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Wednesday, December 26,2012

The top 10 local news stories of 2012, more or less

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: NEWS file photo.
Photo Caption: This big rock, which turned a car into a metal pancake and a garage into splinters March 20, was one of our top local news stories.

The old year staggers toward the door in its tattered robes, gripping its lower back, using its scythe-handle for a cane, and mumbling incoherently about "damned unreliable Mayans." The cute little baby New Year, squalling impatiently in its crisp white nappy, awaits its turn. And here at The Athens NEWS, we pause in our debauched holiday revels to look back on a year that was simply packed to the gill slits with heart-stopping local stories. For your end-of-year consideration: our unofficial top 10 list (in no particular order of importance)…

1. Fracking, leasing, speculating, wishing, hoping, praying, wondering

If we had to pick one dominant local news story for 2012, it would undoubtedly be something to do with the prospects of an oil-and-gas drilling boom happening here in Athens County. A quick scan of our online archives suggests that during the year, The Athens NEWS ran some 80 news articles (including numerous cover stories) that had at least some connection to this topic – not to mention a ceaseless avalanche of letters to the editor, Reader's Forums and opinion columns. You would probably be hard-pressed to find many issues of The NEWS in 2012 that didn't contain at least some mention of local oil-and-gas drilling prospects, or local reactions to them pro and con.

The issue is a hydra-headed beast, generating spin-off stories like a horizontal hydro-fracking well pad throws out underground pipes (note savvy insider allusion).

There's the "will they drill or won't they?" story – in which we have revisited time and again the question of whether the boom in drilling now being seen in places to the north like Carroll County – or any smaller version of it – will ever spread this far south.

There's the closely related "are we in the sweet oil-and-gas spot?" story, in which we have pored over geological maps and experts' opinions to try to figure out just how rich and accessible the fossil fuels under Athens County really are.

There's the "who wants to be an oil-and-gas millionaire?" story, in which we have tracked the waves of mineral-rights leasing that have taken place among landowners here, the various companies and landowner groups involved, and the rising and falling expectations of county residents for a big payoff down the line.

Then there's the rigorous local protest movement against fracking, which has included numerous feisty demonstrations, and produced a minor celebrity in the person of Madeline ffitch, a Dover Township woman who made headlines here and across the state in June, when she was arrested for chaining herself down at the site of an Alexander Township injection well for fracking wastewater.

And let us not forget the two local business partners, Randy Wolfe and Brent Hayes, who have obtained permits for two new vertical oil-and-gas wells in Rome Township. Or the big hoopla over the announcement by the Wayne National Forest that it won't rewrite its forest management plan to take horizontal fracking into account. Or the potential impact on Ohio University, which is now required by state law to inventory all its land holdings that might be ripe for drilling. Or the discussions by city and county officials on their options for putting legal restrictions on future drilling.

Yes, in terms of filling our gaping 2012 news hole, fracking, and the fears and hopes thereof, was the gift that kept on giving.

2. A visit from the commander in chief

With Ohio widely viewed as perhaps THE crucial swing state in the 2012 presidential elections, Buckeyes got plenty of attention from both major-party candidates – including, on Oct. 17, a historic visit to Athens by incumbent Democrat Barack Obama. His appearance on Ohio University's College Green made the first time a sitting president had come to Athens since Lyndon B. Johnson dropped by 48 years earlier.

Unsurprisingly for one of the truest bluest counties in Ohio, the president went over like a rock star here, with 14,000 mostly ecstatic fans packing the speech venue to whoop and roar their approval. Obama used the occasion to pepper his opponent Mitt Romney with smart-aleck attacks – including, of course, an allusion to the Republican's "binders full of women" debate remark. The president also took the opportunity to portray himself as the candidate of progressive, forward- looking change, and his challenger as a backward, reactionary, Nowhere Man from the upper Paleolithic. Mostly, though, Obama just pleaded with Democrats to get the heck out and vote.

3. The big July heat wave/blackout

On the evening of Friday, June 29, Athens County – along with much of Ohio and the Mid-Atlantic and Northern Appalachian region of the United States – was slammed by a violent and highly unusual weather catastrophe. This derecho – a rare straight-wind, hurricane-strength storm – knocked out electrical power to millions of people; about 660,000 of them were in Ohio, including most of Athens County.

And wouldn't you know it, the power had to conk out right in the middle of one truly hellacious heat wave, with temperatures hitting the high 90s and staying that way for days. Cars formed long lines at the gas stations that still had power to their pumps; people cleared all the gas-powered generators and bottled water off the shelves of local stores; ice available for retail sale became as rare as emeralds, and mountains of food spoiled in thousands of non-working refrigerators; every third store in the county had a sign in its front window reading "no ice"; global-warming alarmists muttered, "we told you so"; and everybody was pretty much drenched in sweat.

American Electric Power started getting the juice back on for some people right away – much of the city of Athens, for example, had power restored the day after the storm hit – but restoration came in patches, and it took nearly two weeks for the whole county to get back online.

4. A grueling child-murder case

Without question, the highest profile criminal case in Athens County in 2012 was that of Ashley Young, a 26-year-old woman from The Plains charged with murdering her 4-year-old stepdaughter, Kaylen Young, in May 2011. In a county where homicides are relatively rare, just about any murder case is big news. This one, though, was especially riveting, given the age of the victim, and the fact that Ashley Young was accused of trying to arrange an illegal drug buy while the child was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, suffering from head injuries her stepmom allegedly caused, which later proved fatal.

Ashley Young was at one point ruled psychologically incompetent for trial, but after she spent some time in a mental-health facility, the judge in the case ruled that her competency had been restored. With relatives of the slain Kaylen Young publicly pressuring the county prosecutor's office to bring the case to trial and convict Ashley Young, in early October she took what is called an "Alford" plea, agreeing to plead guilty to murder and other charges, but refusing to admit that she had actually committed the crimes. At a sentencing hearing Oct. 10, before a courtroom packed with both her supporters and those who yearned to see her get the harshest legal punishment, Young sobbed violently at the defense table, her face buried in her hands, while the judge sentenced her to serve 20 years to life in prison.

5. 200,000 pounds of car-crushing media frenzy

In March, an Athens couple provided an object lesson on how even small-town residents can become instant nationwide celebrities – just have a 100-ton rock fall on top your house.

That's what happened to Tim and Diane Pfaff of Fort Street the night of March 20. As they later described it, around 10 p.m. they heard what sounded like "a really loud hailstorm" outside; when they went to investigate, they found the remains of what had once been their car and part of their attached garage flattened beneath a sandstone boulder of approximately 25 feet in circumference, which had come loose and rolled down from a ridgetop across the street from their home.

Within less than 12 hours, the house had become a mecca for local gawkers, and news helicopters were chopping the sky overhead. City workers broke up the boulder and carted it away; the eroding hillside down which the boulder rolled was inspected for stability; the hillside's owner offered to give the site to the city for free; residents of Fort Street begged the city to take action to prevent future rock slips; local musicians staged a benefit to raise funds for the Pfaffs; and one of Ohio's U.S. senators helped locate some federal money to pay for removal of another iffy-looking big stone. Tim Pfaff wrote a song about the whole affair.

6. Legal dispute over facility for homeless

Ever since a non-profit organization, Integrated Services, built a small apartment complex for homeless families at 10 Graham Drive on Athens' far east side last year, the project has been pumping out news stories, with residents of the neighborhood having organized to oppose the project.

A citizens group, the SAFEST Neighborhood Association, has filed legal action against it, and has won a victory in Athens County Common Pleas Court, with a visiting judge ruling that in approving the facility, the city's Board of Zoning Appeals appears to have "exceeded or simply ignored" many provisions of city zoning code.

Integrated Services has appealed the judge's ruling, and has suggested that the opponents of the project simply don't want a facility for homeless families in their collective back yard. SAFEST has replied that the zoning board clearly bent the legal rules to approve the project in the first place. The dispute looks likely to continue for some time.

7. Sheriff's spending problems and speech impediment

Athens County Sheriff Pat Kelly won a solid re-election at the polls in November, despite a number of black marks on his record that were reported by local media. These included findings by the state auditor that Kelly had misspent more than $14,000 from a Furtherance of Justice fund, on items including a tailored suit for himself; temporary payroll coverage for employees working under the auspices of a grant that had a cash-flow problem; and tickets to a Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner. Kelly insisted he'd done nothing wrong, and hinted that the timing of the audit release was politically motivated to influence the election outcome. He later acknowledged to county officials that he didn't have enough money left in his 2012 budget to cover repayment of the findings.

The NEWS also reported on Kelly's failure to share information with an official of the state Bureau of Workers Compensation – a refusal that cost the county more than $2,000 – as well as on his severe scolding of a local village police chief for having the effrontery to post a campaign sign in his yard for Kelly's election opponent. In the conversation, secretly recorded by the chief, Kelly strongly intimated that those who support his opponents are also supportive of illegal drug dealing and child molestation.

It probably didn't make us any more popular with Kelly when we reported on charges of assault filed against his son, and on Kelly's appearance at a hearing in the case, in which he threatened to arrest the complainant, though he lacked legal authority to do so.

Based on such news coverage, along with The NEWS' election endorsement of Steve Kane over Kelly, the sheriff has taken the remarkable step of imposing on us our very own gag order – though it affects him, not us. Basically he's said he'll never speak to us again. So far, he's largely kept his promise, though once he let one of our reporters listen while he was talking to a reporter from another paper.

8. The salvation of Burr Oak lodge; the rebirth of Lake Hope lodge

In terms of good news for hospitality facilities at state parks in Athens County, 2012 was a two-lodge year.

In August, state officials announced that the lodge at Burr Oak, which the state closed in January and had been ready to raze, would be given a new lease on life. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has made a deal with U.S. Hotels, a national hospitality and leisure company, to take over the running of the facility.

We also reported, earlier this month, on the rebuilt lodge at Lake Hope; the former lodge there burned down six years ago, in a fire whose cause is still unknown. The former executive chef at Ohio University and a partner signed a contract to run a restaurant there, and it's currently in full operation.

9. What once were quarters are now semesters

After talking about it interminably for approximately forever, Ohio University finally made the switch in 2012 from a quarter system to an academic calendar using semesters. The class session that just ended was OU's first semester in decades, and while students, faculty and administrators all had to make some adjustments, the general consensus seems to be that it could have been a whole lot worse. Among uptown businesses, however, the jury's apparently still out on whether the new calendar will prove a boon to holiday sales to students.

One of the main upshots in the shift to semesters appears to be the effects on the student body's work and party habits. Student consensus appears to be that they had to work harder and longer under semesters than quarters, and at the same time, local police noted that an expected transfer of spring block parties to autumn, with the associated behavior and law-enforcement problems, never materialized. It's still too early to say for sure, but so far it appears that switching to semesters may have taken a good whack at OU's long-standing party school rep.

10. Voters put new faces in county government

Athens County saw a significant makeover of its county government in the 2012 election cycle, as voters unseated two incumbent commissioners and an incumbent county engineer.

First to go was Democrat Commissioner Mark Sullivan, whose problems in his personal life probably played a role in his downfall. These included being charged twice with domestic violence, and spending a night in jail on a drunk-and-disorderly charge. In the Democratic primary, voters chose political newcomer Chris Chmiel as their candidate in November. Chmiel went on to win the general election over Republican Randy Mace.

The second commission seat that changed names was that of Republican incumbent Larry Payne. Despite an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it endorsement of Payne by the generally Democrat-leaning Athens NEWS, he was defeated by Democratic challenger Charlie Adkins.

Incumbent county Engineer Archie Stanley also went down to defeat after more than three decades in office, at the hands of Jeff Maiden in the Democratic primary. Maiden went after Stanley aggressively, claiming he spent little time at the office; he beat the incumbent by a huge margin, taking some 83 percent of the vote.

Other big stories of 2012 that you may recall include: The big fight over whether OU should tear down an old TB ward on the Ridges… the Levi Canterbury rape case… the sale of the Pine-Aire Village trailer park… new jobs coming to the county courtesy of the CGI and Anchor Hocking companies… the sale of the former Blue Gator restaurant/bar… the seemingly endless street repairs in uptown Athens… the purchase, for close to $40 million, of a huge chunk of Athens' rental market in the form of the Riverpark Towers and River's Edge Apartments on McKinley Road, and Athens Apartments on Andover Road… the dreams of BCS glory for the OU football team, sadly smashed to earth in the latter part of the season... and so many more! Head to our website, and using our handy search function, make up your own list! (Or just use Google if you want to get there quicker and easier.) Share it with your friends! Or simply go to our digital archives, and review the whole year! That will be fun!


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