Year in Review: Development drama and a first ever swing to the left in 2016 for Darien

The exterior of Shake Shack, 1390 Post Road, Darien, Conn., on Dec. 13, 2016. Shake Shack officials expect an early 2017 opening.
The exterior of Shake Shack, 1390 Post Road, Darien, Conn., on Dec. 13, 2016. Shake Shack officials expect an early 2017 opening.Justin Papp / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Proposed redevelopments in downtown Darien and Noroton Heights stole many headlines in 2016, but that wasn’t all that was shaking in town. Away from redevelopment, Darien residents voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in a long time, chose to preserve land, welcomed a new principal and said goodbye to their first-ever K-9 police officer.

Here is a collection of the year’s best and biggest stories from the Darien News in 2016:

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Turnover of building

to school district OK’d

By an uncharacteristically narrow 36-30 vote, the Representative Town Meeting turned over maintenance and operation of the Board of Education building at 35 Leroy Ave. to the school board in January 2016.

Members of the group voted down an amendment proposed by Joanne Hennessy, chairwoman of the Planning, Zoning and Housing Committee, to add language giving the town the right to move the Board of Education elsewhere if officials believe it is the right thing to do.

The Board of Education moved its central administrative offices into the building in April 2013 as part of a $7 million project that involved swapping space at the former Mather Community Center, enabling the town to build an expanded senior center and close the town’s former senior center in a dilapidated building at 30 Edgerton St.

The heroin epidemic

In May, a heroin dealer was caught in the act in town. Then in August, a dealer who had been selling bundles of heroin that normally go for $70 to $80 for up to $600 to Darien and other Fairfield County youths was arrested as the result of a months-long investigation conducted by Bridgeport and Darien police.

Through a variety of information-seeking techniques, including the use of undercover officers, Darien police were able to identify Bridgeport as the source a significant amount of local heroin, which is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem in Darien and surrounding towns.

Darien football drama

The Blue Wave football team was without the services of their head coach after Darien coach Rob Trifone was suspended for two weeks after striking a player on the side of the helmet after the player got into a verbal dispute during the game. Trifone’s suspension was extended for another two weeks without explanation after Darien school officials announced new surveillance footage surfaced.

A new school in 2017?

Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner brought up the idea of opening an alternative high school in town during preliminary 2017-18 budget discussions. Per Brenner, the initiative is not set in stone but talks have begun as to how the school would work. The idea would be to have the school up and running by the beginning of the next school year. The school would teach Darien High School curriculum, but using alternative teaching methods. School officials will make a call on the proposal next year.

New principal

for Middlesex

The Board of Education appointed a new principal for Middlesex Middle School in a unanimous vote. Shelley Somers, who previously worked in Greenwich schools, replaced Debi Boccanfuso, who retired from Middlesex this past May after 30 years in the district. Somers came from Greenwich’s Central Middle School. She worked there for six years and was given the Connecticut PTA Middle School Principal of the Year award in 2015. Prior to working in Greenwich, Somers spent 15 years in Beauford, South Carolina as a teacher, administrator, and department chair.

Golden Age of Zulu, Darien’s first K-9

Darien said goodbye to their first police K-9 this year when Zulu, a German Shepherd, retired after seven years with the force. Zulu is now playing big brother to his trainer Nick Aranzullo’s infant triplets and Darien will have two new police K-9s in the coming year.

Darien teen

on Jeopardy

Trivia wiz and Darien High School senior Michael Borecki had a brief brush with fame when he was featured on Jeopardy! Teen Tournament. Borecki was in the top three finalists and took home $25,000.

Wood elected

for fifth term

After a heated national election season, many of Darien’s elected officials stayed the same, including Terrie Wood (R-141) being elected to her fifth term as state representative. Sen. Bob Duff, Sen. Carlo Leone and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal also stayed in office. Darien also voted for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1888.

Darien goes

for Clinton

In the 1888 presidential election, Democrat Grover Cleveland won in Darien with 245 votes. Republican and ultimate election winner Benjamin Harrison lost the town by just two votes.

It would be another 128 years before the historically Republican town backed another Democrat for president. This year, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received 5,942 votes to President-elect Donald Trump’s 4,625.

While a majority of Darien voters are not registered Republicans, most that are registered under a party are registered Republicans. Prior to the election, out of 13,715 registered voters, just shy of half were registered Republicans, while less than 3,000 were registered Democrats.

Four cars stolen,

10 broken into in Noroton Bay

In August, police reported four cars were stolen out of Noroton Bay as part of a string of car break-ins that occurred in the neighborhood. All the missing vehicles were eventually recovered, but were part of a larger trends of unlocked cars being targeted for thefts and break-ins.

Downtown plan dead

Through a well-coordinated social media campaign and a community-minded approach to development, David Genovese, principal of Baywater Properties, generated no shortage of public support for his Corbin Drive project that would have seen 66 new residential units at heights up to six stories in Downtown Darien.

Genovese’s plan and subsequent request for amended zoning regulations in the area, however, win over the Planning and Zoning Commission, who had concerns about the height and density of the project and the extreme ways in which Genovese sought to change existing regulations. The proposal opened up a debate — not unsimilar to the one occurring in neighboring New Canaan — about the way in which Darien should develop in order to remain competitive among its Fairfield County neighbors while maintaining its small town character.

As a result, Genovese pulled the application at the end of September. A new application, however, has been submitted and will be reviewed again by the commission this January.

Shake Shack

comes to town

After months of back-and-forth regarding signage, Shake Shack was officially approved in July and should be open this January at 1340 Post Road, the site of the former Chuck’s Steak House.

Shake Shack first applied for a permit in March, asking for three signs, the letters of one of which would be 24 inches tall and face Post Road. The Zoning Board of Appeals expressed concern at the proposal, which exceeded existing limitations on signage.

Shake Shack argued, through testimony from Richard B. Crawford of Mercer Sign Consultants of Pennsylvania, that smaller letters would result in a safety hazard for drivers on the busy stretch of Post Road where Shake Shack is to be situated. In June, Shake Shack and the ZBA agreed to two signs and a decrease of four inches in the letters of the road-facing sign.

Noroton Height pushes forward

After an August approval of amendments to zoning regulations by the Planning and Zoning Commission in Noroton Heights, the path has been cleared for two developers, Noroton Heights LLC and Federal Realty, to greatly change the face of the neighborhood.

The projects — site plans of which are expected to be submitted to the commission in the New Year — could result in roughly 200 new apartments in the area, though not taller than three stories and not larger than 1,500 square feet.

With the approval of amended regulations in Noroton Heights, and a new request for amended regulations downtown on the table, 2016 set the stage for what may be a big year for redevelopment in Darien.

Police get body cams

Police in Darien may be equipped with body cameras by the beginning of 2017.

On Sept. 26, the Representative Town Meeting overwhelmingly agreed to spend about $87,000 to equip all patrolling officers with body cameras.

The hope, however, is to use state grant money to cover the initial cost of $87,142 to begin the body cameras program. This is the first-year Connecticut has offered state funding for police body cameras. The Darien police department will be applying for some of it, but there is no guarantee.

Posties have big year

After naming Ron Hammer the new director of Darien EMS-Post 53 in June the Posties readied for their big screen debut. Hammer, the seventh person to serve as director in Post's 40-year history, took over for Dennis Cummings, who resigned due to job commitments.

The Documentary, “High School 9-1-1” which took ten years to produce by former Postie Tim Warren is a first-hand look at the impressive group of Darien High School students who volunteer at the town’s only EMS service.

On Tuesday, Dec. 20 Warren brought his documentary, “High School 9-1-1,” back home, debuting the film with two showings. Posties past, and present were in attendance, some of whom were featured in the film or witnessed the filming first hand.

Issues of discrimination raised

Coming on the heels of a video of an African-American Bridgeport-man on a bike being pulled over by Darien Police, the Darien Library invited U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, and other local and regional leaders to discuss issues of race, facilitated by Dr. Anthony L. Bennett, head pastor of Mount Avery Church in Bridgeport.

“There are a whole lot of us who are just tired of having the same conversation about race with the same people. And so I challenged Congressman Himes to say, well let’s have it outside of Bridgeport, outside of those areas. Because we’re frankly tired of talking to ourselves. We need to talk to some white folk and some other folk,” Bennett said, in front of a packed house.

Blight ordinance OK’d

After a failed attempt to pass a similar ordinance in 2007, the Representative Town Committee voted in favor this October to approve an ordinance that would give the town a tool to remediate blighted properties in town.

The ordinance, which will go into effect in the New Year, allows residents to file official complaints, which could result in fines issued by the town and, in extreme cases, the state. Proponents hope it could help to reduce the number of blighted properties in town, which is estimated at around 24.

Darien agrees to buy land from Hunt Club

The Darien Board of Selectmen agreed to purchase a 16.3-acre parcel from the historic Ox Ridge Hunt Club in November, a move that will help maintain the club, which has fallen behind on its tax payments, and ensure that a large parcel of open space will be preserved.

“This is one of the most important things we’ve done in a long time,” Selectman Rob Richards said during a November meeting.

Darien High lights

Debate raged on until the end of the year over a new proposal for field lights at Darien High School. As last stands the lights would be 80 feet tall and there would be limits on how late they can stay on. The planning is up for zoning approval.