2014: What happened in Wilton?

wilton 2014 FULL
Schools, property development, crime, recreation, citizen action and names were all in the news this year in Wilton. Some stories had quick resolutions, some will be ongoing for months, if not years.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the biggest stories in Wilton from 2014:

44 Westport Road

In May, developer Patrick Downend announced plans to demolish a historic Westport Road home to make way for high-density housing. Many Wilton families in the area of the proposed development organized against the plan, which was eventually withdrawn from the Planning & Zoning Commission.

For months, the issue lay seemingly dormant, until in November the developer’s attorney announced that he and town officials had reached a preliminary agreement to save the Westport Road home.

44 Westport Road.

44 Westport Road.

The terms of the agreement dictated that the town would sell Mr. Downend a one-acre parcel of land on Old Danbury Road, near Wilton Commons and Trackside Teen Center, where he could develop a 20-unit apartment building on the site, with several units dedicated as affordable housing.

The deal also imposed a deed restriction on the Westport Road site so that it could not be developed for multi-family residential use.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of 44 Westport Road.

New fire chief

Ronald Kanterman, a Brooklyn native, was named Wilton’s interim fire chief in May, more than a year after Chief Paul Milositz left the department in 2013.

Mr. Kanterman began his career as a firefighter in New York City, later moving to New Jersey, where he was an industry fire chief for Merck, the pharmaceutical company, in Rahway.

Fire Chief Ronald Kanterman

Fire Chief Ronald Kanterman

Until he was announced as the interim chief, the department was headed by Deputy Chief Mark Amatrudo.

Wilton thought it had a new chief late last year in Matthew Marcarelli of the New Haven Fire Department, but that fell through when Mr. Marcarelli ultimately declined the offer. He did not live within the required 15-mile distance of Wilton and chose not to move. Mr. Kanterman lives in Somers, N.Y.

“This is my lifelong passion,” Mr. Kanterman said in an interview in June. “I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old when I was on a seasonal fire brigade in upstate New York. The camp staff put a little brigade together for brush fires and things like that, and the rest is history.”

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of the new fire chief.

Police chief leaves

Wilton’s police chief, Michael Lombardo, will leave the department on Thursday, Jan. 1, to become the chief of Trumbull’s police department.

Mr. Lombardo has been with the Wilton Police Department for 33 years, serving as chief the last five years, overseeing 44 sworn officers and four civilian members. As Trumbull’s chief, he will be in charge of 78 members.

Chief Michael Lombardo

Chief Michael Lombardo

Wilton Police Commissioner Christopher Weldon said he was sad to see Mr. Lombardo move on, but understood the decision. The structure of retirement packages, the commissioner said, made the move an advantageous one for the chief.

“The way these retirement packages work, he can retire from our town and start collecting the pension” while also collecting a salary as Trumbull’s chief, he said. “From his perspective, it’s a great opportunity and we were supportive of that. We’re sad to lose him, but we fully understand the decision.”

After Mr. Lombardo leaves his post, a process will begin to select the town’s new police chief. The process should take four to six months, Mr. Weldon said. During that time, Deputy Chief Robert Crosby will assume the position of interim chief.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of Mr. Lombardo.

Norwalk River Valley Trail

It was so cold during January construction of the Norwalk River Valley Trail that a Bulletin reporter covering the work had his camera freeze up while trying to take pictures.

Nonetheless, trail building expert Josh Ryan and his team donned five layers (“if you include the safety vest”) and mostly kept the project on time through the difficulties of a polar vortex.

Bridge on the Norwalk River Valley Trail. (Kendra Baker photo)

Bridge on the Norwalk River Valley Trail. (Kendra Baker photo)

“Anytime you’re working outside during a polar vortex you’re destined to run into some challenges. But it was pretty enjoyable to solve them in that kind of situation,” he said that month.

In total, a full mile of trail was completed on the NRVT path, which organizers hope will eventually run from Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk to Rogers Park in Danbury.

The new segments of trail built in Wilton in 2014 run from Gaylord Drive, across from Orem’s Diner, to Sharp Hill Road. Construction was completed by Timber & Stone, a trail-building company based in Vermont. It is a flat, easy hike that is 100% handicapped-accessible.

The total cost of this year’s construction efforts, approximately $500,000, was privately funded.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of the Norwalk River Valley Trail.

Special education

Wilton resident Marissa Lowthert said the Wilton school district offered her more than $260,000 “in return for [her] silence,” after Miller-Driscoll’s “less-than-acceptable air quality” prevented her two children from attending — per doctor’s orders.

Ms. Lowthert said an attorney for the district “wanted me to stop my public complaints about the administration. In return, they would fund private school tuition for my children.”

Because the money would come from special education funds, this led to her calling for a full audit of Wilton’s special education program.

Board of Education BOE sign

The Board of Finance looked into the school district’s legal settlements and Lynne Vanderslice, the Board of Finance’s acting chair for matters pertaining to the investigation of Board of Education legal settlements, presented her research findings to the board in July.

Ms. Vanderslice explained that the superintendent had the authority to spend “as much money as he deems necessary in a settlement, as long as that settlement does not bring the Board of Education over the budget that is given to them for the year.”

The finance board decided to write the school district a “management letter” with recommendations pertaining to its policies, procedures and financial controls.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of special education.

Indoor air quality

Since June 2013, the quality of Miller-Driscoll’s indoor air has raised concern among residents, including Ms. Lowthert, chair of the citizen-activated organization Parents for Responsible Education (PRE), which formed this February.

PRE urged town elected and appointed officials to improve air quality at Miller-Driscoll and bring the town into “full compliance” with 2003 state indoor air quality laws.

School officials agreed they had not recorded and reported maintenance conducted on the school’s HVAC systems as required, but rejected accusations that Wilton schools are unsafe for students.

The Miller-Driscoll School.

The Miller-Driscoll School.

Industrial hygienists and microbial consultants from the company TRC conducted air quality testing in 121 locations in Miller-Driscoll in March. They surveyed accessible occupied rooms and hallways within the school, compared the indoor levels to those of ambient outside locations, and deemed the school’s indoor air quality levels as “safe for student and staff occupancy.”

PRE, however, was not satisfied with the results, and argued that the results should be taken with a grain of salt. In an email to The Bulletin, Ms. Lowthert explained why the company was not on a list of acceptable companies compiled by her organization and said “law firms hire TRC when their clients are being sued for indoor air-quality issues.”

She also quoted a list of statements found on TRC advertising materials, indicating she felt tests conducted by TRC are inherently flawed.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of indoor air quality.

New superintendent

Wilton Public Schools welcomed Dr. Kevin J. Smith, a Trumbull resident, as its new superintendent this year, following the retirement of former Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards.

Dr. Smith officially started his new position on Tuesday, July 1, with passion, commitment and optimism in mind.

“I’m passionate about public education and I’m committed to making sure this school district excels, even beyond its current level of high excellence,” Dr. Smith told The Bulletin on Aug. 11.

Dr. Kevin Smith (Kendra Baker photo)

Dr. Kevin Smith (Kendra Baker photo)

“I’m a happy person, and working in schools and with kids, I have a saying: ‘I believe teachers make the weather in their classrooms and the weather should always be sunny and 85.’”

Dr. Smith also said he believes those working in schools “have a tremendous ability to influence others” and it’s important for them to be optimistic.

“We work in one of the most hopeful professions on the planet, so there’s no reason not to be,” he said.

Dr. Smith proposed a $79,956,024 budget for fiscal year 2015 — an increase of 1.98% increase over the $78,401,125 fiscal year 2014 school budget.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of the new superintendent.

Innovation Station

With the help of the Shoff Foundation, which made a substantial donation toward the construction, Wilton Library cut the ribbon of its new Innovation Station on June 8.

The station has a collection of devices, including a digital sewing machine, an iMac computer with Final Cut Pro X video editing software, a high-resolution digital scanner, a desktop PC with Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, and a MakerBot Replicator 2X 3D printer.

Wilton Library's Innovation Station

Wilton Library’s Innovation Station

The library began providing workshops and one-on-one training sessions for the station’s 3D printer, and after an hourlong introductory group class and an hour of private instruction, library patrons were able to become certified users of the machine.

Classes on other topics have continued, including Tinkercad 3D Design, and the Innovation Station is also the home of the library’s robotics team.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of the Innovation Station.

Child porn arrest

Former Miller-Driscoll preschool worker Eric Von Kohorn was arrested Aug. 20 on charges of first-degree possession of child pornography and promoting a minor in an obscene performance for the possession and distribution of more than 50 images, or two minutes of video of child pornography, which depicted both boys and girls aged 5 to 13.

A photo of Eric Von Kohorn from his Myspace page.

A photo of Eric Von Kohorn from his Myspace page.

The preschool paraprofessional had been under investigation by the Connecticut State Police Computer Crimes Investigations team since at least June 11, the day state police alerted Wilton schools to their investigation. After his arrest, he posted $50,000 bond and pled not guilty to both felony charges. He has a pre-trial court date of Jan. 16 in Fairfield.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of Eric Von Kohorn.

Miller-Driscoll clash

After nearly two years of planning, consulting and researching, the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee’s proposed $50-million renovation project was approved by the town by a mere 27 votes, following a Sept. 23 special town meeting that entailed more expressions of public concern than support.

Out of the 11,242 eligible voters in town, 1,931, or 17%, cast their ballots on Tuesday, Sept. 23, and Saturday, Sept. 27 — 979 voted in favor and 952 voted against the project.

The renovated Miller-Driscoll School will have 45 classrooms with a plan to accommodate 880 students during any given school year. The school’s pre-K program would encompass five classrooms that would be able to serve 96 children.

The 'Prominent Controlled Main Entrance' of the proposed renovated Miller-Driscoll School.

The ‘Prominent Controlled Main Entrance’ of the proposed renovated Miller-Driscoll School.

Renovation construction is scheduled to begin in December 2015 and conclude in December 2017.

The controversy over the cost of the project spawned a citizens’ group — Sensible Wilton — that worked in November to collect signatures on a petition challenging the voting process. The group, which has yet to formally present the petition, said it has collected more than 1,100 signatures.

It also filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, alleging improper actions by town officials to promote “yes” votes for the project. The commission agreed to investigate but has not released any decision.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of the Miller-Driscoll Building Project.

Gas line installation

Several businesses, schools and municipal buildings in Wilton are now connected to “clean-burning, affordable natural gas,” after the completion of the town’s three-month-long Yankee Gas expansion project.

The project, which extended natural gas pipelines for three and a half more miles through town, began in August and wrapped up a month ahead of schedule this November.

wilt-Yankee-Gas-7

First Selectman Bill Brennan said the town expects to save “an estimated $450,000 to $500,000 per year in future energy costs.”

“These future savings each year will allow us to offset inflationary cost increases in other expenditure areas in our community, which will be very helpful,” he said.

Wilton is one of the first communities in the state to partner with a gas utility through Connecticut’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy, an initiative that calls for expansion of the state’s natural gas distribution system.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of the Yankee Gas project.

Boucher ends run

Longtime resident and state Sen. Toni Boucher announced in early 2014 she would end her “exploration” of a run for governor.

In the end, she was unable to raise enough funds to properly explore a race, she said in March.

“To be a viable candidate, you need about $80,000 to $85,000. My goal was to reach $100,000. In my head, that’s where I felt I should be right now,” she said.

wilton-boucher-governor

Her platform during her time in the race was focused on Connecticut’s shrinking economy.

“Connecticut is the only state with a shrinking economy,” she said. “My commitment to fight for that future remains unwavering, because Connecticut is a state worth fighting for,” she said.

Ms. Boucher ran for re-election in the 26th District in November, a race she won handily.

Click here to see The Bulletin‘s coverage of Toni Boucher’s run for governor.

VIPs in Wilton

There were a number of high-profile visitors to Wilton this year.

Best-selling authors Barbara Taylor Bradford, Elizabeth Strout, Nelson DeMille, and Patricia Cornwell all visited Wilton Library and spoke with appreciative audiences.

Elizabeth Strout at Wilton Library

Elizabeth Strout at Wilton Library

Donald Verrilli, a Wilton native who is solicitor general of the United States, also visited the library, and entertained a packed house with stories of his legal career and arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In his position, which was created in 1870 for the purpose of helping the attorney general, he represents the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court, “which means I represent all of you,” he said.

“It is an awesome responsibility and an awesome privilege.”

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