Gov. Phil Scott suggested “level funding” school budgets to keep education property taxes in check, but in many Deerfield Valley towns deep cuts in education spending still left them with significant tax increases. Whitingham taxpayers were outraged to hear that, despite cutting the school budget by 7%, or $725,000, their taxes were slated to rise by 52 cents. The figure was later revised to 41 cents, but it did little to quiet a simmering anger in Whitingham.
Wilmington, Whitingham’s Twin Valley partner, also faced an increase of over 20 cents. The chief factor driving the increases was a loss of equalized students, but changes in the common level of appraisal and a so-called “excess spending” penalty imposed by the state also pushed rates up. Board members complained that, despite cutting more than $1 million in spending over the previous five years, tax rates continued to climb.
Dover Selectboard members voted to withhold the remainder of funding, $11,000, that had been earmarked for ITVFest, an independent television festival operated by Dover resident Philip Gilpin Jr. The board cited breach of contract as their reason for withholding the funds, chiefly Gilpin’s unilateral decision to move the date of the festival from September to Columbus Day weekend in October – a decision made without the board’s knowledge.
In November 2016, Gilpin appeared before the board to request funding to hold the festival in Dover in 2017. Gilpin requested $50,000, which the board denied, ultimately granting $35,000 instead. The following day, the board learned that Gilpin had been courting Manchester as a new location for the festival, which Gilpin did not mention in his appearance before the board. Gilpin later confirmed that the festival would be held in Manchester in 2017.
At the beginning of the month, Gov. Phil Scott’s office said that a decision on the Hermitage Club’s master plan permit was imminent, following discussions between Hermitage Club officials and the Scott administration. The Hermitage Club filed their master plan permit application in November 2015, and Hermitage Club president Jim Barnes had initially anticipated approval of the plan by the beginning of the 2016 construction season. Barnes was increasingly frustrated as the permit process was delayed by hearings and requests for additional information throughout 2016. The delays halted development of a hotel, townhouses, and condominiums at the private ski resort, held up funding, and slowed the sales of memberships to a trickle, according to the club.
The master plan, which includes the construction of additional hotels, condominiums, houses, and townhouses totaling about 400 units, as well as the expansion of snowmaking and ski terrain at the resort, was approved in mid-February. A week after the approval, Hermitage Club officials said sales of memberships and real estate shot up. Barnes said interest in the resort’s condominiums and other real estate also spiked. The plan approval doesn’t grant broad authority for construction, but it grants partial and preliminary findings on Act 250 criteria for projects that fall under the scope of the plan. Individual projects still require a review before a permit is issued, but the review is limited to Act 250 criteria not already satisfied under the master plan. The master plan permit is valid for 10 years, but can be renewed.
The Hermitage Club expected to break ground on projects as early as April, but officials said larger projects such as the hotel and bungalows at the base of the mountain wouldn’t be started until 2018.
In reaction to the substantial education tax increases announced in January, selectboard and school board members from Whitingham and Wilmington met, along with voters from the two towns, to discuss a joint response to their education funding challenges. As the discussion turned toward the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the state, former Twin Valley School Board Chair Ed Metcalfe told the boards to focus on the per-pupil distribution of education funding, rather than the statewide tax. Former Rep. Ann Manwaring agreed, citing the Vermont Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Brigham, that every student in Vermont is entitled to “substantially equitable opportunity.” She said the current funding system doesn’t fulfill the requirement. Attorney James Valente, who said his hometown of Marlboro was facing the loss of their school under Act 46, offered several suggestions for a lawsuit.
Later in March, Whitingham Selectboard members met with town attorney Bob Fisher and Valente, for preliminary discussions regarding legal action against the state. Valente said that about half the towns were in a similar situation to Whitingham’s, with more than 100 students but less than the 800 or 900 needed to benefit from an economy of scale. He said he didn’t have a “silver bullet” that would solve the town’s education funding woes, but suggested a lawsuit that focused on Article 8 of the Vermont Constitution, as did the Vermont Supreme Court in the Brigham case. In particular, Valente noted that the article requires the state to “maintain a competent number of schools” in each town. “I have clients in Halifax that have a 35-minute ride to get to the school in Halifax,” he said. “If they lose that school, they might be talking about a 50-minute ride to school, each way. That’s intolerable, especially when both parents work.”
Valente said the lawsuit could also ask the court to find the current funding distribution system unconstitutional under their Brigham decision, and to revisit Brigham II, a lawsuit funded by Whitingham and Wilmington several years ago that was eventually dropped because changes to education funding law under Act 68 hadn’t been fully tested at the time. On Valente’s recommendation, Whitingham board members decided to proceed without Wilmington’s participation.
Also in March, the valley’s first Act 46 merger was defeated. The proposed River Valleys Union School District was on the Town Meeting ballot in Dover, Wardsboro, and Marlboro. Only Dover approved the proposed merger in a 124 to 75 vote. In Wardsboro, the measure failed by 17 votes, 79 to 62. Marlboro voters resoundingly defeated the proposed merger, with 264 voting against it, and only 66 voting in favor. At their Town Meeting, Marlboro voters expressed concern that the merger would mean the elimination of their junior high school classrooms.
In April, the Deerfield Valley Snooze reported that the Mytown Economic Development Consortium launched a marketing campaign that touted Route 100 as Vermont’s Potholiest Corridor. Bragging that the stretch of road between Dover and Wilmington had destroyed “more Bilsteins than the Rubicon,” economic development officials invited adventure seekers on guided tours into the dark depths of the area’s potholes, as well as a road rally with a pothole slalom. The Snooze also reported that a federal court had issued an injunction against the spring equinox, after Congress announced an investigation into Punxsutawney Phil’s alleged collusion with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin denied any ties to the Pennsylvanian rodent. In Dover, the Snooze uncovered a plan to build a Monorail system, and in Wilmington, the Snooze reported on the Old School Experience Commission’s plan to turn the former Twin Valley High School into a nostalgia-based amusement park where visitors could experience high school as it was in the 20th century. The Snooze’s national bureau reported that President Gump was planning to build a wall along the northern border to keep those sneaky Canadians out of the country.
In real news, a slogan on a banner that was hung in Wilmington 35 years ago as a symbol of the community’s resistance to racism, reappeared as a slogan for Vermont groups opposed to Trump administration immigration policies. Around the time of the inauguration, a black and white photo of a banner with the motto “Hate does not grow well in the rocky soil of Vermont,” suspended between the Wilmington Home Center and town office building, began to circulate on social media. The photo was posted in response to proposed policies aimed at halting or limiting immigration for certain religious or ethnic groups. The slogan was adopted by grass-roots “Indivisible” groups in Vermont, including a local Deerfield Valley group. The banner, re-created by the Brattleboro Indivisible group, made an appearance in Wilmington again, when the Deerfield Valley Indivisible group hung it on the Bartleby’s Books building. The original banner was created by Wilmington residents in 1982 to protest a planned rally in the town by a Connecticut-based chapter of the KKK.
After months of anticipation or dread, depending on the point of view, demolition began on the old Sandri Sunoco station on East Main Street in Wilmington. The building was being torn down to make way for a Dunkin’ Donuts that would be built on the same footprint. The work started months after a permit was issued following contentious DRB hearings.
The River Valleys Union School District, originally defeated in March, was revived when Wardsboro voters reversed their Town Meeting vote at a special meeting. After weeks of discussions, Wardsboro voters approved a merger with Dover in a 98 to 57 decision. Under the merger deal, the new district will maintain schools in both communities.
The Wilmington Development Review Board began consideration of a permit for a large housing development project in the Haystack Saddle Ridge area, part of the “East Tract” area that lies between Coldbrook Road and Route 100, owned by Brian and Keith Jurgens, of Comtuck LLC. Comtuck’s application asked the DRB to adjust the current subdivision of more than 100 small lots by combining several to create 25 larger building lots, and proposed a new access point off Old Ark Road. During a site visit, the DRB explored the property, traversing the boggy, unimproved roads of the development, originally laid out in the early 1970s as part of Haystack Corporation’s planned development. The lots were freshly marked with lot numbers and Comtuck had, perhaps optimistically, nailed real estate sales brochure holders to trees on many of the lots. A brochure at lot 39/40 advertised a 2,032-square-foot Craftsman cottage for $718,990. The developer later withdrew the application.
Mount Snow announced that their first EB-5 investor application had been approved, releasing $52 million in funds. Shortly after the announcement, Mount Snow broke ground on their Carinthia Lodge project. As heavy equipment rumbled around the ceremonial site, a bevy of local, state, and Mount Snow officials dug in with ceremonial gold shovels. The three-story Carinthia Lodge is touted as a state-of-the-art facility of approximately 38,000 square feet and able to seat 500 people at any one time, with a full-service restaurant, a cafeteria, two bars, and a coffee counter.
Wilmington police issued a warning to local residents to take steps to protect their pets from wildlife attacks after a dog was killed by a bear in Chimney Hill. Police said a Chimney Hill resident was walking her dog on a leash when a bear snatched it away, killing the small dog and carrying it into the woods. Police said the bear showed no fear of the dog’s owner, who was trying to pull the dog away from the bear. Vermont Game Warden Richard Watkin said that after hearing the dog bark at something, the owner tugged at the dog’s leash and was met with resistance. The leashed dog was pulled into nearby woods. The owner ran after the dog and was confronted by a large bear, which then ran away from the owner into the woods. Watkin said that instances of bears and other wild animals showing aggression toward pets, people or pets accompanied by people are extremely rare in Vermont, however, a second pet was attacked and killed in the same vicinity just a few weeks later.
Wilmington and Whitingham voters approved the creation of Twin Valley Unified Union School District. The merger proved to be uncontroversial in the two towns, and was viewed by many as a minor change from their relationship as a joint contract school. With the approval of a merger between Halifax and Readsboro to create Southern Valley Union School District, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union met the state mandate under Act 46. Stamford, however, declined to joint the Southern Valley Union School District, and the border town continues to pursue an interstate school district with a Massachusetts school district.
Dunkin’ Donuts developers ran into controversy again when they submitted an application for two internally lit signs on the property as construction on their new building was nearing completion. Following two DRB meetings at which extensive public opinion opposing the signs was heard, the DRB approved an externally lit menu sign for the drive through, and a “grandfathered” internally lit sign with the same placement and size as an existing gas station sign.
After many complaints by the Wilmington Selectboard, the Hermitage Club began paying $148,664 in delinquent taxes owed on several of their properties in the town. In June, the club paid their second installment nine days late, after selectboard members expressed their dismay that it hadn’t been paid on time.