Base closings named 2005 top news story; Gay rights vote, Plum Creek on Maine list

This story was published on Jan. 02, 2006 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

The decision to keep Portsmouth Naval Shipyard open but shut down Brunswick Naval Air Station was voted the top Maine news story of 2005.

The dramatic votes last August by the base closing commission reversed a Pentagon recommendation that the submarine repair yard in Kittery be closed and the Brunswick base be stripped of aircraft but remain open. A defense finance center in Limestone that was targeted for closure came out a winner when the panel voted not only to spare the facility but also to add more than 250 jobs.

By year’s end, state and local officials had begun to examine how to redevelop the 3,220-acre Brunswick base when it closes by 2011.

The top stories were selected in a year-end poll of Associated Press member newspapers, broadcast stations and staff members.

A close second in the balloting was the statewide referendum in November in which voters, by a nearly 10 percentage point margin, rejected an attempt to repeal the gay rights law that the Legislature enacted earlier in the year.

Approval of the law, which bars discrimination in areas such as housing, employment and public accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation, capped an effort that began in the 1970s and followed two earlier referendums in which gay rights were defeated. The new law took effect on Dec. 28.

There was a tie for third place between the crackdown on Maine’s worst drivers and the plan by Plum Creek Timber Co. for a massive development in the Moosehead Lake area.

The campaign against bad drivers took root after a crash in July on the Maine Turnpike in Hallowell that killed a Scarborough woman. The truck driver blamed for the accident was found to have been driving with a suspended license and had a record that included 63 convictions for driving offenses and 23 license suspensions.

The trucker, Scott Hewitt, was indicted on a manslaughter charge, police set up roadblocks to weed out unlicensed drivers, and the Legislature plans to consider proposals to increase penalties against those caught behind the wheel with suspended licenses.

Plum Creek’s plan to develop lots has drawn criticism from environmental groups and is now before state environmental regulators. The company, which has been the target of a series of vandalism incidents, has indicated its willingness to scale back the project.

Voted fifth was the sharp increase in energy costs, which hit hard at a state whose dependence on oil for home heating ranks among the nation’s highest. As winter set in, there was mounting concern about whether the state’s poor would be able to keep warm.

The price increases, blamed on factors ranging from growing demand in China to hurricane damage at Gulf Coast refineries, brought Maine’s average price of heating oil earlier this month to $2.32 a gallon, or 41 cents higher than at the same time last year.

November marked the long-awaited opening of Penn National Gaming’s slot machine parlor in a converted restaurant in Bangor, a story ranked sixth. The temporary Hollywood Slots facility, the first of its kind in Maine, is scheduled to be replaced in 2007 by a larger complex with three times as many machines.

The poll produced a deadlock for the No. 7 story, between the partisan controversy over the fledgling Dirigo health insurance program and the slaying of a 14-year-old girl near her home in rural Kennebec County.

Gov. John Baldacci and health insurers ended the year at odds over whether the administration program to extend coverage to the uninsured had generated savings in the health care system. Insurers have gone to court to challenge a ruling that requires them to help fund Dirigo, and the issue is sure to emerge as an issue in the 2006 elections.

Fayette residents were doubly shocked by the Marlee Johnston murder: Three days after the eighth-grader’s body was found at the edge of a lake, police announced the arrest of a 14-year-old neighbor. Still to be determined was whether Patrick Armstrong would be prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult.

The state’s worst red tide outbreak in decades struck the New England coast in May, eventually forcing the closure of most shellfish harvesting areas from Maine to Cape Cod. The toxic algae bloom put clam diggers out of work and sent the price of clams soaring at the height of the tourist season. The story was ranked No. 9.

Rounding out the top 10 was the completion of the decommissioning of Maine Yankee. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in October released the nuclear power plant site in Wiscasset to unrestricted use, capping eight years of work tearing down buildings and removing contaminated rubble and soil at a cost of roughly $500 million. All that remains is a 12-acre storage facility where highly radioactive fuel rods will be stored indefinitely.

A1 for Monday, Jan. 02, 2006

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