Weather-related catastrophes took two of the top five spots in The Independent news staff’s annual roundup of the top 10 local and regional news stories.
The March tornadoes that hit four area counties in early March was chosen as the No. 1 story of 2012, while the late-June straight-line wind storm that caused massive damage and knocked out power to thousands of area residents was ranked No. 3.
The regional jail plan involving Boyd and Carter counties was voted the No. 2 story of the year, while the opening of Boyd County’s new $42 million high school and the uncertain future of Kentucky Power’s Big Sandy plant rounded out the top five.
Stories five through 10 included the announcement of a long-awaited retail development in Ashland, a scandal that brought down a small-town mayor, a pair of high-profile criminal trials, an area city’s decision to enact a payroll tax and a restaurant opening that has helped revitalize a downtown.
A closer look at each of The Independent’s top 10 stories of 2012:
The conventional wisdom that northeastern Kentucky was immune to tornadoes because of the protection afforded by its mountainous terrain was forever shattered the night of March 2 by a series of twisters that ripped through Lawrence, Magoffin, Morgan and Johnson counties, leaving death, destruction and heartache in their aftermath.
Five Morgan County residents perished in the storms, and the county seat of West Liberty was essentially wiped out. “West Liberty is gone,” a Kentucky State Police dispatcher told an Independent reporter the night of the tornadoes.
Community leaders and residents of the affected areas banded together following the twisters, and rebuilding efforts are ongoing.
2. Regional jail
The decision by the fiscal courts of Boyd and Carter counties to pool the counties’ jail resources was perhaps 2012’s most controversial stories.
Officials said the arrangement was a means of bringing spiraling jail costs under control. Critics, though, charged it was nothing more than an end-run around the elected jailers of the two counties, both of whom have had strained relations with their respective fiscal courts.
While both courts have voted to form a regional jail authority, the matter remained tied up in litigation at year’s end, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Jailer’s Association.
3. Derecho storm
The late-June storm that uprooted huge trees, caused widespread power outages and delayed the start of Ashland’s Summer Motion was a weather phenomenon not often seen in our region — a derecho storm.
A derecho is a wide-spread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms. They often pack tornado-force winds, with the key difference being the winds do not swirl, as they do with a tornado.
Wind speeds as high as 70 mph were reported during the June storm. After it blew through, Kentucky Power reported roughly 33,000 customers in northeastern Kentucky were without power. Many remained in the dark for days afterward.
4. New BCHS opens
More than 50 years after the opening of its previous high school, the Boyd County school system cut the ribbon on its brand-new, $42 million, state-of-the-art educational complex, one which district officials say was built to last at least a half-century.
The new Boyd County High School, located on a hillside on the opposite side of Ky. 180 from the old facility, was designed on an academy concept, which will enable students to pursue a designated career path. Students also will be able to take up 70 hours of college courses through Morehead State University tuition-free, he said.
Because of the academy concept design, the school has one entire wing mainly devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. There’s also a freshman academy, located in a set of classrooms near the office complex, making it more secure for first-year students.
Other features of the new high school include a state-of-the-art kitchen to house its culinary program and a 450-seat auditorium with a theater-style marquee.
5. Big Sandy
Kentucky Power proposed two different plans to bring its Big Sandy generating plant near Louisa into compliance with new, stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulations for coal-fire power plants.
The first plan, since withdrawn, would have involved retro-fitting the aging plant with “scrubbers” and would have resulted in an approximately 30 percent increase in consumers’ monthly electric bills.
In December, Kentucky Power announced it was seeking permission to pursue an alternate plan, one that would result in a much smaller increase in electric bills, but could ultimately lead to the plant’s closure and the loss of all the jobs there.
6. Melody Mountain Phase II announced
RG Properties announced in October it would finish the job it started in 2007.
A company official told the Ashland City Commission that Phase II of the Melody Mountain retail development, sidetracked by the economic crash, would get under way in 2013 and be completed by next year’s holiday shopping season.
The 10,000 square-foot development will include five retailers, two large anchor stores among them. It’s expected to cost about $10 million and generate about 300 new jobs in the city.
7. Olive Hill mayor
Danny Sparks, the mayor of Olive Hill since 2000, resigned his post in late November after his arrest for allegedly selling marijuana to an undercover informant working for the FADE Drug Task Force. The allegedly transaction occurred within 1,000 yards of Olive Hill Elementary School, which resulted in Sparks being charged with a felony.
To fill the remainder of Sparks’ term, the city council chose one its own members, Kenny Fankell, and subsequently selected Tony Williams to fill Fankell’s council seat.
Two high-profile criminal trials involving violence against spouses ended in convictions in the fall of 2012.
In October, a Greenup Circuit Court jury found Charles Steven “Steve” Lee guilty of the March 2011 stabbing death of his wife, community activist Leslie “Crickett” Lanham-Lee, and recommended he spend the rest of his life in prison for the crime. Judge Bob Conley subsequently upheld the jury’s sentencing recommendation.
The following Monday, a Boyd Circuit Court jury convicted Thomas Biederman of Russell of attempting to kill his wife, Janie, by booby-trapping her car with a homemade explosive device. The bombing occurred in July 2011 in the parking garage of the Ashland Skytower.
Biederman was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Prior to the trial, he was offered a plea bargain that would have had him accepting a 10-year sentence in return for his guilty plea, but he rejected it against the advice of his attorney.
9. Greenup payroll tax
Greenup City Council voted in February to enact a payroll tax, a step city officials deemed difficult, but necessary.
The levy, which went into effect in April, is expected to generate $120,000 to $130,00 annually, Mayor Lundie Meadows said.
The decision to enact the tax was met with anger by many county officials, who claimed the levy unfairly targeted them because the majority of people who work in Greenup do so at the county courthouse. The tax is also the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by a worker in the county child-support office.
10. Fat Patty’s opens
The building at 15th and Winchester that formerly housed C.J. Maggie’s American Grille didn’t stay empty for long following the eatery’s closure in late 2011.
Clint Artrip, who owned Fat Patty’s restaurants in Huntington and Barboursville, quickly purchased the building and announced it would become the location of his newest Fat Patty’s.
Ashland residents were thrilled with the news, seeing as how the other locations — known for the gourmet burgers and other hearty casual-dining fare — had become dining destinations.
Following major renovations to the interior of the building, the Ashland Fat Patty’s opened in February. It has experienced capacity crowds and has helped breathe new life into the downtown business district.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or