EYE ON DRACUT ~ The Year in Review: 2023 in Dracut

By: Brian  Genest – 12-23

As we get ready to usher in a new year, here’s a look at some of the highlights and happenings from 2023 in Dracut.

* The Dracut Scholarship Foundation’s annual telethon raised more than $162,000. Since it began, the scholarship foundation has awarded nearly $2 million in scholarships to 1,700 Dracut High School graduates. Every year, the Dracut Scholarship Foundation Telethon brings out the best of Dracut, shining a bright spotlight on our community’s long-term commitment to helping DHS students.
* It was a quiet town election in Dracut this year. There were no contested races.

Chairman Alison Genest and Heather Santiago-Hutchings ran unopposed for Selectman. Genest topped the ticket for her second town election in a row, winning seven of the town’s 10 precincts, and was subsequently re-elected to serve as Chairman of the Board for a third year. In the School Committee race, Chairman Renee Young was the only candidate. Likewise in the race for Dracut Housing Authority, where incumbent George Nangle also had no challengers.

In the Dracut Water Supply District election, Gay Corey and Peter Natsios were the only two candidates for Commissioner.

* Neighborhood residents raised questions and a variety of concerns about a 300-unit affordable housing development proposed for East Dracut on the site of the former Murphy Farm. The development is expected to impact every aspect of town government, including the schools, due to its large size.

Murphy Farm is one of 12 housing developments currently in the planning stages in Dracut that are expected to bring about 900 new housing units to town. In addition, a state housing mandate calls for Dracut to accommodate another 1,200 new housing units or lose state grant funding. State legislators passed that measure with the intention of providing housing in communities near MBTA commuter rail stations. To comply with the law, the town must create a new zoning district that allows for 15 housing units to be built per acre, which the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee is working on now to meet next year’s deadline.

* Speaking of zoning bylaws, as member of the Zoning Bylaw Review Committee, which was charged with overhauling the town’s zoning bylaws for the first time since the 1980s, Selectman Heather Santiago-Hutchings totally zoned out.

Those zoning bylaw changes were supposed to come before town meeting for consideration in June, but the Board of Selectmen and residents were so blindsided and concerned by the number, scope, and potential impact of the proposed changes–and lack of communication about them–they were pushed forward to November.

Instead of focusing on policies, Heather-Santiago Hutchings had been focused on politics. She spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to change the makeup of the committee and get her political buddy Phil Thibault appointed.

Thibault, a perennial candidate who has lost nine town elections, including electoral contest against all five sitting selectmen, was ultimately rejected for the seat. The Board of Selectmen cited conflict of interest, as Thibault is an architect who conducts business in town with builders, contractors and others governed by the zoning bylaws.

* Former Dracut Selectman Sheila Richardson celebrated her 90th birthday this year at a surprise party held at Harmony Hall. It was standing room only for the celebration, which brought together many of Richardson’s family, friends, and well-wishers. As you may recall, Richardson was a force in local and state politics for decades. In addition to serving on the Board of Selectmen and Housing Authority, she was a member of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee and founder of the Dracut Republican Town Committee.

* 20-year-old Christian Lemay of Dracut was acquitted of first-degree murder and related charges in the 2020 Lowell shooting death of 20-year-old Adrian Kimborowicz.

* When Chairman Joe Wilkie unexpectedly resigned from the Dracut School Committee, Phil Thibault popped up again, with perhaps the shortest candidacy in town history to fill the unexpired term. Thibault announced he was in the race and then a nanosecond later he was out. In between, Thibault apparently realized he was unable to muster five votes from the Board of Selectmen and School Committee. Members of those two boards ended up unanimously appointing Rob Sheppard, a guy who actually ran for school committee last year and finished third in that five way-race behind winners Allison Volpe and Dr. Linda Trouville.

* Town government continued to focus on adding personnel to the public safety ranks. Three new firefighters joined the Dracut Fire Department: Ryan Talbot, Dylan McCarthy, and Jacob Martin. Four new police officers, all Dracut natives, joined the Dracut Police Department: Owen McAnespie, Aimee Levesque, Leah Papageorgiou, and Kevin Steere.

* Dracut also said goodbye to some good friends this year. Tom McAnespie, former member of the Dracut School Committee and legal counsel for the Dracut Water Supply District, passed away at age 59. Former Dracut High School Principal Bruce Hutchins passed away at age 82. Retired Dracut Police Officer Harry Curtis passed away at age 71.

* Finally, in one of the most moving and memorable moments of the year, 99-year-old Dracut veteran and volunteer Pat Walor was honored with the Joseph Bradley Varnum Award for his military and community service.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Here’s to a great 2024 in Dracut!

— Brian Genest is the producer and host of Eye On Dracut, winner of the Hometown Media Award for News, sponsored by Lucky Oil. Watch the monthly show on DATV Channel 8 in Dracut or online anytime at DracutTV.org. ◊