It was eventful year throughout the region, to say the least.
Residents of the Greater Westerly-Stonington area suffered many tragedies and enjoyed many successes in 2019. But through it all, the year was colored most brightly by the multi-event celebration of Westerly's 350th anniversary, which was chosen by The Sun newsroom as the region's top story of 2019.
Westerly's 350th anniversary
A committee of volunteers worked in conjunction with Lisa Konicki and the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce Foundation to present a slate of activities to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Westerly’s founding in 1669. Starting with a community bell-ringing event on New Year’s Day and culminating on Dec. 15 with a Light Parade through the historic downtown, the menu of events ranged from educational history lectures to the pure fun of an Olde Tyme Fair in Wilcox Park. Tickets for a black-tie gala at the Westerly Armory sold out in less than one hour, prompting the addition of a second gala.
In June the anticipation, air of excitement, and sense of community was palpable when a time capsule, buried in Wilcox Park in 1969 when the town’s 300th birthday was celebrated, was opened. Artifacts contained in the capsule were physical proof of the town and society’s progression over the decades.
Thousands lined the streets of the downtown area for the Light Parade, which saw dozens of individuals, businesses and community organizations getting in on the fun through the creation of memory burnishing floats and displays.
“We wanted this to be a grand finale to our yearlong celebration, something that people would remember for a long, long time,” said Konicki, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce president. Mission accomplished.
— Dale P. Faulkner
2 dead, 2 injured in shooting at Babcock Village
A December shooting at the Babcock Village Apartments in Westerly grabbed national headlines and left the community searching for answers after a resident shot and killed 47-year-old Babcock Village office manager Julie Cardinal and injured 38-year-old Robin Moss, a facilities manager, and 66-year-old Babcock resident Donna Thornley before returning to his room and taking his own life.
On Dec. 19 around 10:30 a.m., Westerly police and the Rhode Island State Police conducted a thorough sweep of the complex after multiple calls reporting the shooting. An investigation determined that 66-year-old resident Joseph Giachello entered a first-floor administrative office with a .38-caliber revolver he obtained just two days prior and proceeded to shoot the three women. Cardinal was pronounced dead at the scene and both Moss and Thornley continue to recover.
The shooting shook the region and left many at the village struggling to comprehend the violence. Police said Giachello faced possible termination of residency for noncompliance of his lease as a result of smoking, but his motivation still remains unclear.
The case remains under investigation.
— Jason Vallee
Westerly schools project voted down
On Oct. 10, voters rejected, by a 2,180-1,726 vote, a $71.4 million bond proposal that would have addressed deficiencies in Westerly’s elementary schools and provided funds for renovations and upgrades at Westerly Middle School and the two buildings that make up Westerly High School. It was the second school building project to be rejected in three years.
The months and weeks leading up to the vote in October reflected a degree of tension among members of the School Committee and the Town Council and between the two bodies. Proponents of the project said it would have provided an educationally sound way to improve equity and access to learning and touted the reimbursement rate from the state of between 35% and 50% of the total cost of the project, including interest. Opponents, some of whom acknowledged the reimbursement rate and others who did not, said the project was too expensive, questioned the wisdom of a planned elementary school grade reconfiguration and assailed plans to replace the current State Street Elementary School with a new building.
Meanwhile, students and teachers at State Street School endure bothersome odors, leaky roofs, crumbling bricks, and problems with the heating system.
Steps are now being taken to craft another school building project.
— Dale P. Faulkner
Tragedy on Tum-A-Lum Circle
An October fire at a home along Tum-A-Lum Circle in Westerly led the police to discover the body of 59-year-old Patricia A. Martell. Martell's son, 22-year-old Scott Martell, was later discovered to have driven to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven, more commonly known as the "Q" Bridge, and jumped to his death.
Westerly police, fire and ambulance personnel were called to Patricia Martell's home at 54 Tum-A-Lum Circle on the afternoon of Oct. 14. First responders arrived to find the house fully engulfed in flames and Patricia Martell's body was discovered badly burned in the basement the following morning.
The police said an investigation determined that Scott Martell had been dealing with various mental health issues prior to the incident.
The case has since been closed.
— Jason Vallee
Stonington makes history with Board of Selectwomen
The November election proved to be a historic one for the Town of Stonington, as voters backed the town's first formally-elected first selectwoman, as well as seating an all-women Board of Selectwomen for the first time ever.
Unaffiliated candidate Danielle Chesebrough, who was endorsed by the Democrats, defeated Republican John Prue on Nov. 5 by nearly a 2-to-1 margin to become the first woman in Stonington elected to the office of first selectman. She replaced Republican Rob Simmons, a longtime local, state and national politician who retired from public office at the conclusion of the last term.
Democrat June Strunk and Republican Deborah Downie both outpolled Prue, the only incumbent member of the board to seek election, leading to brand new representation for the community's top board.
— Jason Vallee
Hopkinton solar battles
Hopkinton continued to grapple with the issue of solar energy development. Residents opposed to zoning changes for commercial solar projects came together and formed the group Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning.
To date, the council has approved 19 solar projects. Six projects received requested zoning changes from residential to commercial, seven are in commercial or manufacturing zones where they are permitted by right, and six have been built on farms under the town's farm viability ordinance.
There are 12 additional solar projects proposed, three in commercial or manufacturing zones and nine that would require zoning changes.
The Town Council is divided on the issue, with some councilors arguing that the town needs the revenue to keep taxes from rising and others saying the council should heed the recommendations of the Planning Board and deny commercial projects in residential zones.
— Cynthia Drummond
Interim Harbor Plan in Westerly
It was the first year of operation under an interim Harbor Management Plan adopted in late 2018 by the Westerly Town Council. Town Manager J. Mark Rooney appointed an assistant harbor master and decided that the town’s police chief would continue as harbor master. A new mooring registration system was rolled out and a mooring waiting list established. Town officials also took steps to ensure adequate public access to each of the eight mooring fields in the town.
Implementation of the plan, which was developed over about 15 years, seemed to go smoothly for the most part, but some residents voiced surprise and concern with the cost of mooring permits for town residents. The disposition of moorings in the Watch Hill Cove Breakwater West area incited controversy.
Town officials backed off the initial plan to have all of those moorings removed and struck a compromise agreement that allows five of the moorings that were present before 2015 to remain until their owners no longer need them. Other mooring-holders in the area were given a one-season reprieve that expired at the end of the 2019 boating season, despite the mooring-holders’ claims of improper backroom deals.
Town officials are hopeful the plan will receive final approval from state officials in 2020 and be ready for permanent adoption by the Town Council.
— Dale P. Faulkner
Westerly Hospital expands capabilities
It was a year of significant growth and expansion of services at Westerly Hospital with the opening of three facilities — an updated cardiac catheterization laboratory in February, a new geriatric psychiatric unit in September and a new Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in October.
The multi-purpose lab is for diagnostic catheterization as well as for other procedures such as the placement of pacemakers and defibrillators, repair of blockages through the use of balloons and stents, and interventional radiology. Fully connected to Yale New Haven Health’s network of specialists, the facility allows patients to remain in Westerly for services that previously required going to other hospitals.
The 18-bed, 10,000-square-foot geriatric psychiatric has a dining area that is separated from the rest of the unit and two quiet rooms. It also has an examination room, consultation area, a conference room, a group therapy room, a medication room, and a nurses' station.
Westerly Hospital’s is the first Smilow facility in Rhode Island, and Westerly-area residents are the first in any state outside of Connecticut to have local access to the nationally recognized comprehensive expertise of Smilow Cancer Hospital, which is ranked among the top cancer-fighting networks in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. The new unit features eight infusion rooms for chemo- and bio-therapy and seven exam rooms and gives patients access to clinical trials.
— Dale P. Faulkner
Man dies in accident at Boneyard Barbecue & Saloon
Less than two years after it opened, the Boneyard Barbecue & Saloon was put on the market after the death of 48-year-old Derrick Payne Sr. on Aug. 16. Payne had been four-wheeling on the driving range at the property and died after being trapped under a Jeep owned by Boneyard co-owner Patrick Kane at about 1 a.m. He was not discovered until the next morning.
On Aug. 23, police charged Kane with obstructing justice after they say he lied to them when they questioned him about the incident. On Sept. 30, the Hopkinton Town Council voted unanimously to revoke the restaurant's liquor license.
Business quickly fell off at the restaurant, leading it to be put up for sale.
— Corey Fyke
Schools close, consolidate in Stonington
2019 was a year of generational change for Stonington Public Schools. First, in March, the town shuttered West Broad Street Elementary School, built in 1900 as one of the most forward-thinking school buildings of its time. The decades had not been kind to West Broad, and the cost of upkeep combined with the lack of modern facilities and accoutrements had put the venerable facility on the chopping block for many years.
West Broad's students moved into the newly completed West Vine Street School, which, along with Deans Mill School, was renovated as new after residents approved, in 2015, a $69 million schools modernization bond. The new Deans Mill School opened later in 2019.
With the new elementary schools ready to roll, Pawcatuck Middle School was shuttered at the end of the 2018-19 school year, and middle school students were consolidated at Mystic Middle School. The new combined middle school was renamed Stonington Middle School, and includes Grades 6 through 8. The fifth-graders moved back to the renovated elementary schools, and the school's Central Office staff moved into the former Pawcatuck Middle School.
A town committee is in charge of seeking new uses for both West Broad Street School and the former Central Office building in Old Mystic.
— Corey Fyke
Honorable mention: EEE outbreak causes widespread schedule disruptions; towns around region consider or enact bans on plastic bags and straws; BDA mill gets a new owner; two sitting Westerly School Committee members die; Stillmanville Mill collapse in Pawcatuck; three killed in wrong-way I-95 crash in North Stonington; Mechanic Street stabbing death in Pawcatuck; Mystic River Boathouse Park imbroglio; strong opposition kills Smiler's Wharf development in Mystic; new schools open in North Stonington; Quonnie Pond dredging in Charlestown; Stop & Shop strike.