The Record's top 10 stories of 2011

The year that ends at midnight Saturday with the annual Duck Drop and fireworks at Havre de Grace Middle School was full of the good and the bad. There was the usual – mayoral elections in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace and heavy snowfalls. And the not so usual – a real earthquake and two music icons performing along the Susquehanna River.

Here is one list of the top 10 news stories of 2011 in The Record's readership area.

1 – Irene and Lee bring memories of Agnes

Parts of Harford and Cecil counties were under water after two huge storms in two weeks in late August and early September, the latter which caused the Susquehanna River to rise to levels approaching Tropical Storm Agnes nearly 40 years earlier.

Hurricane Irene hit Maryland at the end of August, downing trees and leaving homes in the dark, some for days. After all was said and done, 5 inches of rain fell across Harford and Cecil counties, the National Weather Service reported. At Irene's worst, more than 100 roads were closed in Harford.

While Havre de Grace received rainfall between 4.8 inches and 5.23 inches, the flooding and tidal surge wasn't as treacherous as 2003's Hurricane Isabel, which left parts of the Promenade in Havre de Grace destroyed.

But Irene was just a sign of things to come. The area didn't have much time to recuperate before Tropical Storm Lee brought horrendous rain two weeks later. On the morning of Friday, Sept. 9, the volume of water flowing through 50 open floodgates at Conowingo Dam reached its third highest level in the 82-year history of the dam.

Port Deposit sustained the most damage. Town officials and residents said the majority of the town was under four to five feet of water. Fortunately, conditions weren't as dire as during Agnes, when the river crested four feet higher than it did during Lee.

The natural disaster to kick everything off, though, was the unexpected 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the East Coast on Aug. 23.

The earthquake, which lasted about 10 seconds slightly before 2 p.m. that Tuesday, was felt as far north as Toronto and as far south as Georgia, though the epicenter was in Virginia.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported two minor aftershocks, though they went mostly unnoticed.

2 – BRAC arrives; Army declares 'mission accomplished'

After six long years, the base closure and realignment transfer and build-up at Aberdeen Proving Ground came to an official close, complete with military ceremony to celebrate the occasion, Sept. 15.

BRAC added six organizations to the installation, 6,500 net jobs and 2.8 million square feet of new and renovated space.

The monumental occasion was marked in a ceremony at APG with civilian employees and defense contractors, service men and women and public officials, including Harford County Executive David Craig. APG Installation Commander Maj. Gen. Nick Justice was photographed giving a thumbs up to the assembled guests.

A month before the ceremony, however, Harford and Cecil State Sen. Nancy Jacobs spoke out about the Maryland state government not meeting the needs for road upgrades in the county.

Jacobs, who served on the joint committee on BRAC, said the huge influx of employees moving and traveling to Harford has created traffic issues on the roads that lead to and from APG. When the senator asked state agencies overseeing the process about when these road improvements, specifically on Routes 40 and 715 in Aberdeen, would be made, Jacobs summarized the state administration's response: "This project is fully funded and relocation of utilities is well under way. Not much construction is yet noticeable to drivers. Heavy construction is expected soon. The expected completion date is summer of 2013."

The traffic problem and the lack of new road improvements to solve it threatened to get worse, with more commercial development planned in and around Aberdeen. In 2011, Harford's Route 40 corridor experienced the highest rate of commercial property valuation from all that BRAC growth, the state announced at year's end.

3 – For whom the toll costs

Harford and Cecil county drivers were livid when the Maryland Transportation Authority announced general toll increases for the state's bridges and tunnels in the spring, including the Route 40 Hatem and I-95 Tydings bridges over the Susquehanna River.

The plan to raise the $5 cash toll on the two bridges to $6 on Oct. 1 and $8 in July 2013 wasn't the problem, but the MdTA's proposal to kill the $10 AVI yearly decal on the Hatem Bridge and replace it with an EZpass rate eventually costing $72-plus a year was a deal breaker.

More than 1,000 people jammed the auditorium at Perryville High School in June to protest the toll increase. Hundreds more attended a second hearing at the Havre de Grace Activity Center not long afterward. Another sticking point was big increases planned for tolls on multi-axle vehicles, including local people hauling their boat and work trailers across the bridges frequently.

Eventually, the MdTA bowed to pressure and backed off the steep increase, deciding in September to keep the AVI decal system until Feb. 1 when it would be replaced by a $10 a year EZpass, increasing to just $20 a year effective July 1, 2013. MdTA also agreed that motorists won't have to buy transponders or pay monthly charges.

"You get a free EZPass, you get no monthly charges and you don't have to put anything down on it, and I don't think that's been comprehended by everybody," Sen. Jacobs said after the MdTA decision. The agency also agreed to a recalculation of multi-axle vehicle rates that promised to lower the tolls for 3-axle and 4-axle vehicles by $3 and $5 a trip, respectively, taking effect Jan. 1, 2012.

The cash toll on Route 40 at the bridge, as well as I-95, did increase to $6 Nov. 1, and will increase again to $8 July 2013, but Jacobs and other local officials hailed the AVI fight as a major victory for local residents and commuters. Some 150,000 people annually use the AVI program at the Hatem Bridge, the MdTA confirmed during the summer debate over the toll increase.

4 – Returning to city hall in Aberdeen, HdG

Two incumbent mayors were re-elected this year — Michael Bennett in Aberdeen and Mayor Wayne Dougherty in Havre de Grace. One race turned out to be a runaway, but the other ended much closer than many anticipated.

Dougherty was re-elected to his third term as mayor in May, winning by a nearly 2-1 margin against City Councilman Mitch Shank.

Election officials reported 1,805 of the city's 7,883 registered voters cast ballots. Dougherty received 1,128 and Shank got only 647.

The race in Aberdeen was a different story.

Bennett was re-elected to a third term in November, but by just 25 votes over 25-year-old Patrick McGrady, a relative newcomer to city and county politics who had previously lost a bid for a House of Delegates seat a year earlier.

The final official vote count was Bennett with 766 and McGrady 741.

In the closing weeks, the Aberdeen campaign had its ugly moments. Bennett described it at the time as the "nastiest" election he had been in.

During the campaign, McGrady accused the mayor of violating city ethics laws by making a lobbying trip to Georgia on behalf of Ripken Baseball's efforts to get a new, publicly financed minor league ballpark in Augusta. Just days before the election, the city's Ethics Commission ruled Bennett had violated the law unintentionally by failing to report the trip. Bennett vowed to fight the charge.

In Port Deposit, former mayor Wayne Tome Sr. returned to town hall, after winning a three-way race in May over Rob Flayhart, another former mayor, and incumbent Kerry Anne Abrams. Tome had most recently been serving as a Cecil County county commissioner but lost his seat in the 2011 primary election.

5 – Fighting for dollars, visibility in Casinoland

Perryville had its share of controversy this year with the Hollywood Casino, which in September celebrated the first anniversary of its opening.

First was the ongoing battle between the town and Cecil County, fighting over which would get how much of the casino's local impact funds and for how long. Then Perryville's town commissioners — and its residents — were divided on approving a 175-foot sign that casino management said was necessary to lure more customers from I-95.

As expected, Hollywood Casino Perryville was a money-maker for the state and local governments in its first year.

Its slot machines brought in around $1 billion from gamblers with $101 million going to owner Penn National Gaming, the State of Maryland and the state's dwindling horse racing industry. Cecil and Harford county residents filled the majority of the casino's 400 jobs.

Perryville, however, didn't see any of that money until October when an on-going feud between the town and the county over the casino's local impact funds was finally settled.

After going back and forth for years and threats of lawsuits, Perryville's Board of Commissioners reached a deal with Cecil County's commissioners that split the nearly $6 million in funds 65-35 between the county and town, respectively, and will be in effect for 15 years with renegotiations to begin after 13 years.

Also in October, the town commissioners finally approved Hollywood Casino's 175-foot illuminated pylon sign in a 3-2-split vote.

More than 30 residents were present for the vote at Town Hall. Several Beacon Point residents spoke out against the sign, saying they would be able to see the lights from the sign from their homes and would be a nuisance. Despite the locals' best efforts, the sign was approved. It has not, however, been erected by year's end.

6 – Tragic bent to an otherwise banner year in high school sports

While 2011 was an extraordinary year for local high school sports on both sides of the Susquehanna, there was also tragedy in the community.

On July 13, Perryville mourned 18-year-old Cody Richardson who died in a car crash between North East and Rising Sun. Mr. Richardson was a recent Perryville High School graduate and a 2011 state hurdles champion.

Steven Thornton, a friend and teammate from Port Deposit, was driving an SUV when he lost control of the vehicle, veered off Red Toad Road and rolled several times. Mr. Richardson was in the front seat of the SUV at the time of the crash. A second passenger, Brady Alan McDaniel, of Colora, was also taken to a local hospital. Both Thornton and McDaniel sustained serious non-life-threatening injuries.

Mr. Richardson's death marred a record-setting year for his school's athletic program.

In November, Perryville High School sophomore Jordan Dodson won the Maryland State Class 1A Girls Cross Country title at Hereford High School in Parkton. The Panther girls placed fourth in team competition.

Dodson finished the three-mile course in 19:55.8, making it the first state cross country title in Perryville history.

The Panthers also made it all the way to the Class 1A state football championship at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium in the beginning in December. Not only did the Panthers finish 10-0 in the regular season, they won their first playoff games in school history.

By the time the Panthers reached the title game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, they were 13-0 but, alas, a perfect season was not to be, as Perryville fell, 32-11, to the defending champion Dunbar Poets of Baltimore.

At Aberdeen High, the Eagles' girls basketball team, led by sophomore Brionna Jones, went all the way to the Class 3A state championship final in March before falling to Frederick in the title game.

The Eagle girls have picked up right where they left off in the spring by starting the 2011-12 season with eight straight victories. Jones, now a junior, scored her 1,000th career varsity point at the start of the season, and many more are surely coming.

Aberdeen's football program also enjoyed a resurgence under new coach Johnny Brooks, who left Havre de Grace for the Eagles job in the spring. In his first season at AHS, Brooks led the Eagles to a regional title, before Aberdeen lost in the 3A state semifinal game to eventual 2A champion River Hill.

7 – Oh, snow, winter blankets Harford, Cecil

More than a foot of snow fell on Harford and Cecil counties in January.

The first storm only dumped 4-6 inches of snow Jan. 11, closing school for one day and creating delays, but no serious problems.

A few weeks later, though, on the evening of Jan. 26, some parts of Harford received almost three times as much.

As much as 15 inches of snow was accumulated after a two-phase storm moved through the area, causing school and government closings, as well as power outages and dangerous road conditions.

The snow fell at such a fast rate — 1-3 inches per hour — Harford County Emergency Manager Rick Ayers, in a message after the storm, said it caused "near whiteout conditions."

The National Weather Service reported at the time that Edgewood received 12 inches, and Bel Air got 9.5 inches of snow.

8 – Big money comes via the luck of the draw

Two locals had nice surprises when they won large sums of money in the Maryland Lottery.

In June, 81-year-old Barbara Cunningham won $100,000 from a winning scratch-off ticket. The Port Deposit woman said she bought the tickets while grocery shopping at Martin's Food Market in the Rising Sun Towne Center.

A 79-year-old Havre de Grace resident was a really big winner in December.

Jose Antonetti won a $1 million Powerball play after buying his tickets at Post Road Liquors on Revolution Street in Havre de Grace.

A regular Powerball player, Antonetti told the Maryland Lottery that he plans to pay off his mortgage and credit cards. He also said he hopes to visit family in Florida with his winnings.

Sandip Shah, owner of Post Road Liquors, said the store would receive $1,000 from the winnings.

9 – Two music legends perform

Two country music legends performed in The Record area this year.

Charlie Daniels, famous for his fiddling and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," entertained a large crowd in August in Tydings Park in Havre de Grace, as part of the Havre de Grace Seafood Festival.

In October, after a month after his original scheduled date, George Jones, a country music icon, performed in front of more than 1,000 people at Port Deposit's Marina Park for a salute to "good ole' country" at the Cecil County Food and Wine Festival.

Jones' had to reschedule the concert when the town was flooded in September by Tropical Storm Lee.

10 – Presbyterian Home ends Aberdeen controversy

Presbyterian Home of Maryland scrapped its plan to build a retirement village in Aberdeen and then put the site on the market in December.

The 138 acres between Long Drive and Aldino-Stepney Road had originally been intended for the retirement community, but, according to MacKenzie Real Estate's Thomas Fidler Jr., the property could become houses, office or retail space.

The non-profit Presbyterian Home changed its mind about building in Aberdeen after losing a bid to have its city property taxes on the project waived.

Presbyterian Home of Maryland partnered with MacKenzie in November to get rid of the property. Fidler, MacKenzie's senior vice president and principal, said he had met with potential buyers, including regional or national retailers.

The company has not yet looked into a new site for the retirement home because of the focus on selling the existing site in Aberdeen, but in early December, Harford County Executive David Craig said Presbyterian Home was looking at several other sites in the county, none inside a municipality.

The Aberdeen project was dealt a blow when the tax break it sought was tied to legislation introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to allow Harford County to impose a 5 percent tax on hotel rentals.

Aberdeen city officials, who have long sought a room tax, refused to support the legislation because of the Presbyterian Home city property tax break tied to it. As a result, the sponsor of the room tax bill withdrew it, and efforts to pass the tax died for another year.

County government officials, however, say they'll make more effort to get the tax passed in this upcoming year, and without the tie-in to a break for a developer, Aberdeen city officials say they'll support them.

During a quarterly meeting of municipal and county officials in December, Winifred Roche, manager of the Harford County Office of Tourism, said there needs to be more education in order to emphasize the tourism factor of the room tax.

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