2014 in Milford: A year of tragedy and compassion, politics and land use
In Milford, the year 2014 will be known as the year of perhaps one of the biggest tragedies to hit the city, the death of high school student Maren Sanchez.
Maren, 16, was assaulted in a stairwell on the first floor of Jonathan Law High School near the media center just before classes started on April 25, the day of her junior prom.
Christopher Plaskon, the 16-year-old boy who allegedly stabbed Maren, has been charged with her murder, and sources have said Plaskon killed Maren because she was not going to the prom with him.
Plaskon is being held in a youth facility in Cheshire on $3 million bond as he goes through pretrial proceedings. The hearings are part of a long process as the lawyers and prosecutor in the case gather their information and return for status reports. Plaskon won’t be back in court again until January as he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation.
Plaskon has pled not guilty to a charge of murder, and his lawyers have said they expect it will be based on one of three forms of an insanity plea, based on Plaskon’s mental status.
The case will be presented to a three-judge panel, rather than a traditional jury, because Plaskon’s lawyers said they think judges will be better equipped to understand issues surrounding mental illness.
Maren, a petite young woman with dark hair and big brown eyes, was remembered and mourned throughout the community, first with purple ribbons tied around trees, and then with vigils and a garden dedicated in her honor at the high school.
The community came together, and one girl during a vigil said Maren “was beautiful inside and out.”
“She was the happiest, most generous person I’ve ever known,” another student said. “One of these days we are all going to see her again.”
When Law finally held its prom, Maren was named prom queen.
In part to honor the life of Maren Sanchez, Milford proclaimed itself a community of compassion in September.
Milford’s Board of Aldermen voted to direct Mayor Ben Blake to sign a Charter of Compassion, which makes it one of more than 250 communities in the country that have signed on to the cause, according to Christopher Kukk, a professor at Western Connecticut State University and director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation.
“It’s spreading,” Kukk said.
Jade Ramos, 26, brought the Charter of Compassion to Milford after hearing one of its founders speak about it. Donna Cimarelli, Maren Sanchez’s mother, worked with her and several others to gather signatures for the charter.
“She said to me that if Maren was still alive, she would be the one standing next to me doing this,” Ramos said.
The Charter of Compassion and the idea for cities of compassion started after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
Following the tragedy in Newtown, Dr. Kukk and Scarlett Lewis, mother of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, one of the Newtown victims, began work to weave compassion into schools, according to the website CompassionateSeattle.
“The movement to create a nation of compassionate schools had begun,” the site states.
Ramos said she heard Scarlett Lewis speak at an event at the Milford Fine Arts Council, and the speech moved her.
Then she read Lewis’s book Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope & Forgiveness, and the book changed her life.
She worked with Lewis to start collecting signatures of Milford people who wanted to become a community of compassion, and Lewis got in touch with Maren’s mother and invited her to join the effort.
Kukk said the charter puts compassion in the forefront.
City celebrates 375th anniversary
Milford celebrated its 375th anniversary in 2014 with a parade, fireworks and many community events.
According to History of Milford, Connecticut, “On Feb. 12, 1639, Edmund Tapp, William Fowler, Benjamin Fenn, Zachariah Whitman and Alexander Bryan from New Haven, journeyed to the Wepawaug and purchased land from Ansantawae, a sachem of the Paugusset Indians who had a village on the banks of the river.
“The price was six coats, ten blankets, one kettle, twelve hatchets, twelve hoes, two dozen knives and a dozen small mirrors.”
The settlers purchased a tract of land “bounded by the East River, the Housatonic River on the west, the Sound on the south, including Poquahaug (Charles) Island, and by the ‘two mile Indian path that goeth to Paugusset (Derby)’ on the north.”
The first purchase included nearly all of the current towns of Orange and Milford, and part of Woodbridge, according to Milford’s history.
Deeding the land to its new owners was effected with the old English “turf and twig” ceremony, which was re-enacted several times during the 375th celebrations this year.
“After the customary signing of the deed by both parties, Ansantawae was handed a piece of turf and a twig,” History of Milford, Connecticut notes. “Taking the piece of turf in one hand, and the twig in the other, he thrust the twig into the turf, and handed it to the English. In this way he signified that the Indians relinquished all the land specified in the deed and everything growing upon it.”
A Time Capsule Project spearheaded by longtime Milford resident DeForest “Frosty” Smith, along with a team of volunteers, saw a time capsule buried on the grounds of the Parsons Government Center. It will be opened 25 years from now during Milford’s 400th anniversary celebrations.
A Founders’ Walk planned for downtown Milford will be a lasting gift to the city from the 375th Committee, according to Chairman Robert Gregory and state Rep. James Maroney, who spearheaded the project.
The Founders’ Walk plan calls for replacing an abandoned road alongside Milford Harbor with a landscaped walkway that will include history kiosks, tables, a veterans memorial wall, landscaping, and related environmental improvements.
The city green across from the library may be tied into the walkway plan, creating a “public landing” or gateway into downtown.
Tragedy struck Milford waters in March, claiming the life of a 24-year-old New Jersey man, who died in a canoe accident in Long Island Sound.
Jeffrey Peter Young was remembered at a memorial service on Sunday, March 23, in New Jersey.
Connecticut’s Environmental Conservation (EnCon) Police responded with Milford Police and Fire departments and the U.S. Coast Guard at about 2 p.m. that day to a report of an overturned canoe with two people on board. Young and a female were pulled from the Sound and taken to Milford Hospital. The female was treated for hypothermia and released. Young died at the hospital.
“Water temperatures [were] only in the upper 40s and lower 50s, which makes survivability from immersion far less due to the effects of hypothermia,” Fire Department spokesman Greg Carman said at the time.
According to the published death notice, Young spent much of his childhood competing in tennis and swimming at Bradford Bath & Tennis Club, where he later worked summers as a lifeguard for three years.
In 2011, he earned a bachelor of science degree in marketing from Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Young began working for Covanta in Morristown, N.J., in May 2012 and was promoted to account executive in December 2013. In his limited time at Covanta, he played an important role in signing an agreement with Turning Earth for one of the first commercial-scale organics recycling operations in the Northeast and was a guest speaker at Central Connecticut State University’s open president’s advisory meeting on environmental sustainability.
“Jeffrey spent his last five months living in Milford in a house on Long Island Sound in a room looking out to the sunrise,” his obituary notice stated. “He spent his last day doing what he loved: hanging out with friends, playing football on the beach, and spending time on the water.”
After 375 years, the city of Milford has an official city flower.
The official city flower is the Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus,’ commonly known as the eastern purple coneflower.
According to the Milford Garden Club, which led efforts to select a city flower for the 375th anniversary, it is “a Connecticut native perennial used by Native Americans for herbal and medicinal use to ward off infection and disease, and to relieve pain.”
In keeping with the fanfare associated with the 375th, Mayor Blake introduced garden club representative Bunny Elmore at a Board of Aldermen’s meeting with a short speech filled with flower puns.
“I’m gladiola to introduce …” the mayor said, launching into his speech.
Photographs of the new city flower decorated the Milford Library in December for a garden club-organized display.
Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan wanted to keep her job, but budget and politics worked against that in 2014.
Residents rallied around the assistant city planner, saying that Harrigan had helped them wade through paperwork and red tape after storms Irene and Sandy ripped through their homes, leaving costly repairs, needed permits and confusion over flood insurance.
But despite efforts to save the position, the $77,000 job was officially cut when the Board of Aldermen voted on the 2014-15 budget.
Several votes concerning Harrigan’s position left some people in the audience scratching their heads, and led one man to say that the Democratic alderman who tried to save the post “got played” by Republicans who didn’t back him.
Harrigan sat in the City Hall meeting room with friends and family as the votes unfolded, and according to one person, the only thing she said after the final vote was taken was, “Politics.”
Harrigan found a new job very quickly working with the Shore Up CT program, run by the Housing Development Fund (HDF) in Bridgeport.
Shore Up CT is a new state-funded low-interest loan program that provides financing for property owners in coastal municipalities located in flood zones VE or AE to finance or refinance property elevations.
“Reflecting on my role as the assistant city planner with the city of Milford, especially following storms Irene and Sandy recovery, elevations, flood compliance and coastal reconstruction was a primary focus in the past few years based on pure necessity. This work with Milford homeowners was tough but rewarding,” Harrigan said.
Since Harrigan had a great amount of experience with victims of natural disasters, the HDF admired her.
“Everyone told me when my Milford job ended that a closed door would lead to an opened one,” Harrigan said. “I certainly didn’t expect a new door to open so quickly. HDF contacted me after just about a week and a half, and I started full-time the last week of July.”
Local Republicans grabbed two Democratic seats on Election Day 2014, and Milford’s GOP leader said it was a sign that people are looking for change.
Pam Staneski and fellow Republicans celebrated a win over incumbent Democrat James Maroney in the 119th District. Democrats also lost the seat held by incumbent Paul Davis, who was defeated by Republican Charles Ferraro in the 117th District.
The Democrats carried three local races. Incumbent state Rep. Kim Rose won in the 118th District against challenger Ray Vitali. State Sen. Gayle Slossberg won re-election, defeating challenger Matt Gaynor.
Probate Judge Beverly Streit-Kefalas, a Democrat, won over her challenger, Thomas Miller.
Despite those wins, local Democrats noted that even in the races they carried the Republican challengers made a good showing, closing the gap on what had been bigger victories in the past.
One Democrat, Walter Sawicki, noted the large number of votes for political newcomer Matt Gaynor in the state Senate race, and wondered if the 20-year-old had drawn more young voters to the polls to support him.
Staneski said Gaynor and his younger crowd brought a lot of social media savvy to this year’s election.
Delivering a baby
“It was cool,” Fire Department Lt. Adam Hansen said at the end of February, recalling the night shift several days earlier, when he and fellow firefighters delivered a baby in Milford.
When the call came in on a Thursday night at 11:43 p.m., several of the firefighters knew that this maternity call was going to be the real thing because they’d been to the same house the day before.
When firefighters and paramedics arrived at the house five minutes after the call came in, the husband met them at the door and said, “The baby’s coming.”
His wife was in the bathroom, and the firefighters and paramedics headed straight there. There was Lt. Hansen and firefighters Ryan Antonino and Phil Ragusa from Engine 7, and Pat McGee and Joseph DeMartino from Engine 1.
The bathroom was small, so Hansen and McGee went in. Both are trained paramedics. The others stood outside the door, ready to assist.
“It was tight in there, but we made it work,” Hansen said.
At first, they weren’t sure if they were going to try to deliver the baby at the house or transport the mother to the hospital. “That was the hardest decision,” McGee said. “But with the slippery conditions outside, we prepared her for delivery right when we walked in the door.”
They prepped the mother for delivery, but the ambulance and stretcher were ready to roll outside if the baby didn’t come quickly.
But within minutes the baby’s head was emerging. Hansen handled the delivery, with McGee assisting. The other three were just outside the door, handing them the instruments they needed.
Within 10 minutes, the healthy baby boy was born.
Everything went smoothly. The mother was “calm, cool and collected,” and that helped, Hansen said.
The couple’s other four children slept through the delivery, McGee added. And the father apparently wasn’t nervous: According to McGee, the father had delivered child No. 4.
It may have seemed like a long year for the Board of Education. After meetings, studies, public forums, and then a public vote, anticipated downsizing of the city’s public schools did not take place.
Harborside Middle School will remain open, and all the current elementary schools will remain open following a Board of Education meeting in November.
Although the school board was expected to vote to close Harborside Middle School in three to five years and possibly an elementary school as well as part of a long-range plan for the city’s schools, neither of those happened because of politics and passionate pleas from parents.
Earlier in the long-range planning process, a Long Range Planning Committee had recommended closing one or two elementary schools because of declining enrollment.
The board did vote, however, to return the schools to a K-5 configuration for the 2015-16 school year, to decentralize prekindergarten, which is now housed in only one school, and to redistrict at the elementary school level to balance the school populations.
The return to a K-5 structure is a move that parents have been pleading for since the schools moved to a K-2/3-5 structure several years ago.
Murder for hire
In 2014, Ziba Guy’s attorney described her as a beautiful, successful woman who worked hard to live up to her parents’ expectations and time after time fell in love with the wrong kind of man, ultimately bringing her to ruin.
Guy, once a successful ob-gyn in New York, was sentenced this year to more than four years in jail for her part in a murder-for-hire plot that unfolded in Milford two years ago.
A transcript of court proceedings paints a picture of a woman who had advantages in life but never knew the kind of love — from her parents or her male partners — that gave her the confidence in herself to prosper.
Milford resident Gregory Christofakis is awaiting trial in the case. He and Guy were both arrested in 2012 on charges of plotting to kill her ex-husband and Christofakis’s estranged wife.
The twisted tale started in September 2012 when Christofakis was in court and bumped into a man he met when the two were in jail together. Christofakis, owner of Greg’s Auto Body on New Haven Avenue, brought the man back to the auto body shop and started talking to him about killing his estranged wife and his girlfriend’s ex-husband, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
The man left the body shop and went home, and a month later he contacted police. Concerned that children might be present in one of the targeted homes, the man agreed to become a “cooperating witness” for police and help them confirm that what he was saying was true.
Police fitted their witness with an electronic surveillance device and followed as he met with Christofakis at Greg’s Auto Body.
With their witness wired for sound, police followed a car that the two men got into and listened to their conversation.
As they talked, Christofakis agreed to pay $20,000 “for both jobs.”
Later, the two men stopped at ShopRite on Cherry Street, where they picked up Guy. Christofakis told Guy about his plan, and she at one point responded that she did not wish anyone to be killed, according to the arrest warrant.
Nevertheless, she wrote down the name and address of her ex-husband and even provided directions to his home, the warrant states.
Guy’s attorney, Norman Pattis, said that while Guy appears to have come from a world of privilege that would preclude her involvement in such a tangled plot, that isn’t the case.
“It’s not the picture that the state talks about, from Ozzie and Harriet raising a privileged child in suburbia, who’s had all that life can offer her,” Pattis said.
When Guy was sentenced in court June 18, no family members sat in the courtroom. Her mother drove her to court, from the Bronx, N.Y., and then dropped her off to avoid the shame of a daughter who compromised her family’s image.
On a charge of conspiracy to commit assault in the first degree, the judge sentenced Guy to 10 years in jail, suspended after 51 months, followed by five years of probation, somewhat lower than the state’s request for 12 years suspended after six.
Christofakis has pled not guilty to charges of attempt to commit murder and assault. He is being held on a $1-million bond and is awaiting trial. He is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 27.
Sanford Bristol house
Historic houses were big news in 2014.
At the beginning of the year, resident Lesley Mills bought the Sanford-Bristol house on North Street, saving the historic house from demolition.
The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation had just taken ownership of the house in a move to save it from demolition, but the trust didn’t plan to keep it. A buyer was needed, and trust Executive Director Helen Higgins said she sent Mills pictures of the interior of the house.
“She said she’d buy it, and she hadn’t even been inside,” Higgins said.
She paid $200,000 for it, and expects to put in at least another $200,000 on structural repairs and restoration.
The house had been the center of a controversy for several months in Milford. The previous October, the Milford Trust for Historic Preservation, joined by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation as co-plaintiff, sued under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act to prevent the demolition of the 1790 house.
In November, the two trusts reached a settlement with property owners William P. Farrell Sr. and Gwendolyn Farrell, allowing the property to be sold to another party.
The Farrells had purchased the house and property on North Street overlooking the duck pond in January for $150,000. The house was in a state of disrepair, and they planned to restore it. However, William Farrell said the house turned out to need much more work than he’d imagined. The couple then decided to demolish it and build a more modern house on the property in the same style as the existing house, using some of the existing material.
The Historic District Commission in which the house is located OK’d the demolition after an inspection determined it was structurally unsound. But area experts and preservationists argued that the house could be saved.
The agreement between the historic trusts and the Farrells came with a tight deadline for finding a buyer for the house. If the house wasn’t sold by Jan. 12, the Farrells could knock it down on the 13th.
With the clock ticking, the Connecticut Trust stepped in and bought the house Dec. 19, and Mills took ownership of it Jan. 17.
Mills, who owns Connecticut-based Griswold Home Care, compared the mission to restore the house to her mission as a business owner. Her business provides care for elderly people. And she said caring for old homes is similar to caring for the elderly.
“For both, the cost to society is qualitative and quantitative,” she said. “In the case of older people, we risk losing their personal perspectives on history and the lessons they teach.
Toward the end of the year, after an historic house on Gulf Street was demolished, the Milford Preservation Trust, hoping to protect these landmarks and maintain Milford’s architectural heritage and historical character, proposed a new ordinance to help protect historic homes.
The trust drafted an ordinance, which is based on the Connecticut trust’s model ordinance, to add protection for structures that lie outside historic districts.
By year’s end, the ordinance had been proposed to the Board of Aldermen’s ordinance committee, but was still being crafted for presentation to the full board.
Linda Stock dies
Linda Stock died May 24 after battling cancer. She was well liked in the community and served the city for a number of years and in a number of capacities. She started in 1990 as a clerk in the Planning and Zoning office, moved on to secretary, then administrative assistant to the city planner, and finally became the zoning enforcement officer in 1997. She decided to run for office and became the city clerk in 2009.
She was also involved in a number of civic groups, including the annual Milford Oyster Festival Committee.
Joanne Rohrig, who is the new city clerk, said several people approached her about seeking the position, and at first she hesitated because she was good friends with Linda Stock.
But after talking to Ms. Stock’s family members and getting their blessing, Rohrig said she decided to go for the post.
“I’m looking forward to carrying on her work and trying to fill her shoes,” Rohrig said at the time, adding that she will run for re-election when the term ends.
Rohrig has been a leader in the community for many years, not only as a member of the Board of Education but also in her work with the Jonathan Law Sports Association, the annual Milford Oyster Festival Committee, Milford Little League, the Milford Pop Warner football program, and the United Way.
Affordable housing moratorium
An affordable housing moratorium crafted to temporarily halt affordable housing projects was in place in Milford in 2014.
The moratorium, proposed by state Sen. Gayle Slossberg, put a one-year halt on housing projects filed under the state’s affordable housing law if at least 6% of the community’s housing qualified as “affordable” under the state law. It also put a one-year halt on court appeals for affordable housing projects that have been denied.
Earlier this year, when the moratorium was proposed, 6.05% of Milford’s housing qualified as affordable under state law.
“Over the past year, developers have used Connecticut’s affordable housing appeals procedure to circumvent Milford’s zoning laws at an unprecedented rate,” incumbent legislators said in a press release announcing the intent of the moratorium. “Hundreds of citizens have spoken out, suggesting that this prevents the city from building affordable housing in a deliberate, thoughtful manner consistent with Milford’s Plan of Conservation and Development.”
The legislators said that a year would give people time to look at the law and how it is being used.
There was other activity on the affordable housing front in Milford in 2014. Milford’s Planning and Zoning Board unanimously voted to deny an affordable housing proposal that would have placed eight apartments on a .62-acre piece of land on New Haven Avenue, citing health and safely concerns.
At the very end of 2013, Milford’s Planning and Zoning Board voted to deny an applicant’s request to build a housing development off Pond Point Avenue that was also filed under the state’s affordable housing law. Residents had turned out in droves to speak at public hearings about the plan. Many cited traffic, flooding and other concerns.
This July, a 257-unit housing plan on Bic Drive that city officials had expected would be approved was denied because of the affordable housing moratorium. The Planning & Zoning Board unanimously rejected an application from Garden Homes Residential of Stamford, which was attempting to submit a plan calling for an affordable housing complex of 257 units at 460 Bic Drive.
City Planner David Sulkis said the board needed to reject the application, meaning the applicant could not even present the project to the P&Z, because the proposal does not meet the criteria for the Office District (OD), which allows only one home on the 7.38-acre property.
“Because of the moratorium, there is no way to waive the local zoning regulations,” said Sulkis.
Shortly after that, Richard Freedman, president of Garden Homes Management Corp., which wanted to build the housing on Bic Drive, wrote to the Office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity, accusing the city and state officials of unfair housing practices.