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Acworth residents approve $2.1 million for urgent road repairs
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ACWORTH — The rain came and went in a few hours. But its impact is still being felt months later.

The 3 to 4 inches of rain that fell on Acworth on the night of July 29-30 washed out roads, damaged bridges and destroyed culverts. Around 30 roads — three-quarters of the town’s total — were damaged, according to an engineer hired to oversee repairs.

Today, several roads and the Forest Road Bridge remain closed.

The closures have affected businesses, blocked access to utility poles in need of maintenance, complicated EMS responses and forced some residents to drive miles out of their way to access their homes, said State Rep. Judy Aron, R-Acworth. Town officials have said those detours often involve trips over narrow, unpaved roads or “emergency lanes” created on Class VI dirt roads, which usually aren’t maintained at all.

“It’s a public safety problem,” Aron said.

At a special town meeting Saturday, Acworth residents authorized the town to borrow up to $2.1 million to make urgent repairs before winter.

Town officials expect 75 percent of what they spend will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thanks to a federal disaster declaration requested by Gov. Chris Sununu and granted by the Biden administration. Sununu’s request described Acworth as the community hit hardest by the storm.

“If you approve this loan … the work will start on Monday,” Selectboard Chairman Frank Emig said before the vote, noting that the town had contractors lined up. “We have contracts to sign today if this loan is approved.”

The measure, which required a three-fifths majority, passed 80-5.

The town has already been able to do some repairs by drawing on its unappropriated fund balance, which required approval from the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration. Kathi Bradt, the town’s administrative assistant, said the town has already used about $400,000, for which it also plans to seek FEMA reimbursement.

But town officials have said those funds are running out and won’t cover all of the work that must be done before the winter freeze.

“If certain road repairs are not made before winter, there is a risk that Acworth residents could face prolonged blackouts and much-delayed fire, ambulance and police response in the dead of winter,” the town stated in its petition asking a court to allow it to hold the special meeting.

According to the warrant article passed Saturday, the work this fall will include repairing Crane Brook Road, Derry Hill Road and Charlestown Road.

Crane Brook Road, which leads to Bascom Maple Farms, a major syrup producer and distributor, is currently closed. According to the governor’s request for a disaster declaration, Crane Brook Road was so washed out that some sections will need to be entirely rebuilt.

Bascom is still reachable via other roads. But the closure of Crane Brook Road has limited access to more than half of its maple taps, according to Sununu’s disaster declaration request, and has also affected operations at nearby Cadillac Farms.

Repairing all the damage from the July storm is a larger project that will extend through next year’s construction season, officials said. Forest Road Bridge, which residents asked about at Saturday’s meeting, is one of the projects slated for next year.

Erin Darrow of Right Angle Engineering PLLC in New London, who is overseeing the project for the town, said the full cost of the damage is still being determined. After the meeting, she told The Sentinel that the damage in Acworth was the worst she’d seen in 20 years of working with towns.

Discussing the road work, voters asked a range of technical questions, from the financing to the failure of drainage systems to prevent the storm damage. The role of beavers also came up. “Besides the rain we got, two beaver dams collapsed, and that’s what caused Crane Brook Road to go out,” Emig said.

A second article on the warrant — whether to acquire a new highway truck for $135,000, through a three-year lease-to-purchase agreement — failed. Though it won a majority, 47-36, it fell short of the required three-fifths threshold.

Highway Supervisor Mark McIntire said one of the four trucks the town uses to plow snow is on its last leg. He proposed buying the new truck and keeping the old one as a backup vehicle, though some residents questioned the need to spend more on road equipment. Neither the Board of Selectmen nor the Budget Committee recommended the article.

While FEMA is expected to reimburse most of the road-repair expenses, it requires the state or municipality to put up a 25 percent match, according to officials.

Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, who attended Saturday’s meeting, said he is working on legislation that would have the state pay half of that 25 percent match for communities in Cheshire and Sullivan counties affected by the summer’s floods. Aron, the state representative, and Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard — who represents Acworth and was also at the meeting — said they support that legislation.

Aron said she has also filed a bill that would set up a municipal disaster relief fund to help towns before FEMA funding becomes available.

Aron and Emig told The Sentinel that they have reached out to Sununu’s office to ask for financial help from the state but have not heard back. “We’ve made requests and haven’t gotten any response,” Aron said.

The governor’s communications staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Saturday afternoon.

“A town this size, there is no way we could absorb the cost of the damage on our own,” Aron said. “It’s gonna take us years and years to recover from this.”

The economic divide is also a green gap, preventing weatherization, shift to renewable energy

WEST LEBANON — Asked if she’d considered investing in renewable energy, weatherization or an electric vehicle, Marjie Blanchard shook her head as she loaded groceries into her car.

“We just have never thought of having something,” she said, standing in the West Lebanon Walmart parking lot Friday. “The cost is huge. It’s not an option.”

Blanchard, a nurse from Bridgewater, was not aware of any state or federal programs that would help her family “go green.”

“You have to qualify,” she said. “You have to be poor. If you make a good wage, if you’re middle-income, you don’t qualify. It would be nice if it was different.”

Four researchers at the University of Vermont conducted nearly 600 surveys and interviews to investigate the “justice” of renewable energy policies. Their findings suggest that low-income, non-white and renting Vermonters struggle to take advantage of the state’s green policies, although they would benefit most from energy savings.

“We argue that Vermont’s investment-based transition policy and assistance programs do not go far enough to improve participation in the energy transition,” they concluded in their September 2021 study.

In particular, they said, investment-based incentives, such as tax credits, electricity price guarantees, or increased home values, are available only to people who have disposable income and own their homes.

For people already struggling to meet their expenses, investing in renewable energy or electrification can seem out of reach.

Betsy Lahaye, a retiree who lives in a 55-plus community with her husband in West Lebanon, who was also shopping at Walmart, said such improvements weren’t feasible for them.

“We’d like to get something (a home) of our own again, but we can’t afford it,” she said. Weatherization or solar panels are rarely options for people who do not own property.

“We have no electric vehicle. We can’t afford it. We have no place to plug it in. We can’t just sit for two or three hours,” she said.

She and her husband intend to keep their current car, which is eight years old, as long as possible.

Advocates say rising fuel prices may exacerbate the disparity.

“This year, we’re projecting it to be a very challenging year. Fuel prices for cooking and heating are high,” said Angela Zhang, a program director at LISTEN Community Services. The projected high fuel prices coming this winter are just one more factor in a state with aging housing stock and inefficient energy systems.

Federally, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, helps low-income households pay their heating bills. But Zhang said that many people whose incomes hover above the federal poverty line still struggle to pay their bills and cannot access full federal benefits. LISTEN often gives households up to $400 to fill in the gaps that LIHEAP does not meet.

It can also be a confusing benefit to access, especially in New Hampshire where the LIHEAP application is not rolled into the applications for other benefits such as food stamps, as it is in Vermont. LIHEAP has only a limited amount of funding for weatherization, which can permanently reduce energy costs.

“We often conflate sustainable energy as only for rich people, but it can have a lot of impact for lower-income people,” Zhang said. “It’s all part of the conversation of affordable housing. Heat in winter is critical.”

Locally, the nonprofit COVER Home Repair fixes and weatherizes homes in the Upper Valley. It estimates that its work kept 140 metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere in 2019 alone. Still, demand exceeds resources, and the nonprofit cannot accept any more clients in 2021 although cold weather has only just set in.

“It’s expensive to be poor, and that very much extends into energy,” said Sarah Brock, a program director at Vital Communities. “So much of energy is having to spend money to save money.”

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you cannot prepay a heating bill to lock in lower prices and you may be stuck paying a fine to unlock your propane tank. Renewable energy and weatherization often requires an upfront investment to take advantage of long-term savings.

“Weatherization is not expensive only if you’re middle- or high-income. You have to pay at least a few thousand dollars. The payback can be really great, but if you don’t have that money, you can’t get anything,” Brock said. Meanwhile, renewable energy and heat pumps are a “quantum leap beyond.”

Government programs are so complicated that it took a yearlong position at Vital Communities, funded by Americorps, to decode “the constellation of programs in the Upper Valley” and identify whom to call, who qualifies and where to go to apply.

“Chronically underfunded” weatherization programs in both Vermont and New Hampshire are “notorious for long waitlists,” she said. “They do not market in either state in part because there is no need.” They run out of funding before the end of the year without any outreach.

Indeed, there are incentives and programs that target middle-income Vermonters. For example, Efficiency Vermont offers a weatherization incentive for a four-member family making up to $111,600.

Local municipalities and service providers “impatient with state-level changes” started the Upper Valley Energy Advocacy Council in 2018, Brock said. They look for local solutions to households’ energy burden until there is enough “political will” on the state level.

Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, chairman of the energy committee in the Vermont House, said the challenge for many homeowners is “that upfront cost.”

“For things like weatherization, for things like investing in renewable energy on a personal level, what we’ve found is that over the long term they are really financially and economically beneficial ways to spend money — or save money and lower health care costs,” he said.

He said that pilot programs for on-bill financing (which distributes the cost of the initial investment of renewable energy or weatherization over many years) may help some Vermonters surmount that barrier. In the 2022 legislative session, he also said there is a “good deal of interest in increasing resources on a number of details in helping Vermonters weatherize their homes.”

“Energy is a really regressive cost of living for Vermonters,” he said. “If you’re lower-income, you pay a significantly higher part of your income to keep your pipes from freezing.”

He listed off the many co-benefits from weatherization beyond financial savings — reduced drafts and mold reduces health care costs, and then there are the benefits to the climate. Electrification is better-suited for state-level action, he argued; it’s easier to target large utilities than thousands of individual homes with their individual weatherization needs.

He said money from the American Rescue Plan and state programs may help. “There’s going to be meaningful dollars directed towards climate issues,” he said.

For Karen Broadwell, of South Royalton, though, some weatherization isn’t expensive. It’s something that she and her “significant other” can do themselves to cut their bills.

“We do plastics on the windows — shrink wrap. First we burn wood, then oil. My significant other is a builder, so our house is tight,” she said.

After they swapped their bulbs out for LEDs, their electric bill went “way down,” said Broadwell, who was also shopping in West Lebanon on Friday.

While she and her partner rented their home, solar was not an option. But now that they are buying the house that they now rent, she said that they hope to install solar “eventually.”

For her, going green is an economic decision, although she cares about the environment.

“Things are expensive,” she said.

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Local Civil War vet honored in ceremony
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The morning frost had not yet melted off the headstones when a cannon’s blast shook St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Keene Saturday, kicking off the days’ events with a bang.

A Civil War relics hunter, who goes by the name “JP” for security reasons, had traveled hundreds of miles from Frederick County, Md., to be in Keene, where he was joined by a crowd of about 50 people on this clear-sky morning.

The 10 a.m. ceremony was in honor of Francis Roark, a local Civil War veteran who for more than a century was buried without any recognition of his military service.

At age 20, Roark, a Winchester resident, was among nearly 1,000 men who joined the 14th N.H. Infantry Regiment in 1862. After mustering to service in Concord and completing training in Washington D.C., the regiment settled in Poolesville, Md., where it contributed to an effort to preventing Confederate soldiers from crossing the Potomac River.

It was at the Poolesville encampment that Pvt. Roark seems to have lost his identification tag, and it remained buried there for more than a century and a half.

In February, JP found the identification disc and on Saturday he described what the “life-changing discovery” meant to him.

“It put me on a path, a mission, to find out where Francis Roark lived, where he was buried, and whether or not he had any living direct descendants. It was very important to me to find out,” JP said. “[Roark], like many during that time period, took the call of duty to serve and left his family behind.”

As JP spoke, the Roark Family plot at St. Joseph’s Cemetery was flanked by the 6th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, Civil War re-enactors, and flag-bearing Patriot Guard Riders, and adorned with patriotic flower arrangements that were anonymously donated on behalf of Winchester residents. The marker, still surrounded by upturned dirt from its recent installation, joined those belonging to Roark relatives, including the soldier’s wife, Mary Ann Dogget.

It was a day that had been in the works for 10 months, JP explained to the crowd.

Finding the disc was only the start of an endeavor that included researching Roark’s life, coordinating with Keene municipal staff, and — with the help of fellow Civil War history buff Alvin Hawkins — submitting documents and proof of burial to the Veteran’s Affairs office to ensure Roark received recognition for his service.

“It’s been almost 160 years since Francis Roark’s ID tag, his ID disc, has been this close to him.” JP said to the crowd. “To me, that’s just amazing to think about.”

A familiar figure, complete with his signature top hat and beard, was among Saturday’s crowd.

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president who held office during the Civil War — impersonated on Saturday by Steve Wood of Claremont — emerged from the group to share remarks.

Wood has been impersonating Honest Abe since 1995, and while he’s attended several other Civil War memorial services, there had been “nothing quite as impressive as [Saturday’s ceremony],” he said.

JP’s father, Michael, shared a similar sentiment.

Michael has been a Civil War history buff since taking a family trip to Gettysburg when he was 8 years old, he said.

“I’m 71 years old, and I’ve done a lot throughout my life, but as far as today goes, I think the rest of my life is not going to be as a pinnacle such as today has been,” Michael told The Sentinel after the ceremony. “... It is amazing what he has accomplished, and it makes this old man proud to call him my son.”

The ceremony wrapped up with a 21-gun salute, and the muskets’ smoke hung low over the cemetery as “Taps” cut through the air. The Boys in Blue administered one final blast from their cannon.

While 7-year-old Shayla Swett did not love the send-off — “The only thing I did not like about [the ceremony] was the big guns and the cannon,” she said — she enjoyed the event with her family, especially seeing Roark’s ID disc for herself.

David and Mary Ellen Swett, who said they’ve long been interested in the Civil War and have visited battlefields in Virginia, said it was a unique experience to see the legacy of the war in Keene.

“To have it so local really brought it home,” David Swett said.

“It’s a nice little piece of history for us,” Mary Ellen added.

Saturday didn’t mark the end of JP’s efforts to ensure Roark’s memory lives on, he said. That was only one part of the quest, and he plans to continue searching for Roark’s descendants.

“It doesn’t feel like the end for me,” he said. “I hope that this is actually just a beginning of something that hopefully will transition into something bigger — not just with Francis Roark, but with maybe other service members that need to be recognized.”

The US is finally reopening its land border to Canadians — but Canada's rules are likely to deter many

The Canadians are coming. And Christine Tiger, for one, is excited.

On Monday, for the first time in more than 19 months, fully vaccinated Canadians will be allowed to cross the U.S. land border for such nonessential purposes as tourism or family visits.

Tiger, a manager at the Thousand Islands Winery in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., noted their absence last month during Canada’s Thanksgiving. The holiday once inspired a surge of visitors to cross the border to slurp wine slushies. But for the second consecutive year, their travel was impeded by pandemic border restrictions.

“We can’t wait,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing them again.”

But although the reopening is being cheered in the tightknit communities that straddle the 5,500-mile border — and by the Canadian snowbirds who prefer to drive South to warmer climes — few are expecting an immediate flood of tourists.

That’s in part because those entering Canada — including Canadians returning from even the briefest of visits on the American side — must present a negative coronavirus molecular test result within 72 hours of arrival. Lawmakers, businesses and residents say the costly requirement — some tests are $200 — will deter the day-trippers, shoppers and families for which their economies have yearned.

“It’s exciting, but we’re also realistic,” said Corey Fram, the director of tourism for the Thousand Islands International Tourism Council. “We know there’s going to be a bump in southbound traffic,” he said, “but we know it’s going to be limited. It’s not where we want to be just yet.”

Drew Dilkens, the mayor of Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, told a local radio station last month that the testing requirement would dissuade the kind of short cross-border trips that are common there, for celebrating a family birthday or watching a Detroit Lions game.

“If you just want to head over for a funeral or to visit someone in the hospital, the expectation is you’re going to have to pay $200 to have a PCR test to return to Canada,” he said. “I think for most that’s going to be a deal killer.”

Canada and the United States closed their land border to nonessential travel in March 2020. Trade and the movement of essential workers continued. The curbs strained personal relationships, hit the tourism industry and upended life in border communities in ways large and small.

Canadians initially backed the restrictions as they watched the cases of COVID-19 surge south of the border. But as one month turned to six and then 12, pressure mounted among some lawmakers, business groups and residents in both countries to begin relaxing the controls.

Canada welcomed fully vaccinated Americans in August. But the United States declined to reciprocate, a decision that deepened frustration, particularly in communities reliant on day-trippers, shoppers or tourism. (The United States always allowed Canadians to enter by air for nonessential travel.)

Land traffic into Canada this year is higher than it was in 2020 but remains below pre-pandemic levels.

In 2019, about 15 million tourists visited Canada from the United States, according to Statistics Canada. They made up two-thirds of Canada’s tourist arrivals. Most traveled by car.

From Aug. 9, when Canada began allowing fully vaccinated Americans to cross its land border, to Oct. 24, the most recent date for which data is available, there were an average of roughly 167,500 noncommercial crossings per week, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. That’s 15 percent of the average volume over the same period in 2019.

“Even though we did in early August open up the borders to American visitors ... we definitely did not see any huge impact or a real change,” said Bill Stewart, the executive director of the 1000 Islands Chamber of Commerce in Gananoque, Ontario.

Many of the Americans who have crossed have been people with relatives or cottages in Canada, he said; far fewer have been day-trippers. He attributed this primarily to the testing requirement but also said some people might have firmed up their holiday plans well before Canada announced it was easing the curbs on its side.

Heidi Linckh, co-owner of the 1000 Islands Tower in Lansdowne, Ontario, said the 400-foot-tall tourist attraction has not been flooded with American visitors. The structure, an observation tower, has been closed for the season.

“We did not have any day-trip visitors and only a couple of regular tourists,” Linckh said. “It seemed the majority came to reunite with family or [check] on their Canadian properties.”

Some business groups and lawmakers have urged Canada to drop the test requirement. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., co-chairman of the congressional Northern Border Caucus, is among them.

“In border communities such as western New York and southern Ontario, the local economies depend on the free flow of goods and people across the border, often multiple times per day,” he wrote in an Oct. 29 letter to Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.