Here are Berkshire County's top stories of 2015

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PITTSFIELD — One incumbent mayor fought off a challenge to stay in office, while the other suffered a resounding defeat.

Two violent incidents — including a mass shooting — occurred in the span of a month in Pittsfield last summer, while the epidemic of opioids that has affected New England in general continued to ravage the Berkshires.

These are the top three stories of 2015 as selected by the staff of The Berkshire Eagle.

The list of top stories also included Sabic Innovative Plastics' decision to leave Pittsfield, the continuing controversy over Kinder Morgan's proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline project, and three major renovation projects in North Adams.

General Electric's decision to reject the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan to clean polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield also made the list, along with the approval of local and state funding for the construction of the new Taconic High School in Pittsfield.

Several situations involving local Police Department personnel; and last winter's frigid weather that depleted snow removal budgets and caused a shortage of road salt in Pittsfield round out the list.

1. Elections: In Pittsfield, City Clerk Linda M. Tyer soundly defeated two-term incumbent Daniel L. Bianchi in November's mayoral election earning 59.1 percent of the vote by sweeping all 14 precincts and all seven city wards.

Tyer is the third woman to hold the office since Pittsfield began electing mayors, and will be the first mayor in city history to serve a four-year term following a 2013 charter change. She also defeated Bianchi in the four-way preliminary election in September. Bianchi ran unopposed in 2013.

In North Adams, three-term incumbent Mayor Richard J. Alcombright was soundly beaten by former Mayor John Barrett III in a three-way preliminary election in September, but he rebounded to beat Barrett by 400 votes in the general election.

Alcombright had ended Barrett's 26-year tenure as North Adams mayor in 2009. Barrett swept all five city wards in the preliminary election in his 15th run for office, but lost in the general election as 52 percent of the electorate cast ballots.

2. Violence: Two violent incidents were reported in Pittsfield last summer, while a fourth took place in December.

On the night of July 4, a mass shooting occurred on Linden Street in Pittsfield, injuring four and killing Ronald Pinel, 25, of Pittsfield. No arrests have been made in the case, and what sparked the dispute remains a mystery. The Pittsfield case is classified as one of the country's 353 mass shooting incidents to date in 2015.

Three weeks later on July 30, Keenan S. Pellot Jr., 18, of Pittsfield, was killed and a 17-year-old man was wounded in a mid-day shooting that occurred in front of a barber shop on Tyler Street in Pittsfield. A warrant was issued for the alleged shooter, 18-year-old Thomas Lee Newman Jr., on July 31. He was arrested in Utica, N.Y., the following day. According to Pellot's mother, Newman had been dating Pellot's 16-year-old sister, and the dispute that led to the shooting was a "family issue."

3. Heroin epidemic continues: After losing at least 1,089 people to overdose deaths statewide (25 of them in Berkshire County) last year, heroin continued its deadly trend in Massachusetts and in the Berkshires in 2015.

In November, Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless joined his counterparts from around the state in supporting Gov. Charlie Baker's legislation to help curb opioid abuse in Massachusetts.

Provisions in the bill include restrictions on the number of opioid painkillers as doctor may initially prescribed to patients.

In a statement, Capeless criticized physicians whose overprescribing of painkillers contributed to the epidemic and members of the Massachusetts Medical Society who have balked at the restrictions on their practice that they feel the bill would impose.

During a stop in Pittsfield in December, Attorney General Maura Healey urged a continued hard focus on treatment, enforcement, legislative and other initiatives to battle the problem of opiate abuse and overuse of prescription pain medications.

Also in December, police in North Adams arrested a Connecticut man that they believed sold heroin linked to a recent string of fatal overdoses, one of them fatal. Brian Ducksworth, 25, of Hartford, had been under investigation since March, according to police.

4. Sabic, Best Buy, and the BIC: In October, Sabic Innovative Plastics announced that it would be moving what was left of its world headquarters in Pittsfield to Houston sometime next year taking some 300 well-paying jobs out of the area. In December, Sabic announced that it would close its polymer processing center in Pittsfield within two years and move those operations to Selkirk, N.Y., outside of Albany,

Sabic had purchased GE Plastics in Pittsfield for $11.6 million in 2007. GE had been in Pittsfield for 73 years.

On Aug. 31, Best Buy announced that it had declined to renew its lease with the Berkshire Mall's parent company and would close its outlet in the mall on Oct. 31. The company had 63 employees, 28 of them full-time. Best Buy is the first anchor store to close in the mall, which was sold in 2014.

Construction of the 20,000-square-foot Berkshire Innovation Center in the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires was originally scheduled to take place in October, but was postponed when a $600,000 funding gap developed between the facility's estimated and budgeted construction costs. Officials are still working on bridging that gap. The groundbreaking is now scheduled to take place in the spring.

5. Kinder Morgan controversy: The discussion over Kinder Morgan's proposal to run part of a 412-mile natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to Dracut through seven Berkshire County towns continued in 2015 as several developments took place.

In July, Kinder Morgan obtained an option to purchase an 89-acre parcel on Peru Road in Windsor to construct a compressor station associated with the pipeline project. According to Town Clerk Madeline Scully, the majority of Windsor residents oppose the pipeline project.

In August, the Berkshire Gas Co.'s Connecticut-based parent company, UIL Holdings Corp., announced that it planned to invest $80 million in the $3.3 billion project to transport gas from the pipeline.

In September, Northeast Energy Solutions, an environmental advocacy group with 1,600 members in Massachusetts, appealed the state Department of Public Utilities decision to allow three distribution entities, including Berkshire Gas, to transport gas from that project to the Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court. Two other organizations, the Pipeline Awareness Network of New England and the Conservation Law Foundation have also taken legal action against the DPU's decision with the SJC.

On Nov. 20, Kinder Morgan filed a 6,000-page document with FERC seeking formal approval for the pipeline's construction.

On Dec. 8, federal regulators asked the project's developers to consider alternative routes for the pipeline, including one along the Massachusetts Turnpike that the company had previously dismissed. Regulators have also asked Kinder Morgan to respond to 28 comments on the project filed between Oct. 19 and Nov. 25 that include issues raised by state Attorney General Maura Healey's office.

6. Mills, motels and museums: On Dec. 5, Thomas Krens, the visionary behind the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, officially proposed transforming a section of Western Gateway Heritage State Park in North Adams into a massive multimillion-dollar extreme model railroad and architecture museum.

The former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Krens has also proposed renovating the Mohawk Theatre on Main Street and building a 160,000-square-foot contemporary art museum at Harriman-West Airport.

In July, a New York City based property development company purchased the former Cariddi Mill on 508 State Road. Principals Salvatore Perry and Karla Rothstein hope to transform the 340,000-square-foot complex into artisan workspaces, event space, a restaurant, and hotel and residential space. The Historical Commission approved the first phase of Latent Productions' renovation project for the now Greylock Mill project in December.

In April, a developer purchased the former Redwood Motel, located across the Hoosic River from the Blackinton Mill. Besides renovating the hotel, Broder Properties LLC has also expressed an interest in renovating the mill. Plans call for the two properties to be developed into a lodging and recreation facility.

7. EPA, GE and PCBs: In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its "intended final decision" to the General Electric Co. on its massive 13-year, $613 million plan to clean PCBs from the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield.

Plans include the excavation and capping of most PCBs located in a 10.5-mile stretch of the river between Fred Garner Park in Pittsfield and the heavily contaminated Woods Pond in Lenox.

In October, GE rejected the EPA's plan by invoking an appeal procedure known as an "informal dispute resolution," a day before the 30-day deadline that started the appeal process was scheduled to begin.

In December, negotiations between GE and the EPA moved into a decisive phase on the scope of the Rest of the River cleanup. GE is required to release a written position statement on the dispute by Jan. 19, with the EPA required to respond by Feb. 29.

8. Funding for new Taconic High School approved: In April, the City Council approved bonding up to $45 million for the city's share of the cost in constructing the new Taconic High School on Valentine Road.

In June, the Massachusetts School Building Association approved the city of Pittsfield's $120.8 million design plan for the new high school building project, which has been under discussion for several years. The MSBA has issued approval for $74.2 million in state funding for the project.

In December, Pittsfield's Community Development Board approved the new high school's site plan. The 246,520-square-foot structure, which will be built adjacent to the current high school, is expected to be completed by 2018.

9. Police issues: In June, former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis was convicted of extortion but cleared of 10 other charges following a trial in U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Buffis, who had been charged in 2014, was found guilty of soliciting $4,000 from a couple in Lee in exchange for dropping pending criminal charges against them. In September, Buffis' attorney, Lori Levinson, filed a motion seeking to have the extortion charge dismissed, but it was denied by the court in early December. Sentencing for Buffis has been delayed twice and is now scheduled for January.

In November, Pittsfield Police Officer Jeffrey Coco was fired for allegedly stealing $150,000 from two Pittsfield police unions over a three-year period. Coco, a former president of the police union, had been placed on paid administrative leave July 3 pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation. On Dec. 1, Coco announced that he intended to appeal his dismissal.

Two other veteran Pittsfield Police officers, Sgt. Mark Lenihan and Patrol Officer Christopher Kennedy, filed whistleblower lawsuits against the Police Department and the City of Pittsfield alleging that they had been passed over for promotions then retaliated against for pointing out discrepancies in hiring polices and other practices within the department.

On Nov. 16, a federal lawsuit filed against five Pittsfield Police Department officers and two Department of Children and Families employees in August 2011 was settled before a word of testimony was heard in a trial in Springfield.

Debra and Joline Simonetta of Pittsfield alleged that the five officers and two DCF employees violated their constitutional rights, and that police assaulted them, when they took custody of the Simonetta's granddaughter on Aug. 14, 2008.

10. Frigid weather: In February, Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, Commissioner of Public Utilities Brice Collingwood and Highway Superintendent Kevin Swail appeared before the City Council to answer questions after a flurry of complaints were received by the city regarding snow plowing issues between Feb. 14 and Feb. 17.

A blizzard and frigid conditions over that three-day time span resulted in more than 60 minor accidents and left sections of many city streets covered with either snow or ice, or appearing to be unplowed for lengthy periods of time.

Harsh winter weather leading up to that time span had left the city with less than 600 tons of the 2,500 tons of road salt that had been budgeted for the winter.

In Lenox, the town's snow removal budget was exhausted by Feb. 20. For the winter, Pittsfield's total snow removal budget was exceeded by $650,000.

Honorable mention: On July 4, Alexander Ciccolo, 23, the estranged son of a Boston Police captain, was arrested at his apartment in Adams and charged with plotting a terrorist attack.

It is alleged that Ciccolo, who had used the name Ali Al Amriki, had acquired weapons to conduct a terrorist attack on a college campus in the name of the Islamic State, according to police.

Alexander's father, Robert Ciccolo, had alerted law enforcement authorities to his son's activities in the fall of 2014.

Alexander Ciccolo was arraigned in federal court in Springfield July 28 on charges of illegal possession of a firearm and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. His next court appearance is scheduled for February.

Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.


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