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Top 10 2011: Irene, the Champlain Bridge and the economy

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Posted on January 3, 2012 |
By Addy Indy Staff



1: Irene, flooding, snow wreak havoc

Humorist Mark Twain said that everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. In 2011 there was a lot to complain about on the weather front. A hurricane that was downgraded to a tropical storm before it reached the Green Mountain State was hands-down the biggest news story of the year. But there was so much other awful weather this year — so much that in any other year it would have been a top 10 story even without Irene — that we made the weather our top story of the year.


 

Tropical Storm Irene brought a deluge of rain and subsequent flooding that haven’t been seen in Vermont since at least 1927. The flood-related damages thankfully didn’t claim any lives in Addison County (though four deaths across the state were attributed to Irene), but it caused more expensive damages than any weather event in Vermont history and touched the lives of almost every person in the county.

On Aug. 28, more than 8 inches of rain fell in Lincoln, more than 6 inches in Vergennes and South Starksboro, nearly that much in Orwell. Floods overwhelmed dozens of local roads and bridges, closed portions of every state highway in Addison County for a time and knocked out electricity to more than 2,500area power customers — including 800 in Lincoln.

Towns in the eastern part of Addison County — those in the Green Mountains — were particularly hard hit by flooding. Roads connecting large parts of Granville and Hancock were completely washed out, cutting off residents there from the outside world for a time. The National Guard helicoptered in food. The extreme hardship in some ways pulled many people closer to their neighbors as nightly town meetings sprang up.

The heart of Brandon was devastated by disastrous floods that caused the Neshobe River to overflow and rage through the downtown. Onlookers watched in awe as the water coursed over the downtown bridge and past the Briggs Carriage building, gradually flooding the Mobil station and the yard of the Vermont Sandwich Company building. Raging waters pushed the Brandon House of Pizza building off its foundation and out onto Route 7. Officials closed Route 7 — the main north-south corridor in western Vermont — for nearly six days.

In Bristol, Irene tore up several roads, most notably taking a huge chunk out of the Lincoln Road. The town also ordered people to boil water from the municipal system after floodwaters inundated one of the system’s holding tanks.

In Lincoln, anti-flood measures implemented at Burnham Hall kept the stately building intact despite high waters, but the town suffered a lot of road and bridge damage. In Ripton, a portion of Route 125 was swept away. Route 73 between Goshen and Rochester was completely washed away.

Some farmers lost crops when state officials told them to plow under crops that had been inundated with floodwaters for fear of contamination.

In the wake of the historic storm town and state officials in some communities rushed heavy earth-moving equipment into rivers to repair damage and in some cases — like in East Middlebury — attempt to refashion the streambeds. Although the intention was to prevent future flooding, there was much disagreement over what the results of manipulating Mother Nature would truly be.

One only need to look back to Addison County before Aug. 28 to see that heavy snow and rain had already taken a toll in 2011. The county and state had more precipitation in the first six months of the year than in any similar period in history.

Two huge late-winter storms slammed the area, and snowfall for the season was the third highest on record. Public works employees were working 70-80 hour weeks. Town budgets were hammered. Poor results in the fall’s deer-hunting season were attributed to the rough winter.

Then Lake Champlain rose to its highest level in history, flooding many camps, homes and fields and closing and washing out roads. Farmers couldn’t plant crops, in some cases until July. Mosquitoes flourished. Sports teams couldn’t practice.

Needless to say, despite our 21st-century conveniences, weather had a profound effect on every resident in the county in 2011.

 

2: Champlain Bridge completed to glee of merchants, travelers

It was a sight for sore eyes.

Hundreds of citizens and politicians from Vermont and New York officially marked the opening of the new Champlain Bridge on Nov. 7, thereby restoring a key transportation and commercial lifeline between West Addison, Vt., and Crown Point, N.Y.

It had been 25 months since the original Champlain Bridge had been closed after it was determined to be structurally unsafe for travel. That closure immediately presented a hardship for many scores of commuters who suddenly had to either detour around the lake, or compete for limited ferry space, to get to jobs at Addison County businesses like Porter Hospital, Middlebury College and Goodrich Corp. Also taking a hit were the merchants serving those commuters, who saw their receipts dwindle with the reduced traffic flow.

But Vermont, New York and federal authorities worked aggressively to remedy the situation. First, they set up a free, temporary ferry system alongside the bridge location to accommodate travelers. Noted architect Ted Zoli designed a modified network tied arch bridge that was built by Colorado-based Flatiron Construction. Flatiron worked virtually around the clock — through some of the worst flooding, wind and snow conditions seen in these parts for years — and produced the 2,200-foot-long (complete with a 1.8 million-pound arch) bridge almost on schedule, though somewhat over budget. Project costs are expected to top out at around $76 million, up from the $69 million contract that had been awarded.

Over the course of the last year, ferry commuters got to see the new bridge develop as they floated by the construction site. The grand opening ceremony on Nov. 7 featured, among others, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, New York Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy and two Vermont state representatives from Vergennes — Democrat Diane Lanpher and Republican Greg Clark. Also in attendance were several Vermonters and New Yorkers who had witnessed the opening of the first Champlain Bridge, back in 1929.

“What you see standing before you represents a lot more than concrete and steel and iron,” Lanpher said in her remarks to the crowd. “It represents what is possible when determination meets innovation and is sparked by commitment.”

Carol Sweeney was one of the hundreds of New York residents who commuted from their homes in New York to jobs in Addison County. She and other commuters hailed the bridge opening as a life-changing event.

“I’ll get an extra 30 minutes of sleep in the morning,” Sweeney said.

“I am so happy to get part of my life back. I have been waiting for this day to arrive.”

A major celebration of the new bridge is being organized for May 19-20.

 

3: Economy shows signs of life

Despite an uncertain world economy, 2011 brought signs of a slow economic recovery from the past few turbulent years to Vermont. But the Great Recession was far from forgotten.

This was clear to lawmakers who in Montpelier struggled to create tight fiscal year 2012 budget. State legislators in March passed the $4.69 billion state budget, which represented a 3.6 percent decrease in spending, with program reductions and fee increases, particularly in the area of health and human services.

On top of an already tight budget, the damage from Tropical Storm Irene pulled millions of dollars in additional expenditures from the state’s general fund, leading state finance officials to request a $25.5 million adjustment to the general fund. But according to state estimates, those funds will be covered by additional, unbudgeted money coming into the state’s coffers from the feds.

While legislators struggled to keep the state’s expenditures within check, the private sector showed signs of life. In Middlebury, the Vermont Hard Cider Company announced plans to build a large new facility on Exchange Street, complete with a tasting room to show off its Woodchuck Hard Cider line. With the expansion, the company said it may be adding as many as 20 people to its staff.

Middlebury College’s endowment also rebounded to $825 million from its 2009 low of $649 million. While not back to pre-recession levels, college officials said the school’s finances have stabilized. Hiring and salary freezes that went into effect after the downturn were lifted in 2010, and Vice President and Treasurer Patrick Norton said the institution’s diversity of investments and offerings — including its schools abroad, summer programs and work creating language software — are helping to keep the college on stable financial footing.

Going into the holiday season, downtown businesses in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes said they were hopeful about the economy, given strong sales over the weekend after Thanksgiving. National estimates jibed with the word from local shopkeepers, many of whom said the weekend was the best they’d had in years.

And in late December, the Vermont Department of Labor announced that the Vermont unemployment rate in November dropped for the third consecutive month, to 5.3 percent. National unemployment rates also declined in November, standing at 8.6 percent in November.

Nevertheless, few were saying that we were out of the woods. The United Way of Addison County reported in December that its annual fundraiser was lagging (possibly in part due to donations diverted to Irene disaster relief).

 

4: Schools level-fund, cut budgets

In the face of a still-dragging economy, voters from all local towns approved the 2011-2012 spending plans their schools. For most schools across Addison County, those plans reflected a decrease in spending from the year before.

The UD-3 school spending plan of $15.6 million represented a 2.2-percent decrease compared to the previous year. That funding covers Middlebury Union high and middle schools.

The $8.8 million Vergennes Union High School budget also got a big thumbs up from voters, passing by a 799-446 margin. Officials cut $94,000, or almost 1.1 percent, from the year before, and it was the second straight VUHS budget that called for a spending decrease. All five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns — Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham — backed the VUHS budget.

Otter Valley Union High School’s $10.2 million budget sailed to a 1,184-754 approval by voters in that district. The spending plan was down substantially from last year’s $10,675,885.

The Mount Abraham Union High School budget of $12,618,639, which increased 0.36 percent from last year, passed by a 1,556-918 margin. A few months later, Addison Northeast Supervisory Union officials — who received audits two months after Town Meeting Day — discovered that each of the schools in the district were running deficits that collectively totaled almost $800,000.

In Lincoln townspeople also kept a tight grip on their pocketbooks when they rejected a $2 million school bond proposal in January. But on Town Meeting Day, they approved the bond and at the town meeting OK’d a budget for the coming year that features higher spending.

The Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center budget passed by a substantial margin, 4,112-1,728 votes. Steadily surging enrollment and some cost-cutting allowed the career center board to craft a proposed 2011-2012 spending plan of $3.34 million, which represents a 1.05-percent spending decrease  and a lower tuition rate.

But the budget tides turn from year to year. Heading into the 2012-2013 budget season, many schools were looking at spending hikes. The one area high school looking to keep things even, however, was the one school that experienced a slight spending increase in 2011-2012: Mount Abe.

At a December Mount Abe school board meeting, school administrators and board members looked poised to level-fund next year’s budget, voting unanimously in favor of a zero percent increase.

Meanwhile, the UD-3 board took aim at a 3.1-percent spending increase. To achieve that goal, the board began considering cuts to driver’s education, dance, art and foreign languages. When school directors came to the board with a spending plan up 4.1 percent from last year — just to cover contracted teacher salary raises and benefits, projected hikes in fuel and electricity costs and a rise in special education transportation expenses — the board told the directors to go back to the drawing board.

VUHS also began to weigh a spending increase. To avoid what VUHS Co-Principal Peter Reynolds called a “doomsday list” of potential staff and program cuts, the board took a look at raising spending by 2.47 percent to $9 million.

At the Hannaford Career Center, directors at the end of the year were looking at 1.05-percent decrease in spending next year and possibly cutting some popular programs.

 

5: ANwSU unification stalls 

VERGENNES — In the past two years, every one of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union communities has voted by substantial margins in favor of a unifying district governance under one, 12-member board, a move that would pioneer school unification in Vermont.

But control of ANwSU instead remains divided under the control of one high school board, three elementary school boards, and one ANwSU board that has representatives from the other four boards.

On Town Meeting Day the five towns again approved a ground-breaking school consolidation measure — a first in the state. In a May 17 petitioned revote, Vergennes residents reversed their approval, rejecting unification, 261-162.

Meanwhile, Addison — the town that had in a 2010 revote defeated unification in a petitioned revote — in May reaffirmed by a 242-125 margin its March support for the plan in which one board would own and operate the four ANwSU schools.

Per ANwSU bylaws, all five of its towns must approve governance changes. Thus, one ANwSU town defeated the measure for a second straight year in a petitioned revote after unification had won landslide approval in all five towns on Town Meeting Day.

On Town Meeting Day 2011 the overall vote favoring unification was 764-466, or roughly 62-38 percent, and in four of the five towns — Ferrisburgh, Panton, Waltham and Vergennes — at least 60 percent of voters favored the measure.

Vergennes opponents said after the first year of unification that taxes would rise, and that proponents put out misleading information.

Those who backed unification said in the long run savings would accrue in Vergennes from unification and that without unification declining enrollments would create pressure on all ANwSU school budgets, thus forcing taxes higher. They were also upset that members of the city council helped lead the opposition in Vergennes.

By year’s end, some citizens had approached the council about increasing the required percentage needed for petitions to trigger a revote from 5 to 20 percent of registered voters.

School officials — who also saw a similar unification plan narrowly defeated in 2005 — said they had no immediate plans to bring unification proposals back before ANwSU residents. But at the same time they noted the same financial incentives remain, as do the educational benefits of doing so. 

 

6: State passes health care reform

As the legislative session was drawing to a close last spring, the Vermont Senate passed historic legislation that supporters said would lead to a state-run or single-payer type health care system. The law, which the House had already OK’d and Gov. Shumlin readily signed, is the first step in a multi-year process that won’t bring about universal health care in Vermont until 2015 at the earliest and maybe not until 2017.

Proponents of the new law said a single-payer health care system was a way to curb rampant annual increases in health insurance premiums. They also advanced single-payer as a system that would boost business growth in Vermont by taking the responsibility of health care off employers and placing it with individuals in a benefit that would follow them from job to job.

Opponents have countered that state government is ill-equipped to take over operation of as vital a service as health care.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, helped draft the health care reform law and shepherd it through the Legislature.

The health care reform law established a Green Mountain Care Board (Ayer was appointed to the nine-member panel that vetted nominations to the board) that in July 2011 began ironing out the myriad details for a single-payer system, including the benefit package, payment methodology and budget.

The board will also help create a Vermont Health Benefit Exchange, as mandated by federal law. The exchange is charged with, among other things, consolidating and simplifying the purchase of health insurance.

Ayer said the Health Benefit Exchange will serve as a transition, or pivot, to get to a single-payer health care plan. She cautioned that such a transition will require some federal waivers, and the Legislature could choose to change course in the years ahead.

Among the considerable hurdles that loom will be:

•  Creating a system as one of 50 states that while providing care for all Vermonters will inevitably include health care players that must process outside claims foreign to whatever system Vermont establishes.

•  Creating a broad-based tax that will pay the $5 billion annual bill for health care in Vermont. Harvard economist William Hsiao recommended the Legislature impose a 15-percent payroll tax — with 11 percent of the cost paid by employers and 4 percent paid by employees — to finance the system. Although for many employers that would mean an end to contributions to private health insurance plans, the recommendation caused considerable angst within the business community.

•  Receiving numerous federal waivers. Politicians in Washington might want to grant Vermont that flexibility or might not.

Another Addison County lawmaker, Lincoln Democrat Rep. Michael Fisher, showed leadership in the House as vice chair of that chamber’s Health Care Committee. In the fall he was elevated to chair of that committee and is expected to play an even bigger role in crafting the details of single-payer health care in the coming legislative session.

Upon his elevation to the chairmanship, Fisher said that “reducing health care costs and improving access to quality care is vital to the health and economic wellbeing of the state, and I am confident in the ability of the committee to dig into that work.”

 

7: Towns mark 250th birthdays

2011 was a year full of birthday bashes, as 11 local towns and numerous others in the state celebrated the 250th anniversary of the granting their town charters.

Addison, Brandon, Bridport, Cornwall, Leicester, Middlebury, New Haven, Panton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge all received town charters from Benning Wentworth, royal New Hampshire governor, in 1761. Settlers bought land and began moving in, forming the foundation for the towns we know today.

This year, historical societies, town governments and the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History put their heads together to work up plans for their celebrations, from fireworks and parades to town picnics and historical exhibits. Local legislators joined in on some of the celebrations.

Many of the towns hosted outdoor celebrations that included music and food over the summer. Bridport got things rolling in June with an all-out, three-day celebration that featured fireworks, amusement rides and a parade. Foxcroft Farm donated two pigs for a pig roast and picnic marking Leicester’s 250th. A historical scavenger hunt was a highlight at Salisbury’s busy 250th festivities.

Among the many activities at New Haven’s birthday bash in July were wagon rides highlighting circa 1880 homes around the village center and tours of Ralph Farnsworth’s Museum on North Street.

Cornwall introduced a new town song, which was created by seniors at Elderly Services Inc. as part of contest. Weybridge created a movie that featured four people knowledgeable about town history talking about the days of yore.

Panton’s celebration featured a boat ride on Lake Champlain and a group photo.

The annual Shoreham Festival over Labor Day Weekend took the town’s 250th anniversary as its theme. A very busy slate of activities started with a pancake breakfast and wrapped up with the selectboard dinner, a street dance and fireworks.

After a slate of summer activities, Brandon residents in October joined together inside the Brandon Town Hall to celebrate the idea of “home.’

Addison was left out in the cold when the Champlain Bridge opening celebration was pushed until next spring; the town had planned to tie its own 250th anniversary celebration in with the larger event. Not to be discouraged, though, Addison held its party in mid-October as a fund-raiser for next year’s bash. Among the fun activities were cow-plop Bingo, a horseshoe tournament and a Frisbee golf competition.

Middlebury kicked off its 250 festivities in at its annual “Spooktacular” Halloween celebration, which included 18th-century children’s games, a time capsule, a visit from “King George.” Later that week, a celebration at Town Hall Theater  hosted historical skits and videos, and of course, a birthday cake. Fireworks capped the evening.

The end of the year doesn’t mean it’s the end of the parties, though: next year, Monkton, Ferrisburgh and Bristol will celebrate their 250th birthdays, while Whiting and Orwell will mark their big anniversary in 2013.

The rest of the Addison County towns will mark their “sestercentennials” in 2030 (Lincoln and Starksboro), 2031 (Ripton, Hancock and Granville), 2038 (Vergennes), 2046 (Waltham) and 2064 (Goshen).

 

8: Middlebury plans for future

Middlebury saw signs of renewed construction activity in 2011, with the prospect of additional, major building activity during the next few years.

On April 12, residents endorsed a 20-year, $3 million bond issue to finance 17 different road improvement projects throughout town. Without the bond, the projects might otherwise have lingered on the drawing board, officials said. It’s a strategy Middlebury had already employed in 2010, when residents backed an identical $3 million bond to chip away at a mounting backlog of needed repairs to the town’s water system infrastructure.

After months of study, Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department put together a $4.8-million plan to substantially improve its two firehouses. The project includes renovating the Seymour Street headquarters and equipping it with an 8,100, two-story addition with four bays to accommodate bigger firetrucks; and replacing the East Middlebury station with a smaller, more energy-efficient structure. Middlebury residents on Sept. 27 voted 146-78 in favor of a $250,000 bond issue that paid for final design and engineering work for a proposed major overhaul of the fire stations. Voters will decide on the final project this coming March.

Meanwhile, the Middlebury selectboard began considering replacement/renovation options for the municipal building at the intersection of College and South Main streets. The current building is 100 years old, has many wiring, plumbing and access problems, and costs a lot of money to heat because of poor insulation and an antiquated boiler system. Officials have tentatively targeted 2013 as the year when residents will be asked to field a municipal building project.

Also on Middlebury’s improvement agenda — a new roof for Middlebury Union Middle School. As the Addison Independent went to press, the UD-3 school board had yet to decide whether to endorse a new asphalt shingle roof or a more costly ($1.2 million) standing seam roof.

The fire station project, and eventually the municipal building project, will have an impact on the Middlebury property tax rate. Costs of the MUMS roof project will be shared amongst all seven Addison Central Supervisory Union towns.

Not all of the upcoming growth is being planned in the public sector. Vermont Hard Cider Co. in November filed plans to build a new, $20 million, 87,005-square-foot bottling plant on a 27.6-square-foot parcel on the north side of Middlebury’s Exchange Street, between the Bridge School and Maple Landmark Woodcraft.

VHC, the nation’s pre-eminent manufacturer of hard cider, has been looking to expand out of its current 60,000 square feet of rented space at 153 Pond Lane, where it produces its popular brand of Woodchuck Hard Ciders, which are marketed throughout the country. The project, slated to be built this year, will add to the town’s grand list and is expected to generate additional local jobs.

 

9: Census shows how we've changed

While some towns and officials debated the numbers, the final 2010 U.S. Census data released in 2011 showed that 15 Addison County towns gained residents in the past decade, while the other eight communities shrank.

Middlebury, Monkton, Leicester, Ferrisburgh and Bristol saw the greatest increase in numbers, although Middlebury’s bump upward proved to be largely due to Middlebury College’s expansion — the school had more students counted in the Census.

Leicester saw the highest percentage increase, 12.9, followed by Monkton, Ripton, Orwell and Lincoln.

Goshen saw a 63 percent population decline, from 227 to 164, while numbers in Vergennes, Hancock and Starksboro also dropped significantly.

Starksboro officials treated the results with the greatest skepticism. Interim estimates had shown the town’s population growing, its voter checklist had increased substantially, and the neighboring town of Monkton — which sees the similar effects of proximity to Chittenden County — was high on the growth list. Starksboro selectmen planned to contact the Census Bureau with a few questions.

But Goshen selectmen acknowledged their town’s population decline: They said the town had experienced an earlier baby boom, and those children had now moved away while a number of older residents had passed away.

Hancock was another town that saw its population decline. And there, also, there was some Census skepticism. And it dated back 10 years: Many believed the drop was simply due to an overestimation of the town’s population by the 2010 Census.

Middlebury remained the county’s most populous town by a wide margin at 8,496. Bristol lined up at No. 2 with 3,894 residents, followed by Ferrisburgh at 2,775, Vergennes at 2,588, and fast-growing Monkton at 1,980.

Overall, the 2010 Census stated that Addison County’s population grew by 2.3 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 35,974 to 36,821.

That modest increase largely tracks with the state’s rate of growth, which according to the Census stood at 2.8 percent over the decade. In 2010, Vermont had 625,741 residents, up from 608,827 in 2010.

Census data also showed an increasingly aging population: Addison County’s median age rose by more than five years. Each county town’s median age increased by at least 1.6 years, with a high of 9.5 years recorded in Waltham.

Showing the influence of the college, Middlebury was not only the county’s largest but also the youngest community, with a median age of 28.2 years old.

By 2010, the statewide median age had increased to 41.5, and the county’s was right behind at 41.3, meaning Addison County’s median age rose 5.2 years during the decade.

The county’s oldest towns are Goshen, 50.7 median age; Waltham, 48.6 median age; and Hancock, 48.3 median age. 

 

10: Bristol industrial park revived

When Bristol’s largest employer, cosmetics and personal care products manufacturer Autumn Harp, packed up and left in 2009, it also took its 160 full-time jobs.

 

At the beginning of 2011, however, good economic news came to Bristol. Local entrepreneur Kevin Harper laid out a plan to revitalize the former Autumn Harp plant and turn it into a multi-use business campus called Bristol Works LLC.

He and the other three Bristol Works partners, who bought the park from J.P. Carrara, have big hopes to turn the facility’s more than 35,000 square feet of space into a hotbed for value-added agriculture products, renewable energy manufacturing and health care.

Harper’s partners in the Bristol Works venture are well known in Vermont business circles: David Blittersdorf is president and CEO of AllEarth Renewables, Robert Fuller founded several popular restaurants as well as the Bristol Bakery and Café, and Kim Smith owns the Marble Works business complex in Middlebury. Harper, who founded Autumn Harp in 1977 and moved operations to the Bristol facility in 1991 (before selling the business), is leading this entrepreneurial dream team through development of a multifaceted business park in Bristol.

But Bristol’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) struggled with the mixed-use element of this proposed project. The facility previously hosted various manufacturing uses, but only one type at a time. Never before had a conditional use permit applicant applied for so many uses at once.

To make matters worse for the Bristol Works partnership, an anonymous letter was circulated through Bristol calling on townspeople to oppose the project. Running tangential to that letter’s aim, however, Bristol residents came out in droves to the ZBA hearings to offer support for the business campus, as townspeople touted the project’s economic and job-growth potential.

After two months of heated public debate and careful consideration, the Bristol ZBA voted 7-0 in favor of issuing Bristol Works a “comprehensive” conditional use permit for the 5.5-acre space of Munsill Ave.

The bicycle vacation company VBT was the building’s first tenant in March, moving its sales team into an office. The Vermont value-added food delivery service Graze was up and operating in a manufacturing space in April, but later moved to Vergennes.

In addition, the staff from the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union moved into a custom-retrofitted office in October, the Bristol Bakery and Café (which Harper owns) will operate its wholesale business out of the building, and Harper is hoping the Five Town Health Alliance will get the federal funds needed to move a new Federally Qualified Health Center into the facility.

The partners are also hoping a renewable energy business will move into a manufacturing space sometime this New Year. 

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