Solnit Youth Psychiatric Center Struggles with Staffing Shortages, Downsizing

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MIDDLETOWN — When Akashdeep Aujla, a psychiatrist at the Albert J. Solnit Children’s Center in Middletown, began working at the center 20 years ago, he said that the center had 100 hospital beds. Now, he said the facility has a maximum inpatient capacity of 44, and it is struggling to bring in workers.  “The last psychiatrist we recruited at Solnit was 17 years ago,” Aujla said during a virtual panel discussion on the availability of mental health services to children in Connecticut.  Solnit, the only state-run long-term psychiatric facility in Connecticut, houses children between 12 and 18 years old with

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Winery Plans Meet with Questions, Opposition at Middletown Hearing

MIDDLETOWN – At a public hearing Wednesday night, neighbors of the first proposed farm winery in Middletown questioned why a commercial business, and the traffic and noise that would come with it, would be allowed in their quiet, residential neighborhood. Joe DeFrancesco – who is proposing to turn his 7.3 acre property on Miner Street in the Westfield neighborhood of Middletown into a farm winery that he said could host small events – said he was willing to work to address the concerns raised by his neighbors and members of the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission.  But his promises did

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Farm and Winery Planned for Middletown Parcel Under New Regulations

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MIDDLETOWN – Looking for a fresh start and a new career, Joe DeFrancesco bought a farm at 519 Miner St. in the Westfield area with plans for a quaint winery that would serve as the foundation for his farm business. DeFrancesco is the first to apply for a farm winery since the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission approved several new uses for farms in town – looking to give farmers more options for revenue as the high cost of land and low margins continue to threaten the stability of small Connecticut farms. Having grown up on a farm in Haddam,

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Parents Caught in Fighting at Middletown Schools Ask School Officials for Help

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MIDDLETOWN — A small but active group of parents is pressing the Board of Education to take stronger action against fighting at the middle and high school, but local school officials say that the number of fights is no greater than in any other year. They acknowledge that fighting is a problem, but also voiced concerns that a disproportionate number of Black and brown students have been disciplined for incidents in the schools.  Last year, Maria Amato’s niece was an honor student at Middletown High School. This year, Amato said, things have changed – her niece, a junior, has skipped

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Court Ruling Invalidates Supermajority Rule, Opens Approval to Methadone Clinic

MIDDLETOWN – A recent court ruling could upend the local Planning and Zoning Commission’s requirement that a supermajority approve any application, and would reverse the commission’s recent decision to deny approval to a proposed methadone clinic on Washington Street. The decision from Middletown Superior Court Judge Rupal Shah comes in response to an appeal the Root Center filed after it was denied a zone change to build a methadone treatment clinic where Fine Tunes Auto Repair is on Washington Street.  It was the first application for a methadone clinic made after the commission unanimously ended  Middletown’s prohibition on methadone clinics

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Middletown Board of Education Cancels Planned Closed-Door ‘Retreat’

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MIDDLETOWN — The Board of Education walked back a decision to hold a behind-closed-doors retreat on Saturday that would have violated state freedom of information laws. According to the posted agenda, the board planned to discuss five items in an executive session, or behind closed doors. These items included a discussion of the responsibilities of the school board, an overview of the Strategic Operation plan, board goals, the school website, and a discussion of a committee on personnel.  That plan came under fire from one local resident, in a widely distributed letter, who pointed out that such a meeting would

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Board of Education Hears Outpouring of Public Concern in Middletown

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MIDDLETOWN — In a  meeting on Tuesday night, parents and members of the community, Mayor Benjamin Florsheim and party leaders of the Common Council, implored the city’s Board of Education to pursue a fair and transparent investigation of claims of harassment by current and former employees of the school district.  More than 20 people addressed the board to voice their concerns about the impartiality of the investigation, the perceived lack of transparency by the board, and to offer support to the superintendent of schools.  Those comments are in part a response to a mid-October joint statement by the teacher’s union,

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Candidates for Middletown P&Z Sound off

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MIDDLETOWN —  Given that voters will be asked to choose between seven candidates running to fill three open seats on the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission next week, CT Examiner reached out to get a better sense of why they are running, what they would bring to the commission, and what they picture for the riverfront redevelopment – a project they all said would be the major development to tackle during their terms, and maybe in their lifetimes. Three Republicans and three Democrats are competing for full seats on the commission. The Republicans are current Vice Chair Nick Fazzino, former

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Vote on School Hiring in Middletown Draws Mixed Response

MIDDLETOWN — On November 2, voters will be asked to approve a change to the town charter that would shift the hiring and supervision of school district employees without teaching credentials from the purview of the Mayor to the Board of Education and superintendent of schools. Support for the change has been mixed, with the Mayor’s Office and Majority Leader of the Common Council touting the new arrangement as more efficient and less convoluted, while representatives for the local union say that the change could weaken their negotiating power. Under the current charter, employees who are certified by the state

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DeVoto Run Could Give De Facto Supermajority to Democrats on P&Z

MIDDLETOWN — In a risky bid that could alter the shape of the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission, current Chair Stephen DeVoto – until recently a Democrat – is running for re-election as an unaffiliated candidate. If DeVoto succeeds in retaining his seat on the commission without the support of the Middletown Democratic Town Committee, Democrats could have a de facto 5-2 supermajority on the commission – a situation one town Republican leader says would skirt minority representation rules that allow no more than four representatives from one party on the commission. DeVoto, a professor of biology at Wesleyan University,

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Middletown Residents Brainstorm on Riverfront Redevelopment

MIDDLETOWN — Over 150 residents gathered on a virtual community forum on Tuesday evening to brainstorm about the best ways to redevelop the riverfront.  The city has hired three firms to oversee the riverfront redevelopment project — the consulting firm Karp Strategies, the engineering and environmental consulting firm Langan and the architectural firm Cooper Robertson.  Mayor Ben Florsheim said that the title of the project, “Return to the Riverbend” referred to a desire to reconnect the city with the waterfront, which he referred to as its “origin and soul.”  “Over time, generation after generation … that waterfront has become more

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Middletown Developer Pitches Big Plans for Mixed-Use, Business and Events Space

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MIDDLETOWN – Stripped down to its brick walls and steel beams, the inside of 545 Main Street is almost a blank canvas for new owner, JR Hargreaves. A lifelong resident of Middletown, who first lived on Ferry Street just a few hundred feet away from the building – Hargreaves has plans to transform a space that for decades was home to an indoor roller skating rink into a mixed-use development combining apartments, office and retail space for small businesses, and a community event space. After months of teardown, the back of the building that housed the roller rink is now

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Middletown Area and 9 Town Transit Near Agreement, Plan Expanded Service

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After more than two years of deliberation and negotiation, a plan is nearly in place to combine Middletown Area Transit with 9 Town Transit into a single district. The agreement is intended to provide the separate, smaller transit districts with additional financial stability. A combined district also feeds hopes of expanded bus service across Middlesex County connecting rail and bus lines in southeastern Connecticut with the Hartford and New Haven areas. Durham First Selectman Laura Francis, who serves on the boards of both transit districts, said the consolidation addresses the reality that small transit districts are not sustainable in the

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Middletown Common Council Approves Hiring Erik Costa as Chief of Police

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MIDDLETOWN — After an hour of questions on Monday night, Middletown Common Council voted unanimously to approve hiring Erik Costa as the city’s next chief of police. Costa will become the next chief of the Middletown Police Department following the completion of a background check. Mayor Ben Florsheim said that the city’s human resources department is working with a “trusted third party” to complete the process.  Costa will bring 26 years law enforcement experience to the department, from his first job as a seasonal officer on Martha’s Vineyard, and serving as the commander of the Connecticut State Police Troop F

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Faced with $700,000 Roof Replacement, Middletown Debates Microgrid Offer

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MIDDLETOWN — Faced with the need to replace the roof on the city’s future recreation center sooner than expected, Middletown sought out a creative solution that would not only replace the roof, but create a micro-grid complete with solar generation and battery storage that would allow the city to use the center as a warming/cooling and emergency shelter. As Middletown officials surveyed what remains of the former Woodrow Wilson Middle School – set to become a town recreation center – they realized the roof needed to be replaced sooner than they expected when they sold “phase one” of the building’s

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Middletown Approves Rules Allowing Marijuana Cultivation and Sale

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MIDDLETOWN – The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday approved regulations that would allow the cultivation and sale of marijuana in Middletown, without taking action on the commission chair’s proposal to allow cultivation in residential zones that currently allow farming. The regulations approved by the commission allow “micro-cultivation” in three of the city’s four industrial zones – not including the I-3 zone that sits along the Connecticut River – its Interstate Trade zone along I-91, and its transitional development and industrial redevelopment zones. The commission also approved allowing marijuana retail sales in the city’s general business district – which

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Middletown Eases Restrictions on Small Farm Businesses

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MIDDLETOWN – In an effort to give local farmers more opportunities for additional revenue, on Wednesday night the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission approved easing restrictions on small farms looking to open a farm stand – and the commission is considering regulations for on-farm wineries and breweries. Under Middletown’s existing regulations, permanent, year-round farmers markets were permitted in residential areas by special exception, but only on properties of at least 20 acres that abut a state highway. The change made Wednesday would allow farmers markets by special exception on properties of at least 5 acres, and would not require an

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11-2 Vote Supports Student Resource Officers in Middletown Schools

MIDDLETOWN — An exploratory committee tasked with evaluating the Student Resource Officer Program in Middletown Public Schools voted 11-2 to keep the current program, but to update the memorandum of understanding between the police department and the district. The current document would be revised to include specific policies related to hiring, removal, training and chain of command structure. The committee was created in March to solicit perspectives from parents, officers, educators and students and to return recommendations to the town’s board of education. The committee includes two members of the board of education, three school principals, two teachers, a social

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Students Urge Committee to End Resource Officer Program in Middletown Schools

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MIDDLETOWN — On Tuesday night, current students and recent graduates of Middletown High School voiced support for ending a program that places police officers in district schools. The public comment was part of a meeting of the Middletown School Resource Officer Exploratory Committee, which was formed in March to evaluate the role of officers in Middletown schools. The committee will advise the Board of Education on how to address the issue moving forward. The committee includes two board of education members, three school principals, two teachers, a social and emotional learning coordinator, four community members, three students, the youth service coordinator,

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Middletown Council Tables Effort to Withdraw From Power Plant Agreement

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MIDDLETOWN – Despite council members’ objections to plans to build a new natural gas-fired turbine at a Middletown power plant, efforts to end a tax agreement with the plant’s owner have been put temporarily on hold. Mayor Ben Florsheim said during the Common Council meeting Monday night that Princeton, New Jersey-based NRG is open to pursuing a “mutual withdrawal or termination” from a tax stabilization agreement for the company’s power plant on the Connecticut River in south Middletown, which the council approved in 2019. The council voted to table the motion to end the agreement, and to take the measure

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Middletown Offers Tax Help for Historic Renovations

MIDDLETOWN —  Soon Middletown property owners willing to complete at least $15,000 of restoration work on a historic structure could qualify for up to 10 years of full or partial property tax abatements.  The Middletown Common Council last week voted unanimously to approve the program. Middletown Director of Planning, Conservation and Development Joe Samolis said he’s wanted to set up this kind of program ever since he started working for the city. Samolis previously worked at the State Historic Preservation Office. “I was well aware of the federal aid programs that were available for the general public to use [for

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Middletown Moves Forward with Plan to Redevelop Waterfront Parcels

The Middletown Common Council voted unanimously on Monday night to purchase four properties as part of its long-term plan to develop the waterfront.  The purchases, which are valued at $2.55 million, are part of a larger $55 million bonded project to develop properties and improve public infrastructure in Middletown’s downtown and riverfront areas. Voters approved the project in a referendum on November 4.  The four properties include the former Jackson Corrugated Container manufacturer at 225 River Road, and three residential properties at 27, 35, and 41 Eastern Drive. The entire land parcel is nine acres, according to Joseph Samolis, Middletown’s

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Lamont in Middletown to Announce Statewide Rollout of Free Public WiFi Sites

MIDDLETOWN — City Hall and Russell Library will provide free, public WiFi networks as part of a statewide initiative to bring reliable internet access to underserved communities, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday morning.  In a press conference in Middletown, Lamont said that these locations will be the first of 200 community sites across Connecticut, spread across 169 towns. A combination of state and federal dollars will fund the initiative, and the Middletown networks are expected to be up and running by the end of the week. State officials did not share a timeline for the statewide rollout.  “This is something

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Middletown Approves Purchase of 40 Acres from Bysiewicz Family for Open Space

MIDDLETOWN — The city’s efforts to preserve open space took a step forward on Monday as the Common Council approved buying 40 acres that could be used to expand walking trails at Smith Park and will preserve a patch of farmland nearly surrounded by houses. The council voted unanimously to allow the city to use $750,000 of bond funds voters approved in 2019 to buy 39.7 acres of land in the Westfield area. Half of the property is wooded and faces the wooded section of Smith park, while the half of the property facing East Street is open space that

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Florsheim Announces Sale of NRG Plant, Possible Energy Storage Plan

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MIDDLETOWN — A gas-fired power plant that drew controversy over plans to build a new turbine was among the fossil fuel plants NRG Energy is selling, Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim said Monday night. NRG announced Monday that it was selling 4.8 GW of fossil fuel generating assets to Generation Bridge, an affiliate of ArcLight Capital Partners, for $760 million. Florsheim said the company announced in a meeting on Monday morning these assets include the Middletown power plant, as well as plants in New York and California. The announcement comes just over two weeks after NRG failed to secure funding in

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Renewed Investment in Gas-Fired Energy Spurs Debate in Middletown

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MIDDLETOWN — A major energy company is pitching its replacement of two nearly 70-year old natural gas-fired turbines at a Middletown power plant as environmentally friendly, but local and statewide advocates for renewable energy question why new fossil fuel-fired infrastructure is being built at all. Princeton-based NRG has proposed replacing two gas- and fuel-powered turbines, built in 1958 and 1964, with one turbine that is more efficient and faster to start.  The 375-megawatt turbine will replace the same nameplate amount of megawatts as the two existing turbines, and generate lower emissions per hour, but the new turbine is also expected

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Marino’s Re-opens, Offers a Taste of Middletown’s North End

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MIDDLETOWN — The first week Francesca Vitale re-opened Marino’s Pizzeria, all the old customers came back, clamoring for the hamburg pizza her mother made famous. “On the first day, we did like 100 pizzas,” Vitale said. Vitale’s grandfather, Sebastiano Marino immigrated from Sicily in 1898 and opened a bakery on Ferry Street in Middletown’s North End in 1920. Vitale’s mother, Constance Marino-Vitale, opened Marino’s Restaurant in 1941. Both were staples of the Italian-American community in Middletown until the restaurant closed in 1992. When Vitale and her friend Carla Marino opened back up Marino’s in a new location on William Street,

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Advocates, Opponents, Debate Plans to Open the First Methadone Clinic in Middlesex County

Between 2015 and 2019, 73 people from Middletown died of a drug overdose, more deaths per capita than in New Haven or Bridgeport. At least 17 Middletown residents have died so far in 2020. By comparison, New Haven has five clinics that dispense methadone – one of three drugs commonly used in medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorders — Bridgeport has three. There are no dispensaries anywhere in Middlesex County and since 1989, zoning regulations have prohibited methadone clinics from operating in Middletown. The Root Center for Advanced Recovery, which offers methadone and other medication-assisted treatment for drug addiction at

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