Year in Review: Record snowfall, solar power, murder and education reform

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Editor's note: The following is a list of the Top 10 stories for 2015 as selected by the Reformer's Editorial Board. Some stories were picked for their newsworthiness or long-ranging implications for the region's future, others were selected because they represent some of the more significant challenges and triumphs of the past year, as well as goals to work toward in 2016.

Renewable energy

This past year saw exponential growth in the approval and development of solar projects throughout Windham County and the state.

The following projects were approved by the Vermont Public Service Board in just the last six months alone: A 2.2-megawatt solar project near Route 30 in the village of Bondville by Vermont Solar Farmers; a 150-kilowatt, interconnected group net-metered system by Integrated Solar on Route 11 in Londonderry; a 500-kW project in Guilford that will be used to offset electricity usage at Sugarbush Resort in Warren; a 500-kW solar facility, as proposed by Winstanley, on land located next to a 2.2 megawatt facility on Putney Road in Brattleboro that went online last year; a 498-kW group net-metering facility off Route 100 in Jamaica by Cement Plant Solar to produce power for William E. Dailey Precast; a 150-kW community solar project by Westminster-based Soveren Inc. in Guilford; and an approximately 500-kW group net-metered solar facility at Dover Elementary School.

Integrated Solar completed a new solar array at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Brattleboro in the fall. The system will produce 256,000-kW hours, which is 38 percent of Kurn Hattin's consumption and is expected to save the school about $144,000 over the course of 25 years, or $5,760 per year.

In August, the Windham Solid Waste Management District finalized its deal with Pristine Sun that will pave the way for one of the largest solar arrays in Vermont. Integrated Solar of Brattleboro will build the array and the governments and school districts within the 19 southern Vermont towns that make up WSWMD will have the first rights to purchase the solar energy through Green Mountain Power.

While all of these projects are helping Vermont reach its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, the development of solar and wind generating facilities has not come without some backlash.

While most Vermonters seem to agree with the state's ultimate goal, there are opposing views on how to get there. There is one segment fighting to dismantle hydro-electric dams up and down our rivers, another group cheering the demise of nuclear power in southern Vermont, and a third group battling against the installation of more wind turbines on our ridge lines – many area residents have expressed concerns about Iberdrola's proposal to build 20 wind turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton.

And now even solar farms are starting to get a bad rap because some people think they deface the landscape. In fact, the Legislature created the Solar Siting Task Force to review the design, location and regulation of solar electric generation facilities and report back to lawmakers in January with recommendations.

Crime

The region saw more than its share of drug arrests, burglaries and other crimes this past year, but obviously certain ones stand out more than others, such as the three bank robberies and two homicides in 2015.

A $10,000 drug debt appears to have been the motivating factor behind the Nov. 9 shooting death of Sultan Rashed, 35, of Brattleboro. An employee of Brattleboro Collision Auto Body Shop found Rashed in a 2013 Ford Edge; Rashed was pronounced dead after Brattleboro's police and fire departments arrived on scene with Rescue Inc. According to Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Elizabeth Bundock, Rashed died due to a single gunshot to the forehead. Leonard Moffatt, 39, of Sharon, was arrested on Nov. 13 and charged with murder in the first degree. According to police, Moffatt owed Rashed $10,000 for drugs he purchased from Rashed.

In the early morning hours of March 1, Vermont State Police were dispatched to the Shady Pine Mobile Home Park in Westminster to respond to a 911 call that someone had been stabbed. Troopers arrived to find a number people at the residence and Michael Johnson, 37, of Bellows Falls, on the floor and unresponsive. According to police, Johnson sustained a stab wound to the chest. Aid was rendered until emergency personnel arrived. Rescue Inc. subsequently pronounced Johnson dead. In October, Lonnie Place, 38, of Westminster pleaded guilty to stabbing Johnson and received 10 to 15 years for manslaughter.

People's United Bank on Main Street in Brattleboro was robbed on June 29 by a man who handed the teller a note which read, "this is a robbery; give me all your 100s and 5's and no dye packets." The teller said she handed over $4,000 and pushed the hold-up alarm after the robber left the bank. About two weeks later Jared R. Fahmy, 22, of Bedford, N.H., turned himself in to the Brattleboro Police Department and confessed to the robbery.

Earlier this month, two People's United Banks in Windham County were robbed on the same day. In Brattleboro, police say a bomb threat was made during a bank robbery at People's United Bank the afternoon of Dec. 14. Police evacuated and secured the area, but no bomb was found. The People's United Bank in Wilmington was robbed that same morning. Police say a teller was handed a note demanding money but no weapon was displayed.

Act 46

School districts in Windham County and throughout the state have been meeting in recent months to discuss the groundbreaking education law known as Act 46 that was passed by the Legislature in May. The law was enacted against a background of overall declining enrollment in Vermont's public schools and growing pressure on the state's property tax. In 2014, a large number of local school budgets — 36 (the highest in recent times) — were defeated at town meetings and had to be re-voted. That prompted the lawmakers into action.

Act 46 describes two main paths for school districts to merge and consolidate. One, called a "preferred governance structure," describes a single school district — or "supervisory district" — where one single school board oversees the administration of the schools within its borders, serving a minimum of 900 students. Act 46 also offers districts the chance to form an "alternative governance structure," a supervisory union comprised of member districts serving a minimum of 1,100 students. Such districts also would be governed — ideally — by one school board.

The new law has generated many questions among school boards throughout the state, such as: What happens to some of the state's smaller schools? Will they be able to survive? What about school choice?

Reformer Christmas Stocking

When the volunteer board of the Reformer Christmas Stocking announced "with heavy hearts" in March that they could no longer continue the yearly campaign that has helped keep local children warm for 78 years, the reaction throughout the county was one of immense sadness. During its nearly eight decades in existence the Stocking, thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers and the generosity of the community, raised millions of dollars and outfitted thousands of kids. But an ever-growing need, coupled with increasing infrastructure challenges for the organization, lead the Stocking's board to the realization that it would be impossible to continue.

"Year after year the number of families and children in need continued to grow and it has been increasingly more difficult to purchase large quantities of the items needed," Chairwoman Elly Majonen wrote after the announcement. "We know the need will not disappear, but times are changing. We have accomplished more than we thought possible. Perhaps out of the ashes a phoenix will rise."

And so it has. The United Way of Windham County in November announced the launch of its Kids in Coats Fund to support winter gear for area kids.

Sweet Pond

Tenacity paid off sweetly for folks in Guilford this year. The town's beloved Sweet Pond — an integral component of the Sweet Pond State Park — has remained empty and dry since it was drained in April 2011 due to safety concerns for the 1922-built dam. The town wasted no time in mobilizing a grass-roots effort to convince the state to reconstruct the dam instead of dismantle it. The Guilford Conservation Commission, along with hundreds of county residents responded with mass e-mails to the Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation. The town formed a Sweet Pond Steering Committee to head up a fundraising campaign and lobbying effort, school children wrote poems, a "Save Sweet Pond" page was created on Facebook, and the Conservation Commission began documenting the importance (both historically and culturally) to Guilford in a photographic presentation. Advocating for the cause in Montpelier were state Rep. Mike Hebert, a Vernon Republican who also represents Guilford, and state Sen. Becca Balint, Democrat-Brattleboro. In spite of a tough budgetary climate in Montpelier, those years of advocacy finally paid off. In the final days of the 2015 legislative session, state lawmakers approved a capital bill that includes $495,000 spread over two fiscal years for dam rehabilitation.

Frugal millionaire

In February, late resident Ronald Read made national news when it was announced that the frugal, hard-working Vermonter had bequeathed most of the millions of dollars that no one even knew he had, to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Brooks Memorial Library.

Born in 1921, Read grew up in a small house in Dummerston and was the first in his family to graduate high school. He worked for decades at Haviland's service station and lived on Spruce Street in Brattleboro. He also enjoy playing the stock market as a hobby, and apparently was quite good at it. When he died June 2, 2014 he had stock holdings and property valued at almost $8 million.

Read's unrestricted gift of $1.2 million is the largest single bequest the library has ever received since George Brooks helped found the library in 1886. The money will substantially bolster the library's endowment, which stood at about $600,000 before Read gift.

BMH received $4.8 million from the Read estate. It is the largest single gift the hospital has ever received, and likely will be used for capital projects and infrastructure improvements.

Police-fire facility projects

Brattleboro went down a familiar road this year when the Selectboard again introduced the possibility of making upgrades to facilities housing the town's police and fire departments. A town-wide referendum cancelled plans previously approved. But the need for these upgrades is only growing.

The town entered into a purchase option agreement with the owners of the Reformer building on Black Mountain Road. The $20,000 agreement secures the property until March 31 and then two other extensions are available for $10,000 each. The newspaper would rent space from the town for at least five years if a purchase were to occur.

The site has been called the most viable option for police. But making necessary life safety upgrades and other improvements at all three facilities is expected to cost between $12 and $13 million. Other options are cheaper but board members worry the projects will be revisited shortly if upgrades only cover the bare minimum. However, the cost has caused concern among board members after three public informational meetings were hosted in different locations.

The Selectboard is currently looking at how to address the projects as Representative Town Meeting nears.

Snow, snow and more snow

Historic snowfall was good for the local ski resorts and economy. Mount Snow and Stratton stayed open until late May while Boston, Mass., saw a record set last year when over 9 feet of snow was measured there. New England was bombarded with snow during six weeks between January and February.

Local road crews were hit hard, though. Former Vermont League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Steven Jeffrey said reports were coming from all over the state saying salt sheds were empty.

"We seemed to have lucked out that when they were empty, that terrible winter finally stopped," he said. "There was a lot of borrowing and lending of salt between towns and between the state and the towns near the end, which got us through just by the skin of our teeth."

Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy reported seeing a 35 percent price increase for salt, which the town had not budgeted for as officials prepare for an annual increase of 10 percent.

Brattleboro's Department of Public Works had exceeded its budget last year due to increased salt consumption. Adjustments had to be made to other line items.

Vermont Yankee

The nuclear power plant in Vernon, which ceased operations in late 2014, had all the spent fuel removed from its reactor and placed in the building's spent fuel pool. Meanwhile, Entergy Vermont Yankee applied to the Vermont Public Service Board to construct a new pad to store the nuclear waste once it is cool enough to be removed from the spent fuel pool. In mid-December, Entergy announced once the PSB has issued a certificate of public good for the new pad, it will begin the process of transferral, which is expected to be completed two years ahead of schedule.

Storing all the spent fuel produced at Vermont Yankee will require 58 dry casks; 13 are already loaded and are on the original pad at the plant. There are 2,996 spent fuel assemblies in the spent fuel pool and 884 spent fuel assemblies loaded in the 13 existing casks.

Effective April of the new year, Entergy will no longer be responsible for a 10-mile emergency preparedness zone around the power plant. While the scale of an accident of the plant has been vastly reduced due to its closure, on-site emergency measures will remain in place to respond to any problems related to the spent fuel.

Winston Prouty Center to move to old Austine Campus

After sitting vacant for more than a year, the main building of the Austine School for the Deaf, which was part of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, may soon become home to the Winston Prouty Center for Child Development, which submitted on Nov. 5 a purchase and sale agreement for the property.

The Austine School closed at the end of the 2014 school year. In September of that year, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, declared bankruptcy.

Winston Prouty was originally on track to renovate and expand its property on Guilford Road when it was decided a better investment would be to purchase the Austine property, keep the current lease holders, use some of the space for its own activities and rent the remaining space to other organizations. Shortly after Winston Prouty announced its bid, the Brattleboro Music Center announced if the sale goes through it will purchase the current Winston Prouty building.

Moving to Austine would allow Winston Prouty to expand its infant care programs and allow all of Prouty's partner agencies to work together under the same roof. Currently Prouty serves about 50 families in its facility on Guilford Street. Moving to the Austine campus would allow it to add 15 or 20 more families. In its community-based programs, Prouty serves another 150 families on any given day.

The Winston Prouty Center for Child Development provides inclusive education and family support to promote the success of children and families. It is comprised of the Early Learning Center and Community Based Services, which includes Children's Integrated Services, the state of Vermont's program for providing support to young children (infant to 6) and their families; the Early Education Initiative collaboration with Windham Southeast Supervisory Union; and Family Supportive Housing, a program to help families with young children who are homeless find and maintain housing.


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