Here were the big stories for Fairfield and Easton in 2021

While maybe not as eventful as the year before, 2021 had its fair share of difficulties and developments.

Here’s a look back at some of Fairfield’s and Easton’s top stories of 2021.

Schools continue to deal with pandemic

Schools returned to full in-person learning this year after switching to remote in March 2020 when the pandemic hit and then moving to a hybrid model.

While many welcomed the return to the classroom, some students who have compromised immune systems or live with someone who does, said there needed to be a remote option and sparked a rally in August over the issue.

The district had called for the state to offer a regional or statewide remote option for these students. The superintendent announced the district was hiring additional support staff and put a plan in place in late August for those who can’t be in school and are considered long-term remote.

Parents again criticized the district once school started, saying the options for those in long-term remote and those quarantining are disproportionate.

To Chick-fil-A or not to Chick-fil-A

Fairfield’s future projections of chicken sandwiches per-capita took a hit this year when the Town Plan and Zoning Commission rejected a proposal to bring a Chick-fil-A to 750 Post Road due to traffic concerns.

Commissioners said the proposed site would attract more cars than the site could handle, creating more traffic problems in an already congested area — a common criticism residents and opposition raised during the public hearings. One commissioner remarked during the process that the commission had received more than 200 emails and testimony on the project with only two submissions in support of the restaurant locating there.

Chick-fil-A’s proposed location was the former site of Joe’s American Bar & Grill, which closed nearly two years ago. The property was sold in 2020. It also included the adjacent Colonial Unisex Hair Cutters barbershop, a family-owned business that has been there since 1970.

The applicant had argued that this site was bigger than other Connecticut locations and was designed to address traffic concerns that had come up at those other sites, including Norwalk. But commissioners’ concerns about traffic and overflow from the drive-thru trumped any desire for chicken sandwiches, and while the applicant has the ability to appeal the denial, they have yet to do so.

Restructuring sees two new hires

A restructuring plan that eliminated several positions in the wake of the fill pile scandal also saw the hiring of two new town employees in 2021. In August, the town announced it had filled the roles of conservation director and assistant director of public works.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick’s reorganization plan was expected to save $541,000 and eliminated the role of conservation administrator. That cut proved unpopular, and hundreds of residents signed an online petition to reinstate the position.

Kupchick assured concerned residents that the Conservation Department would still protect the town in light of the changes, which saw the elimination of two roles, some shifting of responsibilities for those who remained, and the hiring of Timothy Bishop as conservation director.

The town’s Department of Public Works also underwent changes — at least partially because of an early retirement program Kupchick advocated for — but also because of the elimination of three positions as part of the restructuring. In April, John Cottell, Jr. was hired as the new assistant public works director.

Easton Board of Education investigates email scandal

October saw the Easton Board of Education call for an internal investigation into whether any federal law or school board policy was violated after emails from parents were sent to an outside organization.

Jeffrey Parker, a long-time school board member who was the Republican candidate for first selectman at the time, confirmed he forwarded emails he received in May from four local parents to local organizer Dana Benson.

BOE chairman Jon Stinson said the board hired the law firm Shipman and Goodwin to investigate all emails sent by board members in the past year.

The emails mostly involved a diversity, equity and inclusion survey that drew opposition from some community members, including Parker, and at least one email was related to the ongoing mask mandate, the Courier reported.

“I made a hell of a mistake and I own it,” Parker said the time. “In the decade I’ve served this board, I’ve always put the children first.”

Parker’s actions drew criticism from parents, who said Parker violated their trust, while others supported him. Many of those who spoke during the meeting took issue with Parker sharing the emails with Benson, one of the leaders of Save Our Schools, which has been outspoken in combating measures to promote equity and inclusion in the town’s schools.

Costs associated with fill pile scandal continue to climb

The cost associated with cleaning up contamination connected to the fill pile scandal continued to climb this year. The cost associated with cleaning up the material was originally estimated to be $5 to $10 million.

In October, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said Fairfield had spent $2.9 million so far on remediating the contaminated soil. When town bodies voted to set aside an additional $6 million from a budget surplus to the fill pile fund, she said the actual cost would far exceed that amount.

Kupchick said more than 50 contaminated sites connected to the fill pile have been identified throughout town. She noted that 25 sites out of 50 have been cleaned up, with the town’s licensed environmental professionals filing paperwork with regulatory bodies to verify that.

Kupchick said she knows the cost ranges she has presented concerning the clean-up efforts are significant, but said they are estimates dependent largely on more testing. She said the town is currently in negotiation with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about remediation of the fill pile and its future use.

Several former town officials were arrested for their alleged involvement in a private company dumping hazardous material in Fairfield’s fill pile, which continued to work through the courts this year.

Water diverted from Fairfield

Controversy surrounding a proposal to double the amount of water allowed to be diverted from the Fairfield area to southwestern Connecticut was resolved. Aquarion Water Co., which filed for the diversion, announced an agreement in December between the town of Fairfield, the Fairfield Conservation Commission and several other local groups that had challenged the proposal based on environmental and supply concerns.

The agreement approves the diversion but adds monitoring safeguards. Under the plan, Aquarion will be able to divert a maximum of 14.2 million gallons per day from its Greater Bridgeport System — almost double the prior limit of 7.26 million gallons per day — to Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan.

Environmentalists and officials in Fairfield recognized the need for more water to that area but challenged the proposal, saying that much water would negatively affect the residents and watershed in the Greater Bridgeport System.

The Greater Bridgeport System had been made up of 12 towns including Bridgeport, Wilton, Fairfield, Easton, Weston, Redding, Westport and Norwalk, but Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan will now be their own water region. While the diversion is approved, officials said it will be at least another three years before the needed infrastructure improvements are done to move the maximum amount of water allowed.

Penfield Pavilion was not built to spec

Fairfield residents were surprised when officials announced this fall that the cost of bringing Penfield Pavilion back in line with Federal Emergency Management Agency standards — as well as testing for and remediating spots where contaminated fill was used — will cost millions of dollars.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said the town will not take reservations for the venue after Oct. 31, 2022 as officials gather information and approvals to address both issues. The building project in 2017 violated the regulations of the National Flood Insurance Program outlined by FEMA.

Kupchick said former First Selectman Mike Tetreau’s administration was notified the building, which has been renovated twice in the past decade, was not built to federal standards.

Meanwhile, the cost of remediating contaminated fill under the building is looking to be in the range of $2.5 million. Fill under the Penfield parking lot requires additional testing and estimates for the cost of remediation range between $3 and $5 million.

Superintendent of Easton, Redding, Region 9 resigns

Easton and Redding residents were shocked when former Easton-Redding-Region 9 Superintendent Rydell Harrison resigned from his position overseeing the three districts just days after a new contact extension was approved by the school boards.

Harrison experienced both backlash and praise during his months-long tenure.

In January, some community members criticized Harrison after discovering a post on his personal Facebook page in which he condemned those that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — with some saying they felt targeted by his comments.

Harrison also faced even more opposition as he and other board members led efforts to spearhead an optional survey about diversity, equity and inclusion. Residents and parents rebelled against the survey, taking issue with questions around identity and sexuality, and questioning discussion of such topics in schools.

Despite months of pushback, the survey was passed and recently distributed to school community members. In a statement announcing his resignation, Harrison said he had faced a number of unique challenges as ER9’s superintendent that led him to question whether or not the role was a good fit.

Court upholds High Street affordable housing denial

In a town where affordable housing can be a hot button issue, one notable event of this past year was when the Connecticut Superior Court dismissed an appeal for an affordable housing project on High Street.

The Fairfield Housing Corporation, which bought the 980 High Street property for $2.1 million, proposed to build a 40-unit affordable housing complex there in May of 2019. The units were planned to be built across five buildings and would include 32 affordable units.

While the plan was initially approved by the Town Planing and Zoning Commission, it was denied by the Inland Wetlands Agency due to the impact that the development would have on the wetlands. The organization suggested several alternatives that could minimize the impact on the wetlands.

Officials said the courts only uphold denials of 8-30g applications 20 or 30 percent of the time — making it a rare move. A state statute, 8-30g, limits why town boards can reject an affordable housing project and allows those projects to circumvent local zoning laws.

Fairfield University says goodbye to Alumni Hall

Demolition on Fairfield University's alumni hall began in April to make way for a new convocation center.

The convocation center replacing the 62-year-old building was designed by Centerbrook Architects and is expected to cost $45 million. The building’s footprint will be increased by about 33 percent, bringing the total square footage up to 85,000 square feet.

The convocation center will be able to seat 3,500 — up from 2,800 — and will host Stags basketball and volleyball games, Fairfield Prep basketball, concerts and other events.

Residents and even those working on the project said seeing it torn down was a little bittersweet because of the memories they made in it, but the new, modern venue is the capstone of the university’s master plan to improve the student experience.

Honorable mention: New police chief for fairfield

After more than 20 years with the department, Capt. Robert Kalamaras was sworn in as chief early this year, replacing former Chief Christopher Lyddy.

Kalamaras said keeping a positive outlook and maintaining ethical behavior were among the goals he had for the department, as well as making sure its policies and procedures are up to date.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com