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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Westport 2015 Year in Review: A Year of Change

By James Lomuscio

As the New Year is ushered in on Friday, it seems that ringing out the old and ringing in the new in Westport could not have more relevance and bittersweet poignancy.

WestportNow Year in Review 2015

From the loss of beloved citizens to the moving on of equally beloved town employees and educators to last calls at landmark restaurants to the loss of a longtime, after school bus service and the shooting down of a seven-year planned senior housing complex, the town had more than its share of change.

At the same time, there were a number of new beginnings, including the reopening of the historic Saugatuck Congregational Church to the start of the Bedford Square project to the completion and initial undertaking of a Downtown Master Plan.

As always, change is inevitable, even in the land of steady habits; however, in Westport the changes always seem to be tempered with deference to the town’s historic character.

Following is a look back at 2015, a year that brought surprises, some sorrows and fanfare, as well as contentiousness and congeniality—all of it a wild ride fueled by a passion that is distinctly Westport.

Westport Inn Sold, High Rise Housing Threat Gone

In late 2014 and early 2015, the specter of 8-30g, the state’s affordable housing statute, loomed large over town. Westport Inn owner Sheldon Stein proposed a five-story, 200-unit rental apartment complex on the site.

Stein had planned to use 8-30g to circumvent the town’s zoning regulations since the town did not have 10 percent of its housing stock qualify as affordable. WestportNow.com Image
Westport Inn owner Sheldon Stein, seen in this 2010 photo, sold the property for $14.5 million. He bought it in 2007 for $13.1 million and put in $2.5 million in improvements. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) James Lomuscio for WestportNow.com

But in early March, First Selectman Jim Marpe announced that the threat was over as the inn had changed hands, selling for $14.5 million to a Stamford-based real estate investment group that planned to maintain it as an inn.

The sale to Building and Land Technology (BLT) was announced on March 5 by the real estate investor, developer and operator.  Marpe’s administration helped to arrange the sale.

“I reached out to a number of sources I thought might be capable of purchasing The Westport Inn, and that included BLT,” he said.

Saugatuck Congregational Reopens

Gutted by a fire on Nov. 20, 2011, the 181-year-old Saugatuck Congregational Church finally reopened and was rededicated March 8 after more than four years of planning, insurance claims and fundraising. 

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Members of the Westport Fire Department received a standing ovation at the Saugatuck Congregational Church rededication service. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

The ceremony drew hundreds to the church sanctuary, which had sustained minor damage, for a multi-town celebration replete with singing, prayers and speeches on important role of the church in the town’s history.

John Walsh, chairman of the Saugatuck Church Building Committee, thanked the community for its support, recalling how Temple Israel and Christ & Holy Trinity Church had opened their doors for Saugatuck to hold its services and community events.

Always Joyful, John Izzo, 71

Lifetime Westporter John J. Izzo, Sr., the garrulous, joyful, backslapping cheerleader for his family, hometown and friends, the guy who never shied away from picking up the other’s tabs at restaurants and bars, a former town selectman, inventor and entrepreneur, died at Norwalk Hospital March 14 after a three-month battle with heart disease exacerbated by diabetes. He was 71.

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When John Izzo lost to Gordon Joseloff and Shelly Kassen in 2005, he brought champagne to Democratic Party headquarters to toast them. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Emily Laux for WestportNow.com

“He lived life, the whole 71 years of it,” his brother Anthony Joseph (A.J.), 77, said.

“He went out doing what he wanted to do, being with his family, his wife Joan, his two boys and his grandchildren. “He just basically enjoyed every day of his life, and he did it his way.”

Izzo, an avid golfer at Longshore Club Park and a regular at Mario’s Place and occasionally the Black Duck for its “clam jam,” was number 12 of 13 children who grew up on Izzo Lane off Richmondville Avenue.

His parents James and Angelina (DiDomenico) Izzo, settled in Westport in 1912. He often said that his parents instilled in him great passion for family, his heritage and being American.

Renowned Illustrator Walt Reed, 97

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Walt Reed in his studio in the 1960s. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Walt Reed, once described as the founding father of the study of American illustration as well as its chief archivist and its patron saint, died at his Saugatuck home on March 20. He was 97.

Reed started Illustration House, Inc. in 1973 in Westport. His son Roger Reed now operates it at 34 W. 27th St. in Manhattan. For decades, the New York gallery was the nation’s premier advocate for illustration art.

In addition to hosting exhibitions, the Reeds staged twice-yearly auctions and helped pioneer what has become a thriving market for original works of illustration.

Mario’s Place Says Goodbye

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It was a busy last lunch at Mario’s Place.. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Mario’s Place, the popular Saugatuck Italian restaurant and steak house since 1967, had its last day on April 4.

The legendary Railroad Place eatery owned by the DeMace family closed that night.

A new restaurant named Harvest, a farm-to-table restaurant concept, will open there in late January, one of the owners said.

P&Z Shoots Down Senior Housing on Baron’s South

After seven years of planning, town approvals and engaging a developer, plans for a senior housing facility of 3.3 acres on the 22-acre town-owned Baron’s South property hit a dead end March 19 when the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) approved a map amendment declaring all of Baron’s South open space.

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Stephen Daniels and Marty Hauhuth co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for WestportNow.com

On April 29, a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) motion to overturn the P&Z came up short by four votes of the two thirds majority needed on the 36-member legislative body.

The next day, the Baron’s South Committee disbanded.

“There are lots of emotions, and we are extremely disappointed,” said Stephen Daniels, who had co-chaired the committee with Martha Hauhuth, a former first selectman.

“We worked hard, and nobody knows how much work we put into this project and how good it would have been for the community.”

The issue became a flashpoint for the November election, as senior housing proponents supported Democrat Paul Lebowitz to wrest control of the P&Z from the Republican majority. Lebowitz won, and the Democrats gained the majority.

But it appeared more of a de jure instead of de facto majority as Democrat Alan Hodge, who abstained from the Baron’s South vote, nominated Republican Chip Stephens to continue as chairman following the election.

Police Investigate ‘White Lives Matter’ Flyers

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This flyer was found on a driveway on Compo Road South. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jaime Bairaktaris for WestportNow.com

Westport Police in early May began investigating the distribution of flyers stating “white lives matter” in Compo Road South and Roseville Road driveways.

Police Chief Call said that while it was not bias crime, he wanted to know who is behind them “to determine what the motivation is.”

“The question is, ‘Why are they trying to make that statement?’ ” Call said. “It is clearly alarming to Westporters from what’s on social media, but we don’t have anybody coming to us.”

Town officials found it so alarming that First Selectman Jim Marpe contacted TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multi-culturalism) Westport, and the group issued a joint statement with clergy, educators and town agencies the following week.

TEAM Westport also hosted community conversations on race relations following the incident.

The flyers’ statement appears a racial flip on the “black lives matter” slogan chanted during demonstrations and riots.

Library Honors Lynsey Addario’s Bravery, Commitment

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Lynsey Addario acccepts her BOOKED for the Evening award from Maxine Bleiweis, Library executive director, and Michael Guthman, board president. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for WestportNow.com

Westporter Lynsey Addario, the 1991 Staples High School graduate whose passion for photography began at age 8 with a hand-me-down camera, later becoming an award-winning combat zone photojournalist in the Middle East and Africa—even surviving a 2011 Libyan capture and sustained beatings—was honored May 9 at the Westport Library’s BOOKED for the Evening gala.

Family, friends and colleagues were among the hundreds who packed the library’s main floor to celebrate the local woman who donned a burka after the Sept. 11 attacks to penetrate the closed world of Taliban women, photographing and interviewing them, and later oppressed women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Dafur and Iraq.

Ivan Watson, CNN senior international correspondent who grew up locally, was one of the many who praised Addario’s courage and commitment to exposing human rights violations and the horrors of war.

Landon Leaving After 17 Years

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Elliott Landon: “... that (retirement) time has come for me.” Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon, who has headed the Westport Public Schools for 16 years, announced May 12 that he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

“It was a very difficult decision to make,” said Landon, 75, who has spent 39 years at the helm of school districts in New York and Connecticut.

In a letter to the community, Landon said that there comes “a time in the life of every successful superintendent ...to let someone else take the reins of leadership, and that time has come for me.”

“I invested a incredible amount of time to trying to making this the best school system any place,” he said in an interview following the announcement.

“I hired every administrator who’s in the district, and I have an incredible amount of respect for them and really a love for them. You can’t do this kind of work alone.

“And I’ve hired most of the teachers,” he added. “We put together a tremendous team of teachers, administrators and support staff, and I’m just going to miss being with them every day.”

Landon, who will retire at the end of his school board contract, is the highest paid schools superintendent in Connecticut, with a $292,000 annual salary.

On Dec. 12 after a several month national search, the school board announced that Colleen Palmer, superintendent of schools in Weston, would replace Landon. The board plans to make the appointment official in January

Bleiweis Retires, Harmer Takes Reins

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Maxine Bleiweis: decision “difficult one.” Contributed photo

Maxine Bleiweis, credited with bringing the Westport Library into the 21st century after taking the helm as executive director in 1998, stunned her fans in January when she announced in a formal letter to the library’s Board of Trustees that she would retire July 1.

“I’ve been doing this for 41 years and have been here for 17, and I feel this institution has never been at a stronger point and with a fantastic staff,” said Bleiweis, a Black Rock, Bridgeport resident who directed libraries in Newington and Suffield before coming to Westport.

“It’s sort of like being a marathoner in a relay,” she added. “You want to hand off that baton in a time of strength.”

The baton was passed to William Harmer, director of the Chelsea Library in Chelsea, Mich. He took the reins this summer, promising to keep the library on the cusp of innovation.

Staples Dodig Retires, Interim Karagus Steps In

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Interim Staples Principal Mark W. Karagus:“I’ve made a pretty good dent introducing myself,”  (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

With loads of fanfare and accolades, John Dodig, the beloved Staples High School principal for 11 years, retired in June.

Since Dodig announced his retirement early in the school year, the administration was hard pressed to find a replacement. Two of the finalists drooped out, one of them Shelly Somers, a Greenwich middle school principal.

She declined the offer the day after she met with Staples community members in May, telling Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon she planned to remain in Greenwich.

Landon responded by looking for a one-year interim principal while the board continued its search. Interim John Karagus came on board July 1. His contract runs through June 30, 2016. Karagus previously served as interim principal of Stamford’s Trinity Catholic High School.

Prior to that post, he spent 37 years in education, most recently as principal of Norwalk High School from 2002 through 2013. He was also principal of Warren G. Harding High School in Bridgeport, his alma mater, and principal of that city’s Blackburn Middle School. 

Activists Arrested at Temple Israel

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Daniel Fischer (l) and Gregory Williams. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

In mid-May two unarmed activists shouting pro-Palestinian messages disrupted a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)  luncheon at Westport’s Temple Israel. Some luncheon attendees fled in panic.

Known New Haven activists Daniel Fischer, 25, and Gregory Williams, 25, were detained by staff and arrested by police. They faced charges of criminal trespass first-degree and breach of peace second-degree.

The incident resulted in nearby Coleytown Middle and Elementary Schools as well as the temple’s nursery school and the pre-school at the Unitarian Church being placed on lockdown for about 45 minutes.

Digging In at Bedford Square

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The groundbreaking marked the official start of construction on the $100 million project. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

The official groundbreaking for the $100 million Bedford Square Project set to transform Westport’s downtown town was held June 2.

The Church Lane development scheduled for completion in early 2017 will comprise 110,000 square feet retail, restaurant and residential space.

David Waldman, principal of Bedford Square associates whose vision for the project began more 10 years ago, said the result will be a “Golden Triangle” made up of Main Street, Church Lane and Elm Street.

“Today almost feels like a birthday,” Waldman said, noting that his 11-year-old son had just been born when he began planning.

He thanked town officials for their support. Current First Selectman Jim Marpe credited his predecessor, Gordon Joseloff for guiding the project through town approvals during his administration.

FBI’s Comey Addresses GFA Grads

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FBI Director James B. Comey, a Westport resident from 2010 until earlier this year, addresses the Greens Farms Academy graduation. (See video here) (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Westport’s history of national prominence was evident June 4 when FBI Director James B. Comey took to the podium as keynote speaker at Greens Farms Academy’s (GFA) 90th commencement.

The now former Westport resident offered the graduates and their family members and friends a very human and often humorous address from the nation’s most revered, if not feared, law enforcement official.

His message to the 78 graduates, including his daughter Claire Collin Comey, who has chaired GFA’s student council, was about the four key ingredients to success that had nothing to do with “making a lot of dough,” high achievements or a high IQ.

Success lies in having a life “of joy and meaning,” Comey said.

According to Comey, the first step toward success is to develop “high emotional intelligence ...stepping outside yourself to connect with others.”

“You will do nothing alone in life,” Comey, a former Manhattan U.S. Attorney and later house counsel for Westport’s Bridgewater Associates before being sworn in as FBI director in 2013,  advised the graduates.

End of Line for After School Bus Service

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The Westport Transit District co-directors hope the town and Board of Education can find a way to retain the service. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

The Westport Transit District’s (WTD) more than 30-year-old after-school bus service came to a grinding halt June 15.

“There’s nothing at this point,” said Jennifer Johnson, WTD co-director with Eugene Cederbaum. “It’s going away. It’s very sad.”

The service—which provided about 5,000 rides this year to elementary and middle school children attending after-school activities—had been on borrowed time since July 2014.

That was when the from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) said the afterschool service was out of compliance with the Norwalk Transit District’s (NTA), which runs the WTA, charter.

With prodding from local, state and national leaders, the WTD received a six-month extension in the fall, an extension renewed for the spring semester, to find alternatives.

jUNe Day’s Golden Anniversary

Westport on June 27 marked its 50th jUNe Day, a world-comes-to Westport event celebrating the United Nations and providing a day of rest, relaxation, and a touch of hometown America for U.N. member families.

As many of the 193 U.N. member flags colorfully billowed under cloudy skies on Westport’s Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge—named after the late Westporter who organized the first jUNe Day in 1965. A welcoming ceremony was held in the nearby Saugatuck Elementary School cafeteria.

There, scores of U.N. delegates, staff and their families, many arriving on an early morning train from Grand Central Terminal, gathered for a breakfast and anniversary ceremony prior to the annual day of cultural and recreational events throughout town.

Activities included trips to downtown, Compo Beach, Longshore Club Park, and Earthplace as well as a soccer match, Westport vs. U.N.

McCarthy Retires, Fava Fills Shoes

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Jen Fava: held P&R position in North Hempstead. Contributed photo
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Stuart McCarthy: saw big changes here. Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Stuart S. McCarthy, Westport Parks and Recreation director since 1989, announced in April that he would retire at the end of the fiscal year June 30. He left Westport to take over as Parks and Recreation director in Trumbull.

McCarthy said he was “proud of the legacy I am leaving behind.”

After a several-month search, First Selectman Jim Marpe announced on Aug. 10 that Jennifer A. Fava was chosen for the $120,000 a year post from among 50 applicants.

Most recently, Fava served for three years as the commissioner of Parks and Recreation in the town of North Hempstead in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

In her previous job, Fava oversaw a work force of 385 full- and part-time employees and an operating budget three times larger than Westport’s Parks & Recreation budget, Marpe said.

A Bridge Repair Too Far Off

The Connecticut Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) repair of the North Avenue bridge spanning the Merritt Parkway was supposed to be completed before school began in late August.

It still is not completed as engineers claim more degradation in the 1939-built, art deco bridge that handles 1,200 vehicles a day.

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Construction workers on the North Avenue Bridge over the Merritt Parkway before work was halted in September. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Since late August, the best bridge CDOT bridge workers could do was to have one lane open, first with traffic officers at each end, and later a traffic light was installed.

Initially, it was thought that only minor repairs, filling in hollows along the walls and deck would be needed; however, engineers found more degradation than expected, CDOT engineers said.

Chowdafest Returns to Westport

Chowdafest, the annual chowder competition featuring restaurants throughout New England, returned to Westport Sunday, Oct. 11, drawing thousands to the East Beach at Sherwood Island State Park.

Begun in the Westport Unitarian Church on Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, the event grew over the years, moving to the Bedford Middle School cafeteria, the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, and in 2014, Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk.

YMCA Buys Red Barn for $2.8 million

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The former Red Barn Restaurant is part of a “long term strategic plan.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

After 30 years of being operated by the Nistico family, the iconic Red Barn Restaurant closed down in July.

On Nov. 9 the building and its 3.2-acre property off the Merrritt Parkway’s Exit 41 were purchased by the Westport Weston Family YMCA as part of a “long term strategic plan,” according to Pat Riemersma, YMCA CEO.

YMCA officials said the Red Barn property at 292 Wilton Road would be added to the nonprofit’s contiguous 34-acre Mahackeno site.

The YMCA bought the Red Barn for $2.8 million, according to the Town Clerk’s Office.

Murdered Couple Memorialized

The Easton couple whose disappearance Aug. 7 ended when their remains were found outside an abandoned home in Weston Oct. 30 were memorialized Dec. 12 at the United Methodist Church of Westport and Weston.

Jeffrey Navin, 56, was the president of J&J Refuse in Westport, and Jeanette Navin, 55, was a Weston school paraprofessional. The couple had lived in Weston for 20 years before selling their home and moving into a rental house in Easton in July.

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This much published photo of Jeffrey and Jeanette Navin was prominently mentioned at the memorial service. Contributed photo

The more than 300 who had gathered at the service heard about how the Navins, described as active church members and community volunteers, lived.

Jeff, as all called him, was characterized as the big hearted, wise cracking, sometimes filterless friend who was always ready to lend a hand, only to have the recipient pay for it in terms of good natured sarcasm.

Jeannette, friends said, was the quiet, reserved one, a great cook and a creative gardener who did a lot of good deeds under the radar, from walking dogs at the Westport Animal Shelter to working with Jeff to buy Christmas presents for the children of a woman who had just died.

Their older son Kyle Navin, 27, who worked at the refuse business is charged with their murder. His girlfriend Jennifer A. Valiante, 31, of Westport has been charged with conspiracy to do murder.

The state police Western District Major Crime unit says Kyle Navin’s heroin habit had jumped from $140 a day to $600 a day in weeks prior to the murder. That information came from a confidential informant described as a drug dealer.

Other Transitions

Other transitions during the year included Peter J. D’Amico, the town’s animal control officer since 1989, turning in his badge and leash and retiring at age 80. Gina Gambino, with experience in similar posts in Fairfield and Bridgeport, succeeded him.

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Pete D’Amico: “I’m over 80, and my wife wants me home.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

There was also the retirement of Marty Hauhuth, former Westport First Selectwoman, as executive director of Westport-based nonprofit counseling center Positive Directions since 1991. She was replaced by Basil Hero.

The Westport Arts Center named Cynthia Armijo of Weston as its new executive director, taking over from Peter Van Heerden, who served almost three years.

Also at the Arts Center, Helen Klisser During, its artistic director, announced her departure after six years to pursue other opportunities. She took with her the honorary title of artistic director emeritus.

At the Westport Weston Family YMCA, Patricia Riemersma took over as executive director, replacing Rob Reeves, who left the post after serving since January 2009.

At the Westport Country Playhouse, Michael Ross, managing director since January 2009, announced he will leave the position and rejoin the Center Stage in Baltimore, Md. as managing director on July 1 where he previously served in that role from 2002 to 2008.

The Westport Representative Town Meeting (RTM) lost one of its longest serving members in the November election when Lois Schine, an 18-year veteran, was not re-elected in District 8.

And the Rev. John T. Morehouse was installed as the fifth settled minister at The Unitarian Church of Westport. He took over from the Rev. Frank Hall who retired in 2013 after 29 years. Hall holds the honorary title of minister emeritus.

Westport landmarks gone in 2015 include the Weeks Pavilion on Church Lane, a 39-year-old structure that served as part of the Westport Weston Family YMCA; also, Geiger’s Garden Center, 1135 Post Road East. The family-owned business at the 2.5-acre property since 1953 was sold to make way for a housing and retail redevelopment.

Other Westport longtime retailers shutting in 2015 included Silver of Westport, The Textiles Store, Villarina Pasta, and Jewelry by Sara Kennedy Cellar Workshop.

Other Deaths

Other notable 2015 deaths included John Simon, Susan Malloy, Katie Chase, Ken Alexander, Virginia Parker, Dora Stuttman, Connie Anstett, Venora Ellis, Esta Burroughs, Joyce Clarke, Herb and Lou Barrett, Christopher Lemone, William Raines, Kenneth F. Spigarolo, Sr., Jean Hampe, and Nita Cohen.

(Editor’s Note: Look for the WestportNow 2015 Year in Pictures on New Year’s Day.)

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Posted 12/31/15 at 07:30 AM



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