Westport's 2012: Disruptions, big and small, after Sandy and Obama pay visits
Published 5:29 pm, Friday, December 28, 2012
It was deja vu -- all over again -- for many top newsmakers and issues in Westport during 2012.
As in 2011, the town grappled with fearsome weather that left a lingering legacy of problems. And town employee benefits, the future of the town-owned Baron's South property and the Westport Weston Family Y's plans to build a new complex at its Mahackeno campus again generated headlines.
But new narratives also emerged in 2012, including the prospect of revitalization for two marquee downtown sites, a major controversy in the school district and the visit of a president.
As the year draws to a close, the Westport News looks back at these events and others that grabbed attention and dominated discussion in town during the last 12 months.
The arrival of Superstorm Sandy was no surprise. But the tempest's anticipated -- and feared -- landfall did not lessen the shock and devastation of its impact.
Along with their fellow tri-state residents, most Westporters had never lived through a storm of Sandy's potency. The major tempests of 2011 -- Tropical Storm Irene and an October nor'easter -- were disruptive, but wrought only a limited amount of long-term damage. Sandy was different. Rolling into Westport on the night of Oct. 29, the superstorm unleashed a multi-pronged attack. It damaged almost 300 homes, flooded more than 250 homes and sent trees crashing into about 40 residences. The storm's wrath also shredded the town's electrical infrastructure, leaving almost 90 percent of the town's residents without power at one point, with some outages lasting more than a week.
Despite that toll, Westport mostly escaped the sweeping devastation that Sandy inflicted on much of the New Jersey shore, New York City boroughs and parts of Long Island, as well as neighboring communities on the Connecticut shoreline, such as Fairfield and Milford. No Westport residents or first responders were killed or seriously injured during the storm.
But much of the town, particularly the downtown, has struggled to bounce back. Ravaged by flood waters, the Westport Weston Family Y was closed for about a month after Sandy hit. For weeks, several stores in the town center, including Nike Running and Banana Republic, kept their doors closed, as repair crews worked to repair substantial flooding damage from the nearby Saugatuck River. Some outlets, such as Chico's, still have not re-opened.
In the town's residential neighborhoods, Sandy also forced many residents out of their homes for several months, if not permanently.
Town officials are still calculating the overall public costs of the damage caused by Sandy. In the meantime, many of them are already taking steps to prepare the town for the next major weather event. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved last week changes to the town's zoning regulations that will allow residents in flood zones in the town's shoreline neighborhoods to raise their homes up to 31 feet, 5 feet more than the limit for those properties under existing rules.
Capture, suicide of killer
Andrew Robert Levene, who law-enforcement authorities identified as the man who robbed and killed Westport jeweler Yekutiel "Kuti" Zeevi in a December 2011, was still at large at the beginning of the year. But American and European investigators were quickly closing in on the Woodbridge native.
On Jan. 23, 6-½ weeks after Zeevi was killed at his business in the Compo Shopping Center, Levene was arrested in Barcelona, Spain, on federal murder, robbery and firearm charges. He likely would have been extradited to the U.S. to go on trial for killing Zeevi. But the prosecution never progressed that far. About 48 hours after he was apprehended, Levene was found dead in his Catalonian jail cell, after reportedly hanging himself.
Levene's death left unresolved many questions about his enigmatic life. He is suspected of being involved in the possible arson of a home he was developing in Crested Butte, Colo., while law-enforcement officials have also implicated him in a home invasion in Genoa Township, Ohio. But his capture did bring a measure of closure to Zeevi's family and many Westport residents shaken by the violent death, cited by many as one of the most traumatic events in Westport's recent history.
Baron's debate goes on
Since its conception during his first term, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's plan to develop a senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property has been dogged by a contentious and often acrimonious public debate about the project. That did not change in 2012.
The controversy around the proposal this year focused on a series of closed-door meetings held by the Baron's South Committee, a panel appointed by Joseloff, to review bids to develop the site. That committee recommended in September a proposal by the Jonathan Rose Companies development firm to build a 99 residential-unit complex at the Baron's South property.
But that endorsement failed to gain much traction. Board of Finance members picked apart the projected financial return of the Jonathan Rose plan, while others, such as Representative Town Meeting member John McCarthy, lambasted the committee for an alleged lack of integrity and transparency in its review of the bids.
In response to that criticism, Joseloff and the Baron's South Committee decided to issue a new "request for proposals" for senior residential development plans for Baron's South.
The new revised RFP is set to be released within the next week.
School-bus driver behavior
Board of Education members and Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon this fall found themselves embroiled in one of the most controversial incidents involving the Westport school district in recent years: sexually explicit, profane and threatening outbursts by a Coleytown Middle School bus driver that both students and parents say the students witnessed Oct. 18 during the morning and afternoon runs of Bus 16.
The driver, Daniel Florio, was arrested and faces charges of risk of injury to a child, threatening and breach of peace. Dattco, the school district's transportation provider, fired Florio for his misconduct.
Landon released a report last week on the incident, which recommended some administrative changes for handling similar incidents in the future, but he also said that he is "fully satisfied" with how school district officials had reacted to the Florio's alleged outbursts.
That report failed to quell harsh criticism of Landon and other top education officials by many of the parents whose children ride Bus 16. Those parents say they are particularly incensed that Florio was allowed to drive the afternoon run after students complained to Coleytown Middle School staff the morning of Oct. 18 about his behavior during the morning run that day.
New plan for old Y
In September, the Westport-based development group Bedford Square Associates unveiled its much-anticipated plans for a new 60,000-square-foot, mixed-use complex at the downtown site of the Westport Weston Family Y.
The project is regarded by many downtown business owners and town officials as the most important project to be planned in the town center during the last generation. If completed, the new development will likely become a locus of the downtown economy.
Bedford Square principals are targeting a late 2014 completion date for the mixed-use center. But the project's planners face some substantial challenges, which include addressing the property's vulnerability to large-scale flooding during major storms. They may also be forced to factor in a longer-than-anticipated time frame for town officials' review of the project. Bedford Square is currently seeking the Conservation Commission's approval for the redevelopment plans. A lengthy review of the project by the Planning and Zoning Commission is also likely.
Funding for new pavilion
The Representative Town Meeting resoundingly approved in August one of the largest capital appropriations in recent years: $1.1 million for the renovation of the town-owned Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts on the east bank of the Saugatuck River in downtown Westport.
Despite some residents' concerns about building on an environmentally sensitive site -- the pavilion stands on top of a one-time landfill -- the pavilion's supporters were able to convince RTM members that a refurbishment was necessary to maintain the pavilion's status as a premier performing arts venue in Fairfield County.
The renovation is scheduled to be finished in time for the pavilion's 2013 summer season. But the groundbreaking for the project has yet to take place, calling into question whether that targeted completion date can still be met.
Like last year, town funding for the Norwalk Transit District-operated commuter shuttle network in Westport emerged as the most contentious budget issue during town officials' review of the 2012-13 fiscal year budget, after the Board of Finance in March cut $114,000 from First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed $248,000 allocation.
Finance Board members argued that the shuttle system is under-used and over-subsidized by Westport taxpayers. But such reasoning failed to persuade scores of commuters who lobbied during a cantankerous April finance board meeting for restoration of the $114,000 reduction.
The shuttle riders achieved their goal a month later when the Representative Town Meeting voted to restore all of the funds cut by the Board of Finance. Since then, a number of commuters have continued their advocacy by serving on the town's new Citizens Transit Committee, which studies and makes recommendations on Westport mass transit issues.
National Hall plans OK'd
Avoiding the controversy that marred the previous redevelopment proposal for the downtown landmark National Hall, the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved in June a plan by the Norwalk commercial real estate firm Greenfield Partners to relocate its corporate headquarters to the site on the west bank of the Saugatuck River.
Widely viewed as the commercial anchor of the west side of the town center, many town officials and downtown merchants hope the redevelopment of National Hall fosters a new period of vitality in its surrounding area. The new Greenfield headquarters is scheduled to open in the second half of 2013; in the meantime, the recent opening of several new restaurants and stores indicate the oft-troubled west side may finally be experiencing a revival.
Slow progress for new Y
As they moved forward with their plans to build a new complex at their 32-acre Mahackeno campus, Westport Weston Family Y officials grappled this year with a fundraising shortfall and public opposition to a briefly proposed sewer line to the new Mahackeno center.
The fundraising difficulties prompted Y leaders to change course: Instead of building a 102,000-square-foot complex all at once, the Y will now start with a building footprint of 54,000 square feet at the Mahackeno campus, with the eventual goal of expanding to the full 102,000 square feet.
Construction the Mahackeno center is now scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2013, according to Y officials.
In early spring, Y officials cautioned that if they could not raise enough money that the Mahackeno project would be abandoned.
Buoyed by several large donations by influential members, a fundraising gap of about $6 million had shrunk to approximately $3.4 million by May. That progress was enough to convince the Y's boards of directors and trustees to vote unanimously in May to move ahead with the new complex.
Obama fundraising visit
Barack Obama's visit to Westport on Aug. 6 for a $38,500-per-head fundraiser at movie producer Harvey Weinstein's Beachside Avenue home marked the first time since 1999 that a sitting president had visited Westport.
Obama's trip to Weinstein's waterfront estate after an earlier stop that day at a fundraiser in Stamford prompted the shutdown of Interstate 95, a large-scale deployment of federal, state and local law-enforcement officials and the inevitable migration of a throng of reporters and photographers to Beachside Avenue.
Not everyone was happy about Obama's Westport sojourn. Some local residents griped about the trip's disruption to town roads, while some Westport Republicans criticized the Obama campaign for saddling the town with approximately $15,000 in police and firefighter overtime costs related to the visit. First Selectman Gordon Joseloff later tried unsuccessfully to get reimbursement from Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee for the police and fire overtime expenditures.
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