2019: Wilton’s year in review
With an election, a Plan of Conservation and Development, a threat of state meddling in local schools, and a number of environmental and development issues, it’s no surprise 2019 was a busy year for local news. Here, in no particular order, are some of the tops stories that hit The Bulletin’s front page this year.
It was a busy town election season, with seven contested races out of a total of 13, more than Wilton has had in years.
In an unusual move for Wilton, there was a three-way race for the top spot, but with nearly 40 percent of voters casting ballots, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice was re-elected by a healthy majority.
Republicans took the most seats, dominating the Planning and Zoning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals races. It would have been a sweep for Republicans on P&Z, but minority representation rules placed Democrat Florence Johnson above unaffiliated Jake Bittner who ran on the GOP line. Democrats and Republicans now have an equal number of seats — two each — on the Board of Finance with unaffiliated Chris Stroup filling the fifth.
With four candidates running for three Board of Education seats, Republicans took two and the Democrats one.
The biggest vote-getter on Election Day was Republican Jerry Holdridge who ran unopposed for Zoning Board of Appeals alternate.
‘Hands Off Our Schools’
In a grassroots effort, Wilton residents created the group ‘Hands Off Our Schools,’ which resonated in towns across the state and thwarted proposed legislation that would have forced public schools to regionalize with other school districts.
Three regionalization bills were introduced in the state legislature at the beginning of the year. SB 738 would have created a commission to combine the central offices — but not the schools themselves — of any town with a population of less than 40,000.
A second bill, SB 457, would have combined school districts with fewer than 2,000 students.
The third bill, Governor’s Bill 874, introduced by Gov. Ned Lamont, called for the establishment of a Commission on Shared School Services as part of his budget plan. The commission would have developed “a plan for redistricting or consolidation of school services and school districts.”
Public opposition to forced school regionalization was strong, and crossed party lines, with town and school officials and all three Wilton state legislators objecting.
In March, public hearings in Hartford were held on SB 738 and SB 457, drawing busloads of protesting residents from across the state, including a number from Wilton.
As a result, the legislature’s Education Committee did not move forward on SB 738 and SB 457. Governor’s Bill 874 was revised to drop the words “redistricting” and “consolidation.”
Police station upgrade
A plan to upgrade the deteriorating police department headquarters that had been simmering on the back burner for years was moved to the front and now the building committee charged with coming up with a viable and affordable plan has ramped up efforts to bring a proposal to taxpayers by the May Annual Town Meeting.
The committee first hired Colliers International of Madison, Conn., as its owner’s representative to provide oversight of the design and construction of the project, input on the budget and scheduling and other services.
The committee then presented four options — siting and approximate cost — to the Board of Selectmen on Dec. 16, requesting guidance on how to instruct Tecton to proceed with more detailed plans. The committee’s recommendation was for new construction of a police building at $15.9 million. After considerable discussion, the selectmen said they felt more comfortable with an expenditure of about $14 million.
The committee has asked Tecton to come up with a plan for new construction in the vicinity of $14 million as well as one for new construction at $15.9 million, which it will present to selectmen on Jan. 13.
Throughout 2018 and 2019, the term POCD became well known in Wilton. Over the course of about 18 months of meetings, workshops, surveys and a public hearing, Wilton’s Plan of Conservation and Development was adopted by the Planning and Zoning Commission on Sept. 23.
The plan became effective on Oct. 1 and will guide development in Wilton over the next 10 years. The 137-page document may be accessed at wiltonct.org.
Divided into eight chapters, the plan focuses primarily on how Wilton looks today and its vision for the future through: Natural and Historical Environment, Human and Economic Environment, and Built Environment. The plan also addresses future land use and the implementation process. An executive summary of the plan will be forthcoming.
Now that the POCD is in place, the Planning and Zoning Commission expects to embark on a master plan — including reviewing and updating the town’s zoning regulations — for Wilton from Georgetown through Wilton Center and beyond.
Assisted living bows out
The town will not have any more senior housing projects in the near future following the withdrawal earlier this month of an application by MNG Equities. The company bowed out after receiving unfavorable comments during a public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission in October. The application also received negative feedback from residents near the site on Pimpewaug Road.
In 2016, the commission had amended its zoning regulations for assisted-living facilities on Route 7, allowing increased building height and apartment density per acre. This was as Senior Living Development of Fairfield was seeking to build a facility on the site formerly occupied by Young’s Nurseries.
MNG sought changes to the regulations since its facility did not have frontage on Route 7, including changes to frontage requirements along Danbury Road, an increase in density of units per acre, an increase in maximum height of the building, a reduction in required parking, and a reduction of the number of required affordable housing units.
On Sept. 29, Michael Powers, a petitioning candidate for first selectman, filed a lawsuit against the town and members of the Board of Selectmen.
Powers applied for a temporary and permanent injunction, claiming 37 of the board’s motions during 2019 did not meet the standard for motions according to Robert’s Rules of Order. As such, he said, those motions must be vacated and future motions must follow Robert’s Rules and other provisions of town policy.
Powers lost the lawsuit and the election.
On Dec. 16, Stamford Superior Court Judge David R. Tobin dismissed Powers’ lawsuit from the bench without adjourning to formulate a decision.
“It speaks to the absolute lack of merit in the allegations in the lawsuit,” First Selectwoamn Lynne Vanderslice said later that night at a selectmen’s meeting.
She said the town was forced to pay taxpayer dollars on its defense for what she deemed a “frivolous” suit. She estimated the town’s legal costs were approximately $10,000. “Dollars that we might have otherwise spent on a more worthwhile purpose,” she said.
Vanderslice said Powers threatened to file an appeal, and she urged him to reconsider. She asked those who voted for Powers in November to reach out to him and ask him to reconsider and not waste any more of the town’s money.
Vanderslice won re-election in November, getting 3,051 votes. Powers fared poorly in the three-person race, getting just 118 votes.
Booster president charged with embezzlement
Former Wilton Football Boosters Club president, Brian Colburn, was arrested on Aug. 9 following an investigation into missing funds from the club’s account.
Police claim he was involved in an embezzlement scheme that netted him in excess of $20,000.
Colburn was charged with larceny by embezzlement in the first degree and forgery in the third degree.
The arrest followed a police investigation in May stemming from a complaint by the Wilton High School Football program, as well as others affiliated with the Boosters, of suspicion regarding the organization’s finances.
As Boosters president, police said, Colburn was entrusted with money from financial donations made by members of the public and he diverted funds from legitimate Boosters financial accounts and used it for his personal expenses.
According to police, PayPal records show Colburn transferred in excess of $20,000 from the Boosters’ legitimate PayPal account into his personal PayPal account.
Investigation further revealed, when Colburn was confronted by the Boosters’ executive board in May about the organization’s finances, he produced forged bank statements in an attempt to show there was more money in the Boosters’ bank accounts than there actually was.
The Boosters Club disbanded after Colburn’s arrest and the Wilton Gridiron Football Club was formed to replace it.
Colburn has a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Jan. 24 in Stamford Superior Court.
Police officer fired
Not everyone is cut out be one of Wilton’s finest.
Police Officer Steven Zawacki, who had been with the Wilton Police Department since 2015, was fired in October for allegedly lying about circumstances involving an underage drinking party.
The Wilton Police Commission terminated Zawacki’s employment following an internal affairs investigation and recommendation by Police Chief John Lynch.
The investigation centered around an incident that happened in August, when Zawacki, as the primary officer, and a backup officer responded to a Wilton home late at night based on a noise complaint.
According to the investigation, a large party with 100 minors was taking place at the home, hosted by an 18-year-old minor resident, where there was evidence of alcohol and drinking.
The investigation claims Zawacki abruptly shut off his body camera, never entered the residence, took no action, issued no arrests or citations, and did not take any steps to ensure the safety of minors who remained at the home.
The investigation further found that when Zawacki was later questioned by two shift supervisors about what occurred at the residence, he gave misleading information and half-truths, saying he took no action on the call because there was no alcohol present.
The investigation concluded Zawacki violated four standard operating procedures: dishonesty or untruthfulness, competent performance, insubordination, and deactivating a body camera prior to the conclusion of an incident.
This was not Zawacki’s first disciplinary action with the department. In 2018, the commission issued Zawacki a 90-day suspension without pay for having an inappropriate relationship and harassment in the workplace.
Norwalk River work
A half-mile segment of the Norwalk River, running through Schenck’s Island in Wilton Center, was transformed this summer by work done by Trout Unlimited and the town’s Department of Environmental Affairs.
Trout Unlimited embarked on a major habitat restoration project in August, that involved excavating part of the river’s bottom and positioning boulders and tree trunks along the river’s banks to encourage the river to become more narrow and curvy, as a wild river is.
A fish count conducted in July found primarily small fish, such as minnows, sunfish, and eels in the shallow areas of the river. Where there were deep pools, however, much larger fish including about two dozen brown trout and a few rainbow trout were found.
The work created deep pools where more of these larger fish can hide and spawn.
Following the river work, some of the parkland around the river was improved with removal of invasive species and planting of native shrubs and trees.
The project, which also improved public access to the river, cost $96,000 and was paid for with private donations.
Plastic bag ban
Wilton shoppers reacted with more support than displeasure with the enactment of a new state law on Aug. 1, imposing a 10-cent charge for single-use plastic bags at checkout.
The fee is expected to remain in place for two years. Single-use plastic bags will be completely banned in the state starting July 1, 2021. At that time, no retail or grocery store will be permitted to distribute single-use plastic bags at checkout.
With approximately one billion plastic bags used each year in Connecticut, the goal of the plastic bag ban is to reduce pollution.
Local merchants responded to the law by providing paper bags and selling reusable shopping bags.
On Aug. 1, a survey by The Bulletin of Wilton shoppers showed they supported the environmental goals of the ban.
A Wilton teen even got into the act. Cole Stephenson formed the group Wise Wilton, and created dark blue shopping bags stamped with the “Wise Wilton” logo.
Cole sold the bags for $5 each. Proceeds were distributed to four Wilton nonprofit groups — Ambler Farm, Animals in Distress, Wilton Food Pantry, and WARF (Wilton Athletic and Recreation Foundation).
Aquarion withdraws application
Following considerable public protest, in March, Aquarion Water Company withdrew a permit request with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection that would have allowed the company to divert up to one million gallons of water per day from a Cannondale well at 3 Cannon Road.
In addition to objections by Wilton residents, Norwalk residents and environmental groups also opposed the water diversion plan.
In January, the town of Wilton’s environmental consultant, Brian Blum, said Aquarion’s application was full of holes. He said it did not adequately address potential impacts to other users of groundwater in the vicinity of the Cannondale Well Field, and potential impacts to the environment, including the Norwalk River and associated wetlands.
Upon withdrawing its application, Dan Lawrence, Aquarion’s director of engineering and planning, cited discussions with residents, state and town officials, environmental organizations and other stakeholders as the main driver behind its decision.
“Given the feedback we’ve received and our ability to continue using our other water sources to ensure the reliable delivery of safe, clean, quality water to our customers, we will be withdrawing the permit application,” Lawrence said.
Other top stories
A number of other headlines resonated in Wilton in 2019.
EMT’s quick action may have saved electrocution victim’s life. On June 5, Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps EMT Chris Sweeney, 19, was at his home on Ruscoe Road when the boom from a tree service truck in his driveway came in contact with power lines, sending electricity through the truck. A 25-year old tree worker, who was opening the truck door, was shocked from the jolt, sending him into cardiac arrest. Sweeney jumped on the scene and quickly administered hands-only CPR on the victim until other EMS workers arrived. The man was ultimately revived and transported to Norwalk Hospital.
Stop & Shop workers strike. Approximately 31,000 workers at Stop & Shop supermarkets in New England, including those in Wilton, walked off the job on April 11 and formed picket lines outside their stores. Strikers were protesting their pay and benefits. While some Stop & Shop supermarkets closed during the strike, the Wilton store remained open. The strike was settled on April 21.
A Better Chance drops boys’ program. Citing issues with funding and demand, the board of directors of the Wilton branch of A Better Chance (ABC), announced in October that it was closing its boys’ house, which had been in operation for 23 years. ABC provides high school education and academic discipline to minority boys and girls from outside communities. ABC of Wilton will continue to operate its girls’ house in Wilton Center.
Wilton opens new Alternative School. An alternative school program for grades seven through 12 opened its doors at Trackside Teen Center on Aug. 27. During the budget process, the Board of Finance approved $468,000 through its Charter Authority to fund the program for one year.
Schalk holds last dance in Wilton. After 62 years, serving more than 162,000 students, longtime dance instructor Walter Schalk closed his dance school. He ended the run in March with a Spring Revue joined by 60 of the school’s alumni. However, Schalk’s legacy lives on, with former students Kristyn Overby Prial and Patricia Gray McCarthy opening Encore Dance att Comstock Community Center in September.
A heartfelt farewell
Wilton lost many beloved residents this year, and some were well known for their contributions both to the town and the world at large.
Edward Bulkeley Griswold, known to many as Buck, may have left this world on Feb. 14, but his presence will be felt here for a very long time. His civic leadership ranged from sports to public service, Wilton nonprofits, and affordable housing for senior citizens. His contributions were many and perhaps best summed up by longtime friend Kevin Craw who said, “if it was a good cause, and Wilton was in some way involved, Buck pretty much had a hand in it.”
Shortly after moving to Wilton as a newlywed in the 1950s with her husband Doug, Betty Jones immersed herself in painting, participating in Wilton Playshop musicals, and singing at the Wilton Congregational Church. After a neighbor heard her sing and arranged an audition with the Boston Opera Company, Betty embarked on a professional opera career at the age of 41. In 1986, she was honored by the Connecticut Commission on the Arts with its Arts Award. Betty died on Nov. 7.
David Borglum, a civil engineer, worked with various town building committees on school construction and renovation projects, including Wilton High School. He lent his talents to a number of local organizations, including the Wilton Democratic Committee, which named him Outstanding Democrat of the Year in 2013. He joined the Democratic Town Committee in the mid-1960s and served as a convention delegate in 2000. He was the organizing force behind the Frivolity Bowl, the annual softball game between Democrats and Republicans held on July 4 for more than 25 years.
Peter Kaskell was one of Wilton’s remaining World War II heroes when he died on Dec. 12. He was also awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government for his U.S. Army intelligence efforts that contributed to the liberation of France from 1944 to 1945. Bulletin columnist Stephen Hudspeth remembers him this week for his philanthropy and humanity, saying “his thoughts were always focused on where his efforts could do the most good for others, and his contributions to the good enriched the lives of many.”