Department responded to the town's request for increased patrol on the Moretown Common Road and, according to Munn, "issued a lot of tickets."
Select board chair Rae Washburn said that the state has agreed to reimburse the town for the constable and sheriff's department coverage.
Additional detour signage was also added on the Montpelier side and at the Middlesex exit of the interstate, following an increase in traffic over Moretown Common Road. The bridge reopened to traffic as scheduled on Sunday, August 16.
Ask the Warren Store, ask homeowners on the Center and North Fayston Road, ask the Moretown woman who surprised an intruder in her home -- breaking and entering is on the rise in The Valley.
The sheer number of incidences of property crimes has risen dramatically in 2009, with people reporting stolen gas grills, stolen lawn furniture, stolen yard equipment and more.
There were multiple incidences of break-ins at small Valley businesses such as Sweet Pea Natural Foods in Waitsfield where the coin drop for the Central Vermont Humane Society was stolen, along with the money donated for Friends of the Mad River.
Small Dog Electronics was hit twice in the last two months as was the Warren Store. The thievery has Neighborhood Watch groups throughout The Valley on alert and town officials pondering the future of law enforcement in The Valley.
Thieves have struck Waitsfield businesses and convenience stores with regularity, as well as The Bradley House. Several Warren village property owners expressed their frustration with recent break-ins in Warren's commercial district with members of the select board at a December 8 meeting.
Warren, Waitsfield and Moretown currently contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Department for traffic patrol/control.
The town of Fayston held a revote this year that resulted in the rescission of a narrowly passed article that authorized the town to spend $8,000 to contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Department.
The voice vote to rescind Fayston's Article 19 was "boisterous and a majority yes," according to minutes from the revote, which took place Wednesday, May 20.
Fayston residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of rescinding the article which passed 59-54 on Town Meeting day 2009.
Article 19 read, "Shall the voters of the town of Fayston vote to rescind 'Article 19'? Shall of the town of Fayston engage the Washington County Sheriff's Department from April 1, 2009, until December 31, 2009, for an amount not to exceed $8,000? as lastly voted and passed on March 3, 2009."
During a question-and-answer period, it was determined that the town does not have proper road signage in place for traffic control. There would be a need for approximately 50 more signs with a cost of more than $100 plus labor.
Washington County Deputy Sheriff Peter Laskowski was present at the May 20 revote, but following a motion made by Arthur Vasseur to not allow Laskowski to speak, a hand vote determined Laskowski was not allowed to speak. Of the 131 registered voters, 27 voted in favor of hearing Laskowski, while the remaining 104 voted against.
The successful rescission of Article 19 (ending police patrol in Fayston) required votes that exceeded two-thirds of the original 59 that voted in favor on Town Meeting day.
According to state statute, "A majority vote in favor of reconsideration or rescission, of a question voted on by paper or Australian ballot, shall not be effective unless the number of votes cast in favor of reconsideration or rescission exceeds two-thirds of the number of votes cast for the prevailing side at the original meeting unless the voters of the municipality approve a different percentage."
Only a handful of "no" votes were counted.
This year, voters in the Washington West Supervisory Union voted down a $1.1 million bond, 740-702, at a special vote held Tuesday, November 10. There were four spoiled ballots.
The $1.1 million bond included $288,000 for building repairs, $500,000 to completely repave the parking lot, $175,000 to repair the current playing field and add an additional field, and $77,000 to replace kitchen equipment including an air exchanger.
Community members followed up with a petition that was circulated throughout The Valley calling for a revote. Petition organizers had 30 days to gather the necessary signatures but failed to do so in time.
Harwood School Board members voted unanimously in favor of the $1.1 million bond at their October 7 meeting. School board members then held an informational meeting, Tuesday, November 3, to address the proposed bond and answer residents' questions.
Harwood Union Principal Duane Pierson gave a brief presentation about the need for essential repairs. According to Pierson, "Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, 0 percent or very low interest Qualified School Construction bonds are available for certain school projects, like Harwood's."
According to Pierson, with a 0 percent bond taxpayers would have saved over $270,000 compared to a 2.9 percent loan for the same amount.
According to petition organizers, the repairs at the school must be completed and if no bond is secured, the funds will have to come out of the Harwood operating budget.
Following a year's worth of discussion, members of the Moretown Select Board approved a proposed recreation trail in the town forest behind the elementary school. Town officials gave their official endorsement of the project in November.
The select board initially approved the project concept in May contingent upon the agreement that the school board, select board, and planning commission all be involved in the design and construction.
Safe Routes Committee members then presented a design draft for the proposed trail to town officials and residents at a special town forum held on June 29.
Select board chair Rae Washburn said he was "hesitant to put a stamp on it without a walk-through" of the proposed trail. He suggested that a walk-through be scheduled so town officials and community members can view the proposed trail site.
The Safe Routes to School Committee was awarded a $19,000 grant to initiate and design the three-mile loop trail through the town forest. The grant was awarded by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and will not cost the town anything.
According to Strassberg, the three-mile loop trail through the town forest is intended to provide schoolchildren a safe way to travel to and from the school as well as offer recreational, pedestrian and bicycle access to townspeople.
Some town officials discussed voting on the proposed trail on Town Meeting day to garner further public input before moving forward.
In November Strassberg told town officials that the revenue neutral project has been on the table for approximately 10 months and that all entities, including the school board, Agency of Natural Resources, the Planning Commission, and the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, were in support of the proposed trail.
The trail is incorporated into the town's land management plan, according to Strassberg, and tree cutting will be minimal, he added. The trail will be six feet wide in order to accommodate traffic from two directions.
School board member John Smeltzer said the school board is in support of the trail and allowing students access to it. In addition, according to Smeltzer, the existing trails in the town forest are eroding and will likely be phased out as a result of the new trail network.
Hoogenboom motioned to approve the trail with the conditions that the trail be kept to six feet in width, tree cutting be minimal, and that a steering committee consisting of one school board member, one select board member, one PC member and one recreation committee member be formed.
In addition, Hoogenboom asked that heavy equipment used for construction be kept to a minimum.
Select board members voted in favor of approving the trail construction, select board member Rob Roberts abstained. Construction is slated for spring/summer 2010.
Town Meeting was not business as usual in Waitsfield and Moretown this year. There were contested races for select board and also for school board.
In Waitsfield, a total of 511 (36.1 percent of registered voters) voters cast ballots in a three-way race for a two-year seat on the town select board. Sal Spinosa won with 252 votes to challengers Russ Bennett and Darryl Forrest's 103 and 136 votes, respectively. There were two contested races for school director. Rob Williams beat Scott Kingsbury in a race for a three-year seat 258-236. Elizabeth Cadwell beat Kari Dolan in a race for a two-year seat 255-199.
In Moretown there was a three-way race for two seats on the select board. Rob Roberts received 266 votes, David Van Deusen received 244 votes and William Houghton received 147 votes. Stephanie Venema, running unopposed for re-election, received 308 votes.
Farmers and home gardeners alike had their hopes for an abundant tomato crop dashed by a late tomato blight that hit farms and gardens throughout The Valley, Vermont and the northeastern United States. Although the blight had been devastating tomato and potato crops throughout Vermont since late July, it wasn't until August that gardens in the Mad River Valley were paid a visit by this quick-spreading disease.
Hadley Gaylord and David Hartshorn, two local farmers, did not report the blight, but other well-known Vermont farmers have been hit with the telltale black slimy leaves and lesions on the stems of their plants that are sure signs of impending crop destruction. Wendy and Jean Palthy of Tunbridge Farm watched a near overnight transformation of their tomatoes from lush, green and loaded with fruit to black piles of dead foliage that they had to quickly burn to reduce the possibility of the spores spreading to other nearby farms.
According to Aaron Locker who is currently working with the Vermont Foodbank to prepare the land at the Kingsbury Farm, there is not much that can be done about the blight once it arrives. According to Locker, it has been a kind of "perfect storm with the weather and the sudden interest in gardening that was brought on by the economy." The late blight has been linked to tomato seedlings sold at big box stores throughout the Northeast this past spring. The plants reportedly came from large growers in Georgia and Alabama.
Once the blight appears, there is little that can be done to stop late blight once it infects a tomato patch. While she said that home gardeners can try to slow the disease by spraying an organic copper substance, at best it will only slow down the inevitable -- that the plants need to be removed and destroyed.
In 2008, the number of residential real estate units sold in Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren totaled 175 -- the lowest number of sales over the past 18 years. The downward turn in the local real estate market is part of a dramatic statewide trend.
Data from the Vermont Property Transfer Tax Public Records, accumulated by David Dion of David Dion Real Estate, shows that the local real estate market is following statewide trends. It peaked in 2003 with a total of 443 units sold in the four Mad River Valley towns. Since then, the market has dramatically declined, falling to 175 in 2008.
According to data released in the August-September 2009 issue of the Vermont Property Owners Report, the number of real estate sales around the state has plummeted. The number of sales of single-family primary homes has crashed from 2,038 in March through June of 2005 to 787 in the spring of this year. Primary home condominium sales fell from 360 to 107 in the same time period.
Land sales fell from 209 in March through June of 2005 to 66 in March through June of 2009. Statewide vacation property sales are showing similar patterns. Single-family vacation homes in the same quarter dropped from 427 in 2005 to 181 in 2009.
At the peak of the local market in 2003, the total dollar volume of sales in the Mad River Valley was over $65 million. Even as the number of sales decreased slightly over the following years, the dollar volume continued to increase. It reached a peak of nearly $81.7 million in 2006, when there were 354 sales.
The total dollar volume in 2006 includes $30.2 million in Sugarbush's Clay Brook sales. When those sales are not included, the peak was $73.3 million in 2005.
Total dollar volume of sales in 2007 was shy of $56 million. A total of 239 units were sold that year. In 2008, the total dollar volume fell further to $46 million.
Local real estate prices have not followed the statewide trends. After oscillating under $100,000 through the 1990s, the average sale price of real estate in the Mad River Valley has been steadily increasing. Although the number of sales has been decreasing since 2003, and total dollar volume has been falling since its peak in 2006, prices paradoxically have continued to rise.
In 2008, the average sale price of local real estate was $263,278. In 2005, it was $200,968. In 2000, it was $106,987. Local properties fetch higher prices than the averages around the county and state. Between March and June of 2009, $267,500 bought a house on 56.6 acres in Cabot or a house on 2.3 acres in Moretown. Just over the mountain, a house on two acres in Williamstown sold for $70,950 this spring. A house on two acres in Fayston sold for $405,000.
Following a series of votes and revotes and several public hearings, residents of Granville and Hancock closed their two small primary schools and are now tuitioning students to other area schools.
It started with Hancock residents voting to close their school at Town Meeting, which impacted Granville students as well. The Hancock/Granville school district was set up on two campuses: the one-room schoolhouse in Granville and a two-room schoolhouse in Hancock.
At Town Meeting, Granville residents were presented with a proposal to close the Granville campus and send all 30 students to the Hancock campus. The Hancock campus would then accommodate kindergarten through grade five, and sixth-graders from both towns would be tuitioned out to other areas schools.
When Hancock voters voted to close their school, it left Granville voters unable to vote on their school budget and the proposal to close the one-room school in Granville. While Hancock voters petitioned unsuccessfully for the town for reconsideration of that Town Meeting vote (where 64 of the town's 252 registered voters voted 41 to 23 to close the school), Granville voters had to make plans to tuition their students elsewhere.
Granville residents met in March 18 to discuss options, to answer questions about tuitioning, then held a special school budget vote on April 6 where it was decided that students would be tuitioned.
In September, the Fayston Select Board authorized a reimbursement payment of $75 to Matt Howes for chickens he claimed were killed by neighbor's dog. Vermont state statute requires that the town reimburse Howes for the chickens, as the neighbor refused to do so.
Howes and his son first appeared before the select board on July 28 to report the incident and recount the events he said took place in March of this year. Howes said the pen was opened in the morning to allow the chickens to free range, and all but one was discovered two hours later.
Howes said he believed the birds were killed by a dog based upon the heavy footprints he found around the site that were unlike the tracks a lighter animal would have left. In addition, Howes said one of the chickens got on top of the coop in an effort to escape and, in all likelihood, he said, a dog could not reach the stranded chicken. That chicken survived.
The dog accused of killing the chickens is owned by neighboring landowner Walter Brink.
Brink attended the August 24 meeting of the Fayston Select Board where he maintained that his dog was not responsible for the dead birds and, as a result, refused to pay for the lost livestock.
"I'm not going to pay for the chickens because my dog didn't kill them," Brink said.
The town made the payment after researching Vermont statute, a portion of which reads:
"A person who suffers loss by the worrying, maiming or killing of his sheep, lambs, fowls or other domestic animals, by dogs, within twenty-four hours after he learns of such damage, shall give notice thereof to one or more of the selectmen of the town wherein the damage was done, who shall proceed to the premises where the damage was done, and determine whether the same was inflicted by dogs, and, if so, appraise the amount thereof and return a certificate of such amount to the selectmen of such town; but if, in the opinion of the selectman, the amount of such damage exceeds $20.00, he shall appoint two disinterested persons, who, with the selectman, shall appraise the amount of such damage and return a certificate of the same to the selectmen of such town forthwith. Such appraisal shall be for the full value of all animals killed, not less than one-half value of all animals maimed and not less than fifty cents per head for any injury to the remainder of the flock over three months of age, caused by worrying."
This year, Warren's first affordable housing complex, Wheeler Brook, was completed and opened in March. The 18-unit complex sits on a nine-acre parcel on the Sugarbush Access Road. Five of the 18 units remain available.
The project was developed by the Central Vermont Community Land Trust and Housing Vermont. It features three buildings surrounding a common green space. The project received final plan approval from the Warren DRB in June 2007.
Building one has a total of six units, building two has five units, and building three has seven units. In total there is one three-bedroom unit, nine two-bedroom units, and eight one-bedroom units. The two-bedroom units are townhouse in style, while the one-bedroom units are all flats. The complex also has one on-site coin-operated laundry facility.
The Wheeler Brook project "has a high level of energy efficiency," according to Central Vermont Community Land Trust Real Estate project coordinator Allison Friedkin. The units will also have Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) to facilitate good air quality and circulation and are very well insulated, according to Friedkin.
A combination of federal tax credits, low-interest loans and other funding sources allow the organizations to keep the development costs low and rent the units at less than market rates. Wheeler Brook will not be subsidized.
Tenants are required to meet income requirements based on a federal formula that takes into account the median income of the county, family size and other considerations.
For more information about Wheeler Brook or to inquire about available units, contact Chris Wood at CVCLT, 802-476-4493, or visit www.cvclt.org.
A well-attended and lively auction for the 1824 House Inn and Restaurant in Waitsfield ended up in a draw when the bank refused to accept the highest bid of $610,000, holding out instead for $650,000. The bank purchased the property from itself on October 10 and the property is now listed for sale at $695,000.