Lamoille in the News
By Kayla Friedrich | News & Citizen
“My concern is the idea that little kids, not even necessarily kids in our schools, are going to be negatively impacted by this type of proliferation of marijuana,” said Jim Brochhausen, a Stowe School Board member, at a meeting last week.
A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use has been winding its way through the state Senate, and could be passed along to the House late this week.
Because the bill has been fast-tracked through the Legislature, school organizations are only now raising concerns over how it will affect children.
If passed, S.95 would permit anyone age 21 or older to possess limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use.
The state would establish a marijuana control board within the Department of Public Safety; it would be responsible for overseeing the structure, cultivation, production, testing and sale of marijuana, and would also handle registrations for dispensaries. Smoking joints would be prohibited in public spaces.
Taxes on marijuana sales would be funneled toward public education about the safety risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, evidence-based criminal justice programs, substance-abuse treatment services, law enforcement, municipalities that host marijuana establishments, the Youth Substance Abuse Safety Program, and academic and medical research on marijuana.
Are the measures in the bill enough to protect children?
“When the bill talks about kids, it talks about having safeguards so kids can’t buy it,” Brochhausen said. “What they don’t discuss, which is the real issue, is secondhand smoke. When you take a step back and look at the issue of secondhand smoke, for years Vermont has villainized Big Tobacco because of it. What’s lacking in the talks about legalization of marijuana is the impact secondhand smoke could have on kids in particular.”
A health impact study conducted by the Vermont Department of Health recommends that marijuana use not be allowed in public places to protect children. However, the bill does not limit marijuana use at home when children are present. The study also favors a ban on marijuana use by anyone under age 25, rather than 21.
According to the study, people don’t know the exact effects that marijuana use has on a developing brain, and the brain is still developing until age 25.
Setting that age restriction would protect children, youth and young adults during rapid brain development and academic involvement.
Brochhausen believes that the Vermont School Boards’ Association, which has a vision of “ensuring that the futures of all Vermont children are driven by their aspirations, not bound by their circumstances,” should take a much tougher stance on the marijuana legislation. He wants it to say oppose legalization of marijuana, to take care of every child in the state.
The school boards’ association is taking no position on the recreational marijuana bill, particularly because it doesn’t want to be cut out of the conversation.
The association “decided that they had to take some sort of stance on this bill,” said Stuart Weppler of Elmore, one of the association’s directors. “So, we discussed three options: We could say no, and essentially do nothing; we could oppose the legislation, which is what the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has done; and then the third one was to adopt a resolution that was similar to the Vermont Superintendents Association, which didn’t take a stand on the rights or wrongs of marijuana use in the general population, but set some parameters.
“It said if it’s going to be legalized, these are the issues that are going to affect our children and our school systems, and they need to be addressed in any bill that comes out of both the Senate and the House.”
The school boards association decided to take option three, and came up with a draft resolution that looked at nine factors of legalizing marijuana that would affect children. The resolution, if approved by the association, would call on the Legislature to address all nine factors.
Taking the same stance
The Vermont Superintendents Association started looking at marijuana legalization when it became apparent that the Legislature was looking at it.
“It’s sort of a complicated issue,” said Jeffrey Francis, executive director. “What we concluded is that we needed to seek assurances on the issue, rather than take a narrow stance. Proponents of the bill look at the regulation of marijuana as a way to gain control. Opponents don’t buy into the argument. The (superintendents association) is largely occupied by a complex array of policies specific to keeping it out of schools.”
If marijuana is legalized, Francis says, the bill must reduce marijuana access for kids, because Vermont schools already struggle with marijuana use by kids and families.
According to the health impact study, marijuana is the No. 1 substance for which Vermont students are suspended from school. In a sample of 130 Vermont educators, half reported they had not noticed an increase in marijuana use from the 2013 school year to 2015, but two-thirds expect to see an increase under a regulated system.
“Are we really better off, are kids better off, with a regulated system and more control over access? I don’t know, but our effort is to make sure that important issues get addressed if the legislation is passed,” Francis said.
Those issues, according to the superintendents association resolution, are reducing access for individuals under 21 years old; assuring that child protection is at the forefront of actions taken by the Legislature; assuring that state agencies have the capacity to implement and respond to the legalization; assuring that the Agencies of Human Services and Education have enough resources to respond to challenges associated with marijuana use by students and their families; and assuring that the state will pay for any new obligations for schools associated with the legalization, such as education and prevention activities.
Brochhausen made a motion that the Stowe School Board tell the school boards association that it is adamantly opposed to the bill, and wants the role of secondhand smoke included in the legislation.
The Vermont Principals Association took the same stance as the superintendents association.
Likewise, the Vermont Agency of Education believes the approach to marijuana legalization must be deliberate and cautious, and its foremost concern is to protect and support Vermont’s youth.
“We recognize that Vermont currently has one of the highest rates of teen marijuana use in the nation,” said Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of education, “and we know using marijuana negatively affects the physical health, mental health and academic achievement of adolescents. For those reasons, we appreciate the governor’s efforts to find a smarter approach that will allow us to address this critical issue.
| Dam licenses still stopped up as water quality, flow rate debates continue to run
by Andrew Martin | News & Citizen
When will it end? Five years have passed, several hundred thousand dollars have been spent, and Morrisville Water & Light still doesn’t have its new hydropower license.
“It’s been a frustrating and expensive process,” said Craig Myotte, general manager of the utility.
PHOTO BY GLENN CALLAHAN
The dam on the Lamoille River near Cady’s Falls forms the popular body of water known as Lake Lamoille in Morrisville. The state would like to increase the amount of water flowing through the dam’s bypass, decreasing the power that can be produced.
The issue involves how much water is allowed to flow past the utility’s dams. The state wants a significant increase in water flow; Morrisville is worried about having enough water to make electricity.
Now, the Morrisville hydro operation produced enough electricity to power about 1,000 houses — 10 million kilowatt-hours per year.
The utility began the relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2010. However, it needs approval from Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources to complete the process, and hasn’t been able to get it.
Water & Light is seeking a new license for its three dams. Two are on the Lamoille River in Morrisville and Cadys Falls; the third is on the Green River. As part of the relicensing, the state must sign off and issue a water quality certificate.
“The state is obligated by federal law to certify that the operations of their hydro facilities meet Vermont water quality standards,” said Jeff Crocker of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. “Water quality standards include aquatic habitat, aesthetics, boating, and fishing.”
Vermont’s electric utilities began relicensing their hydro facilities in the mid-1990s. Morrisville Water & Light is one of the last in the state to do so.
For Morrisville, the state wants more water going through the bypass flows at the two dams on the Lamoille River. In the past, there were no requirements to let any water through.
In its application, Morrisville did include minimum flow rates that would be phased in for both dams. However, the state wants much higher flows and issued a draft water quality certificate in January requiring that.
Water & Light argues that the state’s flow requirements will severely limit the dams’ ability to produce electricity.
The state is also proposing that Water & Light alter how it manages the Green River Reservoir. The utility now drains the lake in the winter, making room for spring runoff. The state wants the reservoir managed in true “run of river” mode — which would mean no winter draining — to better protect aquatic habitat.
Morrisville Water & Light believes the changes proposed by the state would result in a 33 percent loss of hydropower production.
“To have spent this much money on relicensing already, and then to face our power production being reduced, is just a bad combination all around,” Myotte said. Utility officials believe the lower production will result in losses of $9 million over the life of the new license. Implementing other improvements that are part of the certificate would cost about $6 million.
If the agency doesn’t change its position, Myotte expects Water & Light to file an appeal in environmental court.
Myotte believes his utility is receiving different messages from the state.
New laws are requiring Vermont’s utilities to generate more power with renewable resources. While utilities around the state are rushing to meet these new standards, Morrisville could lose a third of its hydro output, because of different state requirements.
“This just seems to be at odds with the state’s long-term energy plan,” Myotte said. “Everything else is moving toward renewable energy and we have one arm of the state government telling us we have to cut back.
“Our hydro is already there in the landscape. We aren’t adding anything new, like you have to with wind or solar. We should be maximizing the use of things that already exist,” he said.
State officials are aware of the conflict.
“We have had some conversations with the Public Service Board,” said Crocker. The Public Service Board is one of the governing bodies that oversees permits for new energy projects in the state.
“They are aware of the requirements placed on us by law. We are legally required to change how utilities use their hydro facilities and that can impact their generation rate,” Crocker said.
Officials from Morrisville Water & Light have met with agency officials numerous times in the past few years, trying to reach an acceptable compromise.
“They have been a disappointment,” Myotte said of the talks. “I don’t think they have any intent of changing anything.
They are just checking the box that says they have met with us and nothing is resolved.
“The draft certificate they issued us in January has the same requirements as they one they gave us last year,” he said.
Continuing the debate
Despite their inability to come to terms with the state, Myotte and his staff haven’t given up.
With the help of Lamoille County Sen. Richard Westman, a bill has been introduced in the Legislature that would change the legal requirements the agency feels it must follow.
“Basically, it would give the agency a little more flexibility in taking other factors into account. They don’t believe they can do that right now,” Myotte said.
A hearing will also be held Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 7 p.m. at Morrisville Elementary School to allow public comments on the draft certificate that the agency issued to Water & Light. The public can also file written comments until Feb. 19.
Split vote goes against subcommittee’s recommendation
to keep Edith Beatty on the job
by Andrew Martin | News & Citizen
New management is in the works for the Lamoille North Supervisory Union.
Overruling a subcommittee’s recommendation, the Lamoille North governing board rejected a plan to extend the contract of the school superintendent, Edith Beatty.
The subcommittee assigned to evaluate Beatty voted unanimously Jan. 12 to recommend the board keep her as superintendent.
The Lamoille North board considered the recommendation Jan. 25. When Carl Szlachetka moved to accept the committee recommendation, the board voted 10-7 not to keep Beatty, according to minutes of the meeting.
Beatty became superintendent July 1, 2014. Her contract will expire June 30.
After the vote, Beatty told the board she was disappointed that members aren’t satisfied with her work.
“I would like to thank the superintendent evaluation committee, formed and sanctioned by the full board in August,” Beatty said.
The evaluation committee met several times from September to January, and surveyed the central office staff, faculty members, and 34 school board members from across Lamoille North about Beatty’s performance.
The committee concluded the superintendent should be retained.
Apparently, board members raised no questions or challenges of the committee’s recommendation, either at the meeting Jan. 25 or during the committee’s work, Beatty said. “The committee’s recommendation speaks for itself,” she said.
Several Lamoille North board members, including Dan Regan, Jan Sander and Jeff Hunsberger, were members of the evaluation committee.
While the committee supported Beatty, it’s clear that other board members did not. However, in interviews, several board members declined to talk about what happened and instead recommended reading the minutes of the meeting.
“The committee’s recommendation remained unchanged,” said board vice-chair Becky Penberthy of Waterville. “However, the decision was not supported by a majority of the Lamoille North Supervisory Union Board.”
“Each member has their own vote,” said board chair David Whitcomb of Eden.
Jan Sander told the board she thought it had made a mistake and thanked Beatty for her work.
Before the vote, Dan Regan said one goal of the committee was to stop the revolving door for the Lamoille North superintendent’s job. Regan said he feels constant changeover at the position has not served students well. Beatty succeeded Joseph A. Ciccolo, who succeeded Debra Taylor, all in the past five years.
Now, the Lamoille North board will begin searching for yet another superintendent. The search will probably be organized at a meeting March 23.
Whoever takes the reins could have to deal with a major transition. The six Lamoille North districts will vote April 12 on merging into a single school district. With Beatty gone by June 30, the new superintendent will have to handle the merger and all its attendant issues.
For the fourth year, the Legislature has given short shrift to Morristown’s efforts to gain authority to deal with dilapidated downtown buildings.
The Legislature convened only a couple of weeks ago, but two bills have already stalled in the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Stalled, I think, is putting it very nicely, because I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” said Todd Thomas, Morristown zoning administrator. “The state doesn’t support it, and the state has been fighting me on it at every turn. They’ve spent more time fighting us on this than I spent actually writing the proposed law.”
Back in October, one of the busiest streets in downtown Morrisville was closed for safety reasons when the foundation of the Nepveu building on Portland Street partially collapsed.
The sidewalk in front of that building remains closed to foot traffic; it was undermined
by the collapse and can’t be fixed until spring.
The proposed bills, H.169 and S.50, would allow municipalities to deal with buildings such as the Nepveus’ by enabling them to “adopt land-use bylaws for the purpose of regulating commercial building facades in designated downtowns and village center to ensure the facades are not left in a state of disrepair.”
State officials say the town has other ways to attack the problem of dilapidated buildings, short of establishing a new law.
The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development has been corresponding with Morristown about the issue for several years, and says the town has a range of existing options to address blighted buildings.
“The regulation of blight via ordinance is the preferred option, but Morristown may also use its existing zoning powers,” said Noelle MacKay, the agency’s commissioner.
She said state law allows towns to regulate repair and maintenance through zoning bylaws, or by adopting an overlay district that can specify the repair maintenance requirements for certain areas, such as a downtown.
However, most towns regulate buildings by adopting an ordinance, she said, Barre, Burlington, Derby Line, Hartford, Rutland and St. Albans are among the communities that have found that method effective in dealing with dilapidated buildings. Derby Line and Hartford do not have local building codes.
“After the issues this fall with the building in Morrisville,” MacKay said, “we spoke with the Department of Safety and, after discussion, still felt that the best way to deal with the issue is through local ordinance. S.50 is fairly narrowly defined and would regulate window and door repair on the facades of buildings, but would not regulate other sides of the building. As you can see highlighted in existing statute, they already have this authority today.”
An overlay district can be used to supplement or modify zoning rules in special areas, such as shorelands and floodplains, water-supply areas, ridgelines, scenic areas, highway areas and historic areas.
“I understand Morristown’s issue with an ordinance,” MacKay said. “However, any regulations are going to have to be enforced, and they have the ability to use other tools within the existing state statute. It is a lot of work to create new statutes, especially when they are only trying to fix ‘one bad apple,’ as Todd put it. I’d like to note (her agency) hasn’t actively opposed this bill; it just seems they have tools and community support to regulate locally.”
According to Thomas and Dan Lindley, the town administrator, an ordinance may work for other towns, but not for Morrisville.
“Often, an ordinance is tied to building code,” Thomas said, “and in situations like Barre, they have a full-time fire department that can go in to check buildings. We have a volunteer fire department, and also have rural areas that we don’t want to change codes for.
“I want to get out dilapidated buildings in our downtown that are giving a black eye to our business district,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to be out in Mud City, talking about a barn with no windows.”
Lindley says ordinances are harder to enforce than land-use laws. If a case winds up in court, the town has to prove that a law has been broken. With an ordinance, things are less open-and-shut than with a land-use law, and court cases can drag out over time.
“We are not looking to fine people; we just want people to come into compliance” with the rules, Lindley said. “Ordinances can be very costly to the town if the issue remains in court.”
The state would like the town to use an overlay district, which Thomas thinks is designed more for natural features. He questions whether the state law would support that approach, and worries about losing in court.
“What would my boundaries be?” Thomas said. “I can make it the downtown, but I don’t have a physical feature like a ridgeline or floodplain. I think I’d lose in court. If they want us to go this route, I feel very uncomfortable if it is challenged, and I’m in court. I think I’ll lose the taxpayers a lot of money. Last year when I was in front of the House they said, well, you have maintenance and repair mentioned in your zoning bylaws; use that.”
Thomas said he tried that with a dilapidated house next to the fire station, and has been sued. The case is now in court.
The state’s point is that legislative proposals can deliver unintended consequences if they’re amended on their way to becoming law.
Thomas and Lindley testified to the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee last week, and said all they could do was defend their standoff with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. They weren’t allowed to explain why the state didn’t want the bill.
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille, accompanied them to the committee meeting, and Thomas said local representatives have been very supportive.
“You can look at Morrisville and see how the community has tried to pick itself up, and make it more dynamic,” Westman said. “Portland Street is beginning to turn around, and you can’t have the main street in the downtown closed for a number of days.
“I will be there to support the town in anyway they feel appropriate.” Westman says that, with the Jeffersonville-to-Morristown portion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail completed, more foot traffic will be entering downtown Morrisville. For that reason alone, more emphasis is needed on safer, better buildings in the area, he said.
So far, the Lamoille County Planning Commission has stayed out of the argument.
“We haven’t been involved in discussions about the bill, but we are keeping track of the discussions,” said Tasha Wallis, executive director of the commission. “It sounds to us like the town can deal with this locally, but we are not taking a position on the matter.”
Thomas and Lindley are meeting soon with state Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, whose district includes Morrisville. But Patt said he’s already been told the bill isn’t going anywhere in the House, either.
Morrisville isn’t the only community seeking more muscle to deal with dilapidated buildings. Legislators from Springfield and Chester introduced a similar bill, this year; it’s in committee.
By Kayla Friedrich | News & Citizen
Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016
A building in downtown Morrisville is becoming increasingly unstable because its foundation is compromised,
But it’s not the Nepveu building this time, the one that shut down two major streets when it threatened to collapse late last year.
No, this one’s at 182 Upper Main St., next to the Morrisville fire station. It was once a retail store with an apartment upstairs. Now, it is an abandoned shell of a building that’s open to the elements, and leaning toward an 8-foot-deep cellar hole in the back where an addition was planned but never constructed.
For attempting to deal with the matter, the town government has been taken to environmental court.
Back in September, the town declared the building — owned by William Martin of Plymouth, Ma. and Ken Skeer of Dorchester, Ma. — a health hazard, and gave them 30 days to bring it into line with the town’s regulations.
Town zoning laws say all building materials must be removed from a site within 90 days after work begins on an excavation for the building, or after a building has been demolished, severely damaged, or abandoned. Moreover, the excavated area must be covered or filled to the normal grade by the owner, or the damaged structure must be repaired or replaced.
“Mr. Martin and Mr. Skeer strongly disagreed with my determination (that the building had been abandoned) and appealed the zoning violation to the town’s Development Review Board,” said Todd Thomas, Morristown’s zoning administrator. The board “unanimously upheld the zoning violation in November, so in December, Mr. Martin and Mr. Skeer appealed the DRB’s decision to uphold the zoning violation to Vermont Superior Court.”
In the appeal, Martin and Skeer argue the property at 182 Upper Main St. has not been abandoned and is not dilapidated. They also assert they acted in a timely fashion, and showed good faith in bringing the property into compliance.
It could be nine months to a year before a judge rules on the appeal; no date has been set for a court hearing.
“Any time I go to court, I have to spend taxpayer dollars, and I take that very seriously,” Thomas said. “I’m always concerned about the potential for wasting taxpayer dollars by trying to use the court process for enforcement, when I don’t know if I will win. I just don’t have the right tools.”
Martin and Skeer haven’t done any significant work on the project since the zoning violation was issued, other than moving the pile of excavated dirt to the other side of the building and putting a fence around the property.
It appears also that the two business partners have been arguing with themselves, as well as the town.
In an email Skeer sent to Martin in December, Skeer says, “William, you have been all over the place. One second you are talking about moving forward on the project with me at $35 per hour, and the next second you are talking about selling the property.”
In emails to Thomas, Martin has said he would like to donate the building to the town government and be done with it. However, he can’t do so unless Skeer agrees.
“I am going to donate the property, Ken, to some good people that want to do the right thing, instead of you blocking me,” said Martin in a subsequent email to Skeer. According to Thomas, Martin and Skeer have not paid taxes on the property since they bought it at a foreclosure sale for $29,000 in 2013. At a tax sale Jan. 12, neighbors Marvin and Eleanor Randall paid $10,000 for the property; if Martin and Skeer don’t pay the property taxes within one year, the Randalls will own the property.
Neither Martin nor Skeer responded to interview requests.
by Kayla Friedrich
News & Citizen
The number of home sales in Lamoille County excluding Stowe jumped 20 percent in 2015. There was even movement in some higher-end properties, such as a $1.3 million house in Elmore.
Lamoille County residents are slowly getting out of renting and into more permanent housing as job security is on the rise, and low interest rates on mortgages are still available, said McKee Macdonald, a broker at Coldwell Banker Carlson Real Estate.
According to his agency’s end-of-the-year report, Stowe sales accounted for 46 percent of Lamoille County’s real estate transactions last year. However, home sales in the other Lamoille County towns are on the rise, increasing from 178 sales in 2014 to 214 in 2015.
Most towns outside Stowe had slight increases in sales, with the largest increases in Morristown and Cambridge.
At the same time, the median price decreased 4 percent to $181,000. Half the houses sold for more than that amount, and half for less.
Pall Spera, who owns a major local real estate agency, says buying interest increased in the Lamoille County area in the past year. Buyers were driven into markets surrounding Stowe largely because of more affordable pricing.
“Some buyers are drawn to the county’s rural, real-Vermont feel,” Spera said. “We’ve seen quite a few people who have been Stowe locals and are moving a few miles in either direction. It gives them an opportunity to have more land, but it’s still accessible to work.”
People also seem to be trending away from the closed layout of houses built in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, and more toward open layouts with cathedral ceilings. They also want better views, pools, ponds and acreage, and outside of Stowe, buyers are looking for more privacy.
“Lamoille County has a good first-time homebuyer market,” Macdonald said. “Many first-time homebuyers in the area are younger, just married or engaged, have a child in their plans, and recognize the importance of owning. Everything is brand-new to them, and it’s exciting.”
Marcia Marble of Marble Realty in Morrisville said she dealt with several first-time homebuyers last year. While financing can be more difficult than it used to be, with high property taxes and stringent lender/appraiser rules, people are trying to get property before it becomes more expensive, she said.
“It’s definitely still a buyer’s market,” Marble said. “You need a buyer to sell, and the mortgage financing process can be a detriment.”
According to Marble, real-estate trends were favorable in 2015, and she has seen a lot more locals buying property in recent years.
“In fact, our office only assisted two out-of-staters in buying this year,” she said, “and both were families returning to Vermont to be closer to their families.”
Macdonald said the housing market has been crawling out of a hole since the recession of 2008 and 2009. He believes Lamoille County is now out of that hole, with a healthier overall economy.
Stowe, Hyde Park projects likely to be completed this year
by Tommy GardnerStowe Reporter
In separate but very similar votes, Stowe and Hyde Park residents authorized their electric departments Tuesday to take out loans to build solar farms.
Two solar farms