A LOOK BACK: 2015 saw fires, rise in crime; but business, local controversies also grabbed headlines

A distant view of the Monier fire. Photo by George Malin.

A distant view of the Monier fire. Photo by George Malin. Click a photo to launch gallery. ON THE COVER: Londonderry residents gather to hear from State Police about the spate of suspicious fires and breakins. (Telegraph photo)

Fires: All tragic, some suspicious

© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Early in the morning of March 6, 11 fire departments responded to a four alarm fire at the Monier home on Elm Street in Chester. While working one fire in nine below zero temperatures, firefighters were called to a house across the street to put out another, smaller fire – apparently caused by the same power surge as the first blaze.

Four Chester firefighters were injured fighting the fire with two of those treated at Springfield Hospital. The Monier house and barn – which were a total loss – was the second major house fire in a month, and set the pace for area first responders for much of the rest of the year. The public’s outpouring of support for the fire victims was overwhelming. A number of fundraisers were held — both in person and online — raising tens of thousands of dollars.

South Londonderry house fire. Photo by Melvin Twitchell.

South Londonderry house fire. Photo by Melvin Twitchell.

On Monday May 4, 21 fire departments and 120 firefighters responded to a 20-acre fire off East Hill Road in Andover. That “red flag day” also saw more than 25 brush fires throughout Vermont. While some crews stayed overnight in Andover, others responded to Under The Mountain Road in South Londonderry, for a fire that destroyed a residence and was labeled suspicious.

This followed a suspicious fire in Chester less than two weeks earlier and several throughout the region in the past few years. In response to growing public alarm over this and other crimes, state representatives and Vermont State Police met with Londonderry residents.

In late July, state and local police, game wardens, firefighters and search and rescue teams, some with search dogs, converged on Rowell’s Inn in Andover to look for Lynn Perry, a 56-year-old woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Crews searched for four long days in up to 94 degree heat to no avail. Subsequent attempts were made with dog crews but at the end of 2015, no trace of Perry has been found.

Londonderry's policing board presents recommendations to the Select Board. Telegraph photo.

Londonderry’s policing board presents recommendations to the Select Board. Telegraph photo.

A spate of drug related burglaries including break-ins at several schools and town halls as well as homes – also plagued Londonderry during the summer months. This and suspicious fires prompted the town’s Select Board to appoint a committee to study options for increasing the presence of police. At the Nov. 2 Select Board meeting, the committee recommended that the town contract with the Vermont State Police to provide 25 hours of overtime patrols in the town for $86,000. While the committee felt that immediate action should be taken, the board voted to hold information meetings and put the issue on the ballot at Town Meeting Day in March of 2016.

Burglaries throughout the region have tailed off since several arrests were made in Peru, South Londonderry and Springfield.

While emergency responders were busy, (the Chester Fire Department reported 182 calls up from a record 166 in 2015) many also put in community time taking part in parades and other activities. South Londonderry’s Champion Fire Company and the Chester Fire Department were among those that sponsored well-attended Halloween events.

A chill at one Town Meeting

Andover residents cast their ballots after moving from a chilly Town Hall. Telegraph photo.

Andover residents cast their ballots after moving from a chilly Town Hall. Telegraph photo.

Town Meeting is observed different ways in different places, but the annual rite is still alive. The same could not be said for the Andover Town Hall heating system. That Saturday, Feb. 28 meeting had to be moved across the road to the Community Church where the work of direct democracy proceeded.

While Monday’s Chester town meeting was a tame affair with all articles passing, the Australian ballot on the following day saw voters turning out Derek Suursoo’s bid for a fourth three-year term on the Select Board in favor of Heather Chase, in a rousing 335 to 242 vote.

In other votes, Grafton residents approved the new town garage; Weston voters amended several articles to raise the dollar amounts more than $13,000 and while Londonderry had a spirited debate about a new fire truck for the Champion Fire Company, the article passed 71 to 36.

Chester gets a water project in fits and starts

The purchase of the land for the Chester water tank caused controversy. Telegraph photo.

The purchase of the land for the Chester water tank caused controversy. Telegraph photo.

Deficiencies in flows for fire protection loomed large in extended discussions and multiple votes that led up to the approval of a water system upgrade in Chester. The water project was controversial since it involved the purchase of 139 acres from O’Neil Sand and Gravel with the intention of the town harvesting aggregate for town use.

Questions of conflict of interest and a closed-door Select Board meeting (which the Telegraph has maintained was illegal) didn’t help to allay public concerns about the $4 million project. While it passed on the first ballot, an error in warning the vote made a ratification vote necessary and that failed. Finally, although its deadline for preferential loan terms had passed the state drinking water fund extended the time and the project was finally approved in September 280 to 121.

New businesses and a lot of wind

Iberdrola and Meadowsend Timberlands held information meetings about the Grafton-Windham wind project. Telegraph photo.

Iberdrola and Meadowsend Timberlands held information meetings about the Grafton-Windham wind project. Telegraph photo.

After a 2014 vote to change Chester’s zoning to make gas stations and other “auto uses” allowable along a stretch of Main Street where they had not been allowed since the 1975 zoning regulations, Champlain Oil applied for a permit to construct a 5,000-square-foot Jiffy Mart with a Subway and Ramunto’s Pizza Express at the corner of Main and Pleasant streets.

After several hearings in which questions of flooding and traffic were raised, the Development Review Board approved the project. Champlain Oil President Tony Cairns told the Telegraph that his company would wait “until the frost is out of the ground” in the spring to start construction.

Tony Cairns, president of Champlain Oil, attended several DRB meetings to push his new Jiffy Mart project in Chester. Telegraph photo.

Tony Cairns, president of Champlain Oil, attended several DRB meetings to push his new Jiffy Mart project in Chester. Telegraph photo.

After more than four years of hearings and legal challenges, Zaremba Corp. of Ohio secured the right to build a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General on Chester’s Main Street, just yards from the new Jiffy Mart. Smart Growth Chester, an informal group of residents, had opposed the project but in the final innings, the Vermont Supreme Court had come down on Dollar General’s side. Along the way, the courts had found that the town’s planning and zoning documents were not written in a way that was enforceable.

While a solar farm was constructed on town land in Chester, in Grafton residents continue to consider whether Iberdrola – a Spanish renewable energy company – should build eight of its 28 wind towers in the town. The other 20 windmills are designed to be built in Windham. A townwide vote on the project is expected in 2016, but the town seems firmly divided on the issue.

More school consolidation

Local school boards, administrators and interested taxpayers have been gathering information on a new law, known as Act 46, that encourages localities to find ways to merge schools.

In September, state Rep. Oliver Olsen brought House Speaker (and then gubernatorial candidate) Shap Smith and House education committee chair David Sharpe to a legislative forum at the Flood Brook School. In mid-November, members of school boards that make up the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and private citizens began studying the possibilities for school consolidation.

The law, which purports not to force any particular step on school boards, gives incentives to quick action on mergers while leaving the door open for state mandated mergers for schools that do nothing or submit plans that do not pass the state education department’s examination. This law has the potential to have a substantial effect on local property taxes and no mergers can be made without a public vote. The Telegraph will continue to follow  these deliberations.

Historic buildings and histrionics

In January, speaking to the Chester Historical Society, then president Ron Patch said that the organization could no longer afford the $1,200 per year it was spending to insure the Yosemite Fire House.

Chester Townscape undertook the job of preserving the historic Hearse House.

Chester Townscape undertook the job of preserving the historic Hearse House.

In April, on behalf of the society’s board, Patch told Chester’s Select Board that it could not afford to keep the building, much less restore it, quoting an estimate of $250,000 just to remove lead paint and repaint the building. A condition assessment approved by the society and funded in part by Preservation Trust of Vermont however, estimated the stabilization work – including painting – at $90,000.

Efforts to take the building off the historical society’s hands have fallen through and in September – about the same time that a “4 Sail” sign appeared on the building – items in the firehouse were removed and some sold.

Many if not most of the objects in the fire house belong to the Town of Chester and with questions about the sale of items, Town Manager David Pisha and volunteers conducted an inventory of the building. As Patch and a few other society board members have resigned, the fate of the firehouse remains up in the air.

At the same time, Chester Townscape, a volunteer group that works to beautify the town, raised enough money to stabilize the Public Tomb and restore the Hearse House that stands at the entrance to Brookside Cemetery. The work on the Hearse House will begin in 2016.

And major milestones at The Telegraph

It’s been a busy year covering Chester, Grafton, Weston, Andover and Londonderry, and in 2015, The Telegraph reached some milestones.

In March, The Telegraph became part of NewsBank’s Access World News, which provides indexed stories from thousands of newspapers around the globe to subscribers such as libraries, universities, industry and government agencies.

The Telegraph introduced a State Police Incident log and a personal finance column.

The Telegraph introduced a State Police Incident log and a personal finance column.

In July, we introduced a monthly Vermont State Police Incident Log, which gives a representative sample of occurrences in area towns that do not have a local police force. We also introduced a personal finance column, Wise Money, that offers simple, but sage advice.

In 2015, The Telegraph saw an 80 percent increase in readership over 2014.

Thanks to our readers and advertisers for making the Telegraph’s success possible. We wish everyone a Happy and Healthy New Year.

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