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December 31, 2012

2012 sees closures, drilling dominate

By Emily F. Popek
The Daily Star

---- — Pipeline fuels natural gas controversy

The word “frack” showed up in The Daily Star only a handful of times in 2012. Instead, the buzzword of choice was “pipeline,” a keyword that returns search results too numerous to tabulate. But at the heart of it all is still natural gas — the subject that has dominated local news coverage, to a great extent, for the better part of four years now.

And a lack of action by state officials this year all but guaranteed that natural gas will be a hot topic for 2013, if not beyond. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, tasked in 2008 with crafting a set of regulations to govern horizontal hydraulic fracturing, is still at work on the task, under the guidance of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Meanwhile, leaseholders and energy companies alike are growing antsy, wondering if Cuomo is, as the New York Times suggests, “consigning fracking to oblivion.”

Also in limbo are the scores of fracking bans and moratoriums enacted by towns, villages and cities across the state. Locally, a zoning law that would effectively ban natural gas development in the town of Middlefield has been center stage in the legal fight over “home rule” since the town was sued by dairy farmer Jennifer Huntington. Although the town won an important ruling this year from the state Supreme Court, the case — and the future of municipalities’ ability to ban fracking — will eventually be decided in the court of appeals.

As fracking took a back seat, a new battle began to be waged in the region over the proposed Constitution Pipeline. The large-diameter pipeline project, announced early this year, would transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to a compressor station in Schoharie, traveling through Chenango, Delaware and Otsego counties along the way.

While many anti-frack activists took up the pipeline cause easily enough, the project also created some strange bedfellows. Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller supported a ban on hydrofracking within city limits, but spoke in favor of the pipeline at a public hearing in October. Local business groups, including the fledgling Citizens Voices, have spoken in favor of the project, arguing that it will bring much-needed natural gas service to the region. But Cabot Williams, the company behind the project, has faced staunch and vocal opposition from landowners along its proposed route through the region.

As 2012 draws to a close, each of these issues remains unresolved, but it seems likely that 2013 could see their resolution.

Countryside Care Center closed; Otsego Manor poised for sale

The shutdown of Delaware County’s former public nursing home, Countryside Care Center, was among the more surprising stories of 2012. The facility had struggled in some respects since being taken over by Leatherstocking Healthcare LLC in 2006, being fined on a few occasions for health and safety violations.

But there was little warning when, in September, the owners decided to walk away rather than correct additional violations. Barely more than a month later, the facility was shuttered, its residents scattered to nursing homes in Albany, Binghamton, Utica and elsewhere. Its 200 employees were left without jobs, and, in some cases, its vendors were left with unpaid bills.

Throughout the hurried closure process, elected officials spoke of the possibility that the facility could be sold and the 199-bed nursing home preserved. The talk of a sale continues, but nothing has been finalized.

As the Countryside saga played out, it brought heightened scrutiny to a decision by the Otsego County Board of Representatives to sell its county-run nursing home, Otsego Manor. The Manor threatened to take the county under completely in 2012 as state and federal aid streams dried up.

After numerous warnings from county Treasurer Dan Crowell that continuing to fund the Manor would lead the county to fiscal insolvency, the board acted swiftly, passing an unheralded resolution to sell the 174-bed facility before a largely empty chamber. Protests, petitions and even the threat of legal action followed.

Despite budget wranglings that at one point seemed to hold the possibility of preserving the Manor as a county-run nursing home, the board is going forward with its plan to sell.

Unusual weather presents unique challenges

From the winter that wasn’t to the long-term effects of a late frost, 2012 proved an interesting year for local weather.

January and February saw weather extremes — not of snowfall or cold, but unseasonably warm temperatures.instead. While some area residents welcomed the milder weather, the above-average temperatures weren’t good news for everyone.

Events such as the Hanford Mills Ice Harvest and Walton Winter Festival, and local ski venues, suffered from a lack of ice, and local snowmobile and ice-fishing enthusiasts bemoaned the ongoing thaw.

When winter weather did hit, it came late in the season with a blast of snow on Leap Day, Feb. 29. A second storm about a week later brought high winds that toppled the movie screen at the Unadilla Drive-In. The screen was rebuilt later in the year.

By mid-March, high temperatures were the norm once again, with record-setting heat bringing a feeling of spring to a landscape brown and dusty from lack of rain. April saw more record-breaking high temperatures that sent dormant plants into hyperdrive — only to be bitten in May by a surprising late-season frost.

Dryness turned to drought by summer, with some localities, including Oneonta, urging residents to conserve water. The combination of factors spelled doom for local apple growers, and threw off the growing season for a variety of other crops.

The year of odd weather appears poised to close on a more ordinary note, as winter storms dumped several inches of snow on the region in time to ensure not only a white Christmas, but a white New Year’s as well.

Center Street Elementary School closes

Word came early in 2012 that budget constraints within the Oneonta City School District might prompt the closure of its oldest facility: Center Street Elementary School. As state legislators wrestled to craft a budget, Oneonta Superintendent Michael Shea warned that the closure would be necessary if more state aid was not forthcoming.

When he made the announcement in early March, Shea said he was planning for the worst and hoping for the best, adding that this was hardest decision he has made as Oneonta superintendent. But, he said closing the school was the only way he knew to maintain programs without increasing taxes an unacceptable amount.

After tense meetings and emotional pleas from parents and community members, the school board decided to put the fate of Center Street before the voters, empowering residents to decide if it was worth saving the school to raise taxes beyond the state-mandated cap amount. In the end, voters decided it wasn’t, deciding to close Center Street by a vote of 1,901 to 726.

The last day of classes at the elementary school was an emotional one for students, teachers and parents, as every student had the opportunity to take part in an activity usually reserved for outgoing sixth-graders — leaving a classroom via a window.

By fall, students in Center City were standing at bus stops instead of walking to school along their normal route. The school building that had been filled with children was now home to a much quieter group, as district officials and administrators moved in to new offices.

Despite reporting an anticipated savings of more than $700,000, Oneonta district officials nevertheless reported that another budget gap was expected for next year, meaning that more difficult decisions could be on the horizon.

Murder-suicide rocks Franklin

A 911 phone call from a Franklin home in November brought first-responders to a shocking and disturbing scene. Longtime area residents Willis Brown and his wife, Wendy, were dead in their home on Main Street. The cause of death was gunshot wounds; an investigation revealed that Willis had shot his wife, then himself. The motivation remains unknown. 

The deaths shocked not only the Franklin community, but many others beyond the village, as the couple each had deep ties throughout the region. Wendy Brown was a financial adviser who was involved in a variety of community organizations, including the Franklin Stage Company and the Oneonta Rotary. 

Rotary President Patterson said Wendy Brown was effective as an organizer and a fundraiser. She wasn’t a pushy or flashy person, he said, and she explained herself well and inspired confidence in listeners.

“If Wendy said there was a need, there was a need,” Patterson said. “Wendy was a woman of her word — she could be trusted. ... She was just absolutely beloved.”

Willis Brown taught taught electrical instrumentation and controls at SUNY Delhi and was an active outdoorsman. Though police did not describe finding any suicide note, Brown did post a note that simply read “I’m sorry” to a canoeing forum for which he was an administrator on the morning of the shooting. The post contained a link to The Daily Star’s website. 

Delaware County Undersheriff Craig DuMond said his team of investigators was “baffled” as to a motivation for the killings. 

“We’ll track down any developments that might present themselves, but as of right now, it’s a mystery as to what might have motivated Mr. Brown,” DuMond said in November.

Richfield Springs Marine dies

In November, the sad news came that another local man had joined the ranks of the thousands of men and women killed in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Cpl. Alex F. Domion, 21, of Richfield Springs, was killed Oct. 31 in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in what the U.S. Marine Corps described as a noncombat-related incident. 

Domion was assigned to the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Friends and family spoke of him as a “good kid” who enjoyed hunting, fishing and snowmobiling; for whom the Marines represented the fulfillment of a long-held goal. 

Domion received three Purple Hearts for his service. 

Flood recovery continues; Amphenol mulls move

A year after the remnants of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee brought severe flooding and billions of dollars of damage to the region, many local communities — and companies — were still rebuilding. Aid continued to flow from the state and federal governments to communities such as Prattsville and Schoharie, where recovery will be measured in years, rather than months. 

After an announcement late in 2011 that it would stay in Sidney, Amphenol’s future in the area faced another hurdle when negotiations with a landowner appeared about to break down. Although the county announced it was prepared to pursue eminent domain proceedings to obtain the parcel near the Kmart shopping plaza in Sidney, a deal was eventually released with the property owner, and the land purchase went forward, paving the way for the relocation of the manufacturer. 

Not long after the anniversary of 2011’s flooding, another superstorm threatened the area, but Sandy did only minor damage to the region compared to the devastation wrought in the New York-New Jersey area.

“People were rightfully a little nervous before this storm, but thankfully this one didn’t get us, and everyone is in good shape,” said Kevin Piccoli, chairman of Rebuild Prattsville, a group that is dedicated to rejuvenating the Greene County community that was ravaged by Hurricane Irene.

Sandy’s impact locally was a more positive one, with many aid organizations, first-responders and other volunteers donating time, money and materials to the victims of the October storm.

Walton schoolteacher accused of affairs with students

Stephanie Fletcher, 28, was arrested in November on charges of rape and endangering the welfare of a child, based on allegations that she carried on affairs with three young male students while she was a biology teacher at Walton High School.

In their depositions to police, Fletcher’s alleged victims said she flirted with them in class, texted them nude photographs of herself, and became upset when one of the young men wanted to break off the affair. They also hinted at a possible affair with a fellow teacher at the school. But some who knew Fletcher found the allegations unbelievable and argued that the bright, caring woman they know would not have behaved in such a way.

A special prosecutor appointed to try Fletcher is expected to begin hearing the case in February.

Oneonta fires attributed

to arson

A string of unusual fires struck Oneonta over a three-day period in April, ranging from trash bins set alight in alleys to the destruction of a home and garage. Within days of the first fire, an arrest had been made, charging 22-year-old Gable Bugel of Oneonta with the crimes.

Bugel, who was on probation for a fire set on Halloween night in 2007, admitted to setting one of the fires, near Community Bank. He faces a charge of third-degree attempted arson, a felony. But police were quiet about whether all seven fires were linked to Bugel, as well as what might have motivated the young man’s actions.

“I don’t know what his mind-set was or reasoning,” Oneonta Police Chief Dennis Nayor said after questioning the suspect. “He did not express any remorse at all.”

On Bugel’s Facebook page the afternoon after the first fires was the posting “Exciting night … full of thrills.”