The top story in The Sun's coverage area in 2021 was ... wait for it ... COVID-19 and its many tentacles.

For the second year in a row, there really could be no other choice. In 2020, the virus took center stage. But in 2021, the development of vaccines was the main story. And that story played out in every aspect of our lives.

Starting in the winter, the FDA approved vaccines on an emergency basis from Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, and millions of people began to be inoculated, starting with first responders and senior citizens. At first, supplies were limited and the rollout went in fits and starts. Towns in Rhode Island were in charge in the beginning, and then doses were released to schools and drug stores when supply became more robust. The vaccines tamped down the surge of cases in the winter of 2020-21, and by the time summer came around, many of us were looking forward to post-pandemic life and putting COVID in the rearview mirror.

But not so fast. Despite tens of thousands of local residents who received the vaccines, many remained stubbornly opposed. Schools reopened, but organized sports were a challenge. Cases were low in the summertime, but as the autumn approached, cases began to shoot back up, and by the end of the year, many areas of the region were approaching positive-test rates that hadn't been seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

Mental health issues resulting from the pandemic became more apparent and acute as 2021 rolled on. When schools went back into session, it was discovered that many children had suffered a social-emotional wellness lag from so many months of at-home distance learning. Schools struggled to keep up with virus outbreaks, and continued mask mandates riled parents. The delta and omicron variants made school, and life, much more complicated

In many ways, we begin 2022 the way we began 2021, albeit with a much more vaccinated and boosted populace. One thing is safe to say ... the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay, at least for much of the coming year.

— Corey Fyke

Potter Hill Mill Dam

Plans to remove the dam at the Potter Hill Mill generated both support and criticism from residents and officials in Westerly and Hopkinton. An environmental engineering firm that specializes in remediation projects aimed at removing or modifying dams to improve fish passage and restore natural conditions recommended complete removal of the dam, which once provided power to the long-defunct textile producer on the Pawcatuck River. But property owners who live along the river in both towns said removing the dam would drastically narrow the river and diminish the value of the land. Concerns were also raised about the effect of removing the dam on drinking water wells.

Most recently the Westerly Town Council voted to pursue a different option, one that would lower the dam and require construction of a nature-like fish passage. The council's decision has drawn criticism from several organizations, including the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Wild and Scenic Rivers Stewardship Council, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funded the study that resulted in the recommendation to remove the dam.

— Dale P. Faulkner

Accusations of critical race theory

Following a nationwide trend, local school districts were assailed by claims that they taught aspects of critical race theory in their classrooms. Critical race theory is an academic theory that holds that race is a social construct and that racism pervades the laws and institutions of the United States.

In Westerly, resident Bob Chiaradio, whose sister, Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, is the chairwoman of the School Committee, repeatedly attended Committee meetings charging that CRT was making white students feel ashamed of themselves and indoctrinating them politically. He repeatedly pushed members to vote on a resolution to "prohibit the teaching of divisive concepts" tied to race and gender in Westerly's schools, and in July, the Committe voted unanimously to reject the resolution. School officials throughout the year repeatedly denied that aspects of CRT were taught in the school system, saying that what they teach is critical thinking skills so that students can be exposed to different views and make the decisions for themselves.

In the Chariho district, the question of CRT reared its head when the Rev. Dave Stahl resigned as a Hopkinton member of the School Committee in September. Stall, the pastor at First Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church, was critical of the committee and its handling of the pandemic and social issues, particularly mask mandates and the possibility that aspects of CRT were being taught. He had repeatedly chastised Chairwoman Linda Lyall for rejecting his requested agenda items and vowed legal action. So far, no lawsuits have been filed. 

— Corey Fyke

Westerly Schools redesign project

The School Committee submitted an application to the state Department of Education in September to formally kick off the third proposed project to address deficiencies in the town's elementary schools since voters rejected a $38.5 million   project in 2016. Voters also voted down a $71 million project that qualified for 50% reimbursement by the state in 2019.

After reviewing several proposals and considering whether they were affordable under a $50 million borrowing limit imposed by the Town Council, the School Committee's Building Subcommittee whittled the list to two approaches it deemed worthy of additional scrutiny. Both proposals include moving eighth grade students from Westerly Middle School to Babcock Hall on the Westerly High School campus, a point that some teachers and residents do not like.

A recently hired architectural design firm is working on updating the education plan that must serve as the foundation of any project involved in the RIDE process and is expected to recommend a few potential approaches.

— Dale P. Faulkner

Help wanted

It was a year of a personnel merry-go-round at Westerly Town Hall. By the time Mark Rooney announced in September that he was resigning after more than three years as town manager, a number of other changes had already occurred. In August, Rooney informed Jeffrey Monteleone that his offer of employment to become director of the town's development services office would be withdrawn due to areas of concern that arose during a background check performed by the Westerly Police Department. Monteleone had been on the job for about one month.

The development services post opened up in the spring when Lisa Pellegrini transitioned out of the job and into a grant writer and administrator position that she is undertaking for the town from her new residence in Florida.

Another departure occurred in the summer when Timothy Rhyne, who served as director of human resources, left his position after about 10 months. Rooney said Rhyne, a California native, struggled to acclimate to the East Coast. In a related development, the Town Council signed off on a $98,500 settlement to resolve a lawsuit filed against Rooney and the town by former Human Resources Director Nancy Markham.

Zoning Officer Nathan Reichert departed in August. Officials initially expected him to head for a new position in Vermont, but he eventually took a job in North Stonington.

Town officials have yet to fully address all of the changes. Police Chief Shawn Lacey is serving as interim town manager even as he continues to manage the police department. The development services post remains vacant, as does the director of public works position that has gone unfilled for more than two years. Both are required by the Town Charter.

— Dale P. Faulkner

Westerly Comprehensive Plan

After six years spent on rewriting it, the town's Comprehensive Plan was fully revised, adopted by the Town Council, and accepted by the state in May. The plan, which is required by state law, sets out development and conservation goals and priorities.

Following approval of the plan, town officials immediately set about implementing some of its action items, including developing and adopting new aquifer protection overlay regulations to better protect sources of drinking water. The Town Council also approved hiring a consultant to conduct a study of the Route 1 corridor with an eye toward making better use of the commercial area to rev up the local economy and address a maze of asphalt, curb cuts and poorly kept lots. A similar effort is rolling out for the downtown area with a focus on creation of an overlay protection area for the Pawcatuck River and stormwater management.

The weeks and months leading up to the Town Council's adoption of the revised Comprehensive Plan saw some residents organize in opposition to aspects of the plan that they said would give the owners of the Winnapaug Country Club a head start on adding condominiums to their property.

— Dale P. Faulkner

Campbell Grain project rejected

When a lightly attended town meeting on Aug. 9 led to a 71-36 vote approving a fixed tax agreement with a Boston-based firm to aid the redevelopment of the Campbell Grain property, it led Pawcatuck resident Tracy Swain to begin seeking signatures to force the matter to a referendum.

Within a couple days, she had a group of about 13 volunteers who had come together and it led to an organized effort that gathered well over the required 200 verified signatures necessary under town charter.

Stonington voters then overwhelmingly rejected the tax assessment plan, voicing discontent with the project and WinnDevelopment, the project developer, during an October referendum.

The referendum drew a near-record 27% of eligible voters, the highest total at a non-election referendum since the annual budget vote in 2006, and led to a crushing defeat of the proposal. In Pawcatuck, voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax assessment, 1,474 to 293.

If approved, the plan would have given WinnDevelopment a fixed assessment for an 82-unit complex designed to save the company an estimated $690,748 in taxes over a 10-year period. The company would have paid $695,000 in taxes to the town over that time.

“Now that this vote is over, we all have another choice in front of us. And I hope that we choose to move forward together as a community,” First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said in a statement.

The company said it intends to forge forward, but acknowledged that the lack of town commitment could make it difficult to receive the requested grants. If the company is unable to acquire the federal housing grant, it remains unclear what what would happen next.

— Jason Vallee

North Stonington Education Center

One of the top priorities for elected officials and members of the community entering 2021, aside from navigating COVID-19 challenges, was to determine how to move forward in finding a tenant or buyer or otherwise repurposing the North Stonington Education Center.

Despite aggressive efforts to make a deal, failed negotiations with two potential tenants and a lack of additional interest has led the town to hold onto the property longer than it would have liked, a problem that comes with an estimated $130,000 annual price tag for maintenance and upkeep. As a result, determining what to do with the former school facility remains a top priority for the community heading into 2022 and the upcoming budget process.

The saga began in early January when news broke that over the holidays that a prospective tenant for the one-story wing, Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center, had ceased negotiations and would not be moving forward with plans to move to North Stonington. The town renewed its search and quickly found another, never identified potential tenant, but those negotiations ultimately fell through as well.

Stuck with an aging building, the Board of Selectmen formed a joint-board committee to search for possible partners and find a solution for the property. After efforts to lease or sell proved fruitless, due in part to deed restrictions for the property and an uncertain market amid a pandemic, the town has once again regrouped and is considering repurposing the property, possibly as part of upgrades for a recreational facility as part of larger Wheeler Library renovations, or even demolition the property and develop a park.

Residents will have an opportunity to weigh in and share their own ideas during a special Community Conversation focus group in January, and the town will then move forward in finding a solution that will be desired and equitable for the taxpayers in the long run.

“It is a significant issue and one we will need to address correctly but quickly in order to avoid absorbing the ongoing expenses,” North Stonington First Selectman Robert Carlson said in a recent interview.

— Jason Vallee

Chariho budget narrowly passes

Voters in both Charlestown and Richmond appear to be generally pleased with the direction that the Chariho Regional School District is taking financially. Hopkinton residents? Not so much.

The annual operating budget for Chariho schools passed at referendum in April by just 77 votes, with residents ultimately siding 552 in favor to 475 against approving a $54.7 million budget for the 2021-22 school year.

It was a tale of three referendums, however, with Charlestown residents leading the way with 172 for and only 44 against, and a close race in Richmond aiding in pushing it over the top as the community approved the measure by 209 to 178 margin.

Hopkinton voters, meanwhile, expressed anger over increases they felt were unfair and argued that taxpayers simply could not continue to absorb the costs year over year. An emotionally charged electorate then rejected the proposed budget 253-171, but it wasn’t enough to offset the approval numbers in Charlestown and Richmond.

All three towns will see increases in their contributions to the school district: Charlestown’s contribution of $13.5 million is an increase of 1.4%; Richmond will pay $20.6 million, which is a 2.7% increase; and Hopkinton will see an increase of 2.3% with a total contribution of $20.6 million.

“Our hope is that the taxpayers who did vote 'no' will ask the questions and hopefully see that the work that we do in Chariho is going to be thoughtful, invested in the community, and focused on students,” Chariho Superintendent of Schools Gina Picard said in an interview after the referendum passed.

— Jason Vallee

Stonington Public Schools' year of change

When the pandemic struck in the first half of 2020, it set forward a series of events that began a turbulent ride that saw students learn from home as a safety precaution against the spread of COVID-19 for over a year and led to the resignation of two members of the Board of Education, including the board’s chairwoman, Alexa Garvey.

The rollercoaster didn’t slow in 2021, with an early year push by parents forcing the district’s hand and schools across town reopening with restrictions in the spring.

There were frustrations expressed by the public over the handling and findings of a review of the Timothy Chokas situation and accusations that critical race theory was being taught. The use of masks was protested, and parents demanded students be allowed back in class full-time. Several members of the board then announced they would not seek reelection, leading to the realization that there would be a number of fresh faces at Board of Education meetings. Four new members, including three Democrats, were elected in November.

After balancing it all for 18 months, Superintendent of Schools Van Riley announced he will be resigning, agreeing to stay on as the newly elected Board of Education moves forward in finding his successor. The board will also be tasked with balancing the needs of students against the dangers of an ongoing pandemic that has seen the number of infections surge even beyond the point it was at a year ago.

The dust has yet to settle on many of these matters, with both the superintendent search and mitigating COVID-19 remaining as top priorities heading into 2022.

— Jason Vallee

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