Year in Review: Headlines that dominated Westport’s 2015
Updated 5:57 am, Thursday, December 31, 2015
For Westport, 2015 was a year of notable beginnings and endings.
Plans for development and preservation dominated the agendas of public and private entities — downtown, on the shoreline, for a newly designated tract of town open space, and spanning the Saugatuck River.
Major figures departed, or are poised to leave, the public stage, making room for fresh faces in their places.
Political power shifted from one side of the political aisle to the other after the municipal election in November, but not quite as dramatically as the ballot tallies initially indicated.
At the outset of the new year, with a tumultuous presidential race competing for Westporters’ attention over the next 11 months, the only thing certain about the town’s 2016 is that change will continue to be constant.
Here, in no particular order, is a list of 2015’s more memorable moments:
Navin homicides: The 27-year-old son of Jeffrey and Jeanette Navin, former longtime residents of Westport and the owners of the local J&J Refuse Co., was charged in November with their murder. Kyle Navin, who had attended Staples High School, was formally charged with the crime after his parents’ bodies were found Oct. 29 at a vacant Weston property. The elder Navins, who had not been seen since August, were fatally shot by their son for their money, according to prosecutors.
Also arrested in the case was Jennifer Valiante of Westport, Kyle Navin’s girlfriend, who was charged with conspiracy to commit murder and obstruction of justice.
With relatives like this ...: The birthday party of an 8-year-old Westport boy made international news when his 54-year-old aunt sued the child, claiming the boy’s exuberant greeting had bowled her over and broken her wrist. In seeking damages from the boy, who is now 12, Jennifer Connell claimed the boy was negligent in his behavior and sought $127,000 in the civil lawsuit to cover what she said were injuries caused by the 2011 incident.
In October, a jury at state Superior Court in Bridgeport deliberated only 20 minutes in delivering a verdict that Connell deserved nothing.
Bridge to the past ... and future: The 131-year-old Bridge Street bridge — formally, the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge — has been in the spotlight after the state identified a series of deterioration and operational problems with the swing span over the Saugatuck River. As the state conducts a study of the bridge to decide whether to once again restore the metal structure — or replace it — the local battle lines began taking shape over the issue.
Meanwhile, a plan for another bridge over the Saugatuck River has begun to capture public interest. David Waldman, a partner in the development team that owns the former Save the Children property, has proposed that a pedestrian bridge be built from that site to Parker-Harding Plaza on the opposite bank. Stay tuned.
And yet another bridge — the North Avenue bridge over the Merritt Parkway — made headlines when a state project to rehabilitate the span, which began in June, hit repeated delays. One lane was reopened across the closed span — for alternating, single-direction traffic — just in time for reopening schools last August, averting what local officials feared would be severe delays for school buses. But work continued to lag, and the state decided to suspend work for the winter, predicting the project won’t be finished until next June.
Last suppers: Two of the town’s most venerable dining establishments served their final customers in 2015 — Mario’s on Railroad Place and the Red Barn on Wilton Road. The Mario’s site is scheduled to become Harvest wine bar and restaurant, which also has outlets in Greenwich and New Haven, sometime in early 2016, and the Red Barn property was snapped up by its new next-door neighbor, the Westport Weston Family YMCA.
Stamp of approval: The late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, a longtime Westport resident, was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a new commemorative “Forever” stamp, along with a limited-edition pictorial postmark, which were ceremonially unveiled in October at the Westport headquarters of the charity he founded, Newman’s Own.
Open space leaves no room for senior housing: Years of planning for a housing/care complex for senior citizens on the town-owned Baron’s South property came to a screeching halt last March when the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a new zoning amendment designating the 22-acre tract as “open space.” That effectively blocked the latest version of the proposal calling for construction of a165-unit project, two-thirds of would have complied with affordable-housing criteria.
An effort to overturn the P&Z vote by the Representative Town Meeting fell short of the required two-thirds margin, thrusting the housing proponents’ ire against the P&Z’s Republican majority into the forefront of the November municipal election.
Meanwhile, as the year was coming to an end, the P&Z began examining how the new open space zone designation might apply to the town’s Longshore Club Park — prompting initial concerns from parks and recreation officials about how the designation might tie their hands in the future.
Downtown revitalization: Even as town officials put the finishing touches on a new Downtown Master Plan last spring, construction got underway in June on the largest project in the town’s central business district in decades.
The mixed-use Bedford Square project, rising on the former site of the Westport Weston Family YMCA, will encompass 70,000 square feet of retail space, 24 residential apartments, office space and more than 100 underground parking spaces. Culminating near 10 years of planning, the first stages of the project are expected to be completed late this year, with a large Anthropologie store announced as the anchor retail tenant. In the meantime, with a towering construction crane dominating the work site, the downtown hub of Main Street, Post Road East, Church Lane and Elm Street has been a seemingly non-stop scene of excavating, building and renovating that caused numerous street closures and detours.
At the same time, the town launched work on infrastructure upgrades that brought new sidewalks and curbing, street lamps and trees to Main Street — causing temporary disruptions with a goal of achieving long-term improvements to the area’s appeal as well as enhancing economic growth.
And on west bank of the Saugatuck — the “other” downtown — public attention began focusing at year’s end on the emerging plans by the new owners of the former Save the Children headquarters property on lower Wilton Road, who want to build new commercial and residential buildings on the riverside site.
Departures & arrivals: Among the more notable changes among the leadership ranks of local institutions included John Dodig’s retirement last spring as principal of Staples High School; Maxine Bleiweis’s decision to step down as executive director of the Westport Library in July, and Elliott Landon’s announcement that he plans to step down as superintendent of schools at the end of the academic year this spring.
Bleiweis has been replaced at library helm by William Harmer, hired from a library district in Michigan, while Colleen Palmer, superintendent of schools in next-door Weston, is the designated finalist to succeed Landon if the Board of Education gives its formal approval in January. The post of Staples principal remains in play, however, after several false starts in 2015 yielded no hires even after finalists for the job were publicly announced. Meanwhile, Mark Karagus, who had been principal of Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford, is serving as the high school’s interim principal.
And, Stuart McCarthy, the longtime director of the Parks and Recreation Department, left to take a similar post in Trumbull, with New Yorker Jennifer Fava taking over the job in August.
Electoral changes ... and not: Local Democrats, who lost control of the town’s first selectman office when Republican Jim Marpe in 2013, staged something of a comeback in November winning the majority on both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Finance, while retaining control of the Board of Education.
But when it came time to elect new Democratic chairmen of the zoning and finance panels, things did not go as expected. While Democrat Brian Stern took the finance reins, Republican Chip Stephens retained the P&Z chairmanship when Democrat Alan Hodge broke ranks with partisans, voting to keep Stephens in the leader’s post — and sparking ire from party leaders.
Bearing up: In 2015, black bears provided the latest evidence that wildlife species, not seen in suburban communities like Westport for decades, are making a comeback. Deer have returned in droves and coyotes have made occasional forays in recent years, and this summer, at least four sightings of black bears were reported to police in the town’s northerly precincts. There were no human-vs.-bear confrontations locally, and the bears lumbered off without incident, but wildlife experts predict they were part of the leading edge of ursine visitors reclaiming habitat across the state.