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Top Stories of 2014

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 30 December 2014 at 12:00 am

Dissolution in Medina proves contentious topic

New chain stores and other businesses came into Orleans County in 2014, while one manufacturer made a big investment in Medina and another closed its doors.

The Point Breeze community saw a long-time golf course turned into corn fields, while two marina operators, with years of experience, sold to a new operator.

A Carlton man was convicted in a brutal murder of his girlfriend, and the community endured the tragic death of a Medina native, a paratrooper in the Army, in a training accident.

George Maziarz, Orleans County’s representative in State Senate, made a sudden announcement in July that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election. That triggered a scramble for his successor with Ron Ortt, the North Tonawanda mayor, winning the seat.

The most enduring story, the one that dominated headlines all year, was the issue of dissolution. Medina village officials and residents studied the issue for several months. Dissolution will go to a vote on Jan. 20.

Here are Orleans Hub’s picks for the top 10 stories for 2014 in Orleans County:


1. Medina dissolution stirs hope and discord

Photos by Tom Rivers – Neil Sambovski of Ridgeway, an outside-village resident, on May 7 speaks against dissolution of the village because it would drive up taxes for residents in the town.

To lower taxes in the village and raise falling assessments, Medina Mayor Andrew Meier sees dissolution of the village government as the best option. That was also the conclusion of a committee of local residents and a consultant.

“Unless we unify and fix our tax problem once and for all we will miss the boat,” Meier said on April 10 when a Dissolution Committee presented its plan for dissolving the village government. “This is our one bite at the apple, at meaningful reform perhaps in our entire generation.’

But dissolution has been bitterly fought in 2014 by town officials in Shelby and Ridgeway, many village employees and some Medina residents. The two towns put out mailers, hired consultants and established a web site to attack the dissolution plan.

They say dissolution provides too little in savings and too much in unknowns.

Medina Mayor Andrew Meier sees a dissolution of the village and the consolidation of the towns of Shelby and Ridgeway as the best chance to significantly reduce the community’s taxes, which are currently the highest in the Finger Lakes region. He was joined at the press conference on April 10 by Don Colquhoun, chairman of the Medina Dissolution Committee (center), and Nathan Pace, chairman of One Medina.

About 300 people attended a public meeting on May 7 at Wise Middle School, and impassioned groups attended Dissolution Committee meetings and Village Board sessions.

“They’re diverting the tax from people in the village to people outside the village,” Hannah Brant, a village resident with property in the two towns, said during the May 7 public forum. “It’s driving a lot of fear into the community.”

A citizens’ petition finally forced the issue, with the vote set for Jan. 20. Meier and many dissolution supporters see it as the best hope for lowering taxes in Medina, which has the highest tax rate in the Finger Lakes region at $54 per $1,000. Dissolution would chop about $6 off the rate for village residents.

The Shelby and Ridgeway residents outside the village would see their town taxes go up 10 percent in Shelby and 46 percent in Ridgeway, according to a Dissolution Plan that town officials say they aren’t obligated to follow.

Dissolution foes believe the village taxes could be reduced with shared services, more state aid from the county and state, or a change from Medina as a village to a city.

The issue is being closed watched throughout the county, especially in other villages that have combined tax rates nearly as high as Medina’s.


2. Punishing weather knocks out power, closes schools and paralyzes community

On March 12 a blizzard hit, dropping about a foot of snow on the county. This photo shows traffic creeping along Main Street in Albion by the Presbyterian Church and the county courthouse.

It was one of the harshest winters in recent memory, with prolonged stretches of temperatures in the single digits or below zero. We had an official blizzard on March 12.

The National Weather Service frequently put out warnings and advisories about dangerous wind chills, flood watches and hazardous weather. The Sheriff’s Department issued travel advisories. The governor declared a state of emergency. Local schools closed.

When the winter finally relented, the area was hit with a destructive wind storm on June 17 that knocked out power for more than 3,00 homes and forced schools to close for Regents.

Barbara Tice, left, was out on June 18 picking up branches from a fallen tree in Lyndonville. She was joined by friend Jocelyn Munn.


3. Brunner expands, and former Bernz-O-Matic shuts down

Brunner workers use a forge to heat up parts to 2,200 degrees. The company committed to a $13.5 million expansion in 2014, and will likely add 60 workers to the existing workforce of 390.

The community waited for several months to hear the official word on whether Brunner International would expand in Medina or in another state. In June the company made it official: It would grow in Medina.

Brunner committed to a $13.5 million expansion, adding 48,000 square feet to its complex at the corner of Bates Road and Route 31.

Brunner started in Medina 1992 with six employees. Brunner makes brakes and components for heavy-duty trucks and trailers. It has steadily grown in the past 22 years, reaching 390 employees when the expansion was announced in June. It expects to add 60 more workers with the addition.

The company’s presence has helped fill the gap left by Fisher-Price, which laid off 700 workers in Medina in 1995. The expansion announced this year also softened the blow when another manufacturer announced it was closing.

Worthington Industries closed its Medina plant on July 31 on Bernz-O-Matic Drive.

Worthington Industries shut down in Medina on July 31 and shifted the production to a site in Wisconsin. Worthington made torches in Medina and employed 152 people at the former Bernz-O-Matic.

Worthington bought Bernz-O-Matic in 2011. Bernz-O-Matic had operated in Medina since 1969. By shifting the torch production to Wisconsin, Worthington said it can do everything at one site, saving in transportation costs.


4. Chain stores step up efforts in Orleans

The new Dunkin’ Donuts takes shape in Albion on Main Street next to Tim Hortons in this photo in July. JFJ Holdings, based in North Andover, Mass., is the owner of the new stores in Albion and Medina.

Dunkin’ Donuts built two new stores in Orleans County in 2014, with the first opening in Albion on August 23 and the other opening in Medina on Dec. 30.

The chain presence expanded beyond coffee stores. A new 9,100-square-foot Dollar General store opened on Oct. 15 at the corner of routes 63 and 104 in the Town of Ridgeway. The store is owned by Development Unlimited of WNY LLC of Buffalo. It demolished a house and silo at the northeast corner of the intersection.

The Dollar General helps fill a void in the community with the closing of the Pennysaver Market in Lyndonville, Yates Town Supervisor John Belson said.

At least one new chain store is in the pipeline for 2015. A North Carolina company, The Durban Group, is proposing an 8,320-square-foot Family Dollar on Maple Ridge Road in Medina, almost across the street from Tim Hortons.

Critics say the stores, in a county with a shrinking population, will absorb diminishing dollars in the community, making it harder for independent merchants to start businesses or make a profit.

Taras Salamaca, left, and his brother Alex opened Salamaca Estate Winery at the corner of Hindsburg Road and Route 104 in the Town of Murray on Oct. 17. The winery and its tasting room are located in a barn from 1898.


5. Several new locally owned businesses open, including 2 wineries

Several residents see the county as fertile ground for starting a business. Two new wineries – Salamaca Estate Winery in Murray and 810 Meadworks in Medina – both opened in 2014 and are on the Niagara Wine Trail, which now spreads across Orleans to Rochester.

“We really appreciate a small town that embraces its history,” said Bryan DeGraw, Meadworks 810 co-owner. “And from a business standpoint, Medina is in the center of the Niagara Wine Trail. That is an absolutely great place to be.”

Tillman’s Village Inn also expanded, several antique and collectible stores opened in the county, and other businesses grew or opened their doors for the first time.

Bryan DeGraw, back left, talks about mead with people on the Ale in Autumn tasting event on Sept. 27 in Medina. 810 Meadworks officially opened in November, the first downtown meadery/winery in the county.


6. George Maziarz shocks GOP with sudden announcement he is retiring

George Maziarz receives a standing ovation during the Orleans County Republican Fall Rally on Oct. 24 at Hickory Ridge Country Club in Holley.

George Maziarz seemed headed for another two-year term in Albany as state senator. He lined up endorsements and was out campaigning. But in mid-July he announced he didn’t want to continue with the demanding workload, the back and forth travel to Albany and the pressures of public office.

Maziarz’s sudden announcement in July forced Republican Party leaders to find a new candidate. They picked North Tonawanda Mayor Rob Ortt, who won a Republican Primary in September over Gia Arnold of Holley. Ortt then cruised to an election win in November over Johnny Destino, who had the Democratic Party endorsement.

The area will lose a lot of clout in Albany with Maziarz’s retirement. He was one of the top-tanking Republicans in the Senate. He served in the Senate since 1995. He also was highly visible in his district, which covered Niagara, Orleans and a western portion of Monroe County.

Maziarz was credited with helping advance many projects in Orleans, including the construction of the $90 million ethanol plant in Medina by Western New York Energy. Maziarz said he tried to direct more low-cost hydropower allocations to projects in the county.


7. Community mourns tragic deaths

More than 100 motorcyclists served as escorts for Sgt. Shaina Schmigel when her motorcade passed through downtown Medina on June 9.

Local residents mourned the loss of friends and neighbors in 2014. There was a big outpouring of support and grief for Sgt. Shaina Schmigel, a paratrooper from Medina who died May 30 during a night-time training drill at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne Division. She was in the Army for four years, and was promoted to sergeant in January.

“She wanted to go for all she could go for,” said Keith Gilbert, a close family friend from the town of Alabama. “She wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Schmigel was a cheerleader at Medina, a member of the Class of 2010.

The Medina community also mourned the loss of 15-year-old Jacob A. Stahl, who died in an accidental shooting on Oct. 17. Stahl, a 10th grade student at Medina High School, was with a teen-age friend in an upstairs bedroom at Stahl’s home in West Shelby when the incident occurred.

Sheriff’s investigators said Stahl’s death was a tragic accident that resulted from the careless handling of a loaded firearm.

A long-time Main Street merchant in Albion, who also was active in local politics, died in a Dec. 12 fire at his shop, Nayman’s. Francis Nayman was 76 and had battled health issues in recent years. He was still determined to go to his small engine repair business. The fire and death have been ruled accidental with no foul play suspected, Albion Police Chief Roland Nenni said.


8. Frederick Miller found guilty of murder

In a crime a judge called one of the most painful and torturous of his career, Frederick Miller of Carlton was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of his girlfriend.

Frederick Miller will likely spend the rest of his life in prison after killing his girlfriend on March 4, 2013. The case was delayed several times but finally went to trial with the jury convicting Miller of second-degree murder on Sept. 17. That followed a trial when he admitted to stabbing Rachel Miller with scissors. Rachel was still alive after being stabbed nine times with scissors.

She fled their house on Oak Orchard Road in Carlton and Miller broke off a metal Posted sign. Miller struck her three times in the head. Her body was discovered the morning of March 4, 2013 by a passing school bus driver.

“She lived a life of giving,” Rachel’s son Cody Miller said at sentencing. “She never wanted anything but happiness. The world kept taking from here but she fought back by giving.”

His mother worked at The Arc of Orleans County and Rainbow Preschool as a speech therapist.

There were at least two other high-profile cases in court this year, both involving Kendall men.

Carlos Botello, 42, was sentenced to 9 years in prison on April 14 after he faced attempted murder charges of a state trooper. Botello pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder on Feb. 3. He admitted in court that he backed a car towards state trooper Dan Metz and smashed into the trooper’s patrol car on Sept. 3, 2013.

Dennis Buehler, 64, was sentenced to 15 years in state prison on Jan. 6 for second-degree attempted murder and third-degree arson.

Buehler shot his wife and set his house on fire on March 4, 2013, the same day Frederick Miller committed his crime. Buehler was called “an extremely evil person,” by Judge James Punch. Buehler’s wife survived the gunshot wound. The house burned to the ground.


9. New look and owners at Point Breeze businesses

The Harbor Pointe Country Club was transformed from a golf course into corn fields this year.

Businesses don’t change hands too often at Point Breeze. But 2014 saw some long-established businesses get sold.

The most dramatic change was the sale of the Harbor Pointe Country Club on Route 98 in Carlton to Lynn-Ette and Sons. Harbor Pointe had been a golf course for 50 years. Lynn-Ette and Sons turned the course into cornfields.

The Cardone family had owned Harbor Pointe since 1981. The golf business has struggled in the region in recent years, due to the economy and increased competition with many golf courses, Joe Cardone said.

Gatlen Ernst took over two marinas along the Oak Orchard River this year. Ernst, an employee at Lake Breeze Marina for 10 years, purchased the marina in March from Doug and Janice Bennett.

“He’s been a good employee and he had the desire,” Mr. Bennett said. “Everybody likes Gatlen and everybody knows him. It should be a smooth takeover for him.”

Ernst owns the marina business, which he renamed Ernst’s Lake Breeze Marina. He purchased the real estate in a partnership with Rod Farrow, a Lake Breeze customer. Farrow is an apple farmer who lives on the other side of the Oak Orchard River.

The two also worked together to acquire Four C’s Marina from Gene Christopher and his family. They had operated that marina for more than three decades.

Gatlen Ernst and his fiancée Danielle Daniels, right, are pictured with the Christophers, from left: Darrick, Gene and David. Ernst acquired Four C’s Marina in August.

In another change in the Carlton business community, Paula Nesbitt and her family purchased Bertsch’s Good Earth Market on Route 98 and renamed the business The Vintage Apple Garden. Dave and Sharon Bertsch and their daughter Heather Tabor and her husband Jim opened Bertsch’s 14 years ago.


10. Snowy Owls, bears create a stir

Provided photo – Vince Flow of Kendall captured this closeup of a Snowy Owl in Kendall.

It was a historic winter for Snowy Owl sightings. They typically stay in Canada for the winter, but there were many owls in Orleans County. Residents and visitors went on expeditions in the rural countryside with cameras trying to get pictures of the owls.

When the weather warmed up, residents started spotting a different creature in the county. Bears were seen throughout the county, including in Albion, about a mile from the village line.

Brittany Kennedy took this photo of a bear on Aug. 11 at her West Kendall Road home. The black bear went up on her porch and sifted through a recycling bin and grabbed a coffee can.