As 2016 comes to a close, the Milton Independent is pleased to reflect on another year. For us, it’s been one of major change. We’ve taken over the helm of two other weekly papers in our group, which has altered our positions drastically.
But we’re still your local paper, delivering news on the people, places and things that make Milton unique. We’re honored to tell this little-big-town’s story year after year.
As in the two years prior, one of 2016’s top stories was Milton High School’s football hazing scandal and its related fallout.
One major arc of this story ended abruptly in 2016 – that being the school district’s decision to end its investigation into whether officials violated its hazing and bullying prevention policies. That was the conclusion in an independent investigator’s report that the board received in 2014.
This May, new superintendent Ann Bradshaw – originally just filling former school chief John Barone’s seat while he was on administrative leave – issued a statement saying the board finished its review, but not much else.
This was partly because the school was facing a civil lawsuit, filed by victim Jordan Preavy’s family, board member Karen LaFond said then.
The lawsuit is ongoing, Preavy family attorney Robert Appel said this week, as the court hasn’t ruled on the school district’s motion for summary judgment.
Originally filed in August 2015, the suit alleges administrators’ negligence in addressing the team’s “toxic” climate led to Jordan’s assault. The school has said officials didn’t know about the incident until after his suicide in 2012.
The only officials who remain in place since the original police investigation opened in 2014 are principal Anne Blake and gym teacher/coach Jim O’Grady. The board terminated Barone in February.
Another civil dispute also dominated headlines in 2016, namely that involving the Georgia Fire Department.
It all started in the fall of 2015, when the town instituted a confidentiality agreement to limit sharing sensitive information on social media. Six members – Chris Gonyeau, Heather Grimm, Andrew Dunsmore, Leonard Delage, Jordan Valyou and Brittany Bull – failed to sign the document as ordered by Chief Keith Baker, saying it was too broad and restricted their First Amendment rights.
All six were eventually fired this March. In the following two months of appeal hearings, the six maintained they were really fired out of retaliation for challenging leadership and engaging in concerted activity.
Through attorneys, the town argued the firefighters were insubordinate. The hearings emphasized a deep chasm in the department, particularly between supporters of Baker and Gonyeau, his predecessor.
Public and often heated airings of grievances included allegations of sexual harassment, unaddressed safety concerns and overall discontent. The dismissed members filed an unfair labor practice charge against the town with the Vermont Labor Relations Board in late April; that litigation is still pending.
In June, the selectboard unanimously upheld Gonyeau and Grimm’s dismissals and reinstated the other four members with probationary conditions. A month later, Gonyeau and Grimm responded with a federal lawsuit, alleging their dismissals violate their constitutional rights. That litigation, too, remains ongoing.
The ordeal has cost the town over $100,000 in legal expenses, as per a Nov. 21 report.
“We would all like to just get the fire department moving in a positive direction,” town attorney Joe McLean told the Independent this past summer.
In Milton, another case – this one criminal – concluded this year. Facing life in prison for attempted murder, Lucas Gingras got off with just two years after accepting a plea deal in April.
In 2014, Gingras was accused of faking a bear attack to cover up a plot to kill his ex-girlfriend. She survived the incident – escaping from a cabin on fire, falling down a 70-foot cliff, being dragged through the woods – but later died from unrelated causes.
After two years of hearings and motions in court, Gingras pleaded guilty to arson and reckless endangerment.
Stories about governance were also big in 2016.
It took nearly all year for Georgia’s first venture with landmark education law Act 46 to play out. Passed in 2015, it encouraged school districts to merge into more cost-effective structures by 2018 to address declining enrollment and rising property taxes.
After 10 months of work, a 10-member study committee made up of school board members and residents from Georgia, Fairfax and Fletcher – all three Franklin West Supervisory Union schools – voted unanimously to disband in late October.
The group had spent the better part of the year considering two options: merging into one district and building a new unified high school, or merging Fairfax and Fletcher into one K-12 district and petitioning for a standalone K-8 structure in Georgia.
Georgia residents articulated their desire to maintain high school choice and advocated for the alternative structure, essentially arguing the district can meet the goals of Act 46 without merging.
Still, the secretary of education could assign Georgia to another K-8 district, preserving high school choice but also dissolving its school board and carrying serious budget implications depending on the other district’s per pupil spending.
To prevent that, earlier this month the Georgia School Board voted to form a new exploratory committee to continue discussions with South Hero, whose K-8 Folsom School is interested in a potential merger. Voters must approve any merger before the state can consider it.
Milton, too, studied governance in the context of its zoning bylaws. Enacted in 2015, interim zoning paused development of multifamily housing downtown and of storage units town-wide for up to two years.
In 2016, the board only had one challenge to the bylaws, from developer Billy Sawyer, who sought to build a five-unit development on Route 7. It denied his conditional use application in January.
The planning commission has spent this year thumbing through the regulations, planning director Jake Hemmerick said last week, and has asked the selectboard to consider extending interim zoning until its rewrite is complete.
“The bulk of the task is behind us,” Hemmerick said. “Now it’s time to fine-tune it, make sure we have it right.”
The selectboard will consider the extension of the commission’s study at a meeting in January.
The selectboard also considered another matter this year, albeit an uncommon circumstance: The fate of two dogs who mauled a Milton woman, unprovoked.
On June 18, Pauline Kehoe was talking to her friend at a parking area near her Eagle Mountain Harbor Rd. home when John Bowes approached with his two Rottweilers, Scooter and Clarence.
The dogs lunged at Kehoe, ripping at her throat and legs, almost killing her, her husband told the selectboard at a vicious dog hearing days later.
The board was faced with a choice: Order the dogs euthanized or allow them to live but remain muzzled or chained. After hearing the testimony, the board chose the first option. Owner Gretchen Kunze appealed to the Vermont Superior Court but didn’t convince the judge to rule in her favor.
The dogs were put down following a September hearing.
Despite the restrictions on development, Milton still issued plenty of building permits this year. Three permits for multi-family housing were approved, paving the way for 98 multi-family housing units; there were 72 last year.
Single-family homes were down from 13 to 11, according to town data. One of these was a Habitat for Humanity home, the second on Railroad Street in as many years, for a Jericho family whose basement apartment constantly flooded. The couple’s kids now attend Milton schools.
All this growth brought in some revenue: $144,802 in impact fees, which help to offset the effects of development. That’s a bit more than 2015’s $101,600, town numbers show.
Hemmerick was especially pleased to see more senior housing in town. The town issued a certificate of compliance to Gabe Handy’s 30-unit building off Centre Drive, and Cathedral Square’s Elm Place broke ground this May just down the road.
The state-of-the-art, affordable facility will have one of the highest available energy standards, developers say.
Nearby, the Haydenberry Commons apartments are adding a second wing, the second phase of that project, Hemmerick said.
Camp Precast Concrete is another Milton company expanding. They’re building a new mixing plant, a generous addition to Catamount Industrial Park.
The park is also home to the upcoming Bove’s sauce manufacturing facility. The family closed its iconic Italian café in Burlington last December and announced plans to move its plant to Milton. Hemmerick said developers are working toward a certificate of compliance to become operational.
Speaking of food, it’s always notable when a restaurant opens or closes in town. Milton saw two new establishments sprout up this year: In July, Roaster’s BBQ opened in a long-vacant spot on Route 7, the former site of several pizza joints.
Initially only open weekends, Roaster’s expanded hours to Tuesdays-Saturdays so Miltonians have more chances to taste owner Trevor Leroux’s house-smoked meats.
Frey Family Deli opened in the former Dam Store location. The store sells gas and groceries, plus made-to-order subs and fresh soups and desserts.
In Georgia, local businessman Jim Harrison received long-awaited town and state approval for the quarry he hopes to build and operate next to his concrete batching plant off Route 104A.
A venture nearly five years in the making, the quarry received Act 250 approval in December 2015 after a series of public hearings; the zoning board of adjustment’s OK came this May after two prior denials, and the planning commission gave the final go-ahead a month later.
Still, the project’s neighbors were steadfast in their disapproval. At every public hearing and forum over the last two years, the group cited fear the quarry would generate excessive noise, lower property values and generally disturb enjoyment of private land in the town’s most rural, residential district.
Budgets and elections
For the first time in four years, all measures on Milton’s Town Meeting Day ballot passed at the polls.
The $28.6 million school budget included increased general fund spending, but voters were promised no tax hike since the plan used fiscal year 2015 surplus to offset one. Voters also approved the school’s article to move the remainder of that surplus to a capital reserve fund.
The $7.4 million town budget and its special article, a $390,000 bond to cover the purchase of the Bombardier property, both passed. The parcel’s former owner, the late Bert Bombardier, wanted to see it house a senior and youth facility, plus a museum. The town will start talks about land uses after Town Meeting, town manager Donna Barlow Casey said.
In Georgia, voter turnout nearly doubled at this year’s polls. The $2.74 million town proposal was estimated to be the town’s largest tax rate decrease in recent history.
The school’s $13.2 million budget passed by Australian ballot, but a measure to eliminate a capital improvement reserve fund cap was defeated by 121 votes.
And, in case you possibly forgot, this year also hosted a general election. Milton voters generally sided with national and statewide winners, choosing Republican gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott, Democratic attorney general hopeful TJ Donovan and incumbent secretary of state Jim Condos; Georgia poll-goers had the same preferences.
Both towns favored lieutenant governor hopeful Randy Brock, a Republican, over winner David Zuckerman (D/P).
While Georgia picked president-elect Donald Trump by four votes, Milton chose Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Both towns easily re-elected Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch to Congress.
In local races, Georgia’s longtime Rep. Carolyn Branagan won a bid for one of Franklin County’s Senate seats alongside Republican incumbent Dustin Degree of St. Albans, besting Democrats Sara Branon Kittell and Denise Smith. Vying for Branagan’s former House seat were Democrat Caroline Bright and Republican Carl Rosenquist. The latter defeated his opponent, 1,518 to 859.
Milton returned incumbent, unchallenged Reps. Don Turner and Ron Hubert to the Vermont State House. Grand Isle-Chittenden voters picked incumbent Mitzi Johnson – set to be speaker of the House – and newcomer Ben Joseph.
Hellos and goodbyes
2016 started off with some big changes for your local newspaper, as we said hello to leadership roles at two more of our three Chittenden County weekly papers.
Editor Courtney Lamdin was promoted to executive editor of the Indy, Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun, and reporter Abby Ledoux was named associate editor.
Since March, we’ve completely reorganized the newsroom at our Severance Corners office in Colchester. Nearly our entire staff has turned over, and with that, readers have likely noticed new bylines on their pages.
We first hired Michaela Halnon, a Milton native and 2016 Emerson College graduate, as a reporter. Having interned with Lamdin as a Milton High School student years before, Halnon had already demonstrated her skills and inherent curiosity. We knew she’d make a great reporter on our team.
We next brought on Kaylee Sullivan, a 2016 St. Michael’s College grad, who has already published plentiful stories in Milton. Our last hire was Tom Marble, who started just before Thanksgiving. He went to SUNY-Plattsburgh but moved here all the way from Rochester, N.Y.
Rounding out our editorial team is Colin Flanders, who has been with The Reporter since graduating from St. Mike’s in 2015, and who just recently started incorporating Milton into his beat.
But enough about us. This year also saw the hiring of several town and school leaders. The town of Milton gained a new finance director in Sarah Macy, a former St. Albans City finance manager.
The school hired a new facilities director this year in Bruce Cheeseman. It also brought on three new principals, giving Milton Elementary/Middle School entirely new leadership. Lynne Manley, formerly a principal there, was promoted to curriculum director in 2016.
We also said our share of goodbyes this year.
Beloved Milton physician Dr. David Little officially retired from full-time hours at Milton Family Practice in October after 41 years.
“David has an unconditional commitment to his patients,” Dr. Tom Peterson said in Little’s recognition speech. The doc now works per diem, granting his patients at least a little relief that he’s not totally done.
We also said goodbye to two Georgia firefighters in 2016, already a year of hardship for the small department.
Longtime firefighter Steve Lapierre’s May 5 passing marked the first line of duty death in the department’s 64-year history. Lapierre, 58, suffered a heart attack while fighting a brushfire in April and died in the hospital a week later.
He served on GFD for 47 years and was a career firefighter in St. Albans City for 32. His funeral saw full honors and was attended by hundreds of mourners, including a slew of first responders from around the state and a few from across the border.
“Even though Steve left us way too soon, I believe he left us doing what he thoroughly enjoyed,” Chief Keith Baker said at the funeral.
Two months to the day after Lapierre’s death, GFD felt another loss: Firefighter Leonard Delage, 32, was killed in a car crash on July 2.
GFD was first on scene near the St. Albans town line where Delage and the car’s driver, Justin Hemond – another Georgia firefighter – were ejected from the vehicle after it left the shoulder, struck a culvert and rolled into a field, police said.
Delage was killed, and Hemond sustained head injuries. Police said high speed and alcohol were likely factors in the deadly crash.
A crash was also central to a story we expected to be a heroic tale of rescue. Back in May, Milton police responded to a car-versus-deer collision involving a pregnant doe. Sgt. Paul Locke noticed hooves protruding from the mother’s underbelly and pulled out a fawn.
He applied a modified form of CPR, reviving the baby deer, and rushed it to Milton Veterinary Hospital. There, technicians learned of Vt. Fish & Wildlife’s policy to euthanize fawns that come in contact with humans.
Locke, an animal lover in many Miltonians’ minds, was saddened by the outcome.
“I’ve never given birth to a deer before,” he said then, laughing. “It was just amazing to go from pulling it out from a dead mother to this. It’s not something you do every day.”
It’s not something we write about every day, either.
2016 started out on a good note, however, as one of our first stories this year recounted a Miltonian couple’s winning the Tri-State Megabucks, a one-in-4.5 million chance.
Another winner included Milton High School grad Bethany Berger, who placed second in a national grocery-bagging competition in Las Vegas in February.
“It’s kind of like one big game of Tetris,” she said of her skills.
Also this year, Milton students performed well in the Junior Iron Chef competition: Two of four teams took home prizes in the ninth annual contest in March. Milton teams have placed in all five years they’ve competed, whipping up a real legacy.
Speaking of champions, the Milton girls soccer team won its second straight championship win and 14th title against Montpelier in November.
Milton boys came close, but no dice – the top-seeded team fell to undefeated No. 2 Lake Region in their Division II championship.
More recognition came for locals off the field, too: Milton soldier Austin Barber won the Gen. Douglas MacArthur leadership award for exhibiting duty and honor in service to his country.
Georgia’s George Bilodeau received the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ Municipal Service Award in October for his years of community service on boards, committees and through other organizations.
Patrons of Georgia Public Library had reason to celebrate, too, as the library turned 120 years old in 2016. The town marked the anniversary with a dance performance, poetry readings and lectures.
More fun was had at our fourth annual Monster Mile in October, where we raised $850 for the Milton Family Community Center food shelf, plus 187 pounds of non-perishable donations. A rainy, blustery day may have discouraged some attendees from coming out for the cause, but it couldn’t dampen our fun. We committed to support the food shelf again at next year’s Halloween fun run.
Another successful event in 2016 was the Milton Independent’s inaugural Prom for Grown-Ups, a prom-themed dance party at Higher Ground in April that benefited the Milton Community Youth Coalition’s programs. Nearly 300 people from Milton and beyond donned tuxes and dresses for a magical night out we won’t forget.
An unforgettable rescue also made headlines in Milton when fifth-grader Mi’Sean Graham saved his friend Liam Ryan from choking in the school cafeteria. For his quick thinking, Milton Rescue gave him a lifesaver award at a ceremony in September.
And finally, 4-year-old Brantley Brooks was granted his Make-A-Wish: to go to Disney World – an awesome adventure for a boy who’s spent most of his life in a hospital fighting a rare immune disease.
Brantley has had chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, and now that he’s better, he’ll get to high-five his favorite character, Pluto, at the happiest place on earth.
His mom, Shannon Brooks, was tearful at the reveal party in October.
“It’s been a humbling experience, and we are forever grateful,” she said.
Brooks’ sentiment is a fitting one to end our story, as we’re thankful for all our readers, friends and advertisers who give us purpose in delivering you these stories every week.
Thanks, Milton and Georgia. We hope 2017 is even better.