2016: Wilton in the news

From renovation projects and lawsuits to daring rescues and refugees, a variety of headlining news stories came out of Wilton this year. Here, in no particular order, are some of the town’s biggest stories of 2016:

Refugee resettlement


After leaving war-torn Syria and spending two years in a refugee camp in Jordan, a widow named Manal and her five children moved into a three-bedroom house on the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Belden Hill Road campus on March 10.

With the help of the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT), the School Sisters of Notre Dame and volunteers, Manal has been able to start building a new life for her family, and she said it feels “good” to be in Wilton.

Since arriving in Wilton, the family has been learning English and getting accustomed to their new environment and way of life.

Manal has a job making instrument humidifiers with Dampits International Inc. and is working on getting her driver’s license. Her children — ranging in age from 3 to 13 — are enrolled in Wilton public schools.

Appreciative of all the help and support Wi-ACT has provided her and her children, Manal said she loves Wilton and the Wi-ACT volunteers, whom she considers family. Efforts are underway to find long-term housing for the family.

Burning car rescue


Police joined forces on a rescue mission on Nov. 23 to pull an injured man from inside the wreckage of his 2001 Range Rover, which miraculously resulted in only minor injuries.

The vehicle began burning from the engine compartment after running off the road and hitting some trees. Hunter Stanfield, 26, of 30 Bittersweet Trail, Wilton, was removed from the car by six officers just before it was engulfed by fire. The car was in the roadway on New Canaan Road. Officers supplied first aid at the scene and Stanfield went to Norwalk Hospital with minor injuries.

The officers are Sgt. David Hartman, Sgt. Gregg Phillipson, Sgt. Arnault Baker, Officer Mark Canepari, Officer Brandon Harris, and Officer Malcolm Hayes.

The Wilton and New Canaan fire departments also responded.

“It was a great team effort,” Capt. John Lynch said.

Stanfield’s legs were trapped in the crushed interior of his Rover, and access could not be gained from the damaged doors. Officers got in through the back hatch and pulled him out, freeing his legs. Officers used a fire extinguisher to fight back the flames that burst into the passenger compartment.

One officer cut his hand and was treated at the scene, Lynch said.

Library’s 120th anniversary


The Wilton Library Association celebrated its 120th anniversary with a gala evening on April 2 at the Silver Spring Country Club in Ridgefield, which raised $110,000 for the library.

The association was established on May 10, 1895, after a small group meeting at the Ridgefield Road home of artist Henry Thomson.

The project had been in the works for three years, but it was not until that May evening that the proponents had a home for their library — the Wilton post office — and a librarian who doubled as the postmaster.

The library has grown from a collection of 120 books to a virtual community center that offers thousands of books and materials of all sorts, including CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, e-books, and a panoply of digital offerings for all ages.

The library also presents art exhibitions, concerts, lectures, public discussions, and literary and educational programs, and most recently has set on a course to nurture the creative spirit of its patrons with the Innovation Station, an incubator for projects ranging from the artistic — electronic embroidery and die-cutting designs — to the scientific, including computer coding, 3D printing, and robotics.

Schlichting demolition


The Schlichting Homestead at 183 Ridgefield Road , which was occupied by at least one member of the Schlichting family for 118 years, was demolished on March 23.

Fourth-generation family member Dave Schlichting and his sister CarolAnne Keeley put the property on the market because it was in “pretty bad shape” when they inherited it and keeping it would have required more money than they were willing to spend.

“We dodged buyers who wanted to tear it down for two years,” said Schlichting, who ended up settling for less money so the property could go to James A. Fieber, CEO of Fieber Group LLC in New Canaan. Schlichting was under the impression he would restore the home.

The Historic District Commission delayed the demolition in hope of preserving the home, and more than 1,500 people signed a petition, started by Wilton resident Vicki Mavis, to save it.

The demolition delay expired Jan. 7, and the structure was razed two months later.

Election


Although Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, won nationally, Wilton voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine by a wide margin on Election Day.

It was only the third time since Lyndon Johnson ran in 1964 that Wilton went with a Democrat for president. Barack Obama also won the town in 2008.

Electors also voted to send U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Congressman Jim Himes, both Democrats, back to Washington, D.C. Blumenthal won re-election across the state, as did Himes across the 4th District.

Further down the ticket, Wilton stuck with its Republican roots, favoring state Sen. Toni Boucher and state Rep. Tom O’Dea, both of whom won re-election district-wide. State Rep. Gail Lavielle ran unopposed.

By late October, Wilton had seen a 4% increase in registered voters within a year’s time. As of Oct. 31, there were 12,440 registered voters in town — at least 740 more than had been registered in August.

On Election Day 2016, more Wilton voters turned out than in either of the past two presidential elections — more than 10,600 voters cast ballots, for a turnout of about 84%, according to the Wilton registrars of voters.

Frank ‘Chip’ Gawle


This year, Wilton said goodbye to longtime band director and fine and performing arts instructional leader Frank “Chip” Gawle, who retired after 35 years at Wilton High School.

Also this year, Gawle was named a finalist in the Grammy Foundation’s Music Educator Award program, which recognizes educators who have “made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education” and “demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.”

Gawle also became the first person inducted into the newly established Wilton Public Schools Hall of Fame.

A month before his retirement, an induction ceremony was held for him at the Clune Center.

Miller-Driscoll renovation


Although construction on the Miller-Driscoll School renovation began at the end of 2015, major work continued throughout 2016, as did controversy over excess classroom space and hazardous materials abatement, which resulted in a move to complete the project earlier than first planned.

After parent concerns about the safety of asbestos abatement planned for spring break swirled on social media, a decision was made to postpone work until the summer vacation, when children would be out of school for an extended period of time.

Some weeks later, a decision was made to expand the abatement process to search for hazardous materials not affected by construction at the school. It was also decided that when an area was abated, children would not go back into that area until it was renovated.

This actually sped up the project timeline, and instead of handing the school over to the Board of Education in December 2017, it will be done by Labor Day next year.

By the end of July, work on the school was nearly two-thirds complete. The old pre-K building was razed and an addition with new classrooms was finished.

But as work progressed, so did questions about what to do with extra space brought about by declining enrollment. First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice has said there will be a “significant number of empty classrooms” when all is said and done. How that space can be used is restricted by the state’s reimbursement regulations. As it stands, Wilton expects to receive $7.1 million from the state for the project.

Age-restricted housing


Although there are were no applications pending, Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission paved the way for age-restricted housing — for those 55 years old and up — by creating new zoning regulations at its meeting on Nov. 14.

The new regulations will allow for a variety of options, including communities of detached, single-family and duplex houses or a mix of multi-family housing units.

The communities may be built in a number of zoning districts, including one- and two- acre (R1A and R2A) as well as multi-family residential districts. Developments may be built on lots of no less than three acres and no more than 25 acres, and must receive a special permit and site-plan approval.

In the multi-family districts, communities will be allowed in a range of densities and in some areas will have an affordability component. Depending on the district, single-family attached or detached multi-family units or a mix would be allowed.

At least one resident of each unit must be 55 or older and no one under 21 will be allowed to live in a unit for more than three months in any given year.

Sensible Wilton lawsuit


Sensible Wilton issued a press release Jan. 30 announcing it was withdrawing its lawsuit against the town, but promised it “will not go away.” Sensible Wilton founder Alex Ruskewich had said in the past the suit would be withdrawn if a settlement could be reached with town officials.

The organization cited ongoing talks with elected town officials and “several recent and soon-to-be implemented changes by town leaders” regarding the Miller-Driscoll school renovation project as the reason for its action.

“We got a better feeling progress was made,” Ruskewich told The Bulletin Jan. 31. “It’s going in the right direction,” he said, although he maintained it was still “not far enough.”

The changes cited by Sensible Wilton included:


  • The appointment of Chris Burney, Wilton’s director of facilities and management, as site safety manager.

  • Changes in the membership of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee.

  • Availability by FOI request of project invoices and expense records.

  • An improved project website.

  • Assignment of Rita Garland, a former CPA, to assist town personnel in reviewing the state audit requirements for the project, as well as project accounting procedures.


Sexual abuse lawsuits


A second Wilton family filed a lawsuit against the town of Wilton and Board of Education after they claim their son, referred to as “Boy Doe,” was sexually exploited by former Miller-Driscoll paraprofessional Eric Von Kohorn in 2013-14.

Von Kohorn worked at Miller-Driscoll from 2007 until August 2014, when he was arrested and charged with first-degree possession of child pornography and promoting a minor in an obscene performance.

He pled guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree illegal possession of child pornography and was sentenced to six years in prison, suspended after two years served, and 10 years of probation in October 2015.

Last fall a family sued the school district and town claiming he sexually assaulted a female student (Girl Doe) at the school during the 2012-13 school year.

According to the new complaint, filed on Oct. 19, Von Kohorn sexually exploited Boy Doe when he was a 4- and 5-year-old preschool student.

After Miller-Driscoll Special Education Director Fred Rapcyznski, who retired earlier this year, received reports of disturbing conduct by Von Kohorn relating to interactions with Girl Doe in early January 2013, he and the Human Resources Department reassigned Von Kohorn to a different classroom, according to the complaint.

Boy Doe was a student in Von Kohorn’s new classroom and had “frequent contact” with him, according to the complaint.

Although Boy Doe was fully toilet trained, Von Kohorn “regularly took [him] alone into the Miller-Driscoll school bathrooms,” where he “sexually exploited and injured Boy Doe by taking digital images of [him] while his pants were down,” according to the complaint.

On Dec. 12, Stamford Superior Court Judge Kenneth B. Povodator granted the town and school board’s motion for a 30-day extension of time to plea, giving them “up to and including” Jan. 29 to evaluate and respond to the complaint.

Comstock renovation


The renovation of the Comstock Community Center, which had been under construction since March 9, 2015, was “substantially” completed on Jan. 29. A ribbon-cutting took place in May.

Improvements included new HVAC unit ventilators, two new gas boilers, a new electrical system, building-wide sprinkler-based fire protection, an upgraded fire alarm system, and new furniture, lighting fixtures, ceilings, and flooring.

As of Jan. 31, according to the Comstock Building Committee’s monthly report, the project was under its $10,802,000 budget by $1,309,869.

Deaths


Wilton suffered the loss of many former and current residents.



Ken Dartley died at the age of 84 on Aug. 17. Dartley moved to Wilton in 1976 and became a well-known member of the community, playing an integral role in the founding of Wilton Commons, the Wilton Veterans Memorial Green and Stay at Home in Wilton. Dartley also helped start the Kick for Nick program, was a member of Wilton’s American Legion Post 86, and briefly served on the Board of Selectmen.

Barbara Quincy died on Aug. 13 at the age of 79. After moving to Wilton in the mid-1960s and raising her children, Quincy worked as a travel agent for Wilton Center Travel. She had a history of service and volunteerism with Wilton Presbyterian Church, the Planning and Zoning Commission, League of Women Voters, Southwest Regional Planning Commission, Conservation Commission, Wilton Tree Committee, Stay at Home in Wilton, and more.

Tom Fujitani died unexpectedly on April 2 at the age of 73. Fujitani served as Wilton High School’s head football coach from 1969 to 2000 and compiled an overall record of 163-147-0, including two state championships and one FCIAC championship. Before the start of the Wilton High School football team’s season opener this past September, a ceremony was held to unveil a plaque honoring the late coach at the field named in his honor.

Elizabeth “Lisa” Morrison Bogan, a Wilton resident of 26 years, died on Sept. 16 at the age of 60. She served on the Board of Education, was a founding member of the Wilton Education Foundation, served as administrator of Wilton Little League, volunteered for the League of Women Voters, and served as a member of the Wilton YMCA’s board of directors.

Frederick Herot died peacefully at the age of 94 on Feb. 6 while staying at a nursing facility in the Bronx, N.Y. After moving to Wilton in 1956, Herot served as Wilton Playshop’s lighting director, was president of the Town Association of Wilton, was a member of the Wilton Kiwanis Club and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and served on both the Wilton Water Commission and the Wilton Water and Pollution Control Authority. He also served as chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and was named, with his wife, Louise, as Democrat of the Year in 2013.

‘Build the wall’ chants


At least two Wilton students were heard chanting “build the wall” — a phrase commonly heard at Donald Trump’s presidential campaign rallies, referring to the wall he said he would build at the United States-Mexico border to keep out immigrants — during a football game against Danbury at Fujitani Field on Nov. 11.

The incident caused a stir amongst residents of both Wilton and Danbury — including Wilton resident and father Kenneth Hoffman, who expressed his concern and condemnation in a letter to The Bulletin.

“Shouting ‘build the wall’ at any game would be offensive,” said Hoffman, “but while playing a school from a town with a higher Hispanic and African-American population, it is obviously and simply racist.”

Although the students involved in the chanting denied offensive intent, Superintendent Kevin Smith told The Bulletin that “in no way does anyone here in the Wilton Public Schools condone that kind of speech.”

“We are one school community and students chanting ‘build the wall’ while students from Danbury Public Schools are on the football field is really offensive,” he said. “That should not have happened.”

Principal Robert O’Donnell addressed the incident in a Nov. 14 letter to parents and said it would be used as a “teachable moment.” In a follow-up letter three days later, he explained that the school would take a “systematic approach” to address what happened.

On Nov. 17, a group of Wilton High School alumni started a petition calling on O’Donnell and high school administration “take concrete action and educate its students on the function of privilege in American society.”

Also that day, members of Wilton High School’s student government wrote a letter disapproving of the offensive chants, and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton called for a formal apology after receiving “several calls, as well as notifications through social media describing the pain that those comments have caused.”

On Nov. 18, Wilton High School issued an apology, which Danbury High School Principal Dan Donovan read to the student body that morning.

After receiving the apology, Boughton tweeted that it had been “accepted” and thanked Wilton High School for “building bridges.”