Westport's 2011: A 'big news' year of change, loss and weather woes
Updated 2:09 pm, Sunday, January 1, 2012
In 2011, Westport endured an unrelenting series of headline-grabbing events that included massive storms and power outages, a raging fire, bitter zoning disputes and a tragic loss.
As the year draws to a close, the Westport News looks back on these events and others that shaped the town over the last 12 months.
No event this year shook Westport more than the Dec. 8 killing of Yekutiel "Kuti" Zeevi. The long-time Westport jeweler and resident was fatally shot at his Y.Z. Jewelry Manufacturing offices in the Compo Shopping Center by an assailant with whom he had allegedly met twice to discuss a prospective business deal. The gunman also seriously wounded a business associate of Zeevi, Ronen Konfino, who was eventually released from Norwalk Hospital.
The killing of the 65-year-old Zeevi during the heist provoked an outpouring of grief as hundreds of area residents packed Temple Israel to attend his funeral.
While Westport and State Police launched an intensive search for the suspect, Zeevi's assailant remained at large at year's end.
Storms wreak havoc
Nature's harsher elements made their presence well-known in Westport in 2011.
In January, a series of potent snow storms whacked the town (the first of which actually fell right after Christmas 2010), as well as its budget. By February, the Department of Works had exceeded its allocated storm expenditures by more than $250,000.
"Unfortunately, the way these storms are coming, every three to four to five days we're getting another storm," Public Works Director Steve Edwards said at the time. "I can't even add them up that quick."
Those tempests, however, proved to be a prelude for the fury that followed.
On Aug. 28, Tropical Storm Irene would throttle Connecticut. The storm felled trees throughout town and fractured several sections of the sea wall at Compo Beach. At its peak, Irene left approximately 75 percent of Westport residents without power. Some residents then had to wait more than a week for electricity to be restored to their homes.
Two months later, a rare October nor'easter storm dumped heaps of snow on the town, again causing thousands of power outages. Like it had in Irene, the town also survived the October storm without any residents suffering major injuries, but there again were thousands of power outages.
"You have to put everything in proportion," World War II veteran John Goroski said after the nor'easter. "Compared to getting your leg blown off, I'm alright."
Fire ravages congregational church
A Westport icon for almost 180 years, Saugatuck Congregational Church nearly did not survive the night of Nov. 20. For six hours, firefighters from Westport and several neighboring municipalities battled a massive fire that severely damaged a nursery school, offices and meeting rooms in the rear of the church. The church's sanctuary, however, mostly escaped the flames' wrath, although it did suffer smoke and water damage.
Other houses of worship quickly rallied to support the church's congregants with the organization of an interfaith vigil in front of the church the day after the blaze. A few days later, Christ and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church opened its doors to host Saugatuck Congregational's longstanding Thanksgiving feast, and the church's worship services have been taking place in Temple Israel.
Westport fire officials have not yet determined the cause of the church's fire.
Huge OPEB miscalculation
Westport's Board of Finance members were already fuming when they met on a searing early June afternoon. Awaiting new actuarial projections on the town's liability for retired municipal employees' health-care benefits, they had already delayed by several weeks setting the town's property tax rate for the new fiscal year.
What they learned from representatives of the town's actuarial firm at that meeting would incense them even more: The previous actuarial report on retirees' health-care benefits -- also known as Other-Post Employment Benefits -- had omitted more than 400 town employees from its calculations. Although that analysis was performed by a firm that was later acquired by Pentegra Retirement Services, finance board members pilloried Pentegra for not catching the oversight sooner.
"My feeling is someone's got to pay for this," board member Avi Kaner said in June. "In my opinion, this is professional malpractice."
Six months later, Pentegra would "pay" as the town's Board of Selectmen replaced it with a new actuarial firm, Milliman.
The finance board has also backed the allocation of more than $4 million this fiscal year to finance the town's unfunded OPEB liability, which is now estimated between $75 million and $120 million.
Senior complex plan for Baron's South
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposal to build a senior residential complex and health-care facility on the town-owned Baron's South property arguably represents the cornerstone project of his tenure. To facilitate development, Joseloff sought approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission for a text amendment to the town's zoning regulations.
That plan divided public opinion at a series of public hearings in early 2011. While many backers of Joseloff's plan argued that it would offer much-needed affordable housing options for Westport senior citizens, opponents contended the proposal had not been thoroughly vetted and would be financially unfeasible. After being approved by the P&Z, Joseloff's text amendment later survived an appeal by residents to the Representative Town Meeting. Earlier this month, the town sent out a request for proposals from prospective developers of the senior complex, the first phase of which would be the residential component.
Commuters burned in Metro-North meltdown
A stalled Metro-North train is not an unfamiliar occurrence to Fairfield County commuters. But the circumstances of the July 22 train breakdown between the Westport and Green's Farms stations particularly enraged riders. Stuck between the Westport and Green's Farms stations for about an hour, commuters placed numerous 911 calls to Westport emergency services as fellow riders sweltered in triple-digit heat.
Eventually the train limped to the Green's Farms station, but riders stranded on the train did not soon forget the ordeal. A month later, commuters on the stranded train would excoriate Metro-North officials at an ill-tempered public meeting in Westport. Metro-North and state DOT officials pledged their commitment to train and infrastructure improvement. While those promises have yet to be realized, Metro-North and the DOT did follow through with a 5 percent fare hike on the New Haven line, which goes into effect Jan. 1.
GOP wins control of zoning, finance panels
Capitalizing on voters' apparent discontent with the town's fiscal management and the agenda of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Westport Republicans regained control of the Board of Finance and the P&Z with commanding victories in the Nov. 8 municipal election. Democrats held onto a majority on the Board of Education.
With the town's next election for first selectman two years away, the GOP's recent electoral success may also indicate improved odds for their candidate to win the town's chief executive position. First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, a Democrat, has not yet announced whether he will seek a third term in 2013.
Bad reviews sink movie theater overlay
Over the last two years, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a series of well-received regulatory changes designed to enliven the town's evening scene. The P&Z sought to build on that success in September with a text amendment that proposed zoning changes to facilitate the development of a new downtown movie theater.
While many residents expressed support for a new cinema, the P&Z's proposed amendment was much less popular. A provision in the amendment that would have allowed a 60-foot building in a "theater overlay zone" produced heated criticism at public hearings, which prompted the P&Z to withdraw the proposal.
Student's viral video on bullying
Without uttering a single word, Bedford Middle School eighth-grader Alye Pollack drew Westport students and educators' attention in March to the issue of bullying in the town's schools. Using signs to narrate her own experience with harassing peers, her "Words DO Hurt" video was watched more than 500,000 times on YouTube.
Months after Pollack posted her video, bullying would remain a concern for the Westport Board of Education. The board approved a state-mandated "Safe School Climate Plan" designed to bolster the school district's existing anti-bullying policy by requiring all school staff to take immediate action when they observe or receive reports of bullying incidents.
P&Z coverage amendment sunk
In one of the most contentious zoning disputes in recent years in Westport, hundreds of residents packed the Town Hall auditorium last January for a Representative Town Meeting hearing of a citizens' appeal of a text amendment recently approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
The amendment had imposed more stringent regulations on residential properties' building coverage, with the apparent goal of addressing stormwater runoff problems and improving water quality. Residents were not convinced, contending that the amendment would diminish their property values.
After the hearing grew increasingly heated -- one resident described the amendment as "economic suicide" -- the RTM moved in a near-unanimous vote to overturn the P&Z's decision.
Several other Westport stories also generated headlines during the year, including:
Faced with felony forgery charges and suspected of homicide, Thomas Gardner of New Bedford, Mass., absconded in a stolen car and on Nov. 9 led local police on a high-speed chase along Interstate 95 and the Post Road in Fairfield into Westport. After abandoning his car in Winslow Park, Gardner briefly eluded local law-enforcement officials until he was captured in the Playhouse Square shopping center.
After a rift apparently developed last summer among Green Village Initiative members over the nonprofit group's management of the town-owned Wakeman Farm, the farm's manager, Staples High School science teacher Michael Aitkenhead, and his family briefly left the farm. The Board of Selectmen, which took back overall control of the agricultural center, later approved a new contract for Aitkenhead, who returned as the farm manager.
As Libya descended into chaos in March during the final months of dictator Moammar Gadhafi's rule, New York Times photojournalists and Staples High School graduates Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, traveled to North Africa to document the conflict. Their brief capture by Gadhafi loyalist highlighted the dangers faced by war journalists, but they were not cowed. They soon resumed their work, with Hicks continuing his coverage of the war in Afghanistan and Addario documenting the devastating famine in the Horn of Africa.
When Staples High School freshman football coach Michael "Pick" Pickering was fired in November over his arrest on charges of risk of injury to minors for allegedly providing his players with an access code to a pornographic website, hundreds of students rallied to his defense with a "Free Pick" Facebook page. Pickering earlier this month pleaded not guilty to the felony risk of injury charges
Highly anticipated by local gastronomes, the July openings of the two eateries run by celebrity chefs -- Danny Meyer's Shake Shack burger restaurant on Post Road East and Mario Batali's Tarry Lodge Enoteca & Pizzeria in Saugatuck -- heated up the Westport dining scene.
An especially hectic year for Westport's emergency services also included major leadership changes. Andrew Kingsbury became the town's fire chief in May, while Dale Call was sworn in as police chief in October. Both men were soon tested in their new roles. Kingsbury's department battled a major fire at Saugatuck Congregational Church last month, while Westport police are investigating the town's first murder in 15 years
After seven years of zoning disputes and legal tussles, the Westport Weston Family Y won resolution of the remaining obstacle to its plan to move from downtown to a new complex at Camp Mahackeno when a state Superior Court judge in Stamford dismissed a lawsuit challenging the project in January and the group challenging the Y's move to the site decided not to appeal the decision in February.
Amid a period of increased scrutiny of town employees' benefit packages, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff invoked the ire of many residents when he sought to "buy-back" into the town's pension plan after originally opting out. He soon dropped the proposal, citing "bad advice" that he had received.