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October 30th

Aldermen weigh senior housing project in city

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — On Tuesday, Vergennes aldermen inched closer to possibly supporting the developers of a proposed 25,000-square-foot, $5.8-million elderly housing complex off Monkton Road that would provide a community center and services as well 25 living units.

Aldermen clearly favor the elderly housing, the first phase of a proposed larger project near American Legion Post 14 that would also include a childcare center and 24 affordable, single-family condominiums.

But at the same time they oppose a state law that allows affordable and elderly housing projects to be taxed based on their cash flow, not on their cost to build.

That approach, because most renters pay less than market value, produces a lower assessment and less taxes to host communities. In October 2007 aldermen passed a resolution saying that they would not endorse any block grant applications for affordable or elderly housing units that can be taxed at a lower rate that privately owned property.

The project developers, including Addison Count Community Trust (ACCT) and Housing Vermont Inc., would like to include a $325,000 block grant as part of their funding package, ACCT Director Terry McKnight has been discussing with aldermen a binding document that would obligate the project owners to pay taxes at a rate acceptable to the city.

On Tuesday, the council agreed unanimously a motion proposed by Alderman David Austin that he, interim city manager Mel Hawley — also a city lister — and McKnight meet and work out details.

“What might work now is for Terry, myself and Mel to sit down and see what the potential impacts are,” Austin said.

McKnight agreed.

“I certainly would accept going forward with that condition,” he said.

Aldermen emphasized their support for the project, and their focus on taxpayers.

full story

October 27th

Ambulance association pitches new headquarters near hospital

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association (MVAA) is seeking permission to build a new, 11,860-square-foot headquarters on a one-acre site just north of Porter Medical Center.

The new, $1.5 million facility would relieve cramped conditions at the MVAA’s current headquarters off Elm Street and give the growing organization room to expand in the future.

Middlebury College owns the land on which the new building would be built. Plans call for the college to lease the property to the MVAA, which would build a structure that would include a four-bay garage to accommodate up to eight emergency response vehicles; a conference room; a training room; a second-floor storage area; offices; changing rooms; sleeping quarters for up to eight workers; kitchen facilities; an exercise room; and a future dispatching office.

The land slated for the new headquarters currently serves as an emergency helicopter-landing site. That site would be temporarily relocated on the Porter campus.

Dispatching for the MVAA is currently done through Porter Hospital. Bill Edson, executive director of the MVAA, explained that there may come a time when the ambulance association will have to do its own dispatching.

“By building in a dispatching office, it will make that transition a lot easier,” said Edson, who anticipates the new headquarters will meet the MVAA’s needs for at least the next 50 years.

The organization has grown in recent years, mostly due to increasing calls for service. Edson said the organization is on target to answer upwards of 2,000 calls this year, which would be the most in the MVAA’s 30-year history.

The MVAA currently has 13 paid staff (seven of which are full-time); three paramedics; and 47 volunteers who Edson said provide invaluable service, particularly on weekends and during the evenings.

full story

Stables struggle with rising costs for hay and grain

By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON COUNTY — Skyrocketing grain and hay prices are making the cost of keeping horses harder to saddle for some Addison County stables.

“It’s quite a serious issue,” said Kate Selby, the owner and trainer at the Equestry in New Haven. “In a relatively break-even business for all of us, the rising cost of hay in particular, being so sudden, is hard to handle.”

Higher fuel prices appear to have driven up the price of hay.

Selby said she’s seen hay triple in price from last summer, from roughly $1.50 per bale out of the field to $4.50 today. The Equestry does not put up any of its own hay, unlike some other local stables. With fuel costs so high this summer, though, Selby said she’s heard from other stable owners that their hay cost twice as much to produce this year.

Also increasing, stable owners reported, is the price of grain, with 50-pound bags selling for around $15, said Linda Schmidt, who sits on the board of directors at the Eddy Farm School in Middlebury.

“When you’re feeding 28 horses, that adds up,” said Jill Phillips, the owner of the Wishful Thinking stable in New Haven.

These feed costs — along with rising farrier and veterinary fees, which Selby attributed to high gasoline prices — are “taking a toll,” Selby said.

Despite rising costs and tough economic times, Selby said, most horse owners are doing their best to make ends meet rather than sell their animals.

“If you’ve made the commitment to owning a horse … it’s not the first thing that goes,” she said. “You don’t sell your dog. That’s not the first thing (horse owners) are going to do. They may cut back on lessons but they’re not going to cut back on care.”

Phillips agreed.

full story

Farmers keep eye on immigration policy during election season

By POOJA SHAHANI

ADDISON COUNTY — In a little more than a week American voters are going to cast their votes in an historic election as the nation faces one of its worst economic crises.

For area dairy farmers who have become more and more dependent on migrant laborers, one issue has transcended party affiliation: immigration reform. And for many there is an urgent need for something to happen.

“We need a realistic immigration policy — a system with a good and solid policy including a reasonable border control discouraging illegal immigration, but open to a thoughtful program permitting migrant workers to enter the United States to work in industries that American workers do not want to work in,” said John Roberts, who keeps 200 cows on his Cornwall farm and employs two migrant laborers.

Today, Vermont’s dairy farms employ an estimated 2,000 migrant workers, 500 of which work in Addison County. Migrant workers help with milking cows, working in the barns, and maintaining the daily operation of dairy farming.

“If I were to snap my fingers to remove every migrant worker in America, it would bring the country to a standstill. They fill low-skilled but very important jobs,” Roberts said.

“It’s not just agriculture and not just Vermont. The Hispanic workforce is booming nationally,” pointed out Tim Howlett, who milks 950 cows on his Bridport spread. “The way I view it is that you can either import the labor or export the jobs. Do you want to buy milk that’s produced in a country that has nowhere near the regulations and safety net that we do here?”

Howlett employs three migrant workers.

full story

October 23rd

'Overflow' homeless shelter sought for county

By JOHN FLOWERS

VERGENNES — Local advocates for the homeless are searching for one or more “overflow” shelters to accommodate what they believe could be a record number of people out in the cold in Addison County this winter.

The overflow shelter(s) are part of an emergency response plan for homelessness that leaders of the John Graham Emergency Shelter are putting together for the coming months, when people now living in cars and tents must find warmer quarters.

Meanwhile, advocates in other Vermont counties are also working on their own emergency response plans, which they hope will garner some state funding when Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee convenes next month.

The state’s shelters have already seen a increase of 10 to 20 percent in clients compared to the same time last year, according to Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Emergency Shelter on Vergennes.

The helpline Vermont 2-1-1 received approximately 2,400 calls last month from people inquiring about food, lodging and fuel, Ready noted.

“Basically, there is a sense that we don’t known what’s going to happen this winter,” Ready said.

Ready gives the John Graham Shelter board regular updates on the numbers of people seeking services. Recent updates indicate that the shelter has been unable to meet demand, even with a new transitional housing project on East Street (see story, Page 1A).

The John Graham shelter current refers homeless people it cannot accommodate to other shelters in Chittenden or Rutland counties. In some cases, overflow clients are put up in area motels where they unfortunately don’t have access to support services.

full story

Connor Homes hit by layoffs

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — After several years of rapid expansion, Middlebury-based Connor Homes has scaled back operations and trimmed staff as business slows in the current economic downturn.

About 50 people now work for the homegrown company, which specializes in colonial reproduction “kit” homes assembled in the 115,000-square-foot Route 7 building that is the former home of Standard Register.

That means the employee base is down around 20 from just the past spring, when Connor Homes officials reported booming business even as the national housing market was slumping. Officials back in May said that sales had tripled during the previous year.

But Connor Homes Chief Operating Officer Holly Kelton confirmed on Tuesday that many prospective customers have been putting their orders on hold in view of recent events on Wall Street.

“In September, a number of our customers decided to postpone production of homes,” Kelton said. “We have temporarily scaled back operations.”

Connor Homes began restructuring at its plant in August, Kelton said, replacing some of its workers with others who had different “skill levels.” She said the company started reducing its employee base last month, primarily in the design and production departments.

Gabe McGuigan of Brandon worked as an architect designer at Connor Homes until he was let go in July. McGuigan said he noticed times getting tougher when fewer orders for average-sized homes (around 2,000 square feet) were being taken on by work crews. That left smaller projects — like sheds and garages — or larger homes that were not as profitable to the company, according to McGuigan.

“The drop began at the end of June and went on from there,” said McGuigan, who added the company at one point had to shut down the shop “for a couple of weeks because there was nothing to do.”

full story

Local housing prices holding steady

By ANDY KIRKALDY

ADDISON COUNTY — Despite nationwide gloom and doom in the real estate sector and a drop in home sales in Vermont and Addison County, there is evidence that the values of the homes that most state and local residents own have held their own.

According to information on the Vermont Department of Taxes Web site, the median value of homes on 6 acres or fewer (described as R-I homes on property transfer returns) sold in Addison County through the first nine months of 2008 is $213,500. That represents an increase of about $6,000, or 2.9 percent, from the median value over the entire 12 months of 2007.

Statewide, the median sales price of an R-I home in the first nine months of 2007 — the price point at which an equal number of homes sold for either less and more money — was $206,000, an increase of $6,000, or 3 percent, from all of 2006.

Independent real estate appraiser Bill Benton of Vergennes said he is not ready to call that good news, especially considering that fewer R-I homes are selling this year in Addison County than in 2007. Through Sept. 30, 2008, 128 R-I homes in Addison County sold, while 252 R-I homes sold in all of 2007.

Benton said that sales figure for all of 2008 will be lucky to hit 150 this year, but he is happy to see prices hold their own.

“I’m not saying that’s definitely a positive trend, but I’m saying it’s at least stable,” he said.

National Bank of Middlebury President Ken Perine also sees stable values in the home sales his business is tracking, although he wouldn’t rule out a price drop of 5 percent or less. Perine said typically Vermont, including Addison County, does not see the wild swings in real estate value that markets elsewhere do. 

full story

October 20th

Film takes multicultural look at Lake Champlain history

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Opera House on Friday will debut a work by filmmaker Caro Thompson — a documentary set for a December premiere on Vermont Public Television — on the century-and-half in Lake Champlain’s history beginning in 1609, when the region’s native population first interacted with the European newcomers to North America.

Thompson, who will discuss the film at a reception following the 7 p.m. screening, said “Champlain: The Lake Between,” is an effort to show history from all points of view, not just those of the English settlers who eventually dominated the Northeastern United States.

Thompson, who has produced five films in collaboration with VPT, first heard in 2003 of the 2009 quadricentennial celebration of Samuel de Champlain becoming the first European to see the lake that now bares his name, and said the idea for the film came quickly.

“I immediately saw it as an opportunity to tell a multicultural story that is often not the approach to colonial history,” Thompson said, adding, “I believe very strongly that history needs to be inclusive. And it’s usually told from the perspective of the folks who won ... The story of the Lake Champlain region is a story of the Abenaki perspective, the Mohawk perspective, the French perspective, the English perspective, the American perspective. It’s a multicultural story, and that’s rarely told.”

Thompson also quickly picked up allies in the effort to tell that story. Elsa Gilbertson, who directs the Chimney Point Historic Site in Addison for the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, and state archaeologist Giovanna Peebles were working on a grant for a major archaeological investigation of former French settlements along Addison County’s lakefront, in tandem with the Bixby Library in Vergennes.

full story

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