40 years of Southington news coverage (Part Two): 2000 to the present

Southington Observer

By JOHN GORALSKI
EDITOR

At the turn of the 20th century, Southington residents numbered just 5,890. But the town swelled into a bustling town during the 1900s as the population exploded to almost 40,000 for Y2K.

Last week, we took a look at the early days of the Observer, from 1975 to 2000. Now, let’s look at the headlines for the new millennium.

Here are a few of the top stories we covered:

40th anniversary (web)

2000-2009

Despite the town’s fears about the Y2K threat, there were no outages or meltdowns at the turn of the century. It was business as usual.

Government

  • The state announced a $170 million plan to reconstruct portions of I-84, including a redesign of exit 30 in Plantsville after traffic and safety concerns for years. The exit ramp was diverted to Atwater Street.
  • Formation of the Open Space Acquisition Committee was approved by the council.
  • The 2000 Apple Harvest Festival opened without the use of the D’Angelo lot next to Congregational church. The carnival was moved to the lot behind the Elk’s club. Booths and parking were moved. In 2006, the town purchased the D’Angelo lot for municipal lot and will continue to use it for the festival.
  • A $6.4 million facility was approved by referendum to house a new police headquarters on Lazy Lane. The referendum had been shut down during a special election in 1999.
  • In 2005, the town looks to move town hall. North Center School was considered an option. Three referendums failed. The council argued that the Gura Building would have to be torn down because of health issues.
  • Chancellor Gardens Assisted Living facility paid $771,000 in back taxes. Town Attorney Mark Sciota negotiated the collection and was entitled to a long standing town policy to collect 25 percent of fees. The town attorney was not involved in $1.5 million tax collection from Lake Compounce.
  • The town suspended Police Sgt. William Perry for his involvement with a drug case against his wife. The 30-day suspension was negated by a state arbitration panel, 2-1. The panel ruled that the town did not have cause to suspend him.
  • Fireworks in 2007, coordinated by Stuart Estra, explodes into controversy. Estra gave free VIP tickets to sponsors, which cost $25. Funds were shifted without approval from the Kids Entertainment Series and Trail Day accounts. Attorney Sciota ended concerns after an audit.
  • In 2007, Republicans took over control of the BOE, and secured an additional seat on the council. The final council seat needed a recount between David Zoni and Delores Longo. Zoni emerged victorious by 18 votes. In 2009, Republicans regained the council, PZC, and board of finance.
  • The town purchased the My Bar property (148 Center Street) after it was closed by narcotics enforcement officers. The Council would later flip the property at a loss to Landmark Properties with a stipulation to improve parking downtown. Officials backed the project, saying that a similar circumstance led to Clock Tower Square in Plantsville.
  • Police Chief John Daly was cleared of accusations in a complaint by the Southington Police Union with 10 allegations against the chief. Investigated by the state, Daly was cleared of wrongdoing. Still, the investigation was critical of the chief. The union took a symbolic “no confidence” vote against Daly.
  • STEPS received a series of five annual $125,000 grants, totaling $625,000, from the Office of Drug Control Policy. Southington was one of 161 communities nationwide to receive the grants.
  • A charter revision committee spent a year reviewing potential changes, including the role of the town manager, the budget process, the organization of the Water Department and ethics board.

Education

  • Dr. Harvey Polanski was hired as the successor for retiring school superintendent Dr. Louis Saloom in 2000 after 13 years.
  • Sherri-Lin DiNello was tapped by the BOE to become the school system’s new business manager.
  • Southington High School was shut down one week into the 2000 school year when a fire was discovered in the boiler room and preliminary tests showed the presence of PCBs. The fire started when a motor in the school’s clock system exploded and released the toxins.

The school reopened on Sept. 18, but a portion of the school was closed for good as a result of the spill. Final costs topped $5 million, and the town petitioned the state for help.

  • In October, the BOE accepted the resignation of Joseph Daddio, longtime teacher and basketball coach, on the heels of allegations of misconduct. Southington Police investigated the 7-time state champion coach with letters to over 200 former players. A JFK teacher, Raymond Acey, also resigned facing similar charges.

Business

  • Developer Mat Florian announced the renovations of the former Oxley Drug Building on the corner of Main and Center Streets which was called the ‘cornerstone’ of the downtown renaissance project. The building had been vacant for more than one year.
  • Lake Compounce suffered two more fatalities, a six year old that died when he fell off his tube on Lake Plunge. He did not meet height requirements for the ride. Lake Compounce did not accept liability but changed height requirements for the ride.

Two years later, Lake Compounce settles with OSHA after investigating the death of a park employee. Wilfredo Martinez, 23, was struck during a test run of Boulder Dash.

  • In 2000, Yarde Metals bought the abandoned Pratt & Whitney building at 45 Newell Ave for $7.4 million. The company planned a $7 million, 16-month renovation project.
  • Ideal Forging closes in 2003, and the site would remain vacant for the next 15 years. A plan was proposed in 2007 to develop the property into Greenway Commons, a 263 condominium unit with 15,000 to 30,000 commercial space. The property was highly contaminated, and Meridian’s proposal included $3 to 4 million in cleanup.

The bill was originally lumped into a bill with similar projects in Naugatuck and Norwalk, but the governor vetoed the $20 million cost. Southington formed another bill that was reviewed in 2009, unattached, and it was signed by Governor Jodi Rell.

  • Kmart announced the closing of the Southington store in 2005 because of Chapter 11 reorganization.
  • Residents speak out at a PZC public hearing about a sports complex proposal off Robert Porter Drive. The project never materialized.
  • The town finalized purchase of eight easements to complete the Rails-to-Trails project from the center of Plantsville to Hart Street. Cost to the town for land was $33,000. The project was boosted by a $3.35 million grant as part of the national stimulus package. Schulz Corporation bidded the job at $1.42 million leaving a big surplus for the town.
  • The next phase of the Downtown Renaissance project (2005) is awarded to LaRosa Construction for a bid of $567,000 to renovate Center Street.
  • After years of diligent work with the town, Northstar Properties of New York received permission in 2007 to build a shopping plaza on West Street. Deliberations for the 340,000 square foot plaza and 90 acre building site went on with town officials for the better part of three years. Eventually, Target and Lowe’s moved in as the first tenants.
  • Plantsville Renaissance project begins Phase One with a $60,000 line item in the 2008 budget. The finance board cut the line item, but the council reinstated it. Weston and Sampson offered architectural plans for the renaissance efforts to add sidewalks, trees, lampposts, bollards and benches to the West Main Street area.
  • Town officials reviewed a proposal to open a VIP (Very Intimate Pleasures) in Southington. The permit was given since it complied with town regulations and zoning. A moratorium on sexually oriented businesses was passed, but it was after VIP was issued its permit.

Environment

  • The US Coast Guard excused the town from a $1.8 million bill for the oil contamination of the Quinnipiac River at 53 West main St. More than 900 truckloads of contaminated soil needed to be removed from the site.
  • Residents on Rejean Road filed a lawsuit for unspecified damages caused by the landfill superfund site on Old Turnpike Road. Property owners alleged that because of the town’s negligence, their property had diminished and they suffered physical and emotional distress.
  • In 2007, the town moves ahead with plans to build a $14.5 million denitrification plant to remove nitrogen from sewer water. Southington received a $2.33 million grant for the project.
  • Bear sightings continue to be on the rise on Mt. Vernon Road and Kensington Road.
  • Flooding and sewage backs up on Stonegate Road in 2007, caused by 14 points of infiltration, including cracked pipes, poor connectors, and an unknown structure. Structural deficiencies and debris contributed. The town agreed to pick up the tab for residents after insurance refused to pay and switched carriers. Led to sewer referendum

2010-2015

In 2011, John Weichsel retired after 44 years of service. The town hired Garry Brumback as just the second town manager in Southington’s history.

Government

  • Overnight parking passed, 3-2, in a July vote which included commissioner Mat Florian’s affirmative vote. Town resident Art Cyr filed an ethics complaint since Florian owned a number of downtown businesses. The ethics board sided with Cyr. As a result, the board rescinded their earlier vote.
  • After three town referendums failed, North Center School was sold for $1 to Borghese Building and Engineering in 2011 to renovate the school and lease it back to the town for eight years before offering an option to buy it back. The entire cost was estimated at $6.8 million, but the town will still need a referendum to buy the property back at the end of the lease.

Town officials hoped the move would circumvent the prevailing wage laws, but the CT Dept of Labor said that it was still a municipal project. That increased the costs by almost $500,000.

  • Republicans won a super majority on the council in 2011 and the BOE and maintained control of every major board. The balance of power continued in 2013 and 2015.
  • Fire Chief Harold “Buddy” Clark was investigated by SPD and town hall after a confrontation with volunteer firefighter Steven Bull. Clark was found not guilty of wrongdoing in both investigations.
  • Town council created a subcommittee to decide what to do with former BOE offices at Beecher Street. a dozen residents voiced displeasure of a proposal to sell the property for $220,000 to Beecher Street, LLC.

Under this proposal, members of Beecher Street, LLC, Ralph Monti of Wolcott and William Martin of Watertown, would turn the property into 30 units of affordable housing for senior citizens. Their agent was Louis Martocchio, a Republican member of the Town Council at the time of the proposal. Martocchio recused himself from any Council discussion on the proposal.

Democrats argued that the building could fetch more money because of an appraised value of $802,490. Republicans disagreed because of contamination issues with asbestos and oil. The deal fell through, but in 2014 the town sold the property for $200,000 to Florian Properties.

  • In an effort to reduce costs, the BOE and council moved forward on a plan to install solar panels in a vacant town-owned field next to Hatton School. Residents were outraged and created a Committee to Save Hatton Meadow. The group filed suit against the town which is still being decided in court.

During the the debate, Councilor Tom Lombardi (R) was brought up on ethics charges, led by the Hatton Meadow group and the Democratic party leader that divided the town council about a perceived conflict of interest surrounding votes on the solar panel project.

The Board of Ethics found Lombardi to have violated the code, but the decision was vacated during a controversial appeal where Democrats walked out. The ethics issue was a main part of the 2013 election rhetoric, but Republicans swept every board in a lopsided election.

Education

  • A referendum passed an $85 million proposal to renovate the two town middle schools. The project was approved by a 2-1 margin. The project hit a slew of expensive complications which required another referendum in March 2013. The orginal $85 million project needed an additional $4 million.

The project included new media centers, 10 new classrooms, a new main office, and separate rooms for band and chorus practice in the back of the auditorium. The old media center will turn into two new art classrooms, and there was an upgrade in technology.

The project finished just before the 2015 school year.

  • In 2013, the BOE implemented a full-day kindergarten to allow for a more extensive curriculum.
  • In 2015, Southington High School graduated 100 percent of their students, a significant achievement.

Business

  • After years of advocates from youth leagues, the town agreed to build an artificial turf field at the high school. The board voted unanimously to pay for the expenditure through bonding $960,000, but the Board of Finance proposed using $609,642 from the self insurance account savings and $310,358 from the contingency fund. The BOE contributed $40,000.
  • After almost a year of advocacy, Southington Community Cultural Arts (SCCA) was given approval by the Town Council to begin the early stages of their plans for an arts center at the Gura Building in September. The SCCA had to document that they had $100,000 available for operating costs, and the town agreed to lease the building for $1 per year for 20 years.
  • The YMCA expanded by purchasing neighboring properties—hitting a snag with one of the buidings was deemed historical—and expanded the pool, the parking lots, and converted former bank to new office building to create a downtown campus.
  • A Hartford Superior Court Judge ruled in March that longtime caretaker Samuel Manzo is the rightful heir to the Smoron estate. Valley Spring Farm was owned by the Smoron family for decades and ownership has been in dispute since the death of Josephine Smoron in 2009.

Court appointed lawyer John Nugent drew up two trusts for the land. The trust was contested by three area churches that had agreed with developer Carl Verderame Jr. for the construction of an ice hockey rink with proceeds benefiting the churches. Probate judge Brian Meccariello was censured for handling the estate in 2010, and the Statewide Grievance Committee ruled that Nugent violated ethics laws.

  • In 2015, the State Bond Commission approved a $725,000 grant for the nonprofit Bread for Life to buy land and build a 3,200-square-foot building on Vermont Street.
  • Bradley Hospital merged with Hartford Healthcare to form the Hospital of Central Connecticut. In 2014, Hartford Healthcare proposed a number of changes to the Southington campus. Fears of closing and loss of the hospital’s emergency services and beds led to a grassroots movement, the Community Committee to Save Bradley, which protested with a rally outside the hospital. Eventually Hartford Healthcare committed to the local hospital.

Environment

  • The Town Council unanimously selected National Water Main Cleaning Company to enact sewer improvements in the Stonegate Road area. The $168,000 will come out of the town’s sewer fund after residents suffered three sewage backups in a five year period.
  • The council reached a final decision on Sewer Assessment 34 in 2012, and the town spent $475,000 to offset the massive cost burden on the residents involved. It refers to 3 projects completed in 2009, including a section of West Street, a neighborhood on Williamsburg Drive, and a series of small streets, including Annelise Avenue, Skyline Drive, Cedar Drive and Reussner Road.
  • For $50,000 council expects to upgrade denitrification plant to include phosphorus, but changes in state regulations forced the town to consider a new building at $20-30 million in capital costs and $500,000 per year to maintain the facility. DEEP and the town are considering both options.

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