2016-12-30 / Front Page

A look back at some stories of 2016

Year in Review
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

There’s no doubt about it, 2016 was quite a year. On the national level, annual year-in-review columns will undoubtedly focus on the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States — a surprise to pollsters, at least — and on the number of high-profile celebrities who left us during the year.

But it was a big year on the local level as well, with news that ran from out with the old, as with the retirement of two longtime Kennebunk officials, to in with the new, as two newly renovated school buildings came on line.

In between, stories of the year seemed to last all year, from a lawsuit over the right of Arundel residents to pick their middle school of choice, including a failed attempt by some to withdraw the town from RSU 21, to the final fate of the Mousam River dams, a topic which dominated the Kennebunk Post letters page from the arrival of Baby New Year 2016 in January, to its departure now as a stooped and aged relic of the past. Below is a summary of some of the top stories of the year in the Post from the past 12 months.

January

January began with two stories that would unfold all year and make return engagements in December. In Kennebunk, selectmen followed up on two public hearings sponsored in 2015 by Kennebunk Light and Power District trustees to discuss the fate of the three Mousam River dams, by announcing intent to hold one of their own. That session, held in March, played to a packed house, as had the others before it. Later in the year, proponents of keeping the dams in place would petition a trio of questions onto the November general election ballot. In light of a June vote by KLP trustees to abandon a federal license to generate power at the dams, residents voted overwhelmingly on a nonbinding referendum to keep them in place. That prompted selectmen to take an even greater interest in the fate of the dams, on the assumption by some that taxpayers might have to be the one to step in and save them from demolition. Earlier this month, a joint meeting between selectmen and KLP trustees was set for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in the town hall auditorium.

Meanwhile, over in Kennebunkport, members of the newly-formed Friends of Town House School announced plans for a bevy of fundraising events for the spring and summer of 2016, all designed to help preserve and maintain the town’s only remaining one-room school. By year’s end, the group remained shy of its $350,000 goal. However, on Dec. 1, an anonymous donor gave $25,000, and pledged to match donations dollar-for-dollar, up to an additional $25,000.

And, in Arundel, selectmen announced plans to give away the town’s old firehouse on Old Post Road. The town had leased the one-acre lot in 1974 to enhance its ability to respond to emergencies. But time had changed the need for a substation and the building had been used for little more than storage for several years. Because the lease deal had called on the property to revert to the original owner, or his heirs, should the town no longer have use for it as a fire base, selectmen elected to give back the property, while gifting the building it had built on the sight. It would take much of the year to complete the legal negotiations with all parties involved, but eventually the town would be owner of one less property, even as it continued to wrangle for one to buy for a new town office.

February

The RSU 21 Board of Directors kicked the coop in February, raising a ruckus when it suggested it might end busing of high school students to Thornton Academy and mark the end of the district’s contract with TA Middle School by requiring Arundel students to attend the Middle School of the Kennebunk. Before the month was out, Arundel residents who said the town had been promised school choice forever when it joined the district were circulating petitions to withdraw and go it alone.

Meanwhile, the school board facilities committee began to take a hard look at Sea Road Elementary School, questioning if the building would still be needed following completion of a $56.5 million makeover at other district buildings. The answer would come in May, that yes, enrollment was not falling fast enough to warrant closing the school. That announcement would save some potential embarrassment later in the year, when the school and it principal won national recognition for excellence.

Sea Road was also in the news when one of its students, fifth-grader Bella Rossborough began campaigning in earnest to ban plastic shopping bags from retail stores in town. Having initiated the idea before selectmen the previous spring, Rossborough had just won the endorsement of the town’s conservation commission with a proposed ordinance on the June primary ballot. That vote would eventually go her way, 1,480 to 845.

And, in Kennebunkport, the planning board voted in a final agreement with developer Tim Harrington over a series of violation at his Hidden Pond Resort, which included construction on more than 17 buildings without town permits. Harrington eventually paid $30,000 in fines.

March

In the continuing saga of school choice, RSU 21 directors voted 8-2 to allow Arundel residents then in grades 5-8 to attend Thornton Academy Middle School, if they so chose. But after that, all students would have to go to the Middle School of the Kennebunks. The school board also voted to end busing to Thornton Academy for high school students, who would retain choice. But busing of middle schoolers remained up in the air, and Arundel residents pressed on with their withdrawal attempt, having to conduct a do-over campaign after first submitting signatures that included some from a previous attempt to divorce the RSU.

As that was happening, Kennebunk selectmen were wrestling with whether or not to trash the town’s long-standing pay-as-you-throw program for solid waste removal. The unpopular program would eventually survive.

Also lucky to survive were 11 teenagers and young adults involved in a spectacular three-car crash in Arundel, when racing each other on Campground Road.

April

Kennebunk officials celebrated groundbreaking of a new 73-unit Hampton Inn near the southbound exit Maine Turnpike. In October, a motel located at the northbound ramp would get town down, following purchase by the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Kennebunk announced it had hired Tasha Pinkham of Buxton to take the reins of the recreation department from Brian Costello, who retired after 30 years on the job.

And, in the latest turn in RSU 21 busing, the district began negotiating a plan with Thornton Academy for transportation of Arundel students who chose to attend its middle school, but that did not stop the Saco-based school from filing a lawsuit in York County Superior Court over whether Arundel middle schoolers should retain school choice following the 2018-2019 school year. Although the transportation issue would eventually get resolved, the fate of the lawsuit remained undecided at year’s end.

May

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, 57, competed in his 50th marathon, choosing the Maine Coast Marathon, which winds through Kennebunk and Kennebunkport as his milestone event.

RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes and other school officials publically disputed the placement of Kennebunk High School in the annual rankings issued by U.S. News and World Report. According to Hawes, a new vendor contracted by the magazine failed to notice just how corrupt the data was which it received from the federal department of education, after Maine Department of Education numbers got scrubbed with census figures, before running those figures through its ranking algorithm. The resulting error-ridden report knocked KHS out of the top 10 from previous rankings to a place far outside the running, while other lower-performing schools took its place. Hawes never did get satisfaction from the magazine, which only promised to try and do better next year. Instead, the district used the experience as a teachable moment, having high schoolers run the numbers correctly, pinpointing exactly where the high-dollar contractor had got it wrong.

Kennebunk selectmen hired Mike Pardue, a local management consultant who had previously prepared reports on the police and public works departments, as well as a strategic plan for the fire department, to be the town’s interim human resources director. Only later in the year would the board realize just how non-interim that relationship would become.

June

Driven by complaints, Kennebunkport selectman began to take a hard look at the use of aerial drones on Goose Rocks Beach. By fall, the board would vote to erect a series of signs asking people to voluntarily refrain from using the devices on the public/private shorefront. Kennebunk would later look into the issue, choosing instead to use a new park ordinance to ban drone use from all public property in town, including beaches. That ordinance is due for a public hearing in January

Also in June, Arundel selectmen reached a consent agreement with Dubois Livestock & Excavating Inc. over a long-standing dispute over composting operations at the Irving Road facility. Town officials declared themselves confident the court-sanctioned agreement would allow the town to being inspection of the property, while allowing Dubois to obtain an operating license.

On the Kennebunk River between Lower Village and Dock Square, the Spirit of Massachusetts schooner, docked at the Performance Marine, opened its gangplank to diners as the area’s first floating restaurant, with 100 seats above and below decks.

But the big news of the month, and maybe the year, was the unanimous vote of Kennebunk Light and Power trustees to not pursue federal relicensing of the district’s three dams on the Mousam River. Trustees also voted to immediately end generating power at the Kesslen Dam adjacent to Route 1 in downtown Kennebunk, due to the age and condition of turbines located in the basement of the Lafayette Center. Although his vote would not have changed the result, the decision came after the election of Daniel Bartilucci, a pro-dam trustee candidate, but before he could be sworn in. The duel decision resulted in the petition drive that led to an overwhelming public turnout in favor of keeping the dams in place, even if they are no longer used to make electricity.

July

The Kennebunk Land Trust landed in hot water with selectmen over cutting during the previous winter over rosa rugosa bushes at at the access point to Strawberry Island, off Great Hill Road during the previous winter. Apart from being cut lower than allowed by Department of Environmental Protection rules, given that the bushes help hold the dunes in place, the land trust also cut back bushes on property it does not own. After apologizing, the land trust had the property surveyed to clearly define the line between its lot and the Kennebunk Beach Improvement Association. It also agreed to meet all legal fees incurred by KBIA and the town, and to pay a $500 fine.

In what was said to have been an unrelated development, land trust executive director Marie Louise St. Onge submitted her resignation after nearly 17 years on the job in June, about a month after the land trust was issued its first formal notice of violation by the town. Later in the year, former land trust chairman Gordon Collins took over as executive director.

Early in the month, former Kennebunk selectman Rachel Phipps leveled charges of collusion against Town Manager Barry Tibbetts, claiming he had conspired to keep her off the town’s economic development committee. By month’s end, another former selectman, Kelly Wentworth, claimed Tibbetts had altered the personnel file of her husband, a supervisor at the town garage, suggesting also that selectmen had held illegal executive sessions discussing her husband without his knowledge.

August

The Campaign to Reconsider Water Fluoridation, a grass roots organization made of customers of the Kennebunk Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, successfully petitioned the state to get a question on the November ballot to remove fluoride from the local water supply. The result would be three months of active campaigning on both sides, followed by a commending win for the no-fluoride side. The water district, which backed removal of the chemical, would take it out of public pipes immediately after the November vote.

A Route 1 institution in Arundel, Fritz’s Tire, announced it would close for good after 44 years in business, with the owner, Richard Fritz, unable to pick up the pieces from a 2014 fall that left him with a broken back. Later, in October, another longstanding business, Marlow’s Gifts, believed to be the oldest retail operation on Main Street in Kennebunk, announced it would close after the Christmas season.

Christopher Road resident David Schulenburg filed a police brutality lawsuit against Kennebunk, claiming he had been roughed up by cops during a wellness check the previous year, when he refused an invitation to leave his home and go to the hospital. A decision in that case is still pending.

September

With former first lady Laura Bush cutting the ribbon, trustees of the Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library in Kennebunkport threw open the building’s front door for the first time since 1988, as part of a $1 million capital campaign to expand the library, a project that will put the front door to Maine Street back in use as a main entrance.

The annual recruitment drive for Kennebunk Cub Scout Pack 302 featured something new, a sign-up sheet for 5-year-olds, as the pack became one of three packs in Maine authorized by the national scouting association to pilot a new Lion Cub program for younger boys.

Arundel residents began to debate the merits of hiring a second Sheriff’s deputy for dedicated patrols of the town, and which of several potential lot to purchase for a new town office. The deputy question was pushed off to a budget decision this coming spring as part of the annual budget, while a late December executive session appeared to center hopes on a Limerick Road property, which had been the top choice in September of most residents who attended a public hearing on the topic.

October

After 18 years as town manager of Kennebunk, Barry Tibbetts announced his intent to not seek renewal of his contract that ends June 30, 2017. Tibbetts gave no reason for his surprise resignation, other than the fact that he’d been in public service long enough to trigger full retirement benefits, along with a desire to “leverage my skills to pursue a number of different options.”

Sea Road Elementary School in Kennebunk was named a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award winner, based on high-performance of its students. It was one of just 279 public and 50 private schools nationwide to merit the prestigious honor this year. In addition, Sea Road Principal Stephen Marquis was one of just eight administrators from this year’s crop of 329 Blue Ribbon schools to receive the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership. In November, Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins would attend a school assembly to celebrate the achievements.

RSU 21 school directors briefly created a brouhaha when endorsing a plan to award naming rights at Kennebunk High School. One director threw out the first nomination, suggesting the school become the Timothy B. Hussey High School, in honor of a popular former school board member who had died earlier in the year. However, there was significant blowback of any name other than Kennebunk High School and, by year’s end, the board created a new naming committee, adopting rules that only rooms and areas within the school were eligible to be named, not the school itself.

The school district also found itself at odds with irate twirlers, upset at being displaced for gym time during space shortages brought about by the high school renovation project. A deal was worked out to make sure the twirlers could use the gym for practice time during the winter and spring athletic seasons, but the status of the independent Kennebunk Twirlers as a high school activity remained up in the air.

November

The Kennebunk High School Rams got to bask in some long-awaited glory, celebrating both the 175th career win of football head coach Joe Rafferty — a triumph that propelled the Rams in to the playoffs — and a trip to the Class B State Championship game. Meanwhile, the high school’s mock trial team also won a trip to the state championship. Although both teams ended their season’s with runner-up finishes, it was the best football result in many years, and a best showing for the mock trial team, ever.

With Kennebunk Town Manager Barry Tibbetts due to go on medical leave for shoulder surgery, selectmen announced they had hired Mike Pardue as a long-term interim manager. Already upgraded from interim to permanent human resources director earlier in the summer, Pardue will hold the top job in Kennebunk Town Hall through June 30, 2018. Tibbett’s whose contract runs through June 30, 2017, will serve out his remaining time upon his return from surgery as a consultant to Pardue.

December

Kennebunk selectmen announced plans for a $1.66 million makeover of the town transfer station on Sea Road by redirecting traffic into a one-way configuration fully segregated from the adjacent highway garage.

With the ribbon cut on a newly renovated Kennebunkport Consolidated school, and work finished at Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel, students and staffers at Kennebunk High School joined workers from PC Construction for a “topping off” ceremony that saw the last steel beam of the new wing put in place, marking the halfway point of the $56.6 million projects.

Three sophomores at Kennebunk High School — Ja- son Albaum, Colby Ellis, and Juli Ennis — were named one of four winners of U.S. Cellular’s second annual “The Future of Good” program, for their initiative, Project Playback, which provides music therapy to local senior citizens. In addition to $10,000 in recorded music and equipment — including additional iPods and 200 CDs — the trio also was given the chance to ring the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange Dec. 22

And finally, Kennebunk selectmen refused a property tax appeal filed by a Tideview Terrace resident, who claimed his constitutional rights were violated when the town failed to notify him of a 2013 change in his assessment. That case is not is Superior Court.

That, of course, is just some of what happened locally in 2016. Was there a story we didn’t mention that you feel was big enough to warrant a second look? Was there any story from this past year you’d like to see us provide an update on? Or, is there sometime you expect to make news in 2017 that you think the Post and its readers should keep their eyes open for? Write and let us know at news@kennebunkpost.com

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