Brooks sentenced to 18 months for embezzling

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by Chris Braithwaite

BURLINGTON — Kim Brooks will serve 18 months in federal prison for embezzling more than $160,000 from her former employer in Orleans.

The 48-year-old Brownington woman was dismissed from her job at Desmarais Equipment in the spring of 2011 after an audit of the farm equipment dealer’s books revealed significant discrepancies.

She has since been an active volunteer with the Orleans County Fair, where she served on the board of directors.

Indeed, the thousands of hours Ms. Brooks donated to the fair were cited by two people who spoke on her behalf at her sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court here Monday.

Her attorney, David Sleigh, used their remarks as the basis of a request for a “downward departure” from federal sentencing guidelines that would have reduced her prison sentence to five months.

But Judge William Sessions was unmoved.  His remarks suggested that the fact that Ms. Brooks is “obviously an extraordinarily intelligent person” who enjoyed her community’s respect made her crime all the more serious.

“How can someone who is so respected commit such a flagrant violation of trust?” the judge asked before he handed down the 18-month sentence.  He said he would request that the sentence be served at a federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, and ordered Ms. Brooks to surrender herself there on October 8.

Ms. Brooks was first cited to appear in state court in early 2012 following a State Police investigation.  Her case moved to U.S. District Court after a federal grand jury issued a three-count indictment in October 2012.

Ms. Brooks pled guilty to one count after negotiating a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in late April this year.

Judge Sessions waived any fine, which could have been as high as $250,000.  But as part of the plea agreement she was ordered to forfeit $11,885 to the government in a “preliminary order of forfeiture” issued by the court on Friday.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, Ms. Brooks must pay a total of about $163,000 in restitution.  Judge Sessions ordered her Monday to give up 10 percent of her future gross income for that purpose.

That was one of several conditions of a three-year term of supervised release the judge added to her prison sentence.  He also ordered Ms. Brooks to avoid work that involved any fiduciary responsibility.

The judge told Ms. Brooks he had considered several factors before passing sentence.  None of them seemed to work out in her favor.

“What was most important in my assessment is the level of planning,” he said.  “This is a case in which money was taken over three years,” he noted.  “It was not some casual act.  That level of calculation is extremely serious.”

Judge Sessions noted that Ms. Brooks had been working with a small company for 15 years, and knew that her embezzlement would make it impossible for her co-workers to get raises or bonuses.

“That’s a pretty flagrant violation of a person’s level of trust,” the judge remarked.  “That you could go to work, knowing full well you have been stealing from them for years, is inconceivable to me,” he added.

Turning to deterrence, the judge said embezzlement cases have become so common in Vermont that “some have referred to it as an epidemic.”

“There needs to be a statement to the community that these violations of trust are treated seriously,” Judge Sessions said.  “There needs to be a clear understanding by people who are in charge of other people’s money that to steal it is a serious crime.”

The brothers whose business was the victim of the crime, Rene and Roger Desmarais, both had a chance to speak to the court Monday.

“We were in business for 49 years and had a lot of good help — people you trusted,” Roger Desmarais said.  “Apparently we had a silent partner we didn’t know anything about.”

He said the loss cut into the price the brothers got when they sold their business.  “We weren’t showing the profit we should have been,” he said.

He recalled the day an accountant “figured out something was wrong,” and confronted Ms. Brooks.

“She said she had made some mistakes in life.  She was as cool as could be,” Mr. Desmarais said.

Reading from a pre-sentence investigation that was not made public, Judge Sessions said that Rene Desmarais felt humiliated by the case, a feeling that was “fueled by her arrogant public behavior.”

After Ms. Brooks was caught, the judge asked Roger Desmarais, “was she acting in an arrogant way?”

“No,” Mr. Desmarais replied.  “Kim was being Kim.”

“We considered her a real friend,” Rene Desmarais said when it was his turn to talk.  He said the crime also affected 12 to 14 people who worked for the dealership.  They got no raises for four or five years, he said.  “At the end of the year there was no profit to distribute.”

The judge asked Rene Desmarais if Ms. Brooks was arrogant after her crime was revealed.

“If I was accused of doing what she did, there’s no way I would have flaunted myself,” Mr. Desmarais replied.  “She goes on as if nothing ever happened.”

Judge Sessions established the fact that Ms. Brooks hadn’t paid any of the money back since her crime was discovered in early 2011.

Ms. Brooks’ attorney, David Sleigh, took responsibility for that.  He routinely warned his clients against contacting their alleged victims before the criminal case was settled, he told the judge.

Two friends were in the courtroom to speak for Ms. Brooks.

Lori Royer said her friendship with the defendant went back to their high school days.  “She did a lot for the fair,” Ms. Royer said.  “She kept the harness racing alive and well.”

“She’s got a very kind heart,” Ms. Royer said of Ms. Brooks.  “She’s a very good person.”

Judge Sessions asked if the two had talked about the criminal case.

No, Ms. Royer replied.  “Rene’s my neighbor, Kim’s my friend, we just don’t talk about it.”

Randy Patenaude told the judge he had worked with Ms. Brooks at the fair, and that she had also cared for his mother, who suffered a serious stroke.

“Without her motivation, my mother would not be where she is now,” he said of Ms. Brooks’ care.

“Kim devoted thousands of hours to the Orleans County Fair,” Mr. Patenaude said, “not for any glorification or monetary gain.”

Mr. Sleigh did not argue that his client should not go to jail, but urged the court to shorten the term from the federal guideline of 18 to 24 months.

“Kim for years has given enormously to her community,” the attorney said.  “It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Orleans County Fair to the community.”

“Little of the wrongful taking wound up as a benefit to Kim,” Mr. Sleigh added.

The judge pursued that issue.  He noted that three checks involved in the crime had gone to her partner, for a total of close to $45,000.

“Where did that money go?” the judge demanded.

During a later exchange with Ms. Brooks, Judge Sessions said the three checks went to Harvey Cleveland, Ms. Brooks partner and, until he stepped down in July, president of the Orleans County Fair.

“What were they used for?” the judge asked.

“One, and a significant portion of another, was sent to Ohio to assist someone I knew,” Ms. Brooks replied.

According to the grand jury indictment, “$11,885 in proceeds from one of these unauthorized checks was used to purchase a used truck in Ohio.”

“One went to a young farmer who was trying to start up a business,” Ms. Brooks continued.  “At the time I anticipated it was coming back,” she said of the money.  “I found out that was not true.  I never received any of the money back.”

Then Ms. Brooks turned to face the Desmarais brothers and their wives.

“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust,” she told them.  “I’m sorry for losing your friendship.  I will do everything I can to pay you back.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Lowell wind: Neighbors sick and tired of turbine noise

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Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany.  The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany. The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

ALBANY — Jim and Kathy Goodrich have a nice home with a porch along the entire west side that overlooks acres of neatly trimmed lawn and, about a mile away, the long, sinuous ridgeline known as Lowell Mountain.

Now that view is dominated by the 21 towers of the Lowell wind project, their blades reaching 460 feet high.  And the house is for sale at a discounted price.

“What I came here for is gone,” said Ms. Goodrich, a Wolcott native who worked for IBM in Chittenden County and then spent ten years with her husband in a landscaping business.

“This was going to be where I spent the rest of my life — quiet, peaceful, relaxed,” Ms. Goodrich continued.  “But I can’t stay here.”

One of the features their home has lost is the quiet, the couple says.

“Sometimes they’re really loud,” Ms. Goodrich said.  In one hot spell, with the bedroom windows open and two fans running, she recalls, “I could hear them over everything.  It was some kind of roar.”

“It’s really hard to explain what it sounds like,” Mr. Goodrich said.  “To me, it’s mechanized gears, but mixed in with a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.”

He suspects that the turbines often exceed the limits imposed when the state Public Service Board (PSB) gave the project its certificate of public good.  Mr. Goodrich sounds unconvinced by Green Mountain Power’s claim that its turbines have remained within those limits — 45 decibels outside, 35 inside — 99 percent of the time since they began to spin in late 2012.

Ms. Goodrich thinks the noise limits miss the point.

“I don’t doubt that most of the time they’re in compliance,” she said Monday.  “But to me, those guidelines are too much for people to handle, hour after hour after hour.”

The couple is not sure whether the turbines are affecting their health.  Mr. Goodrich recently experienced blade flicker for the first time, as the sun set behind the turbines and cast their moving shadows into the house.

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

“That really irritated me,” he said.  As a young man, he said, he couldn’t go into a disco club because of the effect strobe lights had on him.  “That night it really freaked me,” he said of the flicker.

As for the noise, Mr. Goodrich said, “I’ve got an idea it’s affecting my health, but I don’t know.  I know it has an effect on our talking to each other.  I get cranky.  She gets cranky.”

“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Goodrich agreed.  “It’s beyond our control.  I can ask him to turn the TV down, but they don’t listen up there,” she added, gesturing to the turbines.

Underlying the couple’s personal concerns is their anger about the project’s environmental impact.

“For me it’s about what they did to the top of the mountain,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “I’m a Vermonter.  I respect what we have here.  Now that it’s there it’s the interrupted views, the noise, the stress it’s brought into our lives.  It’s everything.

“I wouldn’t have any problem in the world with green power,” she continued.  “But it seems that they took away more green than they’ll ever give back.”

The third member of the household, a small dog named Sophie, “gets really skittish when the turbines are noisy,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “At times I can’t get her to take a walk down the driveway.”

Molly Two lives just down the hill, where Goodrich Road meets the Eden Road.  The big dog sticks close to Paul Martin if he takes her outside when the turbines are running.  She has become gun shy, and she’s started going to the bathroom on the floor of the Martin house.

The Martins’ horses were spooked by the turbines at first, Mr. Martin said, but seem to have grown used to them now.

When the wind’s right they hear the turbines outside.  Mr. Martin described the noise as “just a big rumble like a jet.”

“With a lot of that thud, thud thud,” his wife, Rita, added.

When he goes outside, Mr. Martin said, “my ears will start ringing to beat hell.  They never did that before.”

As for Ms. Martin, he said, “She woke me up one night and said ‘My heart is pounding terrible.’  I could hear the thud thud from the towers.”

“For some reason my heart wanted to beat in that rhythm,” Ms. Martin recalled.

“We were told we wouldn’t hear them” by the people from Green Mountain Power, Mr. Martin said.

Since they’ve put an air conditioner in the bedroom the turbine noise doesn’t disturb their sleep, the Martins said, though they still hear them on some nights.

When they moved onto the Eden Road in 1974, their place was at the end of the road.  Now, the Martins say, people wanting to view the turbines generate considerable traffic past their home.

They say they’ve thought about moving, but are not sure they could sell their homestead.

“Who’d buy it?” Ms. Martin asked with a shrug.

“What most bothers me is the destruction it’s done on top of the mountain,” Mr. Martin said.

“Paul’s taken both our kids up the mountain,” before the turbines arrived, his wife said.  “Thank God he did, too.  It will never be the same.”

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A bit closer to the turbines, at her home on the Bailey-Hazen Road, Shirley Nelson has a list of symptoms that have arrived since the wind project started spinning.  She has a ringing in her ears, and sometimes worse.

“This morning it felt like a pin sticking in my ear,” she said Monday.  “I have headaches, usually around my temples but sometimes like a band wrapped right around my head.

“One of my daughters gets migraines within an hour of visiting our house,” Ms. Nelson added.

“Both Donny and I wake up in the middle of the night because it sounds like something coming out of the pillow,” she said, referring to her husband, Don.  “I never said much about it, because I thought I was crazy.”

Then she found a research paper by Alec Salt, Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, entitled “Wind Turbines can be Hazardous to Human Health.”

He writes about very low frequency sound and infrasound, which wind turbines generate in turbulent winds.  “Our measurements show the ear is most sensitive to infrasound when other, audible sounds are at low levels or absent,” Dr. Salt writes.

Thus infrasound can be most troublesome when other sounds are blocked by house walls or even a pillow, he continues.  “In either case, the infrasound will be strongly stimulating the ear even though you will not be able to hear it.”

That can cause sleep disturbance, panic, and chronic sleep deprivation leading to high blood pressure, the paper says.

“Some days I am very tired,” Ms. Nelson wrote in an e-mail Monday.  It is hard to stay awake on such days, she added, and “it is hard to concentrate and I find I am unable to do simple things like balancing a checkbook.”

The Nelsons routinely see turbine flicker in their home as the sun goes behind the towers.  It sends shadows spinning slowly across their refrigerator, their floors and across the lawns outside.

“It’s just really annoying,” Ms. Nelson said.

Dislike of the turbines and their effects is not universal in the neighborhood.  Albert and Esther Weber live a little west of the Martins on the Eden Road, just across the Lowell town line.

“I hear them, but they’re not offensive to me,” Mr. Weber said.  “I figure the wind should do some good for a change.  The wind ripped the roof off my house.  It should make some electricity, and it should make our taxes go down.

“I love the windmills,” Ms. Weber said.  “I’ve always loved windmills since I was a girl in school, and learned about Holland.  When they said they were going to put some up here, I was thrilled.”

She likes to see the towers glowing on the mountain in the early morning light, and finds that the afternoon shadows flickering in the backyard “look kind of neat.”

Further down the road Carl Cowles said he hears the turbines almost all the time, and they bother him.  “I think I hear them more at night than in the daytime,” Mr. Cowles added.  “I do wake up, and I hear them.  I don’t know exactly what woke me up.”

When he’s not traveling around the world on business, Kevin McGrath lives on the other side of the mountain on the Farm Road in Lowell.  He recalls a visit from a friend, another Lowell resident who had voted in favor of the wind project.  Mr. McGrath was complaining about the turbine noise.

“He said, ‘We’ll listen for the noise as soon as the jet plane goes away.’  I said, ‘That is the noise.’”

“It sounds like a plane that never lands,” he said.  He measures the sound with a hand-held meter.

“At times it is under 45 decibels outside,” he reports.  “You don’t have anything to say.  This is the way it is.”

“People like myself, who have had the land for 20 or 25 years, aren’t used to this new intrusion into their lives.  If you have a leaky faucet in your sink, is it below 35 decibels?  Yes it is.  But not being able to turn it off will drive you crazy.  It’s an intrusion.”

Mr. McGrath has bombarded the Department of Public Service with complaints that the turbines have kept him and his guests awake at night.  He’s currently asking Green Mountain Power (GMP) for detailed data about wind speed and other weather conditions, which he wants to pass on to his own, independent noise expert.

“They’re kind of waffling on that,” he said of GMP in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We’re talking to Kevin,” GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure said Tuesday.  “We’re going to continue to talk with Kevin.”

But Ms. Schnure didn’t say GMP would provide the data he’s seeking.  Instead, she emphasized that the utility stands ready to test any home near the project, to see how much its structure reduces outside noise.  Then the utility would put an outside meter near the house, to provide an approximation of turbine noise inside the home.

So far, she said, “no one has taken us up on the offer.”

GMP announced last week that in a test period from May 22 to June 5 its project did not exceed the PSB noise limits.

However, in two earlier test periods noise exceeded the limits for a total of just over four hours, the release said.

The PSB has scheduled a hearing for August 8 to decide what sanctions should be imposed on GMP for the violations.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Sodden skies torment farmers

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Tena Starr

“It’s kind of a nightmare.”

That’s how Brandon Tanner of Glover described this summer’s weather and his own efforts to put in hay for his dairy cows.

“It’s one of those things where you’re forced this year to get what you can get when you can get it,” Mr. Tanner said.  “There’s no planning, no helping other people.  It’s sort of you do yours when you can do it the best you can.”

He said he managed to get his first cut, as usual, back in May.

“Soon as I got done haying we had a snowstorm,” he said.

Mr. Tanner isn’t alone in his frustration with this year’s odd weather and, lately, relentless rain.

Farmers, strawberry growers, boaters, anyone who enjoys a day at the beach — they’re all likely to say “Enough already.”

Although Mother Nature isn’t.

There’s some hope that by the end of the week the stubborn weather pattern will break down, permitting a couple of consecutive rain-free days by the weekend, said meteorologist Lawrence Hayes at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

The problem, he said, is that Vermont has been stuck in between two upper level features involving a serpentine jet stream that moves northward.  The sources of its air is the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast, hence the subtropical air in Vermont.

Also, “the air has been so copiously humid (dew points around 70) that any shower that forms is risk of generating at least moderately heavy rain,” Mr. Hayes said by e-mail.

The result of all this has been a lot more rain than usual, as well as more rainy days, in both May and June.

According to the Chronicle’s weather records (which record weather in West Glover) precipitation in May was 7.88 inches — almost double the long-term average of 4.03 inches, and exceeded only in May of 2011.  It also snowed in May.  The Chronicle’s weather records go back to 1987.

In June, there was some rain in West Glover on 21 out of 30 days.  It added up to 6.23 inches, well above the long-term average for June of 4.14 inches.

In St. Johnsbury the 14-day stretch of measurable rainfall from June 23 to July 7 was the longest consecutive day stretch there during the warm weather season, meaning May through October, Mr. Hayes said.

For most, the soggy weather is simply an annoyance.  But for some, it has economic consequences, as well.

Peak View Berry Farm in Orleans doesn’t have any strawberries at all this year, although it’s not due to the wet weather that’s plagued so many strawberry growers in Vermont.

“We lost our strawberries in January when the thaw came and then it got so cold in February,” said Michelle Bonin, who owns the farm with her husband, Marcel.  “The thaw literally pushed all of our plants out of the ground.  That was something we’d never seen.”

The Bonins have since put in 13,000 new plants and are hoping to have a crop from the ever bearers in October.  But even tending the new plants is tough with the wet weather.

“A few days ago I wanted to cultivate my strawberries and couldn’t because of the mud,” Marcel Bonin said.  “The ground is saturated.  I’d have a mess.”

In Westfield, Gerard Croizet at Berry Creek Farm said he’s lost 20 to 25 percent of his strawberries to the weather, mold in particular.

The berries are big, although softer than usual, and the yield has been good, he said.

It could be a lot worse, though, Mr. Croizet said.  “I know some people lost most everything.”

“I’m not depressed,” he added.

Both the Croizets and the Bonins grow vegetables as well as berries, and say that weeding is a big problem with their fields so wet.  And while some crops are doing well in the subtropical weather, others are struggling.

Mr. Croizet said he’s worried about disease at this point, particularly late blight, which might make an early appearance due to the moisture.

“I don’t remember nonstop rain like that,” he said.

“I think it’s extraordinary, I think it’s quite dramatic for the whole area,” Mr. Bonin said about the unusually long stretch of rainy days.

He said his Orleans farm stand is usually open by the last week in June.  It’s not this year.  “I don’t have anything to put in it,” Mr. Bonin said.

For dairy farmers, the persistent rain not only makes it hard to make any hay, but also the quality suffers.

Most farmers make round bales these days — those plastic wrapped bales that resemble giant marshmallows.  It takes a comparatively short stretch of dry weather to make a round bale as opposed to a square one, but this summer has daunted even those attempts.

It takes at least a couple of days to “put up something that’s not going to be an ice cube,” Mr. Tanner said.

If the hay is too wet, it will be frozen solid come winter when the farmer wants to feed it to his animals, he said.

That’s one problem.  Another is that some fields are so wet farmers can’t even get on them to hay.

And yet another is that grass, especially orchard grass, declines in quality — meaning it loses protein — once it begins to head out.

“You can always supplement grains in order to make up what you lost on your grass, but especially the past three years, that’s been sort of unaffordable,” Mr. Tanner said.

He said that last year, a classic summer, he squeezed in five cuts of hay.  “This year, so far, I’ve done one.  I’ll be lucky if I get three.”

Evan Perron isn’t overly worried about the weather, even though he’s one of the few who still makes square bales.

“The hay I cut will be just fine, for horses, ponies, sheep, it will still be 10-12 percent…it’s nothing you could turn into milk and survive,” he said.

Mr. Perron said that when he was a kid it was common to wait until after July 4 to start haying.  “There was a time we might not have thought much of it,” he said about the long rainy stretch.  “We’d just be a week late.”

But now that people try to get 20 or 30 percent protein from their hay, “it’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think I ever recall such a soggy streak as this one.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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News analysis: The high cost of clean power

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by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 4-17-2013

BARTON — Solar energy may come to town soon at the Barton Solar Farm at 1603 Glover Road.  A fairly large project at 1.8 megawatts (MW), it would produce the amount of power consumed, on average, by more than 300 Vermont homes.

The project has no local permits yet, the developer said last week, and still faces the detailed scrutiny of the state Public Service Board under Section 248.  What it does have is acceptance as a SPEED program, a key ingredient in the state’s effort to make a major shift to renewable electric energy.

“We’ve come out of the gate,” said developer Robert Grant of Essex County, Massachusetts.  “Now we have to start running the gauntlet.”

Meanwhile the voters in Newport Center approved at Town Meeting a selectmen’s proposal for a $200,000 “Community Energy Solar Garden.”

Steve Mason, chairman of the Lowell School Board, is looking into working with a Westminster, Vermont, company called Soveren to install a solar system that would provide power to Lowell’s town and school buildings.  Under a deal with Brattleboro Schools that caught Mr. Mason’s eye, the schools will pay none of the capital cost, and save 10 percent on its energy bills.

And small solar installations are popping up at homes in the area at what looks like a steadily increasing pace.

The trend to solar energy is not being driven by the fact that, with no fuel required, it’s cheap energy.  It’s nothing of the kind.

But solar energy is clean energy, and in its haste to clean up Vermont’s electric energy supply, the state has compelled its utilities to buy solar energy at prices that make installations financially attractive.

Those premiums get passed on, through the utilities’ rate structure, to customers who don’t have solar panels on their roof or a wind turbine in their yard.

That’s a concern to some observers, who fear that the state’s strong embrace of renewable energy is based on more emotion than reason; that policies were adopted without due consideration of what they may ultimately cost.

There are, indeed, two programs in Vermont, SPEED and net metering, that pursue the goal of more renewable electric energy in different ways, and with no apparent coordination.

It also puzzles some energy critics that this battle to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, thus contributing to the effort against global warming, is focused on an energy sector that is already remarkably clean.  Vermonters use relatively little electricity.  Vermont residences, on average, consume 573 KWh of power a month, compared to a national average of 940 KWh.

In its “Vermont Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory,” the state Agency of Natural Resources said that, in 2008, electricity accounted for 4 percent of the 8.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide the state releases into the atmosphere.  The bulk of carbon dioxide came from heating and transportation.

The end of contracts with the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant may have altered that picture since 2008, but utilities have turned to other nuclear plants to make up at least some of the difference.

One concerned observer is Willem Post, a frequent source of widely disseminated e-mails on the Vermont energy picture.  In a recent interview, Mr. Post said he is a mechanical engineer with 40 years’ experience in the utility business.

Mr. Post is concerned about a program called SPEED, which stands for Sustainably Priced Energy Development.  It supports moderate to very large renewable projects by offering premium prices for their power.

Any sort of renewable energy gets a premium price compared with the current wholesale price on the New England grid of about 5 cents a kilowatt hour (KWh).  But solar power sits at the top of the heap at five times that rate, 27.5 cents per KWh.  Other prices, freshly recalibrated by the PSB for SPEED’s Standard Offer program, range down to a “levelized” price (which starts lower and climbs higher over 20 years) of 25.3 cents for wind projects over 100 KW, 11.8 cents for larger wind projects, 14.1 cents for farm methane, 12.5 cents for biomass, 12.3 cents for hydro, and 9 cents for landfill methane.

SPEED projects that exceed the 2.2 MW limit of the standard offer program negotiate rates with the utilities, like the 40 MW Sheffield wind project, or are owned by the utilities themselves, like Green Mountain Power’s 63 MW Lowell project.  (One megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts.)

The 2017 SPEED goal, according to its Internet site, “is to have 20 percent of total statewide electric retail sales during the year commencing January 1, 2017, generated by SPEED resources that constitute new renewable energy.”

Vermont consumes about 5.5 million MWh of power a year, so the SPEED goal is about 1.1 million MWh.

According to a recent status report, SPEED projects are already generating an estimated 570,843 MWh, a little over half its target.

That total comes overwhelmingly from big projects outside the Standard Offer Program.  Led by Lowell Mountain, nine big projects are expected to make more than half a million MWh a year, while about 30 Standard Offer projects make about 54,000 MW.

Another 213,162 MWh are expected from SPEED projects “in active development,” about evenly split between four large projects and various standard offer projects.

That would bring total SPEED production to 784,000 MWh, 316,000 MWh short of its goal.

Existing Standard Offer projects lean heavily to farm methane (14) and solar (12).  But on a list of pending projects that will take advantage of high Standard Offer Prices 18 are solar, five farm methane, and three hydro.

The clear preference for solar power worries Mr. Post, the engineer, because of its high, 27.5-cent cost to utilities.

He calculates that the Standard Offer projects already online cost utilities — and their customers — $3.4-million above the average New England grid power price in 2012.

If enough solar Standard Offer project were permitted to meet the SPEED goal, he calculates, the excess cost would rise beyond $50-million in 2017.  And that doesn’t count the cost of the big projects like Lowell, he notes.

In SPEED, he sees a program that was not rationally designed, and is running on autopilot.

He uses the metaphor of a frog in a frying pan of water, with the stove on.  The effect may be gradual, he said, “but it will eventually ruin the Vermont economy.  We will end up with rates that are significantly higher than other states, put ourselves at a further disadvantage.”

But the man who bears the title of Vermont SPEED Facilitator, John Spencer, said Monday that, with their relatively small, 2.2 MW maximum size, Standard Offer projects can’t close the gap between SPEED’s target and its current and scheduled production.  That would mean that the expensive solar projects Mr. Post worries about can’t be hurried forward at the rate he fears.

Mr. Spencer is executive director of a non-profit called VEPP, Inc., that serves as a sort of broker between SPEED producers and the utilities.

Under state law, he said, “I can only take Standard Offer programs at the rate of five MW a year.”

When it comes up against a capacity limit, solar energy is hampered by its low capacity factor of 15 percent.

Five MW of solar power would yield about 6,570 MWh a year.

To fill that 316,000 MWh gap by January 1, 2017, SPEED needs to add about 105,000 MWh a year.

So where will the renewable power come from?

Probably from out of state, Mr. Spencer said.

That is apparently a loophole in the program that has been devised to close the gap.  In 2011, when the Lowell Wind project was being debated before the Public Service Board, the SPEED program was key to its economic justification, and SPEED projects were defined then as in-state renewable generation.

But, somewhat to Mr. Spencer’s dismay, “in-state” has been dropped from the definition.  Energy from new renewable projects in other states can be counted toward the SPEED goal, Mr. Spencer said, as long as they carry their renewable energy credits with them when they cross the state line.  Vermont utilities don’t need those credits, so can sell them to utilities in other states.

Robert Dostis, head of external affairs and customer relations at Green Mountain Power, confirmed Tuesday that his utility is buying SPEED power from Granite Reliable Wind, a New Hampshire project.

That will help GMP meet its 20 percent target, Mr. Dostis said.  “It won’t be easy, but we’re working on it.”

 

Net metering

 

Net metering is a program designed for smaller renewable projects that are linked directly into a utility’s lines through a meter that spins backwards when the customer doesn’t need all the power he or she is producing.

For wind, methane or hydro systems, net metering offers the local utility’s retail rate for power from small renewable projects up to 500 kilowatts (KW) — compared with the 2,200 KW limit on SPEED Standard Offer projects.  But people who install solar panels get a premium big enough to assure them a rate of 20 cents per KWh, a bit above the state’s average residential rate of 17.7 cents.

Not surprisingly, solar installations account for 88 percent of net metered projects, and are driving a growth rate in the program that the state’s Public Service Department (PSD) recently described as “exponential.”

Net metering goes back to 1998 in Vermont, though limits on the size of both individual projects and their total statewide capacity have been increased several times.

In a recent report on the program to the Legislature, the PSD noted that the statewide limit on net metering was raised from 1 percent to 2 percent of Vermont’s peak load of about 1,000 MW in 2002, and that was doubled again to 4 percent in 2011.

In terms of capacity, the PSD said, net metering has climbed past 20 MW statewide, and so is approximately halfway to its current 40 MW limit.

However because it is so heavily weighted to solar power with its low 15 percent capacity factor, net metering accounts for considerably less than 1 percent of the state’s power consumption.

Net metering is growing fast in other parts of the state.  A state list of projects “deemed approved” from the first of this year through mid-March listed 136 statewide, but only one in Orleans County.

For people who have the means to do it themselves, net metering can be attractive.  Mr. Spencer, the SPEED facilitator, installed one at his home for $15,000.  Federal tax credits and state rebates reduced his cost to $10,500, he said, and he hopes the system will eliminate his electric bill of about $1,200 a year.  He calculates a return on investment of about 12 percent, a rate, he notes that is “pretty hard to get in other places.”

For people who want to avoid the up-front cost or the complexity of installing their own system, companies like AllEarth Renewables and its competitors stand ready to install one at no cost.  The homeowner gets a guarantee that his or her electric rates won’t rise, and the installer gets whatever tax credits, rapid depreciation and state rebates are available.

AllEarth has more recently teamed up with Green Lantern Capital to offer such deals to municipalities and non-profits like schools and hospitals that pay no income taxes.  In these deals, the tax advantages go to Green Lantern’s investors, and the municipality is offered a modest saving on its electricity and a chance to buy the system at less than half its cost after seven years.

With such a deal on the table, said AllEarth spokesman Andrew Savage, “there is no sane reason an entity that doesn’t pay taxes would bond for the full cost of a project.”

Mr. Post, the energy policy critic, objects to the idea that the many projects are being financed by millionaires who, while their consumers harvest the power of the sun, are harvesting the substantial tax benefits attached to renewable projects, along with the high rates.

Meanwhile, he said in one e-mail, ordinary Vermonters are saddled with higher power rates.

The DPS study was undertaken to answer just that question from a legislator:  “…whether and to what extent customers using net metering systems… are subsidized by other retail electric customers who do not….”

The study found that they were not.  But that was only after a cash value was factored in to reflect the fact that renewable energy doesn’t generate harmful greenhouse gasses.

Without that calculation, the study showed that net metering costs exceeded its benefits by 0.6 cents a KWh for fixed solar installations, 1.5 cents per KWh for solar systems that track the sun, and 9.1 cents for a 100KW wind generator.

Rian Fried has made a close study of renewable energy for his company, Clean Yield Asset Management, which evaluates investment opportunities for its clients in terms of both financial return and social value.

The company decided some time ago not to recommend any large wind projects, but has invested in solar companies.  Mr. Fried recently installed a net metered system at his home in Stannard.

But he’s not sure anyone at the state policy level has a handle on the long-term effects of our pursuit of clean energy.

“I think you have a political situation in this state now, where the Green Mountain Power people, Shumlin’s people, Paul Burns (the head of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group) and a lot of Progressives are talking about the public good and completely whitewashing the numbers part of it,” he said in an interview.  “There’s going to come a time again when we’re going to talk about rates.”

At Green Mountain Power Mr. Dostis said his utility looks carefully at its mix of power sources to make sure its rates remain competitive with other New England utilities.

“We have a voice in the legislative process,” said Mr. Dostis, himself a former state representative.  “In the end the ratepayers will absorb any cost.  We are very mindful of that, and we make sure the Legislature is very mindful of that.”

Mr. Dostis sees big changes ahead in his industry “as more and more people put on solar projects that meet 100 percent of their power needs.  Their bill is zero.  Other customers are paying the cost of maintaining the overall grid.  It’s an issue the Legislature will have to deal with.”

At the Legislature, Senator John Rodgers of Glover has taken the position that Vermont’s renewable electric energy goals should simply be scrapped.

“My concern is that the renewable goals are driving the Public Service Board’s decisions when they’re siting these projects.  I don’t think that’s how siting should be driven.

“Ridgeline industrial wind is absolutely the worst of all the possible tools at our disposal,” the senator said.  Instead he’d like to see more support for “small, local stuff” like farm methane and power dams that have fallen out of service.

Canadian hydro power is another option that should be expanded, he said.  “I don’t see any problem with using very reasonably priced power produced north of the border with renewable resources.”

He challenges the idea that Vermont should not only use more renewable electric power, but also generate it.  “Most of the appeal of Vermont is that we have resisted destroying our environment for the sake of commercial enterprise,” he said.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

 

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Welcome to the era of Big Sugar

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SONY DSC

Adam Parke stands at the collection point that pumps sap from steep hills to the east and west of the Hinman Road in Glover. Photos by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

 copyright 3-13-2013

BARTON — When Adam Parke and Todd Scelza “sweetened the pans” and drew off their first 165 gallons of maple syrup Monday night, it was the culmination of ten months’ work and an investment of a quarter of a million dollars.

It was also a demonstration of what has happened to one of this area’s oldest and most traditional enterprises.  Welcome to the era of Big Sugar.

Starting from scratch in May last year, Mr. Scelza and Mr. Parke have installed 11,700 taps over hundreds of acres of forest they’ve leased in Glover from Nick Ecker-Racz.

If all goes well, they’re looking forward to expanding to 15,000, perhaps 20,000 taps in future seasons.

That won’t make them the biggest operators in the business.  Mark Colburn in West Glover has 21,000 taps this year.  And when Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza needed some very large tanks to handle their sap, they got them used from a sugarmaker in Franklin County.  With about 100,000 taps, the seller found that his 4,500-gallon sap tanks were just too small.

All of the time and money the partners have put into their operation since last May is culminating this week in a productive machine with a great many moving parts.

Most of the taps yield their sap to a collection point that sits in a low, swampy area just off the old Hinman Road.  The sap is drawn to two big tanks by a vacuum pump that reaches deep into the forest to the east and west through two-inch dry lines.  The sap actually flows through a parallel set of wet lines, connected at strategic points to the dry line.

Mr. Ecker-Racz collects that sap in a tank on a trailer behind his tractor and hauls it south on the Hinman Road, across a ford over a small creek, and a short distance west on the Shadow Lake Road to a big insulated shipping container that houses a shiny new reverse osmosis (RO) machine.  Another big tank receives the sap, along with sap pumped directly from taps in another section of the operation, on the south side of Shadow Lake Road.

A smaller tank sits beside the sap tank in the barn the partners have built, collecting a gush of concentrated sap from the RO machine.

That concentrate gets pumped up into a tank in the back of a veteran dump truck and hauled through Glover and Barton to Mr. Parke’s farm, high at the end of May Pond Road.

There it is boiled down into syrup in a six-by-16-foot evaporator fired by two oil burners.

The whole exercise is a fascinating mix of old and new.  In Mr. Parke’s sugarhouse the back pan is 30 years old.  He bought it from the defunct American Maple Company in Newport, and it was patched up under the supervision of Bucky Shelton at the new sugaring supply business in Orleans, Lapierre USA.

But the front pans are gleaming new stainless steel.  There are three of them taking up the space of the traditional front pan, and a fourth to serve as a spare.  The point, the sugarmakers explained, is that one pan can be lifted out of place and replaced while it is being cleaned.  Frequent cleaning comes with the RO-enriched concentrate that arrives from Glover.  It drops a lot of niter as it boils, and that can’t be allowed to coat the bottom of the pan.

“With RO sap, you’re kind of right on the edge of disaster all the time,” said Tim Perkins, who directs UVM’s Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill.

He’s seeing a steady growth in the maple industry.  Exact numbers are hard to come by, Mr. Perkins said, but his estimate is that “the maple industry has been growing quite rapidly over the last five years, on the order of 4 to 5 percent a year.”

New technology has been key to the industry’s growth, Mr. Perkins said.

“Anybody of a reasonably decent size is going to have a very efficient operation with a modern tubing system, vacuum lines, RO, and very efficient evaporators.”

A vacuum system like the one Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza laid out with the help of a consultant from New York State can double the yield per tap.

The ratio of taps to syrup, Mr. Perkins said, “used to be a quart per tap in a good year on buckets.  Now, tapping forest trees, you can get half a gallon per tap year after year, if you’re doing everything right.”

“If you don’t have vacuum,” Mr. Shelton said flatly, “it’s like having a ski area without snow making.”

To handle all that sap most large sugarmakers have turned to reverse osmosis.

David Marvin of Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville recalled starting out 40 years ago with 4,000 taps.  “That was a pretty big deal,” he said.  His operation currently has 16,000 taps.

“The real key has been reverse osmosis,” Mr. Marvin said.  Without it, sugarmakers were burning between four and four and a half gallons of oil to make a gallon of syrup.  With RO, Mr. Marvin said, it takes two quarts of oil to make a gallon of syrup.

Without RO, Mr. Marvin said, “we wouldn’t have this expansion in the industry.  The consumer wouldn’t be able to afford the energy we’d have to use to make the product.”

Though most large-scale sugarmakers burn oil, Mr. Perkins at the research center noted that the technology of wood-fired rigs continues to advance.  While wood-fired rigs have long relied on a supply of forced air at the bottom of the fire pit, the new models add a flow of air over the top of the fire to burn gasses that would otherwise go up the stack.

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Bucky Shelton stands beside the Hurricane at Lapierre USA in Orleans. The rig applies new technology to the time-honored practice of burning wood. Photos by Chris Braithwaite

Mr. Shelton has one such rig on display at the Lapierre store in Orleans.  It’s a three-tiered beauty in stainless steel called the Hurricane, and it carries a price tag of $36,212.  Its top unit, called a piggyback, concentrates the sap on its way down to the evaporator.

For Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza, finding a very large, untapped hardwood forest rich in maple was key to their enterprise.  Mr. Ecker-Racz bought his land at the end of the Perron Hill Road in 1968 and moved onto it in 1970.  Since then the trained forester has cultivated it much the way others might care for a garden.

He’s culled for firewood, harvested the softwood several times, but left the best hardwood standing for saw logs — or for sugaring.

He scorns the idea of clearcutting, or even selectively cutting everything over a certain size.  Though they are rare these days, he said, “you will find a few old-time Vermonters who understand the genetics of wood.  It’s just like a dairy herd.  You don’t milk your culls and beef your best cows.”

Mr. Parke is clearly delighted to have found such a stand of maples.  “Nick is an exceptional forester,” he said of Mr. Ecker-Racz.

Mr. Parke and Mr. Scelza demonstrated a lot of ingenuity in getting set up for sugaring.  The barn on the Shadow Lake Road is a reconstruction of one Mr. Parke tore down in Orwell.  Years ago Mr. Parke picked up a couple of shipping containers and buried them at his farm as root cellars.  He dug them up and used one to house the RO machine, the other for the pumps and generator at the collection point in the swamp, where there is no power.

That military surplus generator proved too small for the job, so while he waits for a new one Mr. Parke is using a borrowed generator powered by his tractor.  As one neighbor noted, that requires 2 a.m. runs on his ATV to keep the tractor fueled.

When Mr. Ecker-Racz first broke out the Hinman Road with his tractor at the end of February, its front end fell off as it dropped into the open ford.

But he had it fixed in time to deliver the first loads of sap.  And on Tuesday morning with the RO machine sending a gush of concentrated sap into the tank, the two partners were clearly delighted to see their enterprise finally in production.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Advocates say Reach Up works and should not be cut

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Kate Kanelstein, in the second row at left, testified against imposing a three-year cutoff in the Reach Up program Monday at a Vermont Interactive Television hearing on the state budget. Beside her is Cindy Perron of Barton, who testified on health care. In the foreground at right, George Frisbee, commander of the Jay Peak Post of the American Legion, testifies against a proposed tax on break open tickets. Beside him is Harvey Robitaille, past commander of Legion Post 21 in Newport. Legion members attended the hearings at sites across the state to argue that the tax would cripple the charitable programs the Legion supports in Vermont. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 2-13-13

NEWPORT — Kate Kanelstein of the Vermont Workers Center was a bit apologetic when she sat in front of the camera during a statewide budget hearing Monday afternoon.

She had planned to bring several women who face the loss of their Reach Up benefits under the cutoff proposed by Governor Peter Shumlin.

But none of them could make it, she told the members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees who convened the hearing.

The women had encountered problems with child care, car troubles, sick family members, and one of them was in labor, Ms. Kanelstein said.

She used her few minutes on Vermont Interactive Television to read a statement from Reach Up participant Jess Ray of West Charleston.

But the explanations she offered the committee might serve as a quick summary of the problems that keep Reach Up participants, typically single mothers, out of the labor force.

Ms. Ray, for example, wrote that she is a mother of two, living with a boyfriend.  “Combined, we get $770 each month.  Our rent is $550 so after paying bills I usually end up with like $20 for everything else.  I love to sew and want to be a seamstress, but I would do pretty much anything if I could get a job.”

Ms. Ray went on the say that the arrival of her first child ended her career at a Barton nursing home five years ago.  “I went on Reach Up for the first time because I didn’t get any maternity leave with my job.”

They left Reach Up when her boyfriend got a job, but returned in less than a year because the company went bankrupt, she wrote.

“Then we got off again when I got a job at Thibault’s Market in Orleans but our car wasn’t inspectable and we didn’t have the money for the repairs so after about three months I couldn’t get there and lost that job, too.  As you can see we live on the edge and it’s really hard to get stable….  Living in West Charleston without transportation makes it incredibly difficult.”

“I also want to understand what you are basing these budget decisions on,” Ms. Ray told the legislators.  “Do you look at the real life situations of people in our communities?  I think that is where we should start.”

The decision in question is whether the Legislature should follow the Governor’s wishes and, on October 1, cut off all families who have been in the Reach Up program for three years.

According to Chris Curtis, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, 1,188 families would lose their benefits in October, of a total of about 6,400 families on the program.

Of that total, as of September last year, 315 families with 775 family members are in the Newport district of the Department of Children and Families, which oversees Reach Up.  Their benefits that month totaled $147,764, or about $470 a family.

The average Reach Up participant wouldn’t be affected by a three-year cutoff.  According to a state report, “the average amount of time that an individual in Reach Up receives case management services is approximately 24 months.”

But people who know the program in Newport are worried about the impact a cutoff would have.

“My biggest fear is the children,” said Mary Hamel, who runs a job site for Reach Up participants as associate director of employment and training for NECKA.

“Reach up is for families,” Ms. Hamel said.  “Cutting them off is taking away their rent money — the roof over a child’s head.  That concerns me.”

It concerns Mr. Curtis too.  People forced out of Reach Up may end up in the state’s emergency shelter program, he said, and that is already “an exploding part of state government.  What happens if you add another 1,200 families, just as the winter season arrives?”

Other branches of state government, including the Department of Corrections, may face a “ripple effect” from the Reach Up cuts, Mr. Curtis fears.  “Are we really saving any money here?”

His estimate is that the cuts will save Reach Up about $6-million.  “That’s huge to the families,” he said, “but to the General Fund it’s a relatively small amount.”

Mr. Curtis argues that the statistics show Reach Up works for most of the people who are forced to use it.  “The state of Vermont has invested a lot of resources into making this bridge out of poverty,” he argued.  “Why would we blow up that bridge?”

Since she set up a Reach Up work site for NECKA in 2008, Ms. Hamel said, “we have seen many success stories.”

NECKA provides jobs for 15 to 30 Reach Up participants, Ms. Hamel said.  Some work at the Parent Child Center in Newport, as a receptionist or a maintenance worker.  Others work at the cash register or keeping track of the inventory at NEKCA’s thrift store in Newport.

Reach Up has other partners who provide jobs in schools, municipalities and with nonprofit organizations.

The jobs go to Reach Up participants who can’t find work.  They pay nothing (outside of Reach Up benefit payments) but aim to help the participants learn job skills.

Younger Reach Up participants fulfill their job requirement by going to school.

The Governor’s proposal would permit families to take advantage of the full five years of benefits supported by federal block grants.  But there would be interruptions.  After three years, participants would be on their own for a year.  Then they could sign up for another year, be left on their own for a year, and come back to the program for a fifth and final year.

Efforts to reach Paul Dragon, director of the Reach Up program, were unsuccessful.  In his budget address to the Legislature, Governor Shumlin said “there is no better social program than a good paying job.  We will not allow vulnerable Vermonters, such as those who are disabled, to fall through the cracks, but we will ask those who can work to get the training and support they need and get a job.”

If the cutoff becomes law, Ms. Hamel said, “it will cause more homelessness, more hunger, more stress.

“I just don’t think it’s a great idea.  Maybe it’s a good idea to have a conversation about it, but I think it’s a bad thing to take the Governor’s plan seriously.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Bloodhound and owner help find lost pets

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Redford the bloodhound.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Redford the bloodhound. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 12-26-12

ALBANY — Lisa Robinson spends a good deal of her time crashing through the woods or running through the brambles behind a big rangy dog named Redford who might quite possibly be pursuing a cat.

Though she’s not a young woman, and runs on two surgically replaced hips, Ms. Robinson’s accounts of these expeditions suggest that she enjoys every minute of them.

Redford is a bloodhound, and Ms. Robinson makes him — and herself — available to people who have lost household pets.

She and Redford have looked for a Westy that wandered off from his new home in Pownal, in the far southwest corner of Vermont, and a Chinook sled dog in Richford, on the Canadian border.

They’ve looked for a Siamese cat in Barre and a mother-and-son pair of Labrador retrievers in West Glover.

bloodhound pogo copy

James and Lisa Ash of Barre sent Lisa Robinson this photo of their recovered cat, Pogo, who followed them home the day after Redford the bloodhound led them on a search. Pogo disappeared on a Monday evening, and Redford wasn’t called in until the following Saturday. The cat came back on Sunday.

Ms. Robinson doesn’t think there are any other bloodhounds available in Vermont to search for lost pets.  She’d like people to know about Redford so they’ll call her when their pet’s trail is still fresh.  All too often, she says, by the time people locate her by word of mouth their pet has been missing for several days.

That doesn’t stop Redford.  Ms. Robinson says her young bloodhound exhibits the tracking skills his breed is famous for, and can track a missing animal long after it has disappeared from home.

The problem, she says, is that she and the dog can only cover so much ground in a day.  She hangs on tight to his leash on a hunt, for fear that his exuberance for his job will lure him so far ahead of her that he will become one of the missing pets himself.

Redford doesn’t always track down a missing pet.

On several searches, Ms. Robinson says, he’s led her and the missing pet’s owner over long distances to surprising locations, where the animal was eventually found.

But sometimes the trail just comes to a bewildering end, leaving Redford wandering around in uncertain circles.  When that happens, Ms. Robinson suspects the worst — someone picked the pet up and made off with it.  That, sadly, is how the search for the West Glover dogs ended, several miles from their home.

In Barre, the missing Siamese cat showed up the day after Ms. Robinson and Redford had climbed into her aging Subaru and headed home to Albany.  The happy owners believe Redford led them close to it — what self-respecting Siamese would rush out of hiding to greet a drooling bloodhound? — and the cat followed their familiar scent home.

Redford, at three and a half, is a relatively new recruit.  Ms. Robinson got him from a bloodhound rescue group after he was abandoned in Alabama.

He’s a replacement for Thurber, the bloodhound who taught Ms. Robinson the art of tracking.  Thurber is memorialized, in a way, on the sweatshirt his owner was wearing during an interview last week.  It’s decorated with a sketch of a big dog, most likely another bloodhound, by the great American humorist James Thurber.

Ms. Robinson’s first bloodhound was named after the humorist — she has a friendly but offbeat cat named Dillon, and a matching pair named Cassidy and Sundance — and Thurber, like Redford, was a rescued animal.  Their owner thinks the dogs’ difficult early lives only enhanced their ability to find lost animals.  They know what it’s like to be out on the streets, she says.

Thurber was killed by a condition called bloat, and Ms. Robinson is anxious that other dog owners — particularly owners of large dogs — be more aware of its dangers.

“It’s something that really worries me,” she says.  “It affects the large breeds, the big-chested dogs that tend to gulp their food.”

When the condition strikes, Ms. Robinson says, the dog’s stomach swells to look like a barrel and, if tapped, to sound like one too.  The condition is also called torsion, she says, because the dog’s stomach can start to twist, and actually flip over.

If it strikes, Ms. Robinson says, “there is no time.  You’ve got to get to a vet.”

Untreated, she says grimly, a stricken pet faces “a horrible, painful death.”

Since Thurber’s death, Ms. Robinson watches her three bloodhounds closely for bloat, and tries to keep them as still as possible for an hour or so after eating.

At home when he’s not working, Redford is a big, floppy, affable young dog.  This visitor had just left a dog at home, so Redford took a careful inventory of boots, pant legs, shirt cuffs, gleaning heaven knows how much information in the process.

He shares a big fenced enclosure with Simon, a seven-year-old bloodhound who quickly demonstrates a timidity that, his owner says, makes him unfit for tracking.

A good tracker, she says, “needs to be bold and friendly.

“Bloodhounds are stubborn,” she adds.  “They want to find that scent.  They don’t care what’s at the end of it.”

When working, she says, Redford ignores people he would otherwise spend time visiting, and anything he finds along the trail.  She’s been amazed to see him stride heedlessly past bear scat, moose scat, deer scat, even a deer.  But he proudly brought her the frozen scat left behind by that missing Westy.

A third bloodhound, Waseeka, has settled pretty permanently on a rug under a table in Ms. Robinson’s log house.  More than 12 years old, Waseeka has lost much of her vision and her hearing.

There are two horses in a paddock, a Morgan and a Tennessee walker, along with three outside cats and five inside cats, all rescued animals.

Ms. Robinson and her dogs haven’t gone looking for lost people.  That job involves a lot of legal regulations, she says, and a lot of paperwork.

She held a job for years at Kodak in Rochester, New York, before she and Thurber moved to the Northeast Kingdom almost 12 years ago.  Working with that large corporation left her “tired of doing what somebody told me to do.”

But when she’s looking for a lost pet, Ms. Robinson strives to do what Redford tells her to do.

When a dog and handler team makes a mistake, she says, it’s almost always the handler’s fault.

“It’s all about Redford,” she says.  “I’m just his translator and his transportation.  He’s the one who knows what’s going on.”

To help dogs like Redford do their job, Ms. Robinson suggests that pet owners wipe each of their animals with a bit of clean cloth, and put the cloth aside in a sealed and labeled plastic bag.

If the pet ever should come up missing, she says, that will give Redford something to work with.

Ms. Robinson can be reached at 755-6331 or by e-mail at allcritters@wildblue.net.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Reporter seeks damages for arrest on Lowell Mountain

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 1-9-2013

The legal fight between Green Mountain Power (GMP)  and Chronicle publisher and reporter Chris Braithwaite has shifted from criminal to civil court.

Defense attorney Phil White filed a civil complaint late last month alleging that GMP had violated his client’s civil rights when Mr. Braithwaite was arrested on December 5, 2011, for covering a wind protest on Lowell Mountain.

Mr. White charges that GMP and its agent on the site, David Coriell, “knew or should have known that Braithwaite had permission to be on the property and that, at the very least, misinformation provided by Coriell and GMP to law enforcement had caused Braithwaite to be wrongly taken into custody, arrested, and subsequently charged with and prosecuted for unlawful trespass.”

The civil complaint comes close on the heels of a ruling handed down by Judge Howard VanBenthuysen that dismissed a criminal charge of unlawful trespass brought against Mr. Braithwaite and forbids the state to bring the charges back at a later date.

In dismissing the case with prejudice, Judge VanBenthuysen noted that he failed to see how the state could bring back the charge against the journalist in light of the e-mails among GMP officials giving the press permission to be at the site.

After noting the e-mails only came into view as the case was about to go to trial, the judge wrote:  “Consent is a key element of the offense, and GMP apparently consented to the presence of media at protests, and gave instructions that the media should not be arrested.”

In her brief to the court, Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker argued against dismissing the charge with prejudice, saying the state could still make a case against Mr. Braithwaite by bringing Mr. Coriell, who has since left Vermont, back to testify.

The judge concluded, however, that was stretching the point, as it was unlikely that Mr. Coriell could give testimony that would rebut the evidence found in the e-mails.

“Under the circumstances this is the rare case in which a dismissal with prejudice is appropriate, given the late revelation of consent.”

The ruling was released on December 24 and the day after Christmas, December 26, Mr. White filed a civil complaint against GMP.  Along with the complaint, Mr. White also asked the court to revise a protective order to return to GMP documents that were sealed when the criminal case was still active.

Mr. White argued in his brief that he wanted to retain the documents on the grounds they constitute evidence in the civil suit he is pursuing against GMP.  If the court grants his request, the documents would be kept from public view until further court order.

The civil suit filed by Mr. White seeks damages on four counts:  false arrest; false and malicious prosecution; fraud, slander and false report; and fraudulent concealment.

The suit asks for compensatory damages in the amount of $22,530 (Mr. White’s fee for Mr. Braithwaite’s criminal defense) along with attorney’s fees and expenses in the civil case.  The suit further alleges that Mr. Braithwaite’s civil rights were violated, and seeks punitive damages, which are characteristically sought as a deterrent.

In his discussion of the events leading up to his client’s arrest, Mr. White says that GMP anticipated Mr. Braithwaite’s arrival at the protest and spelled out a course of action for its agent at Lowell Mountain.

GMP officials, according to the complaint, “gave Coriell explicit directions to inform law enforcement that Chris Braithwaite and any other members of the working press who showed up to cover this protest had GMP’s consent to be there to cover this event and that they were not to be arrested.”

As it turned out, Mr. Braithwaite was the only reporter present at the site, and was arrested when he refused a police order to leave.  Mr. White argues that after his client was arrested, GMP failed to step forward to explain their instructions to Mr. Coriell and reverse the arrest.

Their failure to do so, the attorney further argues, violated Mr. Braithwaite’s civil rights.  The attorney said that Mr. Braithwaite, as a journalist, had written “fierce editorials opposing GMP’s commercial wind project” on Lowell Mountain.

“At all times material to this complaint GMP and its agents, including Coriell and Orleans County law enforcement officers have jointly participated in the planning and execution of arrests of protesters,” charges the complaint.

“GMP and/or Coriell were acting under the color of law and engaging in ‘state action’ when they maliciously gave the government false and misleading information with the purpose of causing the government to engage in false arrest and wrongful prosecution.”

Green Mountain Power did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.  Nor has the company filed a response in court to the complaint.  When the possibility of a civil law suit was raised last month, a company spokesman told a reporter that any legal claim against Mr. Coriell would be frivolous.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

To read court documents connected to this case, please click on the links here:  No1-citation

No2-recordcheck

No3-information

No4-Sheriff’s affidavit

No5-Coriell’s affidavit

No6-Brooks affidavit

No7-Motion to Dismiss

No8-state’s response to No7

No9-Defense Memo in support of No7

No10-renewed motion to dismiss

No11-motion to dismiss with prejudice

No12-state’s opposition to No11

No13-judge’s ruling on No11

No14-civil complaint

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Breaking news: Charge against publisher dismissed “with prejudice”

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Wind towers at Lowell Mountain, as seen from Irish Hill Road.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wind towers at Lowell Mountain, as seen from Irish Hill Road. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

 

copyright the Chronicle 12-27-2012

Judge Howard VanBenthuysen has dismissed “with prejudice” a criminal charge of unlawful trespass against Chronicle Publisher Chris Braithwaite.
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In memoriam: Henry Labrecque

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Jeannette and Henry Labrecque at home in September of 2011. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Editor’s note:  Henry Labrecque died on December 7, 2012.  In his memory, we republish here an interview Chris Braithwaite did with Mr. Labreque that was first published in the Chronicle in the fall of 2011.

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle, September 28, 2011.

 

BARTON — Nothing could seem more normal on a sunny afternoon in late September than to see Henry and Jeannette Labrecque harvesting a hay crop from a field beside the Cook Road.

The couple might have been seen in such a field more than half a century ago, working with equipment that was a little smaller, a little slower.  But then, as now, you would expect to see Mrs. Labrecque behind the wheel of the tractor.

“One thing I always liked was driving tractor,” she said in a recent interview.

Henry Labrecque might have been seen there 70 years ago, a strapping young teenager, perhaps driving the team of horses, perhaps building the load of loose hay on a wagon.

He has lived on the farm for all but the first four of his 83 years, and worked on it almost that long.

He has a crystal clear memory of his eighth birthday present, a privilege bestowed by his father:

“I could start milking cows by hand.  I’ll never forget that.  I thought I was a man.”

One of his earliest memories of life on the farm, which sits on a deceptively sharp curve on the road to Willoughby Lake, is less positive.

The farmhouse had a bad foundation, he recalls, and its movement had opened cracks in the roof.  A few months after the family moved there in October 1932, young Henry woke in his upstairs bedroom to find “a couple of inches of snow on the sheets.”

That morning, he recalled with a smile, “it didn’t take too long to get dressed.”

Mr. Labrecque’s French-Canadian family had arrived at their ramshackle farmhouse in northern Vermont by an indirect route, one that reflected the times they coped with.

Henry Labrecque. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

His mother, Marie Anne, had moved from Montreal to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to join hundreds of young women in the textile mills.  His father, Jeremie, had moved nearby from his family’s Quebec farm to work at Fafnir Bearing.  They met at the wedding of his neighbor and one of her friends, and married in 1927.

Then the Depression hit.

“In 1931 he got laid off and moved up here, to the Kittridge farm,” Mr. Labrecque said.

That place, now fallen into a ruin, had just been remodeled by the father of Tony Pomerleau, the Burlington developer who is playing a key role in Newport’s redevelopment.

“But he lost it,” Mr. Labrecque said of his father and the Kittridge farm.  “Then he moved here, to the old Pete Damon place.”

Of Mr. Damon’s reason for leaving, Mr. Labrecque said, “Things went wrong with him, too.”

Things were going wrong for a lot of farmers in the early ’30s.  Mrs. Labrecque recalls the bankers of the day with no hint of affection in her voice.

“If they missed a payment by one day, they were evicted,” she said of farmers like Pete Damon.

Yet the bankers gave Jeremie Labrecque a bit of a break.

“The deal was he could stay here, and if he could make a go of it, they’d sell it to him,” Mr. Labrecque said.  “In 1934 they did.”

The farm, then 120 acres, sold for “right around $3,500.”

His father started out with about a dozen cows, milking them by hand.

There was no electricity, Mr. Labrecque recalls.  “We got it the day before Christmas, 1942, which was a Saturday.”

He has sharp memories of the electricians who busied themselves in the house that day, particularly of one universally known as Old Tink Prescott.  “He’d stick his finger in his mouth, then stick it in the socket and say ‘Yep, there’s electricity there.’”

The herd grew steadily over the next decade, as Henry Labrecque grew up.  “When we were married in 1954 there were 25, maybe nearer 30,” Mr. Labrecque said.

“I grew up in Newport Center, a whole 23 miles from here,” Mrs. Labrecque said.

“I knew the road to Newport Center,” her husband said.

He said that with a smile that seemed to recall a farmer in his mid-twenties wooing the girl who would be his wife for (so far) 57 years and with whom he would raise seven children.

It was important to both parents, as their family grew, that they retain the French language.

All seven of their children can speak French, and at least one grown son, Richard, still slips into that language when he talks to his parents.

Jeannette Labrecque keeps a close eye on the baler from the driver’s seat as son Richard Labrecque keeps a close eye on his mother. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Mrs. Labrecque is a plain-spoken woman, and her voice still conveys some of the fury she felt when a teacher sent a daughter home with the advice that she should be speaking English in their home.

“There was no English spoken in this house,” she said.  “How else would they keep their French?”

“When I started school I knew one word in English,” Henry Labrecque said.  “That was ‘No.’”

At his first day of school he couldn’t so much as ask to go to the bathroom.  Finally recognizing his discomfort, the teacher found a bilingual classmate, a girl who figured out the problem and led young Henry to the outhouse.

Then she translated the teacher’s instructions on the universal code, using his fingers to indicate number one and number two.

But he can still hear the laugher that filled the one-room Devereaux schoolhouse when he raised his middle finger to his teacher, and she calmly bent it down and raised his index finger in its place.

“My mother never could talk English,” Mr. Labrecque said.  “Dad could, after a while.  I picked up the English language, but I kept the French.”

Speaking the French language in northern Vermont had its price, Mr. Labrecque said.

“French-speaking people were looked down on.  If there was a good job, the English speaker got it.  French people, they were farmers.  They worked the land.”

On her drive to school, he recalled, “the teacher would pick up some of the Fisk kids that were neighbors, but I had to walk.”

Yet his bilingual ability proved to be critical to the work he did to support the farm.  He’d drive north into Quebec to buy hay, Christmas trees, and brush for his wreath-making business.

Son Richard has taken that business over, and finds his French essential to negotiations with farmers on the other side of the border.

His business, and his ability to chat with his sources, has made Richard an expert on the state of the Quebec dairy industry.  His key finding:  Quebec’s supply management system, based on quotas, supports a thriving business while Vermont dairying continues to decline.

“When I got out of high school there were 17 farms between Barton and Willoughby Lake,” Henry Labrecque said.  “Now there aren’t any.”  He and Jeannette sold their cows in 1994.

Mr. Labrecque didn’t want to sell them, his wife recalled.  “I said, ‘If you don’t want to sell the cows, you can do the work yourself.’  That changed his mind.”

While he has passed the hay and wreath business on to Richard, Henry continues to haul loads of gravel out of a pit on the farm, even as he recovers from major heart surgery in June.

Talk of the gravel pit brought back other memories of the Depression and the WPA, the Works Progress Administration created by President Franklin Roosevelt to put unemployed men back to work.

“In the winter of 1934-’35 they graveled the road to the Barton Village line — in the winter — with horses.  The WPA had men in the pit shoveling gravel all winter.”

His father worked too, hauling gravel.  “I think that first year it was $2.25 a day, the next year $2.50.  That was for Dad, the horses and the wagon.  That’s what kept the place from going under.”

He remembers touching hands with Roosevelt in 1934, when the President was campaigning in Newport for another term.

Another childhood memory involves the skin of a calf and a cattle dealer who, to this day, Mr. Labrecque is reluctant to name.

“It was during haying in July.  I was seven.  It would have been 1935.  Dad told me, ‘If you skin that calf you can have the money.’”

He remembers running out to meet the cattle dealer as his rounds took him past the farm; remembers the dealer standing on the running board of his truck, his gold teeth, and his ability to speak French.

“All I could talk was French.”

Young Henry offered up the hide, and the dealer agreed to buy it.

“He picked through the change in his hand and gave me a Canadian dime.”

What Henry didn’t know was that the dime was worthless in Vermont.

“I went down to Medie Massey’s store for a nickel ice cream.”  The store was at the corner of Main Street and Duck Pond Road in Barton.

“He asked me if I had any money.  Boy, did I!  I had a dime!  Well, he didn’t give me no ice cream.”

Henry got the same reception at Ralph Moore’s store downtown, and from Mr. Boisvert on Upper Main Street.

“I went into Wallace Foss’ store.  He asked if I had any money.  I showed him my dime.  He said ‘I’ll give you an ice cream and you keep your dime.’  I ended up giving it to the church.”

That dealer “was a tight-fisted son of a gun,” Mr. Labrecque said.  Years later, at a dance in Glover, the dealer had a chance to ask the farmer why he never sold him any cattle.

“So I told him,” Mr. Labrecque said.  “He denied it, but it was the truth.”

Asked which era of farming he most enjoyed, Mr. Labrecque was quick to respond.

“When the whole family was here.  All the kids were here.  We had problems, but they were enjoyable years.”

“It was a good life, but it was seven days a week,” he said.

“Sometimes,” Mrs. Labrecque added, “it felt like eight.”

To read an obituary of Henry Labrecque, please see the obituary pages for December 12, 2012.

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital  editions.

 

 

 

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