Editor’s note: The change of the year is a good time to look back over the last 12 months and recall where we’ve been before diving into the 12 months ahead of us. We present this look back at 2009 to help you bring to mind the big stories of the year and also some of the smaller ones that have touched our lives in Addison County. Happy New Year!
The new year kicked off to a clamor of conversations about the economy, a refrain that dominated the news the entire year. As the 2009 legislative session got under way in Montpelier, Vermont lawmakers struggled to make sense of the slumping economy. Goals for the session shrank considerably, as legislators found themselves paring nearly $50 million from the current year’s state budget — cuts that came in addition to $20 million in budget rescissions necessitated by declining state revenues.
Finding ways to trim the budget became the Legislature’s first priority, though some lawmakers worried cuts in social services might unfairly hurt the state’s most vulnerable citizens. Other goals that lawmakers sketched out for the legislative season included: strengthening state laws relating to sex offenders; clarifying the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant; and considering gay marriage legislation.
Meanwhile, Gov. James Douglas’s agenda for the year drew ire from many lawmakers. He outlined his priorities in a mid-month inaugural address, where he called for scrapping the state’s current education funding law, level funding public schools and revamping Vermont’s environmental permitting system.
Closer to home, those statewide budget cuts provoked an outcry in Addison County when news broke about plans to close the Vermont Probation and Parole Office in Middlebury, a move that would have required offenders to check in with parole offices in Rutland or Burlington.
The office closing was predicted to save the state $42,000 through the end of June, but lawmakers from Addison County argued the savings weren’t high enough to justify the downsides of closing the office. The office in January was supervising 107 “higher risk” offenders in the region, and some representatives worried the Department of Corrections wouldn’t be able to adequately monitor these offenders from a distance.
Schools also grappled with spending as deadlines for plotting out school budgets drew closer. New state guidelines — Act 82 — meant some schools, like Ferrisburgh Central School, feared their rising spending would trigger a new two-vote process for some school budgets. Rising energy costs meant Vergennes Union High School weighed a spending increase of roughly $400,000, while Otter Valley Union High School was staring at more than $300,000 in cuts to keep spending roughly level in the face of a shrinking student body. Staff changes at Vergennes Union Elementary helped officials keep their budget in check.
In other school news, Sudbury scuttled plans for a proposed school merger with Leicester and Whiting, derailing the push for a tri-town community school that had been gathering momentum for nine months. After voters refused to allocate $7,000 to a fund to draw up plans for new school building to be shared by the three towns, Sudbury school board officials chalked the narrow vote up to the town’s concerns about the economy.
Faced with shrinking enrollments and some costly infrastructure repairs, school officials in Leicester and Whiting headed back to the drawing board to chart courses for their respective schools.
Up on the hill, Middlebury College officials also reacted to the tough economic forecast, announcing plans to trim its workforce by at least 100 positions. The move didn’t call for any layoffs, instead leaning on attrition and voluntary retirements to slim down the size of the staff, but the decision was just one slated for the months ahead to cut $20 million from college spending.
And in downtown Middlebury, tough times meant the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow was forced to close its Middlebury gallery at the end of the month, after plunging sales and growing debt pushed the 35-year-old gallery out of business, though the State Craft Center kept its Burlington gallery open.
Amid concerns about the economy came some good news for local businesses: The “shop local” push over the 2008 holidays meant sales held steady and in some cases went up at shops that had been braced for the worst. January was also marked by a few noteworthy celebrations. Some locals flocked to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, while others crowded into libraries, schoolrooms and public meeting spaces around the county to watch the historic event from afar.
February kicked off with news that Vermont was in line to receive around $1 billion from the federal economic stimulus bill. Later in the month, that stimulus funding came into focus, as Vermonters learned that the state could anticipate receiving around $125 million for transportation projects, and towns began to scramble to get their “shovel ready” projects lined up for funding.
Despite news of the stimulus funds, state lawmakers were still preoccupied with just how and where to trim funds from the state budget. Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, proposed a plan to boost the income tax, modeling the plan on the “Snelling surcharge” first introduced by then-Gov. Richard Snelling in 1991. Fisher said his three-tiered surcharge would raise $40 million a year, some of which could be funneled into Vermont’s rainy day fund, or emergency savings account.
Meanwhile, Middlebury-area residents turned out to protest some of Gov. Jim Douglas’s proposed budget cuts, particularly those being leveled at some of the state’s human service agencies. Bearings signs that read “Cutting Health Care is a Tax” and “Don’t Balance the Budget on Our Backs,” protestors stationed at Court Square in Middlebury argued for raising revenue from wealthier Vermonters before cutting services to poorer residents.
Doing some belt-tightening of its own, the Addison County Family and District courts cut back in early February, when the courts closed their doors for the first of five unpaid furloughs for their staff. The furloughs marked an effort by the Vermont judiciary to cut $245,000 from its budget by June 30. In Addison County, the furloughs came in addition to curtailed hours at the court one day a week.
In Middlebury, the first set of numbers about the new local option tax trickled in, and town officials reported that the one-percent tax on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol brought in nearly $158,000 during the first three months it was in place. That money will be used to fund building the Cross Street bridge, and town officials expressed optimism that the tax would yield enough funds over time to pay the town’s share of the bridge project.
Also on the town tax front, the Better Middlebury Partnership was among those taking aim at Middlebury’s machinery and equipment tax. The partnership asked the selectboard to consider phasing out the M&E tax, as well as revising the municipal water and sewer rates, as ways to ease the burden on some local businesses that are struggling to make ends meet.
In Addison, an early February blaze sparked a huge fire at the Gosliga family’s farm, but 70 firefighters came to the family’s rescue, saving 92 of the family’s 107 animals. Firefighters also prevented the fast-moving fire from spreading from the calf barn to the family’s home and freestall barns.
Better news came down the pike for some farmers — namely, goats milk farmers. Lawmakers in the Vermont House of Representatives revised rules to let goat farmers maintain a slightly higher somatic cell count in their herds, a move legislators hoped would encourage some conventional dairy farmers to transition from the flagging market for cows’ milk to more lucrative goats’ milk.
In other legislation meant to boost Vermont’s economy, Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, introduced a bill to promoted strong local foods systems. Bray’s “Farm to Plate” bill came on the heels of a hearing when 300 farmers, including a strong Addison County delegation, packed into the Statehouse for a legislative hearing on the future of agriculture in the state. His plan calls for mapping Vermont’s food system and investing in hubs where local producers can send their products to be compiled into larger orders. By making it easier for corporations, schools and hospitals to purchase local food in bulk, Bray hoped to spur the Vermont agricultural economy and keep more of Vermonters’ money in state.
The first week of March saw its usual flurry of activity on Town Meeting Day, as residents from the county flocked to floor votes and the polls to weigh in on school budgets and other ballot initiatives.
In one of the biggest decisions of the day, Hancock residents voted on Town Meeting Day to dissolve their joint school contract with Granville, 41-24, a vote that set in motion the decision later in the year to shutter both historic schools. Residents in the two tiny towns saved their community schools from closing in 2004 by combining them into a single entity, but concerns about rising costs and shrinking enrollment motivated a majority of voters to sign off on the decision to dissolve the contract.
In other school business, voters approved school budgets in every town except Bridport. Bridport knocked down both a proposed $1.3 million spending plan and an $800,000 building renovation bond. The two decisions came in narrow votes, and sent school officials back to the drawing board to come up with plans for funding school repairs. The bond, had it been approved, would have provided for a new roof with added insulation, updates to the school’s electrical and ventilation systems, and the removal of asbestos tiles in school hallways.
Other bond votes found more favorable audiences on Town Meeting Day. Ripton residents voted 123 to 13 in favor of a $400,000 bond to help pay for various road, bridge and culvert repairs associated with major flooding that happened in the summer of 2008. In Middlebury, voters gave the selectboard permission to borrow $210,000 to replace police cruisers and town trucks.
Meanwhile, Gov. Douglas announced early in the month his plans to push for personnel and program cuts at the state level to trim money from the state budget and chip away at a projected deficit in the coming fiscal year. Douglas supported cutting the state workforce by more than 600 positions, and later in the month the Douglas administration unveiled a plan for scaling back hours and services at Vermont Department of Health district offices, including one in Middlebury.
Some proposed state cuts drew fire. The move to close Middlebury’s Probation and Parole office in January, as well as other planned cuts to judiciary services, prompted an outcry from area lawyers and other judiciary officials. The outcry prompted the state corrections commissioner to consider reopening the parole office, provided the state could find a low- or no-cost space in the community.
Also in March, news spread about the crisis facing Vermont’s dairy farmers. Milk prices fell well below the cost of production early in the year, meaning farmers were losing money on every gallon of milk they produce. Farmers lobbied for help from state legislators, arguing that an antiquated milk pricing system was adding volatility to their market. Prices were also driven down by the recession, as consumers cut back on milk and cheese purchases.
State legislators were largely helpless to change milk pricing, and though some farmers — like those producing organic milk or value-added products — were somewhat shielded from the downturn, the vast majority of Vermont’s dairymen found themselves taking on debt every month to keep their farms afloat.
In Salisbury, Shard Villa also fell on hard times. Early in the month the senior care facility, housed in a historic mansion, announced it would close its door on May 30 due to budget problems. Shard Villa directors initially considered closing the previous summer, when spiraling heating fuel costs caused the first financial concerns. While fuel costs had since fallen dramatically, the board of directors said the senior care home had not been able to maintain a client load sufficient to break even.
In better news, Addison County Transit Resources bagged a $2.85 million earmark mid-month for a new headquarters. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., secured the grant for ACTR, the county’s public transportation agency. The money will be used toward construction of a 13,000-square foot maintenance and administrative facility on Creek Road. The project had already won approval from the Middlebury Development Review Board. That news came around the same time of another large grant: A new dental facility in Middlebury that will cater primarily to low- and moderate-income residents earned $200,000 in federal funding.
At the state Legislature, a historic bill to legalize same-sex marriage made its first headway. Claire Ayer and Harold Giard, the two state senators representing Addison County and Brandon, voted with the majority of their colleagues to endorse a same-sex marriage law that then headed to the House Judiciary Committee. Douglas vowed to veto the legislation.
As the month wound down, rising temperatures sent sugarmarkers out into the woods for the annual production of maple syrup. Two years of poor weather meant the large Canadian supply of syrup had been decimated, which drove up prices for Vermont producers. The Vermont Sugar Makers’ Association said restaurants were paying as much as $70 per gallon of syrup, up from $40 a year earlier.
As March closed and April opened, all eyes turned to Montpelier as lawmakers took a break from dealing with the Great Recession to take a historic vote on allowing same-sex marriages. A vast majority of Addison County’s legislative delegation in April voted to override Gov. James Douglas’s veto of a same-sex marriage bill. By a one-vote margin, the House joined the Senate in overriding the veto and placing Vermont with Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa as the only states in the union to offer same-sex marriage — and Vermont was the first to do so by an act of the legislature rather than a court ruling.
The Legislature dealt with some weighty and controversial financial issues in April. The Vermont House voted in favor of a 5-cent boost in the gas tax to help underwrite $120 million in bonding to repair the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges.
The sluggish economy continued to be felt in the region in April. The United Way of Addison County concluded the public phase of its 2008 fund-raising campaign at 96 percent of its $775,000 goal.
Bristle manufacturer Monahan Filaments announced it would soon lay off 54 workers — more than half its workforce — due to slowing orders. The company had been purchased out of bankruptcy two years earlier.
A coalition of Addison County clergy joined efforts to continue a series of free lunches for area residents who found themselves unemployed or otherwise down on their luck.
Residents of the tiny town of Granville closed the book on their historic one-room schoolhouse. Townspeople voted 50-19 to tuition all of Granville’s elementary and secondary students to school outside of town, thus ending a 158-year run for the schoolhouse. The decision came in wake of dwindling student numbers and a move by the neighboring town of Hancock to dissolve the joint school contracts between the two communities.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union officials picked John A. Castle, a Derby Line teacher-administrator, to succeed longtime RNeSU Superintendent Bill Mathis. Mathis was to retire at the end of the school year after 27 years with the district. Ripton school directors hired Marta Beede to serve as the new principal of that community’s school, succeeding long-time top administrator Jane Phinney, who had announced her retirement.
Middlebury voters unanimously approved a 2009-2010 elementary school spending plan of $5.69 million, about a 1 percent increase over the current year’s spending. Middlebury College bumped its annual comprehensive fee — the cost of attending the prestigious institution — by 3.2 percent, to $50,780.
April 14 saw the official launch of a Middlebury project that had been sought for more than 50-year quest — the building of a new in-town bridge. Town and college officials held a special ground-breaking ceremony at the bridge constriction site near the Otter Creek across from Cross Street.
Monument Farms Dairy joined the growing number of agricultural operations deciding to harness energy from cow manure. The dairy received a $250,000 state grant toward a more than $1 million anaerobic digester project through which methane would be harvested from cow manure and converted into electricity. The process would also create a solid bi-product used for bedding for cows.
In New Haven, a group of residents launched an effort to preserve the historic New Haven Mills church, considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Addison County.
The Addison County Parent-Child Center has long had a reputation as one of the state’s premier organizations helping young families and their children. In April, Cheryl Mitchell — one of the founders of the organization — went to South Korea in an effort to share some of the center’s successful programs with young parents in that Asian nation.
Meanwhile, area schools, physicians and Porter Medical Center workers began bracing for anticipated caseload surges resulting from the H1N1 virus, or “swine flu.”
Shard Villa in May began a new chapter in its 90-year history. The incumbent board of trustees resigned and a new group of leaders took office with hopes of revitalizing the elder care function of the historic mansion in Salisbury. The settlement came as Addison County Probate Court was weighing a request by current trustees to temporarily close the elder care operation, which had been beset with budget problems.
Bridport residents turned out at the polls in May to approve, on the third try, a $550,000 elementary school repair plan by a 176-106 margin. At the same time, residents voted 175-105 in favor of a 2009-2010 elementary education budget of $1,354,077, which represented a 2.17-percent decrease in spending compared to the previous year.
In Vergennes, a group of interested citizens gathered to see if the former Fat Hen grocery store could be resurrected as a food co-op. More than 100 people showed up at a meeting to explore the idea.
The Congregational Church of Middlebury celebrated its 200th birthday in style. A series of musical events, tours, lectures and an ongoing exhibit at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont history were organized to celebrate the high-profile place of worship, which once hosted the state Legislature.
Local lawmakers helped put the finishing touches on a 2009 legislative session dominated by financial woes. The Legislature ended the brutal session after passing a $4.5 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2010 that featured a $281 million revenue shortfall that had to be patched with a series of cuts, revenue adjustments, new taxes and the use of federal stimulus money.
Middlebury College, one of the county’s largest employers, served notice that it was not immune to the effects of the recession. College officials announced efforts to consolidate staff and some departments in an effort to save money at a time when the institution’s endowment had taken a $300 million hit. At the same time — in another sign of down economic times — the college announced that around 25 percent of its May 2009 graduates had already found jobs, when 31 percent is usually the norm.
The developer of a proposed Staples store off Route 7 South in Middlebury elected to stop his pursuit of the project through the Vermont Environmental Court. The decision put an end to a more than one-year process that saw some locals oppose the potential presence of the national office supplies retailer.
Meanwhile, the Vergennes Development Review Board gave its approval to a proposed 25-unit senior housing plan on Armory Lane.
While the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow closed its doors earlier in the year, five longtime craft center associates announced creation in May of “Middlebury Studio School Inc.” to offer similar art education programs in other venues.
Many local artists earned entry into a traveling art exhibit marking lake Champlain’s quadricentennial. Doug Lazarus of Middlebury and Jean Cherouny of Ripton spearheaded “Lake Champlain Rediscovered,” a compilation of paintings, sculptures and other artwork celebrating the lake.
The town of Middlebury this month got some good news in the form of a $240,000 federal grant that will help fund an access and beautification project at the Otter Creek Falls viewing area in the Marble Works.
Vergennes City Council put police Chief Mike Lowe on administrative leave when it was announced he was under investigation for driving under the influence of prescription drugs. The Vermont State Police launched their investigation after Lowe, while off duty, struck a parked car on School Street with his police cruiser in early June.
Local lawmakers in June voted overwhelmingly to override Gov. James Douglas’s veto of the fiscal year 2010 state budget. Reps. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, and Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, voted to sustain the veto. Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, warned that the Legislature’s spending plan would be unsustainable and could lead to future deficits.
In Panton, recent Vergennes Union High School graduate David Hawkins was readying to ship out for basic training after having enlisted in the Vermont Army National Guard. He would be having some company, too — his mom, Paula, who at age 40, also elected to enlist.
Local dairy farmers joined others throughout the country in lobbying for a price stabilization program to help reduce the volatility of milk prices, which had recently plummeted to a low of $10 per hundredweight.
June was a month during which high school seniors at area high schools marched off with their diplomas to colleges, universities and an uncertain employment climate.
Shoreham children saw their summer vacation begin a little early. Flu-like symptoms prompted school administrators to end classes on June 11, three days before the scheduled end of classes.
Bristol, Brandon and Whiting learned they would share in a combined total of more than $800,000 in federal economic stimulus money for “clean water” projects. Bristol bagged around $466,000 for three storm-water projects; Brandon landed $235,800 to re-line a section of its sewer main; and Whiting netted around $100,000 to perform septic system repairs at its elementary school.
Bristol’s ongoing town plan revision process again drew large crowds and a lot of feedback in June — particularly on the subject of gravel extraction.
Porter Medical Center received a less-than-stellar report card from the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration. But hospital officials pointed out that the state’s review did not present a full review of the hospital’s performance.
Vermont and New York transportation officials signed an agreement laying out each other’s responsibilities in replacing the Champlain Bridge. Little did they know at the time that the 80-year-old span would have to be replaced sooner, rather than later.
Middlebury selectmen endorsed, for a public vote, a six-year phase-out of the local machinery and equipment tax. The tax has been seen as a roadblock to economic development, though its phase-out would mean the town would forgo $258,000 in annual revenues. Voters will decide the fate of the M&E tax on Town Meeting Day 2010.
Representatives from Leicester and Salisbury began discussions about merging the two communities’ elementary schools. It was indeed a sign of the times, as many schools throughout the county and state are faced with dwindling enrollment and soaring expenses, to the point that school consolidations are being considered.
Camp Keewaydin in Salisbury feted its 100th birthday with, among other things, an alumni reunion and a flotilla of around 200 canoes and boats around Lake Dunmore.
As June wound down, Jim Lanpher of Vergennes was marking his 38th — and final — year as trumpeter with the Vermont National Guard’s 40th Army band. Lanpher was due to step down because he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 60, but not after playing one last time in his hometown of Vergennes.
As July opened folks in Salisbury were celebrating 30 years of a musical partnership between the PointCounterpoint chamber music camp and the nearby Salisbury Congregational Church. Beginning in 1979, the church has hosted the camp’s annual music series, and the first performance in 2009 came on July 3.
Meanwhile, folks in Lincoln were mourning the resident with the poetic name of Morton “Lucky” Diamond, a woodworker who died on June 26 at the age of 72. Diamond, the town’s emergency planner and second constable, served as the director and developer of the County Emergency Response Team and as a tireless Red Cross volunteer.
In Vergennes, aldermen set the budget on the last day of June and it became public in July. It required no raise in the municipal portion of the tax rate. At the same meeting, aldermen ended a year of debate and finally agreed to back a senior housing project off Monkton Road. At issue had been their dispute with the state legislature about how taxes are calculated for nonprofit property owners, but aldermen agreed to make an exception for projects with only senior housing units.
On July 3, just in time for holiday traffic, New York State Department of Transportation officials closed one lane of the 80-year-old Lake Champlain Bridge between Crown Point, N.Y., and Addison, Vt. They said a June inspection uncovered deterioration in the span’s steel trusses. It wouldn’t be long before the bridge, originally built to last 70 years, would be back in the news.
July was the first full month that New Haven town office employees enjoyed in their new digs. After years of deliberation and months of construction, the town funded a new $794,000 office building on the North Street site of the former King House, and it was ready for occupancy on June 29. The building also includes a new home for the town’s library.
The next shoe fell in the legal case against Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe in mid-July. After a toxicology test allegedly came back positive, Lowe, was formally cited for driving under the influence of prescription drugs when he was operating a city cruiser that struck a parked car in early June. The details of the case against the chief remained under wraps until a scheduled August arraignment.
A week of music, magic and laughter came to Middlebury for the 31st time in mid-July with the annual Festival on-the-Green. Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys kicked if off on Sunday, July 12, and the festival concluded, as is traditional, the following Saturday with a street dance.
In July, Ripton Selectman Bill Ford said he would step down, effective Sept. 1, after 23 years. What was remarkable was not only his long tenure, but that his decision would create the first turnover on the board in that span. He and fellow board members Laurie Cox and Ron Wimett had served together and continuously since all being elected for the first time 23 years before.
A proposal for a small-scale hydro-electric project in Middlebury went by the boards as August opened. Its developers, the Holm family of Middlebury, cited rising costs due in part to what they called a cumbersome permitting process. They often found themselves at odds with officials from the town of Middlebury, which owns the water rights needed for the project. Town officials insisted they supported the effort, however, but simply took steps to make sure the town’s interests were protected.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union school officials said in August that upcoming after-school activities for district students should be more plentiful and healthy, thanks to a $487,000 grant awarded to the district earlier in the year.
Addison County Fair and Field Days made its annual appearance, but, strangely enough, something else did not: rain. Although most of the summer was plagued by precipitation — June’s rainfall was 5.25 inches, two more than typical, for example — no raindrops fell on fairgoers for the first time in as long as anyone can remember. Go figure. Regardless, perhaps not coincidentally, fair attendance bounced back strong from 2008, one of the rainiest Field Days ever.
News was made at the Addison County courthouse in August. First, after 31 years of service, Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn said he was stepping down, essentially immediately because of accrued vacation time. The 59-year-old Vergennes native had served 24 years as the county’s head prosecutor after seven years as the deputy state’s attorney.
A case that Quinn’s office referred to state officials because of a local conflict of interest then finally hit the court, that of Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe. Lowe was arraigned on Aug. 10 for driving under the influence of prescription drugs while operating a city cruiser that struck a parked car in June. According to a Vermont State Police affidavit, a blood test taken the day of the accident showed Lowe had a variety of prescription drugs in his system at the time, including pain-killers and anti-depressants.
Lowe’s attorney pled innocent on his behalf. Lowe was granted permission to miss the arraignment because, as his attorney acknowledged, he was still in a drug-treatment facility in Florida.
But Lowe had to attend a second arraignment. Three days before his first appearance in court, the Vermont Attorney General’s office issued a press release indicating Lowe would face additional charges, including embezzlement, neglect of duty, illegal possession of prescription drugs, and obtaining prescription drugs by fraud. At the time — and during Lowe’s Aug. 10 arraignment — those charges were not detailed.
On Aug. 24, Lowe pleaded innocent to those charges. They included his failure to return a handgun confiscated as evidence and allegedly trading it to another officer as payment for prescription drugs; his alleged ongoing persuasion of a third officer to hand over that officer’s prescription drugs to him, an officer who later resigned; and his allegedly twice requesting of a fourth officer to borrow his wife’s pain pills. Lowe resigned not long after that second arraignment, and at year’s end the cases were still pending.
In Ferrisburgh, the town’s $1.5 million elementary school’s upgrade finished on budget and in time for pupils to get back to class in September. Most of the upgrades focused on energy, including better heating and ventilation systems, plus new windows and insulation. New wiring and roofing, plus repair of water damage, were also part of the deal.
In Bristol, residents approved their own $1.5 million project, an upgrade of the village’s aging stormwater system under North Street. Officials hoped federal stimulus money might fund half the cost.
Meanwhile, Middlebury’s local option taxes — an extra 1 percent on rooms, meals and booze — raised a bit more money than expected in the second quarter of 2009 ($165,000 and change), town officials announced. That was good news, they said: Local sales were good, and the town would have enough money to pay for its share of the cost of the new in-town bridge.
County residents were besieged in late August by an unusual horde of mosquitoes. All that rain earlier in the summer coupled with dog-day heat and humidity proved to be ideal breeding conditions for a bumper crop of the thirsty pests. Fall was looking good.
Wedding bells sounded as September arrived. Vermont’s April law granting full marriage rights to same-gender couples took effect on Sept. 1, and a number of local ceremonies were performed. Vermont joined Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa as states offering marriage rights to all.
In a bit of a surprise decision, the Addison County Republican Committee bypassed Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett as its choice to replace recently retired Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn. Quinn had recommended Perkett as his replacement, but the local GOP threw their support behind Bennington-based attorney David R. Fenster. Gov. Jim Douglas eventually accepted that recommendation; Perkett agreed to stay on as deputy.
As schools opened, administrators braced for the expected onslaught of the swine flu, also known as H1N1. Schools arranged to offer H1N1 shots to students, and even discussed issues like whether athletes from opposing teams should shake hands after games.
Meanwhile, news arrived that a big local business would close: Monahan Filaments, the former Polymers Inc. and Specialty Filaments plant on Route 116 in Middlebury. Citing the usual suspects — cheap foreign competition and the economic slump — company owners said they would serve their existing customers for their synthetic bristles through their Illinois plant and subcontractors, and lay off 69 full-time workers, effective Nov. 15.
In September, Ripton got its first new selectman in 23 years when board members Laurie Cox and Ron Wimett picked Ripton General Store owner Richard Collitt to replace Bill Ford. Ford stepped down in August after serving together with Cox and Wimett for more than two decades. Collitt will fill the vacancy until March elections.
In Vergennes, officials closed the city’s year-old skateboard park due to persistent vandalism. The park was reopened in October once new rules, new locks and adult supervision were in place.
Despite the summer’s iffy weather and a June hailstorm that wiped out one Cornwall crop, there was good news on the apple front in September: Overall, the cool temperatures, early moisture and late sunshine were helping produce firm, red and sizable fruit.
In Middlebury, new private owners announced they would reopen the former Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow as a private art gallery, plans that came to fruition by the end of the year. The state-operated craft center had shut down in January.
A plan for an expanded gravel pit in one part of Middlebury got a thumbs up from both neighbors and the Middlebury Development Review Board, while a proposal to site a pit a few miles to the north brought out fierce opposition from neighbors. The board OK’d the expansion of the J.P. Carrara & Sons gravel pit off School House Hill Road after company officials and neighbors worked for two years to come up with a plan that was acceptable to both. The board also prepared to open hearings on a proposal by Ronald and Susan Fenn to begin extracting sand and gravel from 16 acres they own off Route 116. When the hearing finally took place in October, many of the more than 80 people who packed the Ilsley Library conference room clearly didn’t accept the Fenns’ contention that the pit would not appreciably add to noise or traffic in the residential area. More hearings were planned.
On Sept. 29, Vergennes aldermen adopted a new city plan after an almost two-year process. Significant was language that will lay the foundation for zoning laws to regulate franchises like fast-food restaurants and to create some standards for the overall appearance of buildings in the city’s downtown and older residential neighborhoods.
Speaking of fast-food restaurants, the Ferrisburgh zoning board in September approved a controversial Champlain Oil Co. (COCO) plan for a service station with an eatery, convenience store and large parking lot on Route 7, not far from the town’s elementary school and office building. But the board attached several conditions, including that no diesel fuel be sold and that the restaurant operate without a drive-through window. Before long, both COCO and a group opposing the project appealed the decision to Environmental Court, and a lengthy process began.
October brought several additions to the race for state governor. Among the candidates to launch their bids for Vermont’s top office were current Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and state Sen. Doug Racine, a Richmond Democrat. A Starksboro resident, Mark Snelling, threw his hat into the ring for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.
Closer to home, two longtime Addison County fixtures said their farewells. Early in the month, Ralph Jackman, 85, announced his decision to step down after 55 years as Vergennes fire chief. And Middlebury Selectman Bill Perkins resigned his position after nearly 18 years on the board.
Throughout the county, dairy farms continued to struggle with low prices for their milk, and for one other commodity. The U.S. Senate voted $350 million in aid to the country’s dairy farmers, but it offered them only a small reprieve in an industry where few are finding ways to stay profitable. Farmers and lawmakers continued their push for overhauls of the dairy system, while the co-ops that control milk pricing were slow to respond.
Meanwhile, CVPS’s “Cow Power” program for producing electricity from cow manure has been hailed as an innovative way for dairy farms to make extra cash. But in October some farmers in the program faced significant losses as wholesale prices paid for electricity dropped.
Gloomy financial news got a little less dark at Middlebury College, which discovered that its endowment returns had only dropped by 16 percent in fiscal year 2009, instead of the 25 percent drop it had anticipated. Though the endowment losses were still significant, the college discovered itself to be in a much better place than many other colleges and universities in the country.
As the fiscal year came to an end, flu season was only beginning. October saw a flurry of swine flu cases and vaccine clinics. Early on in the month, doctors’ offices, schools and clinics began to schedule appointments for people eager to get the H1N1 vaccination, but the actual vaccines were in short supply.
By the end of the month, swine flu panic was starting to set in for some, but shipments of the vaccine had begun to arrive. Supplies were still low, though, and schools were reporting rising numbers of absent students, both for pre-emptive reasons or suffering from the actual flu.
And flu victims weren’t the only ones with rising temperatures. Climate action in the community came to a peak on Oct. 24 with the 350.org Day of Action to raise awareness of global climate change. Although the day dawned cold and rainy, crowds of people turned up in downtown Middlebury for the climate change rally, potluck and a host of other activities based around the number 350, the level of carbon dioxide (as expressed in parts per million) that many climate scientists say is the highest safe level of the gas in the earth’s atmosphere. The actions that occurred around the globe on that day were the culmination of months of planning and mobilization by 350.org, an organization founded by Ripton resident Bill McKibben and several Middlebury College alumni.
In Bristol, selectmen decided that after 125 years with few structural repairs, it was time to do some major renovations to Holley Hall. An architect laid out some options at mid-month.
The effort by Champlain Oil Company to site a gas station, convenience store and fast-food restaurant on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh headed to court after both COCO and its foil, the group Friends of Ferrisburgh for Responsible Growth, appealed a Zoning Board of Adjustment approval for the development with some restrictions. The process of working the case through Environmental Court could take months or years.
And the breaking news of the month was the closing of the Champlain Bridge, which connects Addison, Vt., and Crown Point, N.Y. Structural concerns had kept the bridge restricted to one lane all summer, but New York and Vermont officials decided Oct. 16 to close the bridge entirely when an inspection revealed worse than anticipated crumbling of two concrete piers.
The closing left businesses near the bridge out in the cold, and farmers who had land on both sides of it scrambling to transport machinery across Lake Champlain.
Crucially, the bridge had supported more than 3,000 vehicle trips each day, and its closure saddled thousands of people with commutes of two and three hours longer than normal. Big employers in Vermont — like Simmonds in Vergennes and Porter Hospital in Middlebury — depend on many employees who live in New York. The Ticonderoga Ferry, which normally closes at the end of October, was making plans to continue operating late into the year, and the ferry at Charlotte expanded its services. A new pedestrian ferry started operating out of Basin Harbor in Ferrisburgh. State officials subsidized the ferries so passengers were getting free rides. Addison County Transit Resources coordinated buses for commuters who couldn’t drive.
It looked like a long winter ahead for those who had to commute from one side of Lake Champlain to the other each day.
In November, discussions about the fate of the Champlain Bridge continued. Midway through the month New York and Vermont transportation officials declared the bridge unsalvageable, and turned to plans for demolishing the unsound structure and building a new one. They ruled out a number of interim options, including building a temporary bridge between the two states. Instead, they expedited plans for a ferry to run between Addison and Crown Point, N.Y., throughout the winter, complete with an icebreaker.
Meanwhile, those affected by the bridge closure had to adapt to longer commutes, circuitous travel routes and long lines for ferries and buses. The Fort Ticonderoga Ferry announced that it would extend service through December to accommodate the additional hundreds of commuters using the service each day. And businesses that had benefited from the interstate traffic that the bridge had provided struggled to stay afloat.
Also in November, the first public H1N1 vaccine clinic in the county drew an estimated 450 to 500 people — some from as far away as Montreal. The clinic, sponsored by Addison County Home Health and Hospice, was allotted only 300 doses of the vaccine, and as a result more than 150 people were turned away.
A Bristol woman who had just turned 100 shared her secrets to longevity: a good diet, a healthy measure of fun and lots of laughter.
The Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association this month broke ground on a new $2.4 million headquarters off South Street, just north of Porter Medical Center.
Another high-profile agency that cares for many in the county also grabbed the spotlight. The Counseling Service of Addison County marked 50 years of providing mental health services in the area.
Vergennes aldermen appointed two new chiefs — one for the police department and one for the fire department. Jim Breur, a 31-year veteran of the Vergennes Fire Department, was tapped to replace Ralph Jackman, who had recently retired after more than five decades as chief. Middlebury police officer George Merkel was chosen to head the police department; former chief Mike Lowe had resigned while battling several charges in court, including DUI in a police cruiser. Merkel, who owned and handled the canine on the Middlebury force, took his police dog with him to Vergennes.
And the Middlebury selectboard picked Nick Artim to fill the spot that Selectman Bill Perkins had vacated at the end of October. Artim will serve until the election for the position next March.
And while one board was filling out its numbers, another group was looking to pare its boards down. The Addison Northwest Supervisory Union held three public forums in November and early December to discuss the possibility of consolidating school boards. This is ANwSU’s second attempt at consolidation, as the 2005 push for consolidation failed to garner the majority vote it needed in each of the district’s five towns to go through. The combined board would have proportional representation from Ferrisburgh, Vergennes, Addison, Panton and Waltham, and would strive to conserve resources and address falling enrollment rates and looming budget crunches.
While the ANwSU consolidation is still in the works, in another part of the county the Salisbury Community School board voted to end talks of school consolidation with Leicester Central School. While the consolidation would have been a solution to Leicester’s aging building and budgetary woes and might have cut per-student spending for both schools, Salisbury cited the bureaucratic difficulties of a school merger across supervisory union lines and a reluctance to increase class size.
Despite the failed merger, small schools in all of Vermont are facing increased pressure to consolidate and otherwise cut costs. A November memo from the commissioner of education urged schools to take as many cost-saving measures as possible. The letter further suggested that the small schools grant that so many Addison County schools rely on will be cut back or phased out to encourage consolidation efforts.
And back in Leicester, two of the Central School’s teachers were asked to speak at a national conference on how they had achieved success in kindergarten and pre-k classrooms.
In Bristol, the planning commission wrapped up work on a proposed ordinance that would cover one of the thorniest issues in town — gravel extraction. The 12-page ordinance will have public hearings before it goes before voters on Town Meeting Day.
We reported bridge news of a rosier sort at the end of the month. The Cross Street bridge project in Middlebury, which is slated to be completed next fall, took several leaps forward when the first huge concrete beams rolled through downtown Middlebury in late November. The concrete beams, which are between 65 and 110 feet long and created right here in Middlebury by J.P. Carrara and Sons, will form the deck foundation for the new bridge. Town officials suspended traffic in areas of Middlebury’s downtown to allow the beams to make the tight turns from Merchants Row onto Main Street and onto Bakery Lane.
Loads of people lined the streets to watch the spectacle.
December brought with it a wave of school budget planning. Across the county school boards met to find budgets that balanced the tough economic times with a consistent quality of education. In addition to a nudge from the state commissioner of education, who encouraged school boards to exercise extreme fiscal restraint, many small Addison County schools reported that they are facing declining enrollment, which increases per-student operating budgets. Early in the month, school directors at Otter Valley Union High School were struggling to make more than $350,000 in cuts to an already bare-bones budget. Later in the month, the Mount Abraham Union High School board, which had anticipated a level-funded budget, discovered that they needed to make $400,000 in unexpected cuts.
School boards planned to continue refining their budgets before they go to a vote on Town Meeting Day in 2010.
The month also brought a big change for Greg Wry, who sold Greg’s Meat Market in Middlebury after 28 years in business. Dec. 10 was the supermarket’s first day under the ownership of Bart Litvin and Lisa Hartman. Litvin has had experience owning stores in the Philadelphia area, but felt that it was time for a change of pace and purchased the store with his partner. But the store’s many loyal customers won’t have to worry about big changes: the new owners have promised to stick to both the store’s name and its dedication to customer service.
Just down Exchange Street from Greg’s, another new owner was looking to move in: Long Trail Brewing Co. announced plans to buy Middlebury-based Otter Creek Brewing. Long Trail President Brian Walsh said that Otter Creek and its subsidiary brand, Wolaver’s Certified Organic, would continue to bottle their own beers at the Middlebury location. Long Trail and Otter Creek officials agreed that the affiliation would give the local craft brewery a stronger marketing capacity and broader market for its products.
Bristol voters agreed to spend some money. A majority of voters approved a plan to float a $750,000 bond to pay for repairs to Holley Hall
Dairy farmers got some slight financial relief this month when the USDA announced that it would soon be sending out emergency aid payments. Also, the Public Service Board approved an energy price hike of eight cents per kilowatt hour for farms producing energy with methane digesters — which are powered by cow manure. The standard price of electricity is currently so low that the “Cow Power” farms were selling their energy at a loss.
There was also good news for community health: Reports of swine flu cases in the area began to taper off at the front end of the month, allowing community members and medical practitioners alike to breathe sighs of relief. That’s not to say that cases of H1N1 disappeared entirely, but as of Dec. 10 fewer people were calling their doctors with flu-like symptoms, and healthcare providers were able to scale back some of the extra measures they had taken to accommodate patients and those seeking the vaccine.
But as the county slid toward winter, the weather seemed to have missed the memo. Leaves were down and there was snow to be spotted in the mountains, but temperatures hovered well above freezing and the first large storm of the season, on Dec. 9, brought more wind than precipitation. Still, the storm was nothing to laugh at. Winds of up to 112 miles per hour swept along the base of the Green Mountains, knocking down trees and cutting power to thousands of Vermont homes. Middlebury, Lincoln, Bristol and Starksboro were all particularly hard hit.
Seemingly always in the news, the Champlain Bridge, up to its dying day, was still making headlines.
Gov. Douglas agreed to apportion $1 million in federal stimulus funding for businesses affected by the closing of the bridge, and a citizens’ committee chose a design for the bridge replacement from among six possibilities. Engineers will draw up more detailed designs for the new bridge using this favored design. In the meantime, officials projected that a new ferry operating near the base of the bridge would begin service sometime in mid-January.
And as winter weather set in for good, New York and Vermont transportation officials debated the demolition date for the Champlain Bridge. A Dec. 23 date was called off because of cold weather. But the 80-year-old bridge did go down with a boom and a cloud of smoke on Dec. 28.