Top 10 stories of 2017: Start times, stolen cars, and ‘Say no’

In less than two short days, 2017 will come to an end.

With its closure, Ridgefield will say farewell to a year that gave the town — and its many residents — plenty to celebrate, including the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgefield (which drew thousands of people downtown in April) and the solar eclipse (which drew arguably even more folks to the village on Aug. 21).

It was also a year that came with many headaches. Cars were stolen, budgets were cut, and summer concerts in the park created a parking problem.

Here’s a list of The Ridgefield Press’s most popular, and controversial, stories from the contentious year that was 2017:

  1.  ‘We don’t want you here.’ The top headline of The Press’s Jan. 5 edition — the first paper of the year — reverberated throughout 2017. Two weeks later, the Ridgefield Neighborhood Preservation Alliance (RNPA) won its battle against Mountainside when the Canaan-based drug addiction treatment company decided to remove its proposal for a rehab center at 162 Old West Mountain Road (the historic Sunset Hall). Petitioning against commercial development in residentially zoned areas became a common theme. In March, Peaceable Street neighbors opposed a proposed skate club at the former Pinchbeck property, located at 340 Peaceable Street, wearing pins that read, “Say No to Skate Club.” Opponents soon branded themselves as the Peaceable Neighbors Alliance (PNA), and started an online petition on June 12. Sixteen days later, on June 28, the PNA submitted an application to the Planning and Zoning Commission to remove “private clubs” as permitted uses by special permit in residentially  zoned land. That effort failed on Sept. 19 when the commission voted 8-1 to deny the amendment after several public hearings. It wasn’t the last time the commission would be faced with neighborhood discord. An application for a two-room bed-and-breakfast on Circle Drive — Front Porch Farms — created yet another zoning controversy, with the Circle Drive Neighbors Alliance (CDNA) protesting Cathy and Tom Savoca’s proposal from July 27 through the week after Election Day. Signs and petitions were once again employed in the fight, which saw the RNPA and PNA unite with the CDNA. However, the joint effort proved futile, as the commission approved the plans on Nov. 14 after three public hearings. In total, the three alliances — and the applications they were protesting — were responsible for 19 front-page stories in 2017.
  2. Anti-semitism and racism escalate. What started out as a year of hope and sensitivity, with Ridgefielders organizing and participating in the Women’s March on Washington in January and hosting a vigil to protest President Donald Trump’s refugee ban two weeks later, quickly decayed into 12 months of bigotry and volatility. The Press ran a total of 11 front-page stories in 2017 pertaining to racist and anti-Semitic markings found either at Ridgefield High School or in Ballard Park. The first one came in the April 6 edition, following the March 27 discovery of a swastika and a racial slur etched into the ground of the RHS tennis courts. A “Peace Out” event April 3 inspired students to write phrases of tolerance and draw symbols of equality in chalk on the sidewalks outside the high school. The messages washed away, with hate rearing its ugly head several more times in the summer and fall. Most recently, The Press reported on a SnapChat video, featuring a white teenager made up in blackface, that made the social media rounds at the high school in November. “I’d say about 15% of the students at RHS think the N-word is just another word,” said Lashawnna Mullins, a freshman who attends RHS as part of the A Better Chance program. “We must hope and work for a brighter future when ignorance has been replaced by knowledge, bigotry replaced by love and caring,” said Rabbi David Reiner after anti-Semitic graffiti was found in Ballard Park on June 14.
  3.  Bridge woes. While zoning petitions and anti-Semitic symbols sent shock waves throughout town, there was nothing that generated more front-page headlines (23 in total) and ignited more fury among Press readers than the dueling state projects on Route 7 and Route 35 that created long lines of traffic throughout the summer and into the fall. The weekend-long Route 7 bridge work closed part of the state highway, detouring tens of thousands of cars through the village between Friday night and Monday morning, and took six weekends in total, spanning from June to October, to complete the project. But at least it did get finished, unlike its Route 35 counterpart, which still saw alternating one-way traffic as late as Dec. 4. The good news? After two years of cars and trucks lined up, traffic began flowing in both directions across the new $3.2-million Route 35 bridge on Nov. 18. The bad? The project isn’t completely done. “Lane closures will be required through the winter [of 2018], but we will work with the contractor to minimize those as much as possible,” said John Dunham, district engineer with the state Department of Transportation.
  4. Stolen cars. Neighborhood unrest wasn’t the only headline from The Press’s Jan. 5 edition that echoed throughout 2017. In that week’s paper, Ridgefield police announced investigations into a pair of attempted vehicle break-ins that happened in the Ridgebury area Jan. 2. It was the beginning of what would seem like a never-ending series of car thefts — there were 15 in total this year, 13 more than 2016. Among the reported stolen cars were a Porsche (stolen from Haviland Road in January), an Audi A6 (stolen from Hessian Drive in September), and an Audi S5 (stolen from Barrack Hill Road in November).
  5. Hulda Lane shooting. The car thefts would take a violent turn in the early hours of June 5, when a 15-year-old Waterbury girl was shot in the back after trying to steal a car that was parked in the driveway at 28 Hulda Lane. A two-month investigation concluded on Aug. 21 with the arrest of the homeowner, Mauro Tropeano, 33, who was charged with assault in the second degree and unlawful discharge of a firearm. Tropeano, who posted a $100,000 bond, was additionally charged interfering with an officer and “illegal sale, distribution, manufacture/non-drug dependent person” after a search warrant of the residence uncovered more than seven pounds of marijuana, a large quantity of steroids, steroid-related items, more than $28,000 in cash, and multiple firearms. Tropeano pled not guilty to all the charges in September and awaits his next trial date. The girl, who was treated for the gunshot wound at Waterbury Hospital in June, was arrested for conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree on Aug. 21. A 16-year-old Waterbury girl was also charged with conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree, according to Capt. Jeff Kreitz. An investigation determined that “the juveniles were part of a group of individuals attempting to steal a vehicle from Mr. Tropeano’s driveway.” The group — or “gang” — is suspected to be responsible for a majority of the attempted, and successful, car thefts in Ridgefield throughout the year. The shooting and the thefts combined for 12 front-page stories this year.
  6. School start times. The health of Ridgefield students, some waking up as early as 5:30 a.m. to get ready to catch their school bus, was first raised in the fall of 2016. However, much of the legwork from the Board of Education was conducted in 2017, with several public hearings held, multiple subcommittees formed and four start-time options sent out to parents, students, and faculty through surveys this fall. “We will not be getting more sleep from delaying start times,” Sophia Haber, an RHS junior, told the school board a week before the final decision was made. “Rushing and pushing an agenda of later start times for Ridgefield High School is not the best answer for our district or our town,” added Clarice Shirvell, a parent. Their opposition fell on deaf ears. Despite “no change” being the most popular response among surveyed stakeholders, the board decided in October to approve later school start times — a change that will be implemented in the 2019-20 school year.
  7.  History-making Tigers. RHS wasn’t always in the news for controversial reasons in 2017. The school’s athletes brought home a pair of state championships this year — a Division 1 title in boys hockey in March, and a Class LL championship in girls soccer in November. Both titles were the first state championships for the respective programs. They weren’t the only ones making history. The boys basketball team won its first-ever FCIAC championship in March with a 68-64 double overtime win over archrival Wilton.
  8. Wild horses. Three horses being kept on an acre of Manor Road property received front-page coverage in the March 9 edition of The Press — the first of five stories about a proposed “horse ordinance” that aimed to change the town’s zoning regulations when it came to livestock. The matter, which went in front of the selectmen a half-dozen times over nine months and caused enough of a stir to warrant a committee of people on both sides of the issue, was resolved at a Dec. 13 Town Meeting that drew 160 concerned residents. The newly approved regulation applies only to lots of one and one-half acres or less. It requires “a minimum of one-half acre of usable lot area” devoted “solely for the keeping of hooved animals.” A grandfather clause in the ordinance exempts properties that “have successfully maintained hooved animals for five or more years” from most requirements — minimum lot size, fencing, sheds.
  9. What’s that sound? It would take a thorough review of the last 51 front pages of The Press to figure out that music was a more prevalent topic in 2017 than most townspeople might assume. Whether it was parking controversies surrounding summer concerts in Ballard Park or a proposed Ridgefield Jazz Festival to complement the town’s other art offerings, the sound (or at least thought) of music was a common thread throughout the year. In April, the idea of paying for police enforcement at CHIRP concerts to keep some parking spaces open for nearby businesses drew criticism. “It will kill events in Ridgefield,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners, who organizes the Ballard Park summer shows. The problem persisted in May, with a proposal to move the concerts to the former Schlumberger property in 2018. And again in June, with plans for a parking lot on town land east of Bailey Avenue. “This isn’t pie in the sky — it could become reality,” said Selectman Bob Hebert.  
  10. ‘Blue sweep.’ Picking up where voters left off in 2016, when Hillary Clinton became just the third Democratic nominee for president since 1960 to win Ridgefield, the high engagement from local Democrats swamped Republicans’ registration advantage in this year’s municipal election. The blue wave that crashed ashore on Election Day 2017 swept away six Republican incumbents, turned over four town agencies from Republican to Democratic majorities, and left Ridgefield Democrats gaining 17 of 25 board and commission seats on the ballot. Seeing Democrats with higher vote totals in race after race was a reversal of the usual fortunes in a town where Republicans have outnumbered Democrats for as long as anyone can remember. “Never,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi when asked if he could recall a similar election. “I never remember anything like this.” Democrats gained majorities on the previously Republican-controlled Board of Education, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Board of Assessment Appeals. Democrats expanded their majority on the Board of Finance, and Republicans lost a seat but kept a majority on the Police Commission.