By Lisa Loomis and Kara Herlihy
Each year the editorial staff of The Valley Reporter compiles a list of the top news stories, sorting and ranking them by local involvement, significance, community participation, community reaction, etc. It is interesting that the two stories which are tied for the most significant story of the year this year both have to do with farming.
The two stories are, of course, the purchase and conservation of the Kingsbury family farm in Warren by the Vermont Land Trust on behalf of local agricultural and conservation groups, and the rebuilding of the Turner family heifer barn after it collapsed during a February blizzard. Without further ado, here are the top stories of 2007.
1. TIE: Locals buy the farm, conserve Kingsbury family farm
It started out with a suggestion from Bob Ferris, director of Yestermorrow, and it led down a long and circuitous road to the Vermont Land Trust purchasing the historic Kingsbury family farm in Warren, to hold the property in trust until local organizers figure out how to structure ownership of the land next summer.
The 22-acre farm property, which includes two barns, a farmhouse and 2300 feet of riparian land on the Mad River, was on the market for almost a year, beginning at over $1 million. The farm is primarily in Warren, with a section in Waitsfield.
When the price dropped to $495,000 this summer, Ferris began putting out feelers within the community to see if other groups and individuals shared his view that the property was important to the aesthetics of the Route 100 corridor and important as an agricultural resource in The Valley.
The answer to his question of whether the farm was a resource was a resounding yes and a coalition of local organizations quickly signed a purchase and sales agreement with the Kingsbury family. The farm piqued the interest of community organizations who felt the farm should be conserved as part of the working landscape of The Valley and as a possible incubator space for agriculture, a community center, a gathering place and other uses.
The local coalition working on structuring the legal framework of how to purchase the Kingsbury family farm included Yestermorrow, the Warren Conservation Commission, the Mad River Valley Housing Coalition, the Mad River Localvores, the Mad River Valley Planning District, representatives from the Intervale and the Vermont Land Trust.
Once the property went under contract, the Town of Warren approved up to $125,000 from its conservation fund towards the purchase. Organizers began working to figure out how to raise the rest of the funds and how to structure the ownership so that the project qualifies the optimal amounts of funding from land conservation organizations.
The group had until October 1 to finish structuring its financial and legal structure. That date was extended several times while organizers worked through myriad legal issues of how to structure ownership and utilize the property. Ultimately the Vermont Land Trust stepped up to the plate and offered to purchase the property and then work with the community to create the ownership structure.
As part of that commitment, the land trust initiated community dialog to query the public about expectations, ideas, possible uses, etc. The property sold the first week of November and that event was celebrated with a well-attended open house on November 11.
CELEBRATE THE PURCHASE
Over 150 people turned out for the open house celebrating the purchase of the Kingsbury Community Farm by the Vermont Land Trust.
The purpose of the open house was to begin the process of deciding how the farm will be used to best serve the community. The Vermont Land Trust is acting as interim owner of the farm while the community develops a plan for its future use.
A key part of the project is that the land will be conserved and will not be able to be developed in the future. Funding for the project was provided by the Warren Conservation Commission and the Mad River Valley Watershed Conservation Partnership with the balance of the purchase price covered by a temporary loan from the Vermont Land Trust.
WALK THE LAND
The open house gave community members a chance to walk the land, see the barn and tour the house. Signs were posted at several places on the property encouraging people to give their ideas on how the farm and buildings can be used. There was a timeline showing the history of the farm and land from the early 1800s to the present day with space for people to write their ideas for the future of the farm.
There was a question-and-answer session at the end of the open house where attendees were encouraged to ask questions of the six-person committee who has been working on the purchase since the early summer. The six-person committee includes Linda Lloyd, Kinny Perot, Tara Hamilton, Bob Ferris, Liza Walker and Robin McDermott.
Four generations of the Kingsbury family were on hand for the celebration ranging from Janice Kingsbury who owned the house to her great-granddaughters. It was a bittersweet day for the family members as they shared years of memories of the home they grew up in with people at the open house. Janice Kingsbury said that she was very happy to know that the farm would be named after the family, the Kingsbury Community Farm.
The organizing committee will be meeting in the coming weeks to determine the next steps in the project. The plan is to form a number of committees to help move the project forward. The agreement with the Vermont Land Trust is that the community will have a plan for the farm in place by May of 2008 and that the farm ownership will be transferred to the ultimate owners by the end of 2008. At this time the final ownership structure is still up in the air. The farm can be owned by the community, by organizations within the community, or by an individual farmer. Exactly what the ownership structure will be is what the committees will be working on over the coming months.
For more information on the Kingsbury Community Farm project and to sign up for e-newsletters about the project, go to www.KingsburyCommunityFarm.org .
1. TIE: Turner barn collapses, rebuilt by community/volunteer effort
A Valentine's Day storm dropped almost three feet of snow on The Valley and caused the collapse of the roof of a heifer barn at the Turner Farm in Waitsfield. The family's heifer barn collapsed due to heavy snow and high wind conditions during the blizzard, killing five of their dry cows, three of whom were pregnant. There were 21 cows in the barn.
Local response was swift. Volunteers cleared the debris the next day. Before a week was out, volunteers and the Turners had found temporary homes for the surviving cows, organized fundraisers and work crews, cleared debris and began auguring post holes for a new heifer barn.
It was a Herculean effort and became a local cause célèbre as well as a labor of love for many of the volunteers involved in the project. Fundraisers, auctions, work days, donation jars and matching grants were organized and reconstruction started.
The Turners, Doug and Sharon Turner and their son Joe -- a third generation of family farmers -- were about halfway through the process of converting from a conventional to an organic dairy farm when the barn collapsed.
The collapse of the barn was discovered by Joe Turner early on the morning of February 15. Turner called 911 who contacted local emergency services personnel. A state snow plow was rerouted, Viens Excavating was called, veterinarian Roy Hadden arrived and people began moving debris, working with chainsaws and freeing the animals. Firefighters, emergency workers and others made their way through over three feet of newly fallen snow to do what they could to help rescue the cows.
Fifteen were saved and six died. Community organizers, led by the Mad River Valley Localvores, local churches and private individuals rallied to help the Turners rebuild the barn so their cows could come home.
The collapse of the barn meant more than the loss of a structure to this local dairy farm -- the Turners were devastated by the loss of their cows.
"It's not a whole lot different than it is for people with their dogs and cats. We see them and feed them and care for them every day. And unlike cats and dogs, we work with the same families for many generations because they are registered purebreds. We're responsible for all changes in their bloodline. You become quite attached to the animals from which you make your living," Doug Turner said in an interview last February.
Two bloodlines died out at the Turner farm when the barn collapsed. Those two 'families' have been around, at the Turner farm, for over 50 years.
In the days following the storm, the Turners learned that their insurance did not cover the estimated $50,000 to $60,000 cost of rebuilding the barn, nor did it cover vet bills for the recovering animals. They were compensated for the animals they lost (at the conventional versus organic rate) as well as vet bills for those animals that died.
Volunteers, led by Waitsfield resident and select board member Charlie Hosford, rebuilt the barn and the cows came home with great fanfare in May leading to an open house/celebration and dedication of the barn on May 27.
2. Crean subdivision denied for a second time, appealed as well
An application for a five-lot subdivision was denied by the Fayston Development Review Board (DRB) and is already being appealed to the Vermont Environmental Court following over a year's worth of public hearings and contentions over critical wildlife habitat. This was the second time this subdivision was denied.
Robert Crean's proposed five-lot subdivision covering 16.5 acres on Slide Brook Road was denied by the DRB, and their findings were released November 28. The findings cite adverse impact on critical wildlife habitat and natural areas as well as lack of compliance with several sections of the Town of Fayston Land Use Regulations.
At the August 29 public hearing Crean was asked to show a quarter-mile buffer zone from Critical Bear Habitat #2 but did not because information he received from wildlife biologist Jeffery Wallin did not indicate that the habitat was actually 'critical.'
In response, the DRB reported in their findings, "The applicant did not provide the buffer from CBH#2 and the deer yard identified by [wildlife biologist] Jeff Parsons, as requested by the DRB."
The findings also cite "significant negative impacts on sensitive lands, such as the critical bear habitat, critical deer winter habitat, and the bear travel corridor and does not adequately minimize or mitigate those impacts."
Crean's first proposal for an eight-lot subdivision was denied by the Fayston DRB following 10 hours of deliberation.
Following the denial of his application, Crean appeared before the Fayston Select Board and asked them to consider allowing upgrades to a section of Slide Brook Road. Select board member Ed Read questioned whether the road improvement was necessary to access a single home lot.
"To widen that road is not a minimal thing," he said, citing the need to cut into some banks and possibly disturb wetlands. Read said the town has to balance the Class IV road's current value as a recreational trail against the proposed upgrade, and said that the town cannot concern itself with the economic viability of a logging operation planned for the property.
Following the application's denial by the DRB, Crean then appealed the decision to the Vermont Environmental Court and, following court-ordered mediation sessions, returned to the DRB with a new subdivision application.
Protections of critical wildlife habitat, specifically bear habitat, remained the issue for the DRB and dominated discussions at a public hearing on August 29. That application was denied November 28.
Crean is currently appealing the most recent denial of his subdivision application to the Vermont Environmental Court through his attorney.
3. Harwood Union's fall sports season ends on two high notes
It was a great fall for Harwood sports teams. The boys' varsity soccer team took home the Division II championships on November 3, shortly after the school's cross country team took the state championships on October 27, sending two runners to New Englands
The winning streak for the cross country team was an autumn-long event marked by stellar performances by some of Harwood's best student athletes. On October 27, Harwood boys' cross country team put the final exclamation point on their season by winning the Vermont Division 2 Cross Country Championships at Thetford Woods
The boys' 68-point victory over their closest rival Lyndon Institute was the largest margin of victory in a state cross country meet since records have been kept. Harwood placed Eamon Welter (3), Caleb Kernan (7), Tim Shepard (9), Colton Crowley (15), Sam McCausland (16), Nick Wisniewski (21) and Mike Shepard (35).
GIRLS PLACE FIFTH
Harwood girls' cross country team packed all seven runners in the top half of the competitive state meet field to end the season on a positive note. Returning state champion Annie Mendes who has been struggling the last few weeks ended her remarkable career with an impressive third place. Zari Sadri set the bar for her teammates by finishing 23rd. Heather Cutler, also a senior, capped an impressive senior year by finishing 30th.
Kim Martin (41), Chelsea Robinson (46), Kelsey Bush (47), and Elena Bilodeau (48) provide Harwood with a stable of excellent returning runners for 2008.
HU XC RUNNERS QUALIFY FOR NEs
For their efforts in finishing among the top 25 school boy and school girl runners in the entire state of Vermont, Annie Mendes and Eamon Welter qualified to compete in the prestigious New England Cross Country Championships.
This was the second straight year that these two Harwood runners have qualified for the New Englands. The New England Cross Country Championships took place November 10 in Cumberland, Maine. At that event Eamon Welter (junior) finished 161st out of 271 contestants with a time of 17:56.5, the best and winning time being 15:32.4.
Annie Mendes (senior) finished 183rd out of 271 contestants with a time of 21:39.3, the best and winning time being 18:06.5. They both ran the 5K event.
VARSITY SOCCER TROUNCES OPPOSITION
While the runners were catching their breath, however, the soccer team was just gearing up. Harwood's number-five seeded varsity boys' soccer team trounced the number-two seeded team in the state, taking home the Division II championship in a 2-0 game on November 3.
The Highlanders played Mill River at Fair Haven High School. Going into the game Harwood's record was 12-3-2 and Mill River's was 16-1. Coach Don Haddox praised his team's teamwork and skill, noting that the first goal was scored after 26 minutes by Neal Smeltzer on a rebounded free kick from Steve Griffith.
The second goal was scored in the 46th minute by Chad Marino off an Eric Mackey throw-in, he said, leading to Harwood's first state championship since 1988. Harwood allowed only one goal through the whole play-off run.
The finals featured fast play and strong defense on Harwood's part and what Coach Haddox referred to as the team's great teamwork.
"Although I'd like to believe it's because I've coached them for the last four years, what makes this team strong is that they are a great group of team players. They are a much better team than they are a group of individuals and they really function as a team. They get along together great, whether on or off the field," Haddox said after the game.
4. Schoolhouse Market Closes
This year, considerable upset ensued as Linda and Larry Faillace, owners of the Schoolhouse Market in East Warren, were evicted by the Rootswork board. After several rallies and one appearance before the Warren Select Board, the Faillaces cleared out of the store at the end of October.
The eviction became final on Tuesday morning, October 30, following one 'save our store' meeting at the Town Hall and one regularly scheduled select board meeting where supporters appealed to the board during the public comment period.
At the first meeting, Linda Faillace disputed heavily circulated rumors that she and her husband had not paid the rent on the town-owned building to Rootswork. She also denied ever filing bankruptcy, as many community members had reported hearing from Rootswork board members.
Schoolhouse Market supporter Robert Riversong said, "The Faillaces have jumped through every hurdle put before them by Rootswork and have gone the extra mile by offering an escrow account of six months advance rent, but the Rootswork board has refused to renew the five-year lease that any business needs in order to get small business loans and have the security to make continued investment and has seemed determined from the start to move the store out."
Rootswork board members were noticeably absent from the 'save our store' meeting. Other members of the public were upset that Rootswork had 'lost sight of its goals' and 'forgotten their mission.' One member of the audience said that the Schoolhouse Market 'is the heart of Rootswork.'
Rootswork board member, Jen Higgins provided The Valley Reporter with the following statement:
"The Rootswork Board is very sorry that negotiations could not reach a successful resolution. While the board is dismayed by the many inflammatory and patently untrue accusations directed at us, we feel strongly that this lease dispute could not or should not have been settled by public debate. We wish the Schoolhouse Market, the Faillace family and Bruce Fowler all the best in their future endeavors. Although this is a sad day for all of us, Rootswork is looking forward to returning the space to community use and moving ahead with our mission."
Higgins also provided the following information regarding Rootswork's future plans for the Schoolhouse Market space:
"Rootswork recently had a professional building inspection done. We are planning and implementing building renovations to address any problems, improve energy efficiency and expand community uses for the building. For the first floor we're in the organizing stages of a community co-op, and we'll be seeking input from our members and the community for other complementary uses. One possibility we're considering is a community gathering spot where coffee, snacks and Wi-Fi would be available. Concerning the East Warren Town Green adjacent to the schoolhouse, we're gathering further public comment on the plans compiled from the charrette held September 29, and will be presenting a master plan proposal for community review."
5. And where are the young people?
This year's investigation of The Valley's noticeable youth exodus resonated with many Valley residents, who wrote The Valley Reporter with stories of their 'eviction' from The Valley, the flight of their children, and the meaning of the growing 'silver haired' set for the community.
The feedback was encouraging, and thus became more than a query into The Valley's changing demographics -- it became part of a necessary conversation about the direction in which this community, young and old alike, may be headed.
The first installment in the series dealt with the affordable housing crisis. A sampling of classified ads for housing rentals from one issue of The Valley Reporter presents that the average rate for a two bedroom apartment in the Valley is $895 per month -- no surprise, a little above the state average. (Utilities were not taken into consideration.)
The Mad River Valley Planning District reports, "The Valley falls short of being affordable; meaning the average house in any of the three towns is not affordable to the average household. Our 2006 housing study indicates a current unmet need of 54 rental units and 38 units of elderly housing, a need that will escalate over the coming years."
The problem is not tied solely to The Valley; it is a statewide trend where living and working in Vermont has become nearly impossible for the youth that grew up here.
"Vermont had the tightest rental housing markets in the nation in 2006. The rental vacancy rate was 3.6 percent. The state's most recent housing needs assessment showed Vermont has a shortage of 21,000 affordable rental units and will need 12,300 more owner occupied units by 2010," according to the CVCP.
The goal of the 'Where have all the young people gone?' series was not to point a burdensome finger at the growing number of retirement-age residents in The Valley. Talk of the 'silver haired' set was to illustrate how The Valley workforce is shifting, and with no young people to fill the jobs that the retirees have left, an economic gap is forged.
According to the 2006 Valley Data Report, the median age in The Valley is 39.8. A regional Data Profile prepared by Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission reports that in 1970, there were 1,773 people between the ages of 18 to 64 in The Valley out of a total 3,239.
In 1980, that number increased to 3,244 out of 5,011 total population. In 1990 the number of 18- to 64-year-olds in The Valley and Washington County stood at 4,058, which, over the next 10 years, steadily decreased to 3,153. In 2000, the trend continues; those between 20 and 34 decreased to 3,709.
The number of workforce-age residents is dropping, while those over 64 continue to increase.
"The growth of the 65 and older population in Vermont is going to present challenges in providing services to older citizens in rural settings... the negative growth in those 18 and under for many counties will continue to challenge the education community...this pattern will also create real challenges for businesses that need to grow to meet labor needs now but will experience a sharp decline in workforce as the population continues to age," according to the CVCP.
STAYING IN . . . THE NEW GOING OUT
What's hard to understand is how village-oriented towns like Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren, in all their retail, residential and bed and breakfasted glory, cannot host perhaps one single night spot. Not a night club -- a night spot, a casual gathering place where drinks and fare are supplemented with Monday night football and darts.
This is not to say that such a place does not exist. The Hyde Away Inn, the Purple Moon and the Phoenix in Sugarbush village are perfect après-ski watering holes that host people of all ages and definitely appeal to the younger set.
But, glance up and down Main St. in Waitsfield, Warren or Moretown -- and all you'll find are deli's and real estate agencies. The Inns and bed and breakfasts are alive and well and restaurants like the Spotted Cow are doing just fine, but there remains a noticeable lack of bars, live music venues and moderately priced hole-in-the-walls.
The Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield has responded to the youth's cry for entertainment by hosting DJ's and dance parties. But, where does one go for a beer if they don't feel like clawing their way up the Sugarbush Access Road to the Phoenix or braving German Flats Road to the Slide Brook Tavern during a blizzard?
Where have all the young people gone? They've gone somewhere where their job can pay their bills and rent in the same month, where there is a barstool open for them in a town where someday, just maybe, they can afford to buy a home.
6. Waitsfield subdivision regulations adopted, then rejected
It's back to the drawing board for the Town of Waitsfield in its attempts to update its almost 20-year-old subdivision regulations.
The regulations were rejected by voters on October 23, 115-70, after a savvy disinformation campaign which cast the regulations as an attempt at a sweeping land grab, anti-property rights and an attempt to create newer, stricter rules for subdividing. The regulations are the result of seven years of work on the part of the town planning commission which approved them and sent them on to the select board for approval this summer. The select board approved the regulations and then received a petition from voters asking that the regulations come to a town-wide vote.
Voter turnout (185 of 1307 registered voters) was poor and left town officials scrambling to regroup and figure out how to pass the sorely needed update to 20-year-old regulations. In the aftermath of the election, planning commissioners, development review board members and the select board met to talk about what sunk the regulations and then held a public hearing which was attended by five members of the public and many town officials.
The upshot of what sunk the regulations is that two specific parts of the ordinance, having to do with open land and the question of whether future rights of way for connecting the development roads of subdivisions should be identified when land is subdivided, caused the downfall. Town officials and planners were quick to point out that the old regulations were much more stringent than the new regulations with respect to those provisions.
That point was made prior to the vote and has been made repeatedly after the vote and was made again this month. Members of the development review board repeatedly stressed that the new regulations give them more latitude in dealing with subdivision applications. One person at the meeting, select board member Paul Hartshorn, reiterated his concern and what he said was public concern that the new regulations were an attempt to 'take' a right of way from landowners during the subdivision process.
Hartshorn went through a long legal battle with the town over that very matter, the issue of road connectivity between subdivisions. Hartshorn also said that the new regulations do not allow someone with a five-acre parcel of open land to subdivide if they need to to 'pay their taxes' or 'supplement their Social Security' -- although Vermont's property tax structure is income sensitive, so in theory, property taxes should not exceed five percent of someone's income.
NOT THE CASE
Planner and DRB member Brian Shupe, who worked with the planning commission to draft the regulations, told Hartshorn that was not the case. He said that the regulations in fact may make it easier to develop some parcels of open land once the town identifies hamlets where development is more appropriate.
Mark Sinclair, a member of the DRB, said that the DRB has worked with the old and the new regulations and said the new regulations are much more clear and specific. He told those present that the new regs restrain the discretion of the board, limiting its ability to say no for any reason.
RIGHT OF WAY
On the issue of whether the town can and should ask developers to identify a location for a right of way to connect one adjoining subdivision to the next, Hartshorn again suggested that asking for a right of way amounts to an uncompensated taking.
Town attorney Joe McClean was at the meeting to address the issue of taking and whether towns can or cannot request such right of ways. He said that in some towns, such as South Burlington, it is written into the town's zoning regulations that all new developments connect to existing developments at two points. He explained the legal criteria for a taking (including having stripped a parcel of land of all of its viable uses) and said that the principles of connectivity are backed up by the idea that in the future the town will take over the roads involved and the public interest will be served by having a road network.
At the last meeting, Sinclair warned the boards that the town runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water if the issue of road connectivity and the perceptions and misperceptions are not cleared up. He suggested that the town consider replacing the word 'shall' with 'may' when it comes to requiring the identification of a right of way for future road access.
As the town heads into the budgeting process in preparation for Town Meeting 2008, planners, the DRB and select board are working on revisions to the subdivision ordinance with an eye to bringing it back before voters at Town Meeting in March 2008.
7. Ceremonial chicken crosses the road
On June 8 the chicken finally crossed the road from Gaylord Farm to American Flatbread as over 350 people came out to celebrate the Chicken Event II and a new law that allows small poultry producers to sell their poultry to restaurants and at farmers' markets without state or federal inspection.
The event was a culmination of a lot of local work, some local civil disobedience and some responsive legislators. The law was drafted after American Flatbread owner George Schenk announced his intentions to flout a state law prohibiting him from selling flatbreads featuring locally grown organic chicken from neighboring farmer Hadley Gaylord. The event drew local and regional publicity, with Schenk, at the last minute, deciding to obey the law, but his point was made.
Rural Vermont, the Mad River Valley Localvores and local legislators worked with Schenk, other Vermont entrepreneurs and Vermont farmers to draft a law allowing the chicken to cross the road -- and allowing restaurants to sell locally raised and slaughtered meat, if so labeled on the menu.
The June 8 celebration started with more than a dozen "chickens" including Charlie Hosford, Willis Schenk, and several members of Rural Vermont making a ceremonial trek across the street in chicken costumes and into American Flatbread. Following the crossing, the crowd heard from several people who had been instrumental in the passage of the new bill including Mad River Valley House Representative Carol Hosford, House Agriculture Committee chairperson and Vermont farmer David Zuckerman, Amy Shollenberger of Rural Vermont, Gaylord and Schenk.
PAT YOURSELF ON THE BACK
Amy Shollenberger asked for a show of hands from people who participated in helping the bill through the system. "If you made a phone call to your rep, wrote a thank you note, or showed up at the State House to testify, you need to pat yourself on the back. This new law proves that we do have a say in the food we eat and are served." Shollenberger's organization, Rural Vermont, worked closely with legislators as the bill was being drafted and debated in both the Vermont House and Senate.
In accordance with the new law, Schenk had to sign a document stating he understood that the chicken had not been inspected. The menu also had to clearly state that the chicken was processed on the Gaylord Farm and had not been inspected. During the Senate debate on the bill earlier this spring, senators in favor of the bill emphasized that the notification requirements would provide consumers with the information they needed to make their own decision on whether or not they would select and eat the poultry menu option.
8. Who is not riding the buses in The Valley and what do other towns do?
About half of the 2,000 students in the Washington West Supervisory Union are not riding the publicly funded school buses, and The Valley's public transit provider, Green Mountain Transit Authority, only makes public transportation available during the winter months. (There is limited transit available for the elderly and disabled year round.)
The Valley Reporter examined local ridership statistics and investigated how other towns in Vermont address high transit costs and the issue of public transportation. Working with Waitsfield Elementary School Principal Richard Schattman, local parents were surveyed about what it would take to get them to put their kids on the bus. Here's how things look:
There are roughly 2,000 students in the Washington West Supervisory Union School district, only one-half of whom rides the publicly funded bus system.
RIDE THE BUS
At Harwood, there are 820 students and 19 buses that specifically transport Harwood students. Of those 820 students, approximately 550 ride the bus, according to Principal Duane Pierson.
Harwood's share of the $776,857 cost of the district transportation system is $269,505, according to Washington West business manager John Pike.
At neighboring Moretown Elementary School, there are 164 students and an estimated 140 ride the bus. Pike said Moretown's share of the total transportation cost for this year is $102,445.
Waitsfield has 164 students including the school's preschoolers (preschoolers are counted in the enrollment figures for all local elementary schools) and about 50 students ride the school bus at a cost of $35,651.
Fayston Elementary School Principal Chris Dodge reports that 50 to 60 of Fayston's 115 students ride the bus. That town's share of the bussing costs is $70,255.
The Town of Warren pays for its own transportation for elementary school students and subcontracts with Washington West for its high school students. Elementary school Principal Andreas Lehner said Warren has 138 students (including 26 preschool students). He said one bus route, the west side, averages 25 to 30 morning riders and 30 to 35 afternoon riders. The other bus route averages 16 to 22 students in the morning and 20 to 25 in the afternoon.
Warren spent $88,736 for student transportation (including field trips and its $9,320 payment to Washington West for transporting high school students). Lehner noted that Warren had huge bus repair bills in 2006 and also replaced both buses.
Ray Staskus, local contract manager for First Student, said the district contracts for a total of 55 bus runs per day including regular morning and afternoon runs plus late buses. First Student owns the buses which are all full size. He said that about 1,000 students ride the buses to and from Harwood, Crossett Brook, Thatcher Brook and the Waitsfield, Fayston and Moretown elementary schools. There are 2,000 students in the district, but only 1,862 if Warren's elementary students (who ride Warren's buses or who could ride Warren's buses) are excluded.
Taxpayers in the Washington West School District pay $776,857 for student transportation. That figure is broken down by town and school based on the number of miles of bus routes each town/school requires.
The figure is further offset by the fact that the district rents space at Harwood Union to First Student, provider of the service, and also pays in advance to receive a three percent discount.
The buses are all diesel buses, all get about 6.5 miles to the gallon and all must idle for a requisite amount of time on cold mornings. The buses do use a low sulfur diesel fuel which reduces the amount of particulate emissions, but those emissions still accumulate, ranging from 5.6 to 14 pounds per year per bus of particulate 'soot' and 322 to 417 pounds per year per bus of 'smog' emissions (EPA website). Specific information about the Navastar diesel engines in the buses was not available, nor could a company spokesperson be found to comment on whether the First Student buses have been retrofitted with diesel oxidation catalysts, which use a chemical process to break down pollutants in the exhaust stream into less harmful components.
He said that Vermont school districts are not statutorily obligated to provide transportation but said most do. He echoed Pierson's comment about the rural nature of The Valley and the difficulty in transporting students from far-flung points of each town.
OTHER TOWNS' ALTERNATIVES
In 2002 the Ludlow, Vermont, public school system informed the town (population 2,600 with 250 students) that it could no longer afford to run the school bus system. According to Ludlow municipal manager Frank Heald, the municipality discussed the issue and made the decision to buy the school buses and create a municipal transit system which is operated by the town.
The system provides morning and afternoon runs structured around school times, with routes structured around where kids live. The system is also operated as a public transportation system, bringing residents into and out of the village and surrounding towns. The town, in effect, operates a municipal transit system for school kids and the general public.
The system is operated year round. In the summer it's well used by kids participating in recreation programs. When the school operated the bussing system it cost $800,000 a year, and the town select board thought that similar service could be provided for much less, about $200,000.
The town had to purchase the school district's school buses and repaint them prior to starting. Ludlow's public transit system is not the type of public transit system that is available in The Valley. The Ludlow system does not receive state or federal funds.
The Valley's public transit system, provided by the Green Mountain Transit Authority (GMTA), receives state and federal funding along with local contributions to provide transportation to the elderly, the disabled and those who meet income qualifications. Right now there is no general public transportation program in The Valley, although in the winter there is Mad Bus service (provided by the GMTA) which links Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen and provides service from Warren up and down the Sugarbush Access Road.
GMTA's ridership figures for 2006-2007 includes people transported to and from meal site programs, medical appointments, etc. During that fiscal year GMTA provided 975 trips for the elderly and disabled and financially qualified. GMTA provided five Warren residents with transportation service to weekly senior meals programs and shopping trips during that time.
GMTA provides public commuter services in Waterbury, from Waterbury to Morrisville, and from Waterbury to Montpelier as well as from Montpelier to Burlington. There is no funding for commuter service from The Valley to Montpelier at present, according to Chris Cole, GMTA director.
He said that for two years in a row, GMTA has submitted a grant application seeking funding for a Valley commuter route, but it has not received funding. Such a commuter route is separate from the Mad Bus system which operates during the ski season at a cost of $485,720. Sugarbush is mandated by its agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and the Mad River Valley Planning District through a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding to provide on mountain public transit. Sugarbush funds $67,500 of the Mad Bus cost and local inns and businesses pay $9,440.
Locally many parents drive their children to and from school rather than having them ride the bus. In Waitsfield 50 percent of the students at the Waitsfield Elementary School never ride the bus and a quarter of the students ride the bus every day while the remaining 25 percent are driven sometimes and ride the bus other times.
Schattman created a survey and made it available electronically and on paper to school parents. The goal of the joint project was to better understand ridership of the current bus system.
All respondents had children in the schools pre-k through sixth-grade program; of those that responded 26 percent send their children on the bus five days per week. Fifty-four percent of the respondents never send their children on the bus and the remainder sends their children on the bus one to four times per week. A similar number of parents pick up their children at the end of the day.
ALL THE TIME
If the parents that answered the survey were representative of the total school, about half of the children never use the bus system and half do some or all of the time. Of those that do use the bus system, the majority (67 percent) drop off or pick up on the way to work and 40 percent pick up their children on the way home from work. Interestingly, of those who drive their children to or from school, almost 90 percent do not carpool.
Parents offered a number of suggestions for improving the system. These included developing an alternative stop for Harwood students to transfer to help elevate congestion at the school and to find ways to shorten the runs. A number of parents indicated that they are very pleased with the system, as it exists, appreciate the bus drivers, and that routes work well for them.
Schattman said he would like to see more school bus ridership to address congestion in the parking lot, safety, and a concern for the environment. The school plans to have a campaign to encourage carpooling to address a number of these issues. Parents or community members with questions about this survey or bussing in general are asked to contact Schattman at the school at 496-3643.
9. Rochester Quarry seeks permits
An ongoing proposed large-scale quarry project is working its way through the permitting process in Rochester. An appeal of state Act 250 rulings has been filed and the sight distance reported has been under contention following a decision of partial findings.
The partial findings were issued by the Act 250 District 3 Environmental Commission on October 3 and one appeal has been filed already. The appeal centers around three of the criterion included 1(a) 'headwaters,' 1(d) 'floodways,' and 1(e) 'streams.'
Rochester residents Dean and Constance Mendell are appealing the three findings through their attorney.
LAND USE PERMIT
Applicant Rochester Sand and Gravel and North Hollow Farm Products have yet to apply for a conditional land use permit which was requested by both the Rochester Planning Commission and the State.
The District 3 Environmental Commission also requested in their "decision on partial findings" that the applicant conform with 'criterion 10' of their report which includes the acquisition of a conditional use permit from the planning commission.
The applicant has sought the legal counsel of Paul Gillies to determine whether or not they need a local conditional land use permit. The legal representation will help the applicants figure out "how something goes from no permit to conditional use" according to project engineer Mark Bannon.
The first proposal for the quarry was delivered informally at the planning commission meeting on January 3. Based on their initial proposal, the planning commission determined that since the quarry was being reopened and there were to be no changes of use to the pit, Kingsbury would not need a new local permit.
After reviewing Kingsbury's application for an Act 250 permit, the planning commission then asked for a local conditional use permit because the applicant's proposal was a "significant departure from your informal presentation to the commission."
Previous hearings covered several of Act 250's 10 criteria, including criterion four (soil erosion), criterion eight (aesthetics) criterion nine (dealing with issues related to public and private infrastructure), and criterion ten (conformance with a town plan).
Bannon emphasized on July 30 that the site hosted a gravel pit for decades, up until the early 1990s, and that the plan stands to improve the site and make it useful again.
In addition to the appeal, the "Friends of Route 100," a grassroots organization opposed to the proposed quarry is contending the report that there is 787 feet of sight distance, as reported by the engineers for the project, Bannon engineering.
The Friends of Route 100 sought the consultation of certified land surveyor Allen Olsen who measured only 500 feet of sight distance on the proposed quarry location.
FINDINGS AND METHOD
A representative of the Friends of Route 100, Bill Gibson, said that he requested in writing several times that he and other members of the public be included in the site visit and witness the sight measurement. He was not notified, he says, and "VTrans refuses to issue a report" of their findings and method.
Bannon emphasized that the sight distances were measured by Norm Smith and confirmed by VTrans.
Gibson added, "It seems to me that the people of Rochester have a right to know whether the measure of safety is sufficient and what VTrans measured."
The Friends of Route 100 and members of the public are also concerned, according to Gibson, about how the sight distance will be maintained, especially in the winter with snow fall and plowing.
"Who is going to be responsible? Is it the applicant? If so, could their permit be revoked?" Gibson added.
10. Work underway to restore Moretown Town Hall
The Moretown Town Hall restoration project has gained momentum over the past months and is gearing up for a benefit dance scheduled for January 28.
The select board voted to increase the rent on the public space from $55 to $150 for residents and $300 for non-residents back in September.
In October, the select board held a special meeting at the Town Hall for a walk-through with architect Tom Keefe, who shared his preliminary plans for the restoration as well as an initial budget.
THOROUGH PAINT JOB
Keefe said he estimated that the historic restoration project, which included the repair on non-historic windows that were previously vandalized, would cost around $180,000. The estimate also included overhauls to the downstairs kitchen, heating system, staircases, main floors and a thorough paint job.
The tour of the exterior included a discussion about water drainage and grade. Currently, as Keefe pointed out, the grade is negatively pitched towards the building, creating a flooding hazard. Although the grade is not currently in the budget, Town Hall manager Doug Macintosh assured that the restoration would "be all for nothing" if the grade was not addressed, as flooding would most certainly occur.
STATUS OF THE GRANT
Following the walk-through meeting with Keefe, the Select Board held a special Town Hall Committee meeting before their regularly scheduled meeting. The Select Board informed the committee that the project was moving right along with a $30,000 matching grant application to the State Historic Preservation in the mail. The town does not expect to hear about the status of the grant until the beginning of January.
The board also granted $700 to the Town Hall to replace the 13 vandalized window panes. Because the windows are replicas and therefore not technically 'historic,' the State Historical Preservation will not cover them in the grant.
They also discussed the phasing of the project according to seasonal concerns and cosmetic changes. The kitchen overhaul is part of the project but will take a backseat to structural issues.
Board member Don Wexler asked the Town Hall Committee whether they would be in favor of bidding the entirety of the project out at once or dealing with it slowly over time. The committee members were in favor of expedience but some mentioned that the tax hit would be too great for a single year.
Committee members suggested bonding half of the cost out and paying for the rest in their taxes.
The Town Hall will host a benefit dance scheduled for January 28 featuring the musical stylings of Rae Washburn's band.