2015: Year in Review

(File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

The parents of hazing victim Jordan Preavy are pictured at the Vermont State House in January, where they successfully advocated for a strengthened mandated reporting law named after their late son. (File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

We don’t know about you, but we can barely believe another 52 weeks have passed since we last penned a year-ender. Where did all the time go?

For us at the Milton Independent, our time was devoted to covering this year’s biggest headlines for town and school governance, growth and development, budgets, hellos and goodbyes and notable moments.

Without further adieu, we bring you a recap of this year’s top news stories.

Biggest headlines

As in 2014, the biggest story was not the most positive one.

The Milton High School football scandal and its aftermath dominated headlines in 2015, starting with the resolution of the sexual hazing case against five former players and ending with an ongoing administrative leave for Milton’s top school official.

Former Yellowjacket Brandon Beliveau’s initial misdemeanor was upped to felony attempted sexual assault in late 2014, but by March 2015, he accepted a four-year deferred sentence for simple assault and felony unlawful restraint. He also served 12 days in jail.

The parents of Beliveau’s victim, Jordan Preavy, made news several other times in 2015, particularly in August when they filed a civil lawsuit against the school, Superintendent John Barone and Principal Anne Blake for negligence and other claims. Jordan committed suicide in 2012, about a year after his abuse.

A Superior Court judge just dropped the latter parties from the suit, citing law shielding individual officers of a public body against claims. The case is still pending.

Top: George Bilodeau (center) addresses the audience at Georgia's traditional Town Meeting. Above: Georgia Selectboard members Matt Crawford, Tara Wright and Chris Letourneau discuss a response to a voter's question at Town Meeting. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Georgia Selectboard members Matt Crawford, Tara Wright and Chris Letourneau discuss a response to a voter’s question at Town Meeting. (File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

The Preavys, with Milton Rep. Ron Hubert’s help, also successfully pushed for legislative change with Jordan’s Bill, which strengthened language in the mandatory reporting law to protect students from hazing and harassment. Contained in a larger child protection bill, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it into law in June.

Two months later, the private investigator hired by Milton’s School Board released a report concluding five Milton school officials failed to fully implement hazing and bullying prevention policies.

One of them, Superintendent Barone, initiated a medical leave the day after, and the board concurrently placed him on paid administrative leave, which, at press time, was scheduled to end on the last day of 2015. For now, temporary interim superintendent Ann Bradshaw is in charge.

Milton town officials also hired a new leader in 2015. Former town manager Brian Palaia departed for a Massachusetts managership in February, and the Milton Selectboard formed a hiring committee the same month.

At first populated by all males, the committee diversified in April and quickly elevated 13 of the 51 candidates to the top of the list. Trouble started in May when the board agreed to negotiate with former Milton manager Sanford Miller, who didn’t make the committee’s final cut.

Within eight days, a board majority about-faced on Miller, previously Milton’s longest serving manager before a prior board chose to not renew his contract in 2009. It selected two finalists and then one, Donna Barlow Casey, who formerly ran Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District for 15 years.

Already, Barlow Casey has jumped into a major project to improve aesthetics and create a sense of place in town. The Milton 4D project – Defining Downtown from the Diner to the Dam – will form a plan to use the voter-approved $2.4 million in tax increment financing funds; consultants will present a final vision in the New Year.

Another identity-defining initiative started in 2015, namely interim zoning. Milton’s Planning Commission is leading this charge to rewrite zoning to promote growth, particularly commercial that officials say is lacking.

The effort pauses development of multifamily housing downtown and public warehousing town-wide for up to two years as the PC studies better bylaws. A mixed-use project that goes against these temporary regulations was just proposed, and the selectboard has yet to issue a decision.

Other big changes made news in 2015, particularly a shift in state academic testing to the computer-based Smarter Balanced assessments. Milton and Georgia students were among the thousands nationwide whose schools adopted the Common Core standards this year.

(Photo by Abby Ledoux)

Toxic blue-green algae closed Georgia’s public beach this summer and also lowered property values along the lakefront. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

Milton scores were lower than officials hoped but were also expected during the transition. Only Grade 11 language arts scores were higher than the state average, whereas Georgia students mostly outscored the state across the board.

Legislation effected other change in Georgia: The passage of Act 46, a landmark education reform law, spelled additional work for its school board as members entered a study to potentially merge into a more cost-effective governance structure by 2019.

A committee will explore options over the next year, which meets for the first time on January 28.

Georgians also dealt with a challenge in a different vein in the form of toxic blooms of blue-green algae that plagued Lake Champlain.

The noxious bacteria prompted health department-ordered closures of the town’s public beach and resulted in a $1.7 million hit to the grand list when town assessor Bill Hinman decreased 34 lakefront property values on Ferrand Road. He continues to monitor the area, he recently told the selectboard.

But the year also rounded out with some plain ol’ good news, too.

We won’t forget Chris Fanning’s heroic actions that saved 83-year-old Marie O’Connor from her burning home on November 4. A contractor from Starksboro, he happened to drive by the fire and free her stuck wheelchair from the doorframe just before a propane tank exploded. The selectboard awarded him for his lifesaving efforts earlier this month.

And certainly we couldn’t ignore the Milton High School girls’ soccer team, who took home the Division II state championship trophy, defeating No. 1 seed U-32 on October 31.

A very happy Halloween indeed.

Local economy

This year was also one of growth and development. In Milton, the selectboard considered a solar panel project at the town landfill that, when operational next December, will be the largest of its kind in the nation.

Aly Sheehan, a member of one Milton Middle School Junior Iron Chef teams, is caught on camera during the competition at the Expo on Saturday, March 28. (Photo by Harjit Dhaliwal)

Aly Sheehan, a member of one Milton Middle School Junior Iron Chef teams, is caught on camera during the competition at the Expo on Saturday, March 28. (File photo by Harjit Dhaliwal)

The board is working with vendor SunEdison on permitting that array and another at the wastewater treatment plant, the latter potentially at a size the quarter of its original scope. The town just learned Green Mountain Power reached a cap on net metering, director of community services Erik Wells said, but he considers both projects works in progress.

Another progressive project made headlines in Milton this year, namely Champlain Valley Dispensaries’ marijuana grow facility in the Catamount Industrial Park.

The company is one of four regulated nonprofits that can distribute medical cannabis in Vermont, used to treat conditions from cancer to multiple sclerosis. The operation – though obviously closed to the general public – opened in September, founder Shayne Lynn said.

Catamount Park also gained a new tenant in Bove’s, the sauce-making company that recently closed its famous Burlington café. Owner Mark Bove, the third generation to operate the business, hopes for a June 2016 grand opening.

Other food-related businesses came to town this year, too, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Scott Levy looked to break a curse by opening North Country Saloon in a Route 7 building that carries a stigma of frequent tenant turnover. So far, so good: Open since February, the eatery draws crowds with weekly specials including Wednesday night live trivia and Sunday night football.

Milton Square Plaza gained a new tenant in April with Lucky Buffet, a 6,000-square-foot Chinese eatery featuring a massive array of both Asian and American offerings. Its 45 tables accommodate a crowd.

The Dam Store and Deli reopened this spring after being sold at auction last summer. The Picht family leases the convenience store, which has gained fans for its rotating specials and even pies for the holiday season.

(Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Milton’s School Board presented a bench to the family of Jim Lyons, a school trustee who died in April (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Business owner Sam Handy wasn’t so lucky in Milton. He opened his restaurant, Rowan’s, in the former Apollo Diner spot this May, and it shuttered in November.

In an entirely different industry, shareholders of Ireland-based Perrigo Company – which employs about 350 people at its infant formula plant in Georgia – successfully resisted a hostile takeover by pharmaceutical company Mylan in November.

Georgia businessman Jim Harrison continued his quest for Act 250 approval of a rock quarry between Skunk Hill Road and Route 104A, just south of his concrete facility.

Neighbors turned out in force at several hearings to voice their opposition to Harrison’s scaled-back plans. The commission hasn’t issued a decision since its last hearing in July.

Another local developer, Tim Reed of Fairfield, had more success with Act 250, getting permission to build a 16-lot, 19-unit housing subdivision on Georgia’s Route 7 in August. The project, a quarter mile north of interstate Exit 18, is now under construction.

Georgia’s residential growth was slightly slower, permitting two fewer single-family homes and accessory apartments than in 2014, at 11 and two, respectively, zoning administrator Cindy Deyak said. Both years saw the permitting of one eight-unit multifamily structure.

In Milton, residential growth was halved, perhaps due to interim zoning’s effects, as there were no multifamily units permitted this year, a sharp decline from last year’s 72, the most common residence built then, data shows.

Though permitted last year, the 34-unit Haydenberry Commons, a senior living facility aptly located on Haydenberry Drive, opened as the first commercially built structure in its zoning district and also developer David Shenk’s first elderly housing operation.

And finally, in transportation news, work to replace the Lamoille River bridge on Milton’s Interstate 89 continued this year. Now in the third phase of its project, Tetra Tech Construction estimates a December 2016 completion date.

Budgets

On Town Meeting Day this year, all budgets fared well on the first go with the exception of Milton school’s, whose $27.8 million offering, an 8.19 percent increase from the current year, failed 1,055 to 720.

Tom and Jake Turkey, a dynamic duo of turkeys that wandered Milton's streets and polarized residents, have flown the coop for good. (File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Tom and Jake Turkey, a dynamic duo of turkeys that wandered Milton’s streets and polarized residents, have flown the coop for good. (File photo by Courtney Lamdin)

After elections, a new school board retooled the budget, cutting more than $300,000 to achieve a $27.57 million proposal, despite many teachers and parents pleading otherwise. The new budget narrowly passed 662-606 in June.

The budgets passed on Town Meeting included Milton town’s $7.5 million proposal, a 3.75 percent increase, plus the previously mentioned $2.4 million TIF bond; Georgia town’s $2.45 million budget and Georgia school’s $12.8 million offering, only a half-percent increase.

Georgia voters also OK’d a $2.4 million bond to fund a new heating, ventilating and air conditioning system in the school’s C-building but nixed a $3 million bond to bankroll a cafeteria expansion.

Hellos and goodbyes

Speaking of boards and budgets, Miltonians welcomed an entirely new majority of school board members in 2015.

Planning Commission Chairwoman Lori Donna quickly ascended to the school board’s top rank after March elections, and former Milton Parent-Teacher Association president Rae Couillard was voted in, unchallenged.

Former trustee Michael Boisjoli joined the ranks on the June ballot. Though welcome, Boisjoli’s appearance was precipitated by the unfortunate passing of Jim Lyons, a trustee who served for nearly eight years. He died at age 72 in April due to complications from diabetes.

“Jim loved the community and its kids,” former board Chairman Doug Stout wrote. “These are the best reasons for one to become a school board member.”

Milton lost another public servant in 2015 in “Aunt Betty” Cross, a longtime EMT who died after a long battle with breast cancer on June 22, the 17th anniversary of her joining the squad to which she was so dedicated.

A sea of EMTs escorted her to the cemetery, where they signed off her call number for the last time.

Cross was buried in the Milton Village Cemetery, which experienced its own crossing over in October, when it transferred ownership to the town. Since 1860, it was managed by a volunteer commission, which dissolved in September after ongoing maintenance became too expensive.

“We were trying to stay alive,” former commissioner Bob Lombard said, pun probably not intended, “and kept kicking the can down the road.”

(Photo by Emerson Lynn)

Jenn Taylor made an excellent Wicked Witch of the West at our Monster Mile this year. (File photo by Emerson Lynn)

The town will next consider how to provide off-hour service to customers, as the commissioners had for so many years.

On a sentimental note, Milton Independent readers also felt the loss of two town characters this year, Tom and Jake Turkey, whose names we bequeathed last fall when readers notified us of two wily birds who made the village their home. Some felt they got a little too comfortable, chasing school children and generally causing traffic disruptions.

The turkeys lived in comfortable captivity until this fall, when they escaped and were subsequently shot, reportedly by a couple teenagers, albeit during hunting season. Up until then, we took the editorial liberty of assigning them personalities, and based on them, publishing parody Q&As. We’ll miss them in 2016.

But this year wasn’t totally about loss; we covered several stories about notable transitions.

First, we welcomed Marcel Choquette and Lynne Manley as new principals at Milton Elementary and Middle School.

We also saluted three Johns – Cushing, Palasik and Mahoney – into retirement. The first John served as Milton’s town clerk and treasurer for 46 years, the second as a Milton police sergeant for nearly 30 years and the third a 28-year social studies teacher in Georgia.

Cushing hasn’t totally disappeared from municipal service, as he now sits on the selectboard. Palasik was the department’s first officer below chief-rank to retire in MPD’s 47-year history. Both men grew up in Milton and love the town they served.

“I could have gone other places, but I came back to Milton,” Palasik told us. “It’s a nice little town. Am I proud of Milton? Absolutely.”

A fourth Jon’s departure didn’t make our pages in 2015, but we’re happy to include former Milton police Cpl. Jon Centabar’s retirement in this wrap-up. Centabar retired this summer after 24 years on the force. He now works for the Vt. Department of Liquor Control.

Notables

2015 was a winning year for many.

Milton students proved their varied skills in competitions, including the Junior Iron Chef in April. Milton has a reputation for placing in the annual cooking battle, and this year’s root vegetable empanada with maple adobo sauce impressed judges.

sportswrap1

The Milton High School girls soccer team took home the Division II state championship on Halloween this year. (Independent file photo)

Middle-schoolers also proved they can handle food scraps: In May, their team won a friendly rivalry to throw out less “true trash” and sort compost and recycling. Beating out their elder counterparts, the cohort also decreased their total trash output by 36 percent in a year.

Four Milton High School students were recognized in 2015 for finishing in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ annual essay contest, which is currently taking submissions.

MHS student-actors also proved their talents with the one-act “Beowulf” in the annual Vermont State Drama Festival in March. Their production made it to New Englands, the fifth time in six years the troupe has earned the honor.

Also in school news, Franklin West Supervisory Union, which includes Georgia, was one of 22 districts nationwide accepted into the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, the only New England district recognized this year.

2015 also saw the crowning of the first-ever Milton Community Champions, Ted Beaudoin and Maggie Trayah, who started Milton’s Meals on Wheels Program and coach Special Olympics teams, respectively.

A selectboard-appointed committee chose these two from a handful of nominations submitted by community members. They all received plaques at this year’s National Night Out, an evening of building connections.

A champ of a different nature is David Fortin, whose “Almost Paleo Chili” won Milton Public Library’s second annual chili contest in February, warming up Winter Festival goers. Another contest winner was Rick Wasielewski, who nurtured a 630-pound pumpkin to win Milton Recreation’s giant pumpkin competition in September.

We held a contest of our own at the 3rd Annual Monster Mile, recognizing the best costumes at the Halloween fun run for a cause. A group of 16 dressed as “Wizard of Oz” characters, portraying everyone from Dorothy to the tornado that swept her out of Kansas.

We also raised $1,500 for our cause, Milton Mentors, a Milton Community Youth Coalition program, the highest total in our three years – ahem – running the event.

Another business reached its own milestone this year, too. Milton Family Community Center, a nonprofit that delivers childcare, education, food assistance and more to Milton families and beyond, turned 30.

We spoke to members of MFCC’s Women with Purpose group, which aims to reduce isolation and disparity, and they emotionally relayed how the center’s services have enriched their lives.

“It really makes you feel good,” Vanessa Fleming said of the program’s volunteer opportunities. “I don’t want people to do stuff for me; I want to do stuff for other people.”

It’s that sense of service that defines so many subjects in our stories. We’re happy to bring them to you, week after week.

Merry Christmas, Milton and Georgia! See you in 2016.

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