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A look back at New Canaan's 2012

Published 5:04 pm, Wednesday, December 26, 2012

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  • Former New Canaan First Selectman Jeb Walker announced he will return the excess payments he received through the town's pension plan. Photo: File Photo
    Former New Canaan First Selectman Jeb Walker announced he will return the excess payments he received through the town's pension plan. Photo: File Photo

 

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Potential scandal, 80-mph winds and serious crime -- New Canaan saw all those and more in 2012. Here's a look back at the year:

Jeb Walker's pension

A mistake that originated with Gary Conrad, the town's former Chief Financial Officer, sent the administration into a tailspin when officials realized that former First Selectman Jeb Walker was receiving a higher pension amount than allowed. The error was found by the finance department after Conrad left and new CFO Dawn Norton assumed the job. A fix -- to adjust the town vesting period -- was put on the Board of Finance agenda by First Selectman Rob Mallozzi and passed unanimously. The Town Council subsequently passed the amendment in a 6-4 vote in July. This normally sedate community was in an uproar, with some people calling the vesting adjustment cronyism, some wanting a criminal investigation and others being simply disappointed.

In the end, the indiscretion amounted to just more than $4,000.

After Walker returned the money, nearly every member of the Town Council who had voted in the affirmative regretted his or her vote, and Mallozzi ordered a probe of the situation by an outside law firm, which determined that the Walker and Conrad had acted against the town's code of ethics.

But whether the actions were criminal was uncertain. The town's pension committee was tasked with deciding whether or not to pass the issue along to law enforcement.

In an executive session, the committee opted not to pursue the issue with law enforcement since Walker reimbursed the town.

Sandy sweeps through

Hurricane Sandy, or Superstorm Sandy, (depending on who is talking) whipped through New Canaan in late October, leaving behind nearly 6,000 tons of debris and incapacitating much of the town for as many as 10 days as electricity was slowly restored.

More than 130 streets were blocked due to downed trees and wires the morning after the storm. More than 70 percent of homes were without power, though many had generators. At one point during the heart of the storm, firefighters could not make it back to the station because of impassable roads and had to stay the night in the barn offices of Grace Farms in the northern reaches of town.

There was little major damage to New Canaan, however. There were no fatalties and no major structure fires, but some houses were victims of falling trees and limbs. The Office of Emergency Management, which handled all of the storm preparation and response under Michael Handler, received rave reviews from townspeople and officials alike.

Jelliff Mill

Project nixed

The proposed three-building, 16-unit housing complex at 41 and 47 Jelliff Mill Road was rejected by the Planning and Zoning in June for not having applied for a flood plain management permit. The Jelliff Mill complex was to have included five units of affordable housing, which would have allowed it to avoid some of the town's other zoning ordinances.

The project was met with swift and strong opposition by neighbors and townspeople, who objected to a multifamily development in a single-family neighborhood and who thought it would increase traffic in the area.

Town Hall on the move

Years in the offing, Town Hall will be heavily renovated, with nearly all of it being torn down and rebuilt in the next two to three years. The quaint New England Town Hall now stands empty for the first time since its construction in 1909.

The facade of the building will remain, but the rest of the structure will be demolished and rebuilt as a new, spacious, more energy-efficient work and public meeting space. The total cost of the project is expected to between $12 million and $14 million.

The project has been met with some resistance by members of preservation groups, though complaints are more about specifics of what is removed and less about whether the project ought to be done.

For now, the various town departments have been split between occupying the police station and an office space on Elm Street next to Walter Stewart's Market.

Changing of the guard

When longtime state Rep. John Hetherington announced he would not be seeking re-election to the 125th General Assembly District, the race was wide open.

Hetherington served in the state Legislature from 2002 to 2012, and previously was a member of New Canaan's Town Council from 1989 to 1997. Hetherington, with his signature bow tie, is easily recognized around town and enjoys a good reputation.

He will be replaced by Republican Town Councilman Tom O'Dea, who defeated Democrat Mark Robbins in November's election.

During the campaign, O'Dea said he would try to carry on where Hetherington left off. On election night, Hetherington watched the returns at Republican Headquarters. He said he thought O'Dea, "will do a great job."

Home invasion and other crime

In early August, a home on Ponus Ridge Road was invaded by intruders, who reportedly threatened the homeowner with a gun and made off with about $14,000 in silver before police arrived.

At the end of October, three men were apprehended for burglaries all over New York and Connecticut. The men were caught in a police sting on Interstate 287, in which one of the men was shot. It was later learned that some members of the trio had ties to the 1960s-era burglary crew called the "Dinner Set Gang," which robbed waterfront homes of the Long Island Sound at dinnertime.

Later in September, resident James Owen murdered his wife, Billie Falgout-Owen, and then shot himself in their Park Street condominium.

Brianna McEwan

In March, 16-year-old Brianna McEwan of New Canaan struck and killed 44-year-old Kenneth Dorsey with her SUV while the man jogged on Route 123 in New Canaan. An investigation determined that McEwan had been driving and surfing the Internet at the time of the accident.

In October, a plea deal was reached that would give McEwan under Connecticut's youthful offender program. The program for teenage, first-time offenders seals their cases from public view.

The McEwan case has brought an increased awareness of the dangers of distracted driving in the community.

Mysterious Huguette Clark mansion

The multimillion-dollar 52-acre estate of reclusive Gilded Age heiress Huguette Clark captured the attention of many. In October, it was reported that a legal battle over the estate has begun between distant family members and the heiress' charities and legal team. The heiress' total wealth is about $300 million.

In November, it was reported that a group of neighbors may be trying to put up the $15.9 million to buy the property in order to maintain it as a nature preserve.

The plan would be to donate the house and land to the Weston-based nonprofit Wildlife in Crisis, which rehabilitates injured animals. The group would use the property as a place to release the wildlife; the neighbors would maintain a serene park as a neighbor, instead of 10 new houses, which would be allowed under zoning approval.

Farewell, Bradford 5

The "Bradford 5" was what the five old pear trees came to be known during the debate over removing them. The trees came down in the early October in a fog so thick you almost couldn't see the spaces left by the trees that had stood there since the 1960s. Their date with destiny was met by opposition by some in town, but Tree Warden Bruce Pauley deemed the trees, which have had heavy limbs fall off in windstorms, too dangerous to remain. The trees missed what would have been their biggest test; less than four weeks after the trees were removed, New Canaan was struck with the more than 80-mph wind gusts of Hurricane Sandy.

Robert Jansen remembered

New Canaan born and raised Robert Jansen died on Aug. 25 in a rock slide atop a mountain in Colorado while hiking. "He's one of those people that you're lucky a little bit of him rubs off on you," his friend said at the time. Jansen's family recalled his excitement from a young age about hiking and the outdoors, the feeling of freedom and awe that he felt on the summit of a mountain. Robert and the family summited Mount Washington when he was only 7 years old.

Robert Jansen's 24-year life spanned many places -- from suburban New Canaan to snowy summers in Canada; to the majestic peak of Grand Teton, Wy., overlooking Yellowstone; the rugged acme of Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; to the snow-capped summits of Mount Shasta and Mount Whitney in California; to the wild reaches of America's great spinal column, the Rocky Mountain chain of Colorado.

Robert lived on top of the world.

"The Year in Review" was compiled by New Canaan News Staff Reporter Tyler Woods. twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews