Our year in review: Land rights, wrecks, fires, floods and friendships

©2014 Telegraph Publishing LLC

When The Chester Telegraph began publication three years ago, more than a few people (including the publisher of a local newspaper) warned us that “nothing ever happens” in these communities. And yet, over the past year, keeping up with “nothing” has often been hectic work. Here’s a selection of some of the major stories from 2014.

Photo by Casey Savage.

Photo by Casey Savage.

Route 11 takes it on the chin

On Friday, May 16 around 7 a.m., Joel Brooks heard a bang and looked out the window of his Route 11 home. Skidding on its side toward his house was a tanker carrying 10,500 gallons of gasoline. As it came to a halt next to his vegetable garden, Brooks helped the driver – Ron Drown – get out of the overturned cab.

As emergency units arrived, Brooks and his dog Buddy were evacuated along with everyone living within 1,000 feet of the wreck.

For the next 12 hours, Popple Dungeon Road became Alternate Route 11 for the second time in a week (see Field Farm fire below) while the Chester Fire Department and Reed Truck Services (aided by a number of fire departments from around the region and several state agencies) cut holes in the tanker to siphon out its contents and right it. This accident proved to be a milestone in the young life of The Chester Telegraph. That day alone, we had 4,000 readers, most seeking up-to-date and accurate news about the situation.

The P&H Transportation tanker leaked 2,500 gallons of gasoline into Brooks’ garden and finally into the Williams River, sparking a multi-year cleanup.

Photos by the Chester Telegraph unless otherwise indicated.

Photos by the Chester Telegraph unless otherwise indicated.

FIELD FARM FIRE: Earlier that week, one of Chester’s oldest and most distinctive houses – Field Farm – was ablaze. On Monday,May 12, the Chester Fire Department responded at 4:30 a.m. to the unoccupied building standing at the western edge of downtown on Route 11. With the help of firefighters from Rockingham, Bellows Falls, Ludlow, Springfield and Proctorsville, as well as  Charlestown  and Walpole, NH, the fire was brought under control, but not before the house a was a total loss. The response closed Route 11 throughout the morning and causing a delayed opening at Chester schools. The fire in the 1822 structure was ruled suspicious and according to Fire Chief Matt Wilson, the evidence of how the fire started was destroyed so the cause may never be discovered.

Sunoco flooding2-CTJULY FLOODS: On the afternoon of Monday July 28 it started to rain, and although the downpour was over by 4:30, the flooding it caused in portions of Chester and Andover rivaled that of Tropical Storm Irene. According to Chief Wilson, nearly every road off Route 11 west was affected with the worst damage on Kingsbury, Fenton and Potash Brook roads.

In Andover, a section of Route 11 – just east of Hill Top Road – collapsed into the Williams River and VTrans crews had to suction out underground culverts to stop water streaming across the road east of Stiegers Road. While Simmonds Road was reduced to boulders and Howard Hill was impassable, many other roads in the area were untouched. Once again Popple Dungeon Road became Alternate Route 11 for east/west traffic.

Shumlin and DefoeSHUMLIN VISITS: Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont officials visited the flooded areas and promised to do bring relief funding to area towns. Looking into questions of how the flooding was handled, The Telegraph put together a multi-part series on river management that looked at new state policies as well as how Chester and Londonderry handle flood hazard mitigation.

Commuters and local residents were shaking their heads, asking “again?” when, in October, a tractor-trailer carrying a load of lumber lost control and ended up in the ditch on Route 11 west of Chester. No one was injured but the road was closed for several hours as equipment salvaged the 2 x 4s. Once again Popple Dungeon Road became Alternate Route 11.

town of chester May 2014Land use issues

Zoning was in the news for Chester as proposed Unified Development Bylaws worked their way through the approval process. There were many changes that sparked controversy including the extension of the Residential Commercial district into new areas coupled with the addition of automotive uses which would allow gas stations, garages and auto sales lots in areas where they had not been allowed since zoning began.

Speaking for the Planning Commission at one of the legally mandated public hearing, Naomi Johnson told a crowd of 25 that it was deemed “an appropriate use.” While many in town focused on the possible sale of the former supervisory union building at the corner of Main and Pleasant streets for a new Jiffy Mart, at subsequent meetings Amy O’Neil of M&M Excavating and Gold River Partners noted that the change was needed for her business, which is located in both the Residential Commercial and Commercial Industrial districts. The automotive question was upheld after opponents petitioned it to a town-wide vote.

Armory insideARMORY PURCHASE: In other zoning news, J&L Metrology, a precision instrument manufacturer that bought the former Army Reserve Center on Route 11 west, found that a new district designed to encourage development had, in fact, precluded them from a planned expansion and kept them from installing a sign. In addition to straightening these questions out, the Planning Commission is taking public comment on amendments to the sign ordinance.

Lining up to voteGRAFTON JUNK ORDINANCE: In a 56 to 37 vote at a special town meeting held on Sept. 24, the residents of Grafton overturned a “junk ordinance” approved by the Select Board in August. The ordinance would have limited the number of unregistered automobiles allowed on a property and mandated screening “junk” from view.  Those objecting to the ordinance cited the concern of selective enforcement, loss of property rights and the sense that the ordinance would be the first step toward zoning in the town.

3 from the DOCTransitional housing

A proposal to house three furloughed inmates from the prison in Springfield met with stiff resistance and played a role in Chester’s zoning debate. The Springfield Restorative Justice Center, which helps inmates transition to life outside of prison by providing supervision, housing, counseling and other services,  planned to rent or buy a house in Chester, but community resistance slowed the process. When the deadline for funding the project neared however, the same property that was the subject of the zoning debate (see above) was rented to the Justice Center. With two inmates (one a sex offender) in the house, many voters saw voting in favor of the new automotive uses as a way of getting rid of transitional housing.

Larochelle hearing 05232014Police officer resigns amid questions

After more than six months on paid administrative leave and investigations by Chester and Vermont State Police into an undisclosed complaint, Chester Police Officer Paul Larochelle resigned his position on May 23. The Chester Select Board accepted the resignation and extended three months of health insurance for two beyond the end of Larochelle’s employment. Through documents requested by The Telegraph, we learned that the Vermont Attorney General determined that Larochelle’s behavior did not warrant a criminal complaint but it was “inappropriate and unbecoming” a police officer. A request for information about other complaints against the officer made under Vermont Public Records statutes has been ignored by the town since June.

Big Buzz BarreA Big Buzz, a little girl unites
a town and two friends lost

One of the most commented on stories began when Barre Pinske proposed that the corn field east of the American Legion on Route 103 be turned into a festival grounds for events, fairs, a farmers market and a venue for outdoor music.

Pinske asked Chester’s Select Board for the $1,500 needed to lease the field for a year but after a couple of meetings the board passed on the town’s participation in the project. “I like the project,” said board member Tom Bock, but noted that five townspeople had told him it would not benefit everyone in the town. A Telegraph Poll found that 63 percent favored the fairground proposal while 37 percent did not.

While saying that he was not acting as part of the Chester Economic Development Corp., Bill Dakin formed a small group to look into the project and if possible, move it forward. In September, Dakin formed Chester Festivals Inc. – a non-profit corporation that leased and will manage the site. The first event at the new “Chester Festival Grounds” was Pinske’s Big Buzz Carving Festival, which attracted 40 carvers from as far away as Germany and Sweden and more than 2,200 visitors.


Lindsey last February. She has since grown much taller and leaner.

FOR LINDSEY’S SAKE: It seemed that all of Chester and beyond rallied around 12-year-old Lindsey Sturtevant as she prepared for a second bone marrow transplant. Individuals and organizations including the Chester Fire Department, Lisai’s Chester Market, GMUHS Athletics Department and the Junior Class, Killarney, Salon 2000 and many others gave both emotional and financial support to the seventh grader who is now home and made the first quarter Principals List.

LADD and THOMAS DEATHS: In the space of one day in February, Chester lost two of its most beloved residents. On Wednesday, Feb.12 Heidi Ladd died of injuries sustained in an accident on her family farm. The following day, Georgette Thomas died of pancreatic cancer. Both were active in their communities, capable business women, loving mothers and loyal to a host of friends. They are missed.

School funding, executive sessions:
Stories that will carry into 2015

As the Vermont legislature gets under way on Wednesday, Jan. 7, the focus on education taxes should be intense. With many towns seeing dramatic increases in property taxes due to the state’s formula for funding schools, legislators have heard from their constituents that the burden is becoming too great. Among the venues for expressing their thoughts about education taxes was a special Select Board meeting in August, where state officials and the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns explained how tax rates are calculated. Noting that the session left many feeling they still did not understand the state’s funding mechanism, The Telegraph took an in depth look at how we pay for our schools and will continue to cover this story in the new year.

HOURS OF EXECUTIVE SESSIONS: As The Telegraph reported on Dec. 23, the Chester Select Board held a closed door meeting on Nov. 19 to discuss the concept of buying 139 acres from Mike and Amy O’Neil for $399,000. The idea is that the town would locate a new water tank there as part of a water system upgrade, then harvest gravel from the site to save the town money on gravel and pay for the property. The property – which has an assessed value of $303,000 – is the same one that was the focus of controversy and an Act 250 decision several years ago. Whether or not this would be a good deal for the town, the Select Board’s private meeting appears to have been held in violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. It was one of six executive sessions totaling more than 12.5 hours between Aug. 20 and Nov. 19.

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