As 2013 begins, take a look back at 2012

There are many ways that made 2012 a year that stood out. A superstorm swept through Greenwich. A bear wandered through the streets. Politics dominated the headlines, and the community mourned a nearby tragedy.

Before the challenges and issues of 2013 begin to dominate the news cycle, the Post is taking a look back at the year that was in 2012. It was not a quiet year by any stretch, and it was one that will not easily be forgotten. Major constraints on town spending that will likely dominate conversation in the early part of 2013 first reared their head this year, longtime public servants like former First Selectman Ruth Sims and police Chief Peter Robbins passed away, and the town was hit hard by Sandy while still being spared the worst. But it was also a time of celebration The Greenwich Town Party started off the summer right, the Salute to Veterans returned with much fanfare and the Greenwich YMCA took major strides forward, including ending its renovation.

So before 2012 disappears too far into the rearview mirror, here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories of the past year.

 

Superstorm Sandy hits hard

Greenwich was spared the worst of the damage from the superstorm as areas like the Jersey Shore and Staten Island, N.Y., were ravaged by the storm, causing lives to be lost and homes destroyed. But Greenwich still felt a real impact from the storm. Homes were damaged, with some left completely uninhabitable, particularly in the Old Greenwich and Byram areas near the water. But as bad as the damage was, it could have been far worse with the high tide at the peak of the storm not being as severe as feared.

The town had called for mandatory evacuations of several areas of town, especially in low-lying flood areas in Old Greenwich. The fear had been that the high tide would cause massive flooding there, making for several nervous hours. But the worst never occurred, and afterward town Conservation Director Denise Savageau marveled that just the slightest shift in the wind spared Greenwich severe damage.

The winds from the storm ended up doing the most harm, causing tree damage all over town that knocked out power to the majority of residents. Some customers went without power for more than a week, causing tempers to flare against Connecticut Light & Power due to the long waits and the belief that not enough work crews were ready to react in a timely fashion. Criticism was directed not at the actual utility workers in the field but rather at management, as had been the case in the wake of many of the recent storms. While CL&P defended its response, resident anger persisted.

At the peak of the storm, Old Greenwich found itself in further danger when a fire broke out on Binney Lane. The fire ultimately destroyed three homes and a carriage house, but it could have been far worse without the Greenwich Fire Department’s response. With wind, rain and falling tree limbs all having to be dealt with, the department battled the blaze and kept it from destroying potentially dozens of homes. Fire Chief Peter Siecienski said, given the conditions, it was “the most heroic effort I’ve seen to put out fires.”

Second time not the charm

The election of 2012 did not go much better for Greenwich resident Linda McMahon than the one in 2010 did. Despite crushing former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays in a primary for the Republican nomination, Ms. McMahon once again failed in her attempt to be elected to the United States Senate. In 2010 the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment was defeated by Greenwich resident U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and in 2012 she again went down to defeat, to Sen. Chris Murphy, despite spending close to $100 million of her own money over the course of the two races.

The race between Ms. McMahon and Mr. Murphy was a bruising one, with tons of television advertising coming from both candidates. Ms. McMahon dominated the airwaves early on, but with the help of outside groups Mr. Murphy was able to play some catch-up. Negative ads were released by both candidates, and with strong support from women, Mr. Murphy was able to achieve a relatively comfortable victory when the votes were counted. He was sworn in this week as senator after six years in the House of Representatives, and Ms. McMahon has indicated she is not planning a third run for office.

Election night was a very good night, though, for another resident — U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th District), a Cos Cob resident. He cruised to re-election over Republican challenger Steve Obsitnik and in doing so captured Greenwich’s vote for the first time. This will be Mr. Himes’ third term in office, and what was once a Republican-dominated seat appears to now be pretty secure for him.

Despite the losses for Ms. McMahon and Mr. Obsitnik, Greenwich Republicans still had a lot to cheer about. State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th District) and state Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149th District) and Fred Camillo (R-151st District) all won easy victories in their re-elections. Additionally, state Rep.-elect Stephen Walko (R-150th District) also won in a landslide. He will be sworn in for his first term to replace Lile Gibbons this month. The good fortune for the Greenwich GOP is expected to continue this November as First Selectman Peter Tesei and Selectman David Theis already have announced they will seek new terms.

Popular Democratic Selectman Drew Marzullo will also run for re-election.

Welcome, Dr. McKersie

At the end of his year as interim superintendent of schools, the Greenwich community had one message for Roger Lulow: “Please don’t go!”

But go Dr. Lulow did go after a second tenure in Greenwich that was hailed as a stabilizing success after the contentious departures of previous superintendents Betty Sternberg and Sidney Freund. However, those feelings of longing appear to have significantly eased with the arrival of new Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, who has spoken openly of his desire to be a long-term solution for Greenwich, something that’s music to the ears of a community that has been plagued by superintendent turnover.

Dr. McKersie was hired in the spring and took office officially this summer, only to be immediately greeted with a demand from the state for a plan to racially balance Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon School. While a plan is still being developed and the cost unknown, Dr. McKersie has moved forward on a plan to invest in and improve digital education in Greenwich. This is a centerpiece of his first budget and is expected to go forward even with recently approved cuts that could result in reductions of staff at the central office.

Dr. McKersie has also made a point of emphasizing the positive of the district in his first few months in the new position, looking at both test scores and individual achievements while also noting events such as the districtwide reaction to the tragedy in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Budget cuts looming

A lot of the discussion in the latter part of the past year is expected to continue into 2013 in regard to the municipal budget. Mr. Tesei will not unveil the 2013-14 budget until next month, but already the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) has its scissors out. This past year the BET’s Budget Committee, citing the number of major capital projects already under way, deferred plans for a community pool and a new station for Greenwich Emergency Medical Services, despite wide public support for it. That continued this fall when the BET approved by a contentious 7-6 vote down party lines budget guidelines that called for a lower-than-typical mill rate increase and a cap in spending.

Already this has impacted the school budget, and more debate is expected. BET Republicans say the slow national economic recovery calls for being extra conservative with spending, while Democrats have said this will lead to reductions in town staff and services. This is just the latest round in the ongoing debate between advocates of austerity and those seeking to maintain services while investing in projects for the long term.

This past May, the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) soundly defeated an attempt to remove funding for the MISA project at Greenwich High School, and this coming budget could be tighter than ever. A better clue of what will happen will come in February with Mr. Tesei’s presentation.

Citizen groups rise up

2012 was also a year of public advocacy, with mixed results. A citizen-led group seeking to ban leaf blowers during the summer months resulted in nothing but frustration as a compromise measure was beaten by a wide margin in the RTM. However, a citizen effort to block the development a stretch of property on the Post Road into a private luxury senior housing development known as the Tollgate was successful. After a marathon hearing before the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency that lasted until almost 3 a.m., the project was blocked over environmental concerns and worries over the impact to the residential neighborhoods.

Citizens also were able to recruit the Board of Selectmen into joining a lawsuit seeking to block a cell tower from being built on Aquarion Water Co. property on Valley Road. The cell tower had nearly unanimous neighbor opposition and raised questions about whether it was legal under the deed that gave the property from the town to Aquarion for water company purposes. Despite multiple efforts by Mr. Marzullo, the selectmen at first resisted joining the suit, citing advice of town counsel. But ultimately the selectmen did sign on, and the case is ongoing.

Another ongoing effort is the citizen opposition to building a new home for Greenwich Reform Synagogue on Orchard Street, which critics say would increase traffic and be too close to homes. Previous attempts to build in the residential area have been defeated, but this process began only in November. It is expected to continue being considered by the Planning and Zoning Commission soon.

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