This year was all about the issues: With some large projects resolved and locals making a difference for the issues they cared about.
Pierson Library and Town Hall
The most tangible new addition in town in 2019 was the rebuilt Pierson Library attached to the historic Town Hall, which also got a top-to-bottom overhaul. Along the way, the project included a home for the Shelburne Historical Society and a cozy, high-ceilinged space with big windows and a fireplace now informally dubbed the “community’s living room.”
From the start of construction in late 2018 through summer 2019, people adjusted to the disruption, with the displaced library operating out of the Shelburne Field House.
They also rolled with unexpected surprises you have when you try to restore a 100-year-old building.
And for every friend of the library who was excited to see construction move along, there was a naysayer questioning whether libraries are still relevant and to complain about the nearly $7 million price tag, which included $1 million of fundraising.
In the end, the folks at the library say demand is up enough that they are going to experiment with Sunday hours this spring. As former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin said at the grand opening, libraries in the 21st century are so much more than the sum of their books and materials – they’re gathering places for young and old, places where people learn things in many ways. That’s evident already.
Fog lines and crossing signals
People managed the library and Town Hall disruption along with the other big inconvenience in the village: torn-up roads for sewer line upgrades and paving.
Falls Road was torn up from end to end. Sitting in alternating-lane traffic some days, I thought the folks on Bacon Drive would probably gain a greater appreciation for their quiet little neighborhood as soon as the Falls Road traffic was diverted back where it belonged.
A small inconvenience to make sure the sewer lines were in good shape, I suppose.
At the end of it all, there was paving. Markings with bright new crosswalks and signs put back in place. The showstopper, though, was the paint job on the curvy fog lines – the folks at the town offices declared it a miss but not worth paying to redo.
Meanwhile, over at the Route 7 end of Church Street, something relatively small – but important – happened.
What started as an idea by a Boy Scout working towards his Eagle Scout rank became a reality when the new flashing pedestrian crossing beacons were purchased and installed with the help of a state grant.
Last summer, the busy road crossing became safer thanks to local Eagle Scout Gerrit Pottmeyer. He returned my call from Spain, I think, where he was at the time the signals were installed.
Organizing the neighborhood and the school
It took some organizing over many months, but the residents at Lakeview Mobile Home Park took the leap last year to buy their neighborhood from its longtime owners, Lake Champlain Transportation and the Pecor family. They join similar cooperatives in Shelburne and nearby communities, where residents now have more control over the place they call home.
Residents worked hard to understand the ins and outs of the new arrangement. Those in the group who volunteer to run the organization put in extra time to explain the details to their neighbors, some of them elderly uninterested in moving. Together, the residents managed to stave off new development to keep their scenic overlook of Lake Champlain along Shelburne Road affordable.
In a similar vein, I watched students at Shelburne Community School last year get excited to learn about a bill before the state legislature, hoping to ban the trade of goods made from endangered and poached animals around the world.
I met fourth grader Sara DiGuglielmo with her mom over February break. They had collected art work made by the school’s second graders to hand out to each of the state’s 180 lawmakers at the State House. Soon after, I caught up with Sara in Montpelier with a handful of other student activists who testified to House and Senate committees reviewing the legislation.
They read, wide-eyed, from the papers where they had carefully written their comments explaining how sales in Vermont of items from a list of endangered animals from around the world fuel poaching and the illicit trade that is threatening to wipe out species such as elephants, giraffes and tigers. Oh my.
Lawmakers listened politely, thanked them and encouraged them to continue speaking out on issues they cared about. Then the bills languished in committee, never making it out for a vote in either chamber.
I don’t expect the students will give up that easily. My hunch is that they will be back in Montpelier to make their case again.
Declaring defeat in the salt shed legal battle
The tone of selectboard meetings in 2019 was often pleasant, usually cordial and polite. Board members frequently commended each other and town officials and volunteers on their work. They attentively listened when members of the public visited to bring up unexpected topics such as beavers building beaver dens near a busy road or the need for a better crosswalk near the school – or even to turn in a petition from homeowners upset about a new development getting hooked up to the town sewer lines.
It wasn’t that long ago that selectboard meetings were not so, with small crowds of agitated residents gathered and public comment routinely marked by confrontation.
The town’s battle with Vermont Railway over the salt sheds the railroad built to store road salt shipped to Vermont had a way of bringing many to the edge of their patience and good behavior for much of 2016, 2017 and into 2018.
By early 2019, that rancor had all but disappeared and turnover among board members and town managers meant new players were in place when the federal appeals court ruling came out just two days after Town Meeting Day in March.
Announced in late 2015, the project touched off a firestorm that featured some street protests, crowded selectboard meetings with shouting, multiple federal court proceedings, ethics complaints between town officials, and even one selectboard member getting sidelined from taking part in anything related to the issue.
Citing federal exemption, the railroad built the facility with just a few state permits and no local zoning review, prompting the town to find the railroad in violation. The dispute landed in federal court with several go-rounds in Vermont and ultimately, the railroad prevailed based on the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act which exempts rail projects from local regulation.
During the case, however, public opinion in town was divided on how far the town should go with its challenge. While some argued the project posed possible environmental dangers and would create noise and traffic issues, others criticized spending tax dollars on the case.
In March 2019, the selectboard put the issue to rest. Soon after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City ruled in the railroad’s favor, the selectboard decided to appeal no more. The case had cost taxpayers more than $516,000. New board members agreed it was time to move on.
Looking at next year’s proposed town budget, I noticed the line for legal work: $55,000.
Nudging economic development from goal to reality
A new town plan adopted in February contains dozens of to-do items and both selectboard and planning commission members are talking about how to make it connect with real life. Some selectboard members even carry hard copies of the plan around with them, I’ve noticed.
The starting point? Economic development. The combination of planners envisioning the future and developers frustrated with the current system gave way to conversations late in 2019, drawing the attention of those who make the rules.
In the background, a real-life situation played out over much of the year as Fiddlehead Brewery struggled to update its permits in order to expand its brewing capacity and add a café. The effort dragged on with twists and turns including legal action from neighbors and ethics complaints involving town officials.
By fall, the café plans were shelved, and Fiddlehead reached a solution with town zoning requirements and neighbors. Just around that time, the local business association and selectboard were setting up public meetings to gather ideas on how Shelburne could be an easier place for companies to do business.
Some heavy – and at times awkward – conversations ensued and remarkably ended with people on both sides hopeful that they can come up with ways to improve the situation in 2020.
I’ll be watching for news of businesses growing or breathing new life into the vacant commercial spaces that line Shelburne Road.
Fire-rescue station on the horizon
Here’s something you don’t see every day: A proposal for a town and a retailer to jointly develop a high-profile location. That is what’s been happening, since last spring when voters gave town officials a green light to explore a possible new fire and rescue station alongside a Healthy Living food market and café at Longmeadow Drive and Shelburne Road.
If all goes according to plan, Shelburne voters may be asked in November to approve the land purchase with a future vote on a bond to build the station.
Which leads to the next question: What would then happen with the existing fire station? I’ve so far heard mention of a new police station, a giant little league pavilion and even a restaurant.
Tackling tax scofflaws and dog park snafus
Town Manager Lee Krohn is a volunteer firefighter in his spare time. Now a year in since his hire was made permanent, Krohn is putting out figurative local government brush fires every day.
For example, if you’re a delinquent taxpayer, you’ve no doubt heard from him as he works to collect on accounts gone astray.
Another example: the Shelburne Dog Park. A year ago, it looked as if a new spot would be needed for the park after state wetlands regulators said Shelburne went too far when it spiffed up the fenced-in site along Harbor Road, where dogs can run free. Thanks to much discussion, some compromises and a permit application, the park is now staying put, Krohn reports.
Frustrated with the dog park debacle last summer, town resident and frequent local-government critic John Saar put it this way at a selectboard meeting: “C’mon, this is Shelburne – we can do better than this.”