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Ken Valentine, of East Montpelier, descends the snowy steps of the Spruce Mountain fire tower in Plainfield. Spruce Mountain, a popular day hike, is located in L.R. Jones State Forest, which is Vermont’s first State Forest.

High Hopes


Covid19
Select Board scratches Monday meeting, delays renewed ATV debate

WILLIAMSTOWN — Turnout tripped up the Select Board’s planned return to in-person meetings Monday because, on a night when the first “yearly review” of a controversial ordinance that allowed all-terrain vehicles access to nearly 20 town roads was on the agenda, too many people showed up.

The ATV issue has routinely attracted dozens — and in a couple of cases nearly 100 — residents to Select Board meetings during the past two years and, given strict state guidelines associated with COVID-19, the margin for error Monday night was non-existent.

Though residents were offered the option of remotely attending the meeting, which was supposed to be held at Williamstown’s public safety building, the meeting room there had a COVID capacity of 15 — including the five-member board and Town Manager Jackie Higgins.

Several people did attend remotely, though some complained it was hard to hear before Higgins started turning away residents who showed up in person, and Chairman Rodney Graham declined to call the meeting to order.

Though Higgins had only turned away two residents at the time, Graham noted it would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law to proceed as planned.

“We are postponing the meeting,” he declared, apologizing for the “confusion.”

Four of the board’s five members were in the room at the time, while Jasmin Couillard was among those who attended remotely.

Unable to proceed as they originally planned, board members indicated they could attend a virtual version of the meeting next Monday. They didn’t vote to change the date of the meeting because, Graham noted when pressed, this week’s meeting never happened.

“We’re not doing anything,” he said. “We’re not even calling the meeting to order.”

The non-decision decision left some scratching their heads and delayed a looming debate about dueling petitions the town recently received with respect to the ATV ordinance that narrowly survived the first special election held during the pandemic last April.

An effort to “disapprove” the board-adopted ordinance failed, 376-346, on April 21, 2020, and roughly 18 miles of town roads were opened to ATVs less than a month later.

Based on one of the recently submitted petitions, the first season was not without issues.

“An active ATV trail on Boyce Road and Tripp Road has significantly changed the nature of the Boyce Road and Tripp Road community in terms of traffic, noise and overall quality of life,” stated the cover letter accompanying the petition that was filed by some of the loudest critics of ordinance that was adopted by the board last year.

Among other things, they noted, that ordinance allows “affected property owners to petition the town to remove any town highway from the trail network based on a simple majority of all affected property owners.”

The 12 signatures on the petition represent six of the eight property owners on the two roads and reflect a pending request to remove Boyce and Tripp roads from the trail network.

Those signatures were collected and submitted to the town last month, prompting ATV enthusiasts to circulate their own petition urging the Select Board not to eliminate the only “direct access” dozens of residents have to the broader trail network.

“These two roads are the only point of access to the trail system for the residents of Rood Pond Road and surrounding areas,” the second petition states.

The petition is signed by 43 residents, most of whom live on Rood Pond, Weir and Henry roads. Some residents of Birch Lane, Mountainview Drive, Orchard Terrace and Pine Ridge Road signed the petitions as well.

Representatives of both groups showed up for the meeting that didn’t happen.

The board did not publicly discuss either of the two petitions or a third, which was signed by 11 residents and requests the full length of McCarthy Road be added to the trail network. Instead it deferred all of its scheduled business — including approval of payroll warrants — until next week.

Unlike most municipal and school boards, the Select Board met in person for most of the summer and well into the fall. However, the board’s last in-person meeting was in October, and its November and December meetings were conducted remotely as result of a surge in central Vermont COVID cases. Monday’s planned return to the face-to-face format was scratched at the start and information about how to attend the virtual version next Monday will be posted at williamstownvt.org

david.delcore @timesargus.com


John Kessler skis with his dog Balto at the Montpelier Recreation Field on Tuesday. Balto is a rescue dog from Mississippi who had never seen snow before being adopted by Kessler.

Skier’s Best Friend


Local
Calais
Calais road crew needs reenforcements

CALAIS — The Select Board deferred discussion of filling a pair of vacancies on a seriously shorthanded road crew during its Monday virtual meeting.

On a night when the board approved the Town Meeting Day warning and scheduled a Jan. 25 public hearing to gauge community interest in seeking a state grant to help finance the redevelopment of the former East Calais General Store, members agreed to wait a week to discuss the town’s shrinking road crew.

Less than a month after granting a leave of absence to one of the crew’s four workers, board members received the pending resignation of another, and told Road Commissioner Alfred Larrabee they’d like to discuss “next steps” with respect to the two vacancies next week.

Larrabee, who has publicly complained he hasn’t been reappointed as road commissioner — a position he has held for more than two decades in Calais — said the clock is ticking.

“I’m a little bit desperate for help,” he said.

Since board members openly wondered in late November what would happen if the road crew was sidelined as a consequence of COVID-19, they have granted a leave of absence to one member and recently received the resignation of another, who is leaving to take a job in another department.

That means Larrabee, who is still stewing over an annual appointment he claims is more than six months overdue, will soon be down to one full-time employee and a part-timer willing to fill in in a pinch, but not interested in full-time work.

Though Mother Nature has been cooperative so far, Larrabee said he had contacted a local resident who is interested in filling the temporary full-time vacancy created by the leave of absence approved by the board last month. First, he said, there is a drug test to pass and a commercial driver’s license to obtain. A CDL test is scheduled for early next month and Larrabee said he was inclined to allow one of the town trucks to be used for the test to facilitate the mid-winter hire.

Though board members didn’t tell Larrabee to pump the brakes, they suggested the vacancies would be discussed when they meet next Monday.

Larrabee said the board might want to consider expanding the agenda for that meeting, and was told by Chairwoman Denise Wheeler to email her his suggestions.

The exchange followed a discussion during which Larrabee reiterated his belief the town should consider replacing the 2009 truck that was just inspected, but flagged for a number of issues that could require attention during the coming year. Larrabee pegged the trade-in value of the truck in its current condition at about $15,000 and said the board should be ready to act quickly if he is able to locate a newer used replacement.

Meanwhile, board members who have opted to cancel Calais’ traditional town meeting because of COVID-19 concerns this year approved the warning for the March 2 elections that will be conducted by Australian ballot. That includes consideration of the board’s $1.71 million budget request, which reflects a spending reduction of roughly $14,500 and would require raising $1.4 million in property taxes. It includes separately warned requests for $49,400 to finance the upkeep of town cemeteries, $27,132 for Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier and an all-or-nothing vote on $30,100 in smaller funding requests. Those requests range from a low of $100 for Green Up Vermont to a high of $4,900 for the Montpelier Senior Activity Center.

Also, the board scheduled a Jan. 25 public hearing to solicit feedback on its plan to apply for up to $400,000 from the Vermont Community Development Program to aid the East Calais Community Trust in its effort to redevelop the East Calais General Store.

The group, of which Wheeler is a member, purchased the property last June and wants to renovate the building. That work involves returning the first-floor to its long-time use as a general store and renovating three apartments behind and above the store for use as affordable housing. Plans call for the creation of a one-, two- and three-bedroom apartment.

Wheeler did not participate in the board’s discussion and decisions with respect to the grant application on Monday.

The virtual hearing is set for 6:15 p.m. Jan. 25. Those interested in attending the Zoom session can find login information at calaisvermont.org

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Covid19
26,000-plus now vaccinated; two virus variants cause concern

MONTPELIER — More than 26,600 Vermonters have now received their first shot of the novel coronavirus vaccine, though officials warn there are now two variants of the virus that have their attention.

At Gov. Phil Scott’s Tuesday news conference, Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation who has been analyzing the pandemic data, said cases have never been higher in the United States.

“With the country averaging close to a quarter million new cases on a daily basis,” Pieciak said.

Vermont has seen an increase in cases, as well. It’s no longer uncommon to see new cases in the triple digits. There were 109 new cases of the virus in the state reported Monday and 167 reported Tuesday.

Pieciak said during the past five days, Vermont has seen more new cases than in all of May, June, July, August and September combined.

The death toll is now 158 in the state after two more deaths were reported Tuesday.

He said an average of more than 3,000 people are now dying from the virus every day in the U.S.

Regionally, he said, hospitalizations are up. There are currently 51 people hospitalized in Vermont as consequence of the virus and 10 of them are in intensive care.

Pieciak said the data suggests the increased cases are because of holiday gatherings.

He said cases are predicted to continue to rise into early February, with a possible average of 300 cases per day, before they start falling again. While the increase is concerning, Pieciak said the state would need to see 380 cases per day to approach the level of ICU capacity in Vermont.

According to the state’s vaccine dashboard, more than 26,600 residents, or 4.3% of the population older than 16, have received their first dose of the vaccine. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. The state has reported 1,781 people have now received both shots of the vaccine.

Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said a new, more transmissible variant of virus has arrived in the U.S., so-called B-117. Levine said this variant, which is 50% more transmissible, has been found in 10 states, including Connecticut and New York. He said residents should expect to see the variant in Vermont, though. it hasn’t been confirmed here yet.

He said those at the state’s public health lab are working with their counterparts at the University of Vermont on developing ways to rapidly sequence the genome of the virus in an attempt to find the variant.

Levine said a second variant has been found in South Africa, but that one doesn’t appear to have made its way to the U.S.

He said it appears the two available vaccines are still effective against B-117, or the “United Kingdom variant,” but it’s unknown if they will work on the South African version of the virus.

The virus could mutate to a point where the vaccines no longer work. Levine said he’s mildly concerned about that, but it highlights the importance of getting as many people vaccinated now as quickly as possible so the virus doesn’t have as many opportunities to mutate.

“It really is a race against the clock, in some sense. Because we know the current vaccine and what it is effective against,” he said.

While emergency responders, health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities continue to receive their first shots of the vaccine, state officials are expected to give an update on the next phase of vaccinations Friday. Officials have said that phase, with a focus on older citizens first, likely won’t start until the end of the month.

eric.blaisdell

@timesargus.com

eric.blaisdell@timesargus.com


Rail

“Law enforcement in Vermont, and especially the troopers, do not need another round of bad press due to recklessness and thoughtlessness. There were too many images from last Wednesday of police and other law enforcement taking selfies and posing with insurrectionists.”

Editorial, A4

Sports

Former UVM basketball star Anthony Lamb is a sixth-round selection in the NBA G League Draft. B1


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