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Fairfield 2012: High over super LL team's success, low over super storm's devastation

Updated 4:38 pm, Tuesday, January 1, 2013

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  • Parts of Fairfield Beach Road remained impassable, blocked by water or sand, and homes uninhabitable, following Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    Parts of Fairfield Beach Road remained impassable, blocked by water or sand, and homes uninhabitable, following Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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`Super' damage from Sandy

Hurricane Sandy took aim at the Connecticut shoreline two days before Halloween, earning the nickname "Frankenstorm." And even though it was downgraded from hurricane strength when it roared ashore here, it packed a devastating wallop along the town's shoreline. Months later, some residents of the beach-area neighborhoods still have not been able to move back into their homes. One Fairfield Beach Road home was the talk of the town after it was washed off its foundation and floated up and down Pine Creek with the tides. The concession stand at Southport was tossed across Pequot Avenue and nearly toppled into the marsh on the other side. Some Fairfield Beach road homes were totally obliterated and washed into Long Island Sound. Others were left standing after the storm's battering, but barely. Power, out for more than a week in the immediate aftermath of Sandy, has yet to be fully restored to all structures along the shoreline. Mountains of sand washed in by the tides inundated streets for blocks.

Several days passed before the Sandy's storm surge receded, and for days afterward, National Guardsmen stood watch at streets leading to the beach neighborhoods, letting only residents through to their homes to survey the damage and collect their possessions.

Penfield Pavilion, its $5.5 million overhaul completed just a year earlier, took a big hit from the storm, despite installation of a bulkhead around the waterfront structure. It is not expected to be open next summer.

Inland, the high wind gusts felled trees and power lines, and students did not head back to classes at town schools for more than a week. Public works crews had to shift gears from clearing streets of trees and debris to plowing snow when a nor'easter followed just a few days later, dumping about six inches of snow in its wake.

Such was the demand for help, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration set up shop at the Fairfield Senior Center to help homeowners get back on their feet.

By year end, town officials had yet to settle on final figures of the public costs that Sandy inflicted on Fairfield.

Hiller ousted

For 18 years, Paul Hiller served as a Republican member of the town's Board of Finance. Then, a little over 13 years ago, then-First Selectman Kenneth Flatto named Hiller as the town's fiscal officer. But in mid-July, Hiller was absent without explanation for his office at Sullivan-Independence Hall, and rumors swirled about the reason for his departure. Eventually, First Selectman Michael Tetreau confirmed that Hiller had been placed on administrative leave, and he submitted his resignation on Aug. 1, effective on Sept. 15. Hiller returned to work in a new capacity once an agreement was hammered out that called for him to work a minimum of two days a week as the manager of financial services. The deal also called for him to be paid through June 30, 2013. Hiller's salary is to be bumped up on his last day, boosting his pension benefit.

Republicans on the Board of Finance and the Representative Town Meeting grilled the tight-lipped Tetreau, a Democrat, at subsequent meetings over a period of several weeks, asking why Hiller was let go and the details of the separation agreement. It was reported that the forced resignation would cost the town a total of $127,000, including $32,046 for Hiller's unused vacation, $33,632 in severance pay, $52,090 for added pensions costs, $1,000 in deferred compensation and an estimated $10,000 in legal fees.

Firefighter slapping controversy

Hiller wasn't the only town department head who found himself in the spotlight in 2012. In February, Fire Chief Richard Felner was off the job and "on vacation" while an independent party investigated a report that the veteran fire official had slapped one of his assistant chiefs during a work discussion.

Felner, 75, denied he ever slapped Assistant Chief George Gomola, and the Fire Commission held several closed-door meetings about the incident. The report on the incident, obtained by the Fairfield Citizen, included a statement from the chief's longtime secretary that Felner came to her desk and admitted slapping Gomola. The report concluded that more likely than not that Felner had slapped Gomola, but the Fire Commission never discussed the issue in open session and took no disciplinary action against Felner.

Felner himself termed the slapping allegations "B.S." and later said, "I am disappointed by this distortion and mischaracterization of what was a gesture of camaraderie toward a member of my team."

Some months later, however, the commission did vote to extend Felner's contract for another year. Felner joined the department in 1957, and became chief in 1998. He was honored in 2009 for 50 years of service and was honored again by the town's legislative delegation in the midst of the investigation.

Costly PCB cleanup at Osborn Hill

PCBs replaced asbestos as the top concern when testing for a window replacement project at Osborn Hill School led to discovery of elevated levels of PCBs -- a potential carcinogen -- in some classrooms, corridors, the library and the gym prior to the start of the new academic year in late summer.

Remediation and cleanup costs already top $800,000. But just before the Christmas break, test results for the gym hallway, computer room, bathrooms, reading room and resource room all showed levels below the recommended EPA level. With the exception of the library media center -- and the gymnasium itself -- all those areas will be back in use Jan. 2 when classes resume.

The Board of Education acquired several large portable classrooms that have taken the place of the school's gym, which is not expected to return to use during the current school year. PCB contamination in the gym apparently came from spray-on fireproofing used in that area when an addition was built.

In the meantime, the school board has also hired a consulting firm to help put together a plan on dealing with possible PCB contamination at other town schools. Its work will include looking at when schools were built and the types of materials used.

Drowning at Lake Mohegan

Tragedy struck at Lake Mohegan the evening of July 17 when 10-year-old Kathleen Trujillo, of Bridgeport, drowned while swimming with her family in an unauthorized part of the lake.

Police said Kathleen was swimming with three other young family members when they all began to struggle. Her mother tried to save Kathleen but she slipped from her grasp. She was under water for about 45 minutes before she was located by a member of the police dive team.

The prohibition against swimming in the lake outside of the beach at the southern end was posted, but many felt it was not displayed prominently enough or close enough to the water. New signs were erected within days of the drowning, which also featured warnings in Spanish and the international symbol to prohibit swimming.

Little League coaches douse man on fire

Little League coaches rushed from the field at Tunxis Hill Park in September to come to the aid of 23-year-old Justin Hervey, whose vehicle had burst into flames.

It was about 6 p.m. on Sept. 6 when players, coaches and parents heard a popping sound and turned to see fire engulf Hervey and his Chevy Tahoe. As Hervey ran from the SUV, coaches ran toward him and helped extinguish the fire with a blanket. Hervey was conscious when emergency personnel arrived, and he told them he had been having trouble with the Tahoe before the fire erupted.

An analysis of the SUV still is being conducted by an outside expert in an effort to determine the cause of the blaze.

FHA chief quits; feds launch probe

When members of the Fairfield Housing Authority met in January, they learned that their executive director, Elizabeth Gutierrez, to whom they had granted a six- to eight-week leave in December, had resigned.

After coming on board in April, her replacement as executive director, Carol Martin, discovered what she called "suspect transactions" during several predecessors' tenure. Martin reported those transactions to officials at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which began an investigation.

In November, the Fairfield Citizen learned that Gutierrez had taken a similar job with the housing authority in Truth or Consequences, N.M., but was fired about six days before the story of the HUD investigation became public.

A hawk on the prowl

Homework, test scores and bullies weren't the only things students at Fairfield Ludlowe High School and Ludlowe Middle School had to worry about this year.

In January , a red shouldered hawk took up residence in a tree on Barlow Road near the school and began to "terrorize" the neighborhood. Police received reports of at least six attacks by the hawk, including several students and a woman who was knocked off her bicycle.

With the help of the Fire Department, animal control officials took down a nest from a tree in front of the high school, but it was later determined that nest was not the one they were looking for. A falconer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was eventually called in, and the male hawk captured. It was to be released back in Fairfield in the later summer or early fall, although there have been no more reports of local hawk attacks.

Town cheers Fairfield American LL champs

For the second time in three seasons, Fairfield American sent a team to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., after it won the state and New England crowns. Though the Fairfielders fell short of the World Series trophy, they garnered accolades and a big fan following along the way. Will Lucas pitched a no-hitter, the 47th in Little League World Series history, and Biagio Paoletta batted .462 while in Williamsport.

Residents gathered at local bars and restaurants to watch the games together during the team's championship run. On their return to Fairfield, the young ballplayers, all 12 and 13 years old, got a police escort along Interstate 95 from the state line to Sherman Green where a hometown crowd cheered their heroics.

Large class of new principals

The new school year saw a record number of new principals take the helms of Fairfield's elementary schools.

Among the eight new principals in town, some, like Greg Hatzis, were transferred from the within the district. Hatzis left his job as principal at Fairfield Woods Middle School to become headmaster at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.

Three of the principals came from outside the district to fill posts left empty at elementary schools caused by retirements and transfers.

Retiring principals included Alan Lipman at Osborn Hill and Paul Taoso at Riverfield.

Other stories that made headlines in 2012:

Dwight Elementary School was a named a National Blue Ribbon School by the federal Education Department. A ceremony in November heralded that honor.

The building that for decades housed Fairfield's main U.S. Post Office downtown on the Post Road was sold for $4.3 million in May. The Postal Service opened in smaller quarters a few doors away in August. No specific plans for the old building have been brought forward yet by its new owners.

Department of Public Works Director Richard White retired in August, and Joseph Michelangelo was named his successor. Michelangelo came from Cheshire, and became only the town's third public works director.