Category Archives: Environment

“Conflict Of Interest” Charge Roils Baron’s South Debate

As the RTM prepares to vote this Tuesday (April 28, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) on whether to overturn the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to designate the Baron’s South property as protected open space, legislators have another issue to contend with.

Westport resident Valerie Seiling Jacobs sent this “open letter” to all RTM members:

As many of you know, I have been opposed to the proposed senior housing project on Baron’s South for many years. My view has long been that the deal proposed by The Jonathan Rose Companies was unfair to taxpayers since the town will get too little in return for donating such a valuable asset. And it has always puzzled me that Ken Bernhard, who co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee and is one of the project’s prime cheerleaders, seemed so determined to push ahead with the project—even in the face of growing evidence that the project was seriously flawed and could not meet the town’s needs.

I learned today [Friday] that Mr. Bernhard has multiple conflicts of interest that were never disclosed. First, Cohen & Wolf, the law firm in which he is a principal, is counsel to the Jewish Home of Fairfield, which stands to gain a lucrative contract for services if the Rose project goes forward. In fact, in a bulletin last summer, the President of JHF touted how great the business would be for the JHF. Second, Martin F. Wolf, another senior attorney at Mr. Bernhard’s law firm, sits on the Board of Directors of the JHF.

Mr. Bernhard’s failure to disclose these connections and conflicts is especially egregious given the sensitivity of this issue and Mr. Bernhard’s past behavior. At a Board of Finance meeting in October 2012, a number of members of the public complained that the RFP process appeared to have been rigged in favor of The Rose Companies—a suggestion to which Mr. Bernhard took extreme umbrage, demanding an apology. Nevertheless, in response to concerns about conflicts of interest, the members of the Baron’s South Committee were specifically asked to stand and state whether they had any financial interest in the Rose Companies. Mr. Bernhard did not stand. His failure to reveal his firm’s interest in this project may have been technically correct — since the financial interest was in another entity — but it was still materially misleading. As an attorney and a former elected official, Mr. Bernhard should know better.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

For Mr. Bernhard to have served on the Baron’s South Committee without disclosing these connections, which fatally compromised his ability to objectively evaluate the responses to the town’s RFP, violate fundamental principles of justice and fairness. This is the equivalent of a judge owning stock in a corporation that appears in a contested matter in the judge’s court. And I note that this is not the first time that Mr. Bernhard’s ethics have been called into question. In 2010, he was forced to pay a $3,500 penalty after his improper campaign contributions were discovered.

All of these facts bolster the conclusion that the Rose Companies’ proposal is a bad deal for Westport and its taxpayers. The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to designate Baron’s South as open space was the right thing to do. I hope that you will decide NOT to overturn that decision.

Thank you.

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I asked Ken Bernhard for his side of the issue. He said:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ms. Jacobs’ letter to the RTM. It distresses me that the discussion about a project designed to address the needs of hundreds of Westport seniors who require affordable housing options has devolved into the kind of ugly debate endemic in Washington — specifically, don’t discuss the issues; unleash a personal attack on your opponent.

Curiously, Ms. Jacobs appears to be guilty of the very offense that she charges me with, i.e. an undisclosed bias.  She does not divulge in her letter that she is the co-chair of a political party, Save Westport Now, whose agenda appears to oppose development in town regardless of its merits. Apparently, the unanimous consensus of the RTM sub-committee to overturn the vote of her party’s candidates has given rise to her invective.

I have lived in Westport for more than 40 years and for most of that time, I have been actively engaged in the community’s affairs. I have given of my time by holding positions on the ZBA and the Board of Selectmen. In addition to serving as town counsel for 3 administrations, I have represented Westport in Hartford. Throughout this time I did, and still do, provide free legal services to many of the non-profit organizations in town. I sit on multiple boards providing my time and energy helping our friends and neighbors. It’s all been a labor of love.

The risk, of course, in being so active is that occasionally there are instances where the roles may overlap. These instances are part of life in a small town and are not considered conflicts in the forums in which these things are adjudicated. A community cannot function without this reality of professional and personal overlap of its citizens’ talents and interests.

Early springtime at Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

Early springtime at Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

Five years ago, I was asked by First Selectman Joseloff to give more of my time to Westport by sitting on the Baron’s South Committee. The 8-person committee was made up of volunteers serving in a private capacity. None of us had, nor did we ever have, any decision-making authority.

Since that time, I have donated at least 300 hours serving on this committee, a large portion of which was spent long before there was a proposal to do anything. When a concept for providing affordable housing for seniors was ultimately advanced, the town sent out a request for a proposal. Our committee of volunteers reviewed the proposals and made a unanimous recommendation to accept the proposal submitted by Jonathan Rose. The decision to work with Jonathan Rose was made by elected officials.

The substance of Ms. Jacobs’ letter is that she claims I have a conflict of interest in serving on the Baron’s South Committee because she has learned that one of the 50 lawyers at my law firm does work on totally unrelated matters for Jewish Senior Services, an organization that has joined with Jonathan Rose to provide services if and when the project is approved and built at some time in the very distant future. (Ms. Jacobs is incorrect when she asserts that Attorney Martin F. Wolf is a senior attorney at Cohen and Wolf in that he is “of counsel,” retired from active practice years ago, and has no financial interest in it).

Ms. Jacobs would argue that I should have conducted a conflicts check with my law firm. This would have been appropriate had I been serving as legal counsel or in any other professional role — but I was not. I was acting as a private citizen in a private capacity doing volunteer work for my community. Ms. Jacobs can spin the facts and connect the dots any way she pleases, but there is no legitimate substance to her point.  Her criticism is inflammatory and its purpose is more about advancing the political agenda of Save Westport Now than anything else.

We have an important issue confronting our community, i.e. whether to preclude the use of Baron’s South for any municipal purpose, even the expansion of the senior center, or to leave open the discussion on how best to use this valuable town asset for affordable housing or otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree, and Westport deserves a respectful exchange on this issue.

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In a related development, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug will recuse herself from leading Tuesday’s discussion. She is of counsel to Cohen and Wolf. In a comment on a previous “06880” story, Flug wrote:

While Cohen and Wolf does not represent Jonathan Rose Companies, it has come to my attention that Cohen and Wolf represents the nonprofit Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc. on certain matters, although not on the proposal for senior housing at Baron’s South. While I myself have no connection with the Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc., and while I believe the connection to be attenuated since the matter before us is a zoning issue and not directly related to the proposed senior housing project, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict and any concerns about the RTM’s process and deliberations, our deputy moderator Velma Heller will be running the meeting.

Baron's South, with the baron's Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Baron’s South, with the baron’s Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Sycamore Sidewalk

The handsome sycamore that sits just inside Compo Acres Shopping Center — right near the Post Road/South Compo entrances — has been the subject of “06880” stories before.

In December, owner Equity One declared the tree to be a “defining aspect” of the property. Representative Michael Lai said that Equity One “takes its stewardship seriously.”

Just how seriously has come into question recently.

Compo Acres sycamore

The ongoing renovation project — very ongoing — has entered its sidewalk phase. Concerned Westporters wonder if the sycamore — which has already survived a construction-related “mulch volcano” (a potentially tree-killing layer was mounded against the trunk), and bark damage (a woman attached an advertising sign for a fitness center) — can withstand all the cement that will soon be poured around its base.

 

Farmers’ Market Grows Into 2nd Delicious Decade

All farmers’ markets open in a burst of optimism.

Many — up to half — don’t make it past 2 years. Most — another 30 percent — fail by year 5.

The Westport Farmers’ Market is not like most.

As the Imperial Avenue institution prepares for its 10th season, it’s not just a success. It’s flourishing wildly — reaping rewards not just for farmers and food-lovers but entire families, and even Fairfield County non-profits.

Westport Farmers Market 2Sustaining a farmers’ market for a decade is just like farming: It takes patience, persistence and plenty of hard work.

When Lori Cochran took over as executive director 5 years ago, the market was limping along. It had begun in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot with great backing from Dressing Room owners Paul Newman and Michel Nischan, plus tremendous town support from selectmen Gordon Joseloff and Shelly Kassen.

After half a decade it was popular with a core group of shoppers and a small number of farmers. But there was no marketing, community outreach or special programming.

Working with Rebecca Howe, Lori dedicated herself to making the farmers’ market an integral part of the town. “Not to be cheesy, but all of us here live, eat and breathe this,” she says.

On the food side, Westport’s market has the strictest requirements of any in the state. All vegetables are organic. The fruit is grown without pesticides or herbicides. Anyone selling prepared food must use at least one locally produced ingredient, for every item — ideally, from another market farmer.

That develops a strong community of vendors who support each other.

Lori created a partnership with Staples High School and the Gillespie Center. The Westport Farmers’ Market buys local food; students in Staples’ culinary program prepare it, and market volunteers serve it at the homeless shelter just across Jesup Road.

Every week, the market hosts a different non-profit. The organization showcases its work. Many create special programs for market-goers.

The Farmers’ Market works closely with the Bridgeport Rescue Mission too. Members come to the market every Thursday. They collect food, donated by vendors. Back at the mission, a chef helps them use the ingredients to prepare great meals.

On the 3rd Thursday of every month, a local chef offers demonstrations. Only those who use farm-to-table ingredients participate. The waiting list is long, Lori notes.

Farmers MarketEach spring, several Staples seniors work at the market as interns. One has gone on to head up the organic market at his college; another founded a community supported agriculture organization at hers. They’ve grown up knowing the importance of a local farmers’ market.

So do younger kids. Thanks to partnerships with the Westport Library and Westport Arts Center, youngsters hear stories involving food, and make arts projects with vegetables. Lori is thrilled to help nurture a new generation of Westporters who understand the importance of farmers’ markets.

This year, the Westport market will introduce an “Ambassadors” program. “A lot of times people buy great stuff, but they get home and don’t know what to do with it all,” Lori explains. “So every month we’ll feature 1 lunch and 1 dinner recipe, featuring ingredients from the market. We’ll have ‘ambassadors’ right there, suggesting the best ways to use certain products.”

Lori Cochran-Dougall

Lori Cochran

Lori is proud that the Westport Farmers’ Market has become such an integral part of the community. (Along with its novel addition, the 4-year-old Winter Market held at Gilberties’ Herb Garden.)

“Westport is an incredibly dynamic, supportive place,” Lori says. “Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner (1st and 2nd selectmen) do everything they can for us.”

Her mission this year — beginning on opening day May 21, and continuing through the fall — is for every Westporter to enjoy the farmers’ market bounty.

“We bring quality, healthy food from local farmers right to people’s back yards,” she says. “Everyone supports everyone else.”

They eat very well while doing it, too.

(The Westport Farmers’ Market kicks off its 10th season on Thursday, May 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Imperial Avenue parking lot. The “official celebration” on Thursday, June 11 features music, activities, and a tribute to the 8 founding farmers who are still there.)

How Low Can It Go?

Though flood warnings have been issued along the Connecticut River, there are no worries in Westport.

This was the Saugatuck River around 6 p.m. yesterday.

Saugatuck River collage

The only people who had to worry were Rowing Club members

Hey, DOT: Move Your Asphalt!

It’s been there so long — and we’re so intent on finding an illegal parking spot at Starbucks — that most Westporters seldom notice the asphalt mountain at the state Department of Transportation maintenance facility just behind Walgreen’s and the bank, across from the diner.

But alert “06880” reader Scott Smith spotted it 2 years ago. Yesterday morning, he looked again. The only thing that’s changed: It’s 2 years older. 

Scott writes:

I know that much of the old asphalt scraped off our roadways is recycled into new material to resurface roads. In fact, old asphalt is the most recycled material in the US. Maybe that’s the state’s plan for all this stuff – surely thousands of cubic yards of ground-up asphalt. If so, they’re taking their sweet time to use it.

One view of the asphalt, from Hillandale Road...

One view of the asphalt, from Hillandale Road…

So here’s my question for CT DOT, as well as our local and state elected officials: Is this the best use of such prime Westport real estate?

Seems to me this area could be better utilized for, say, parking school buses and getting them out of their current cramped lot downtown. Or maybe we could work out a deal to move our Parks & Rec maintenance facility from the center of Longshore to this area. (The vehicles and equipment at that rundown facility are used not at Longshore but other Parks & Rec properties around town.) With some screening, perhaps there’s enough room here for affordable housing, which is as much a state issue as a local one.

Our local tax dollars sent to Hartford far out-measure what Westporters get back in terms of state services. You’d think we would have a good case to make for a land swap or lease that would allow Westport to make better use of this property. And there doesn’t seem to be much of a NIMBY issue involved, as most any re-development of the site would be preferable to a mountain of asphalt sitting almost in the middle of town.

...and another. (Photos/Scott Smith)

…and another. (Photos/Scott Smith)

Bridgewater’s Glendinning Goes Green

Bridgewater Associates is the world’s biggest hedge fund. It’s also one of Westport’s leading taxpayers.

But the firm keeps a very low profile. If not for the big buses zipping employees between their Glendinning headquarters complex on Weston Road and a 2nd office at Nyala Farms near I-95 Exit 18, no one would know they’re here.

However, a small blurb in this week’s Wall Street Journal raised concerns with an “06880” reader. The paper said that — after its plan to move to Stamford fell through — Bridgewater wants to renovate its Glendinning offices, and create an underground parking garage.

The project “could require the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers,” the WSJ noted.

Bridgewater headquarters

An aerial view of Bridgewater’s Glendinning headquarters. Note the parking spaces on both sides of the river.

“Scope of project sounds mind-blowing,” said the email I received. “How come nothing online?”

It’s not as massive as it sounds. In fact, Bridgewater — whose corporate culture has been called “cultish,” “bizarre” and “not for everyone” — has for nearly 20 years been a careful steward of the wooded, riverfront Glendinning property (and an excellent tenant in the hidden-away Nyala Farms complex too).

“This is a unique setting: a beautiful, bio-diverse area,” a company representative told Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission at a pre-application hearing earlier this month.

Bridgewater hopes to increase the functionality of its “somewhat tired” buildings — though not increase their footprints — while maintaining the natural environment that may contribute, in some way, to the hedge fund’s successful management of $169 billion.

The buildings on the Glendinning site are half a century old.

The buildings on the Glendinning site are half a century old.

Glendinning (named for the marketing firm that originally developed the property) sits at the confluence of the Saugatuck and Aspetuck Rivers. It’s in a 100-year floodplain.

To mitigate flooding — a problem in the past — Bridgewater wants to move 170 asphalt parking spaces underground. The new parking garage will be planted over, with bio-filtering greenery.

There will also be a new central green. As adjacent buildings are renovated, coverage will be reduced by 30 percent. Coverage on the adjacent Ford Road parcel may increase slightly.

Natural plantings will restore 1000 feet near the Saugatuck River’s edge. Bridgewater will work with Trout Unlimited to add a new fish ladder too.

A realigned driveway and new bridge will connect the complex with Ford Road. Bridgewater promises to buffer it well.

The river (and dam) on the Ford Road side of the property (left in this photo) will be protected and enhanced, in Bridgewater's plan.

The river (and dam) on the Ford Road side of the property (left in this photo) will be protected and enhanced, in Bridgewater’s plan.

Bridgewater has already met with Westport’s planning, engineering and conservation departments, plus the fire marshal. They’ve talked with the Department of Environmental Protection.

They’ve also sat down with owners of nearby properties, on Weston and Ford Roads.

“This is the best stewardship of a unique natural resource,” a Bridgewater spokesman told the P&Z. Members had several questions, but seemed to appreciate the company’s commitment to green space.

The process is still in the early stages. Applications and reviews are needed by conservation, flood and erosion and architectural review boards, plus the DEP and FEMA. It could be 6 months to a year before the P&Z hears the application.

Bridgewater is a hedge fund, not an insurance company. But it sounds as if they’re borrowing a famous firm’s motto. You know: Like a good neighbor, they’re there.

(To see Glendinning’s full presentation at the P&Z meeting earlier this month, click here; then click “Agenda.”)

Greet Spring — Get Geiger’s Greenhouse!

Geiger’s is gone.

Soon, it will be replaced by 12 residential rental units — 2 of them classified as “affordable” — plus a business and bank. The barn will be disassembled, with the components hopefully used inside the retail structures.

Which leaves the greenhouse. It’s yours for the taking.

A side view of the greenhouse...

A side view of the greenhouse…

Approximately 22 feet long and 12 feet wide, it’s attached to the main building. That means it lacks one side.

It sits on a stone foundation. It looks like the metal frame could be taken apart (unscrewed), and reassembled fairly easily.

Who wants it? A school, perhaps? Or a business that promotes gardening or fresh food?

Whoever claims it must act fast. After the barn is taken apart next week, the main building goes next.

Cathy Talmadge is happy to help in any way she can — including with disassembling. If you’re interested — or want more information — email cathytalmadge@optonline.net.

...and the door. (Photos/Cathy Talmadge)

…and the door. (Photos/Cathy Talmadge)

Jalna Jaeger’s Happy Easter Egg Tree

Jalna Jaeger always knew about Ostereierbaum — the German tradition of decorating trees and bushes with Easter eggs.

Eight years ago, the 1971 Staples High School graduate decorated a tree on her Norwalk property: 3 East Avenue, not far from Stew Leonard’s.

She had a few hundred eggs. But it’s a large tree, and it needed more.

Jalna googled “egg tree.” She saw a German tree, with real eggs. Lots of them — 10,000, in fact.

Jalna ordered 800 eggs online. It took a long time to string them. But she loved the vibrant, colorful look.

Jalna Jaeger's egg tree, on Thursday.

Jalna Jaeger’s egg tree, on Thursday.

Every year, Jalna adds eggs. This year, there are 100 more.

Her entire family helps. Her husband holds the ladder. She climbs. Now she needs a higher ladder.

East Avenue is a very public street. People often stop and thank Jalna for her tree. They say it cheers them up. The tree has even gotten some fan mail.

Today, hundreds of crocuses are blooming under the tree. It’s a perfect way for everyone — of all faiths, or none – to celebrate Easter, and the arrival of spring.

Our Ospreys: The Sequel

As reported yesterday, Westport’s ospreys have returned to their (relocated) nest, high above Fresh Market.

Drivers regularly stop to gawk. But busy Route 1 is not the only place in town to spot these magnificent raptors.

Ospreys

Three other platforms exist here. Two were created by CL&P (in their pre-Eversource days), in partnership with the Westport Conservation Commission.

CL&P set old utility poles at Longshore. One was on the right side of the exit road, near the 12th fairway. It’s hosted a nesting pair for at least 5 or 6 years.

The 2nd pole was set in the back of the guest parking lot, to the left of the marina. A pair nested there for a while last year, but seems not to have had success with eggs or chicks.

A 3rd platform exists to the east of Burying Hill Beach. In a private yard next to the seawall — erected, probably, by the homeowners — it has been home to some successful nesting ospreys.

Meanwhile, alert reader Mary Ann West reports that purple martin “scout” arrived at Sherwood Island yesterday. Scouts  venture ahead of the flock after spending the winter in South America.

Tina Green spotted the early arrival as she helped set up 24 “gourd condos” in Connecticut’s 1st state park.

purple martin at Sherwood Island

The “condos” (pictured above) consist of 12 “homes” per pole. They were established outside the Sherwood Island Nature Center last year.

The houses are removed after each nesting season, cleaned and put up just before the birds arrive. That keeps more invasive species from taking over the colony. Last year, 105 new featherless baby bird residents were monitored by volunteers.

The fledglings were banded in early July, before they prepared to fly the coop back to their wintering grounds. The Westport band is red, so if you see a bird sporting a red metallic band, it’s one of ours.

Another pole with 12 condos will be added soon, making a total of 36 purple martin couples very happy.

Sherwood Island is also home to 2 other Westport ospreys. The park’s couple — Will and Kate — are due back to their nest soon. It’s set up in the marsh outside of the Nature Center.

You can see it there — or on the “osprey cam” (click here).

The big debate in Westport these days is over affordable housing. Ospreys and purple martins seem to have solved that problem. Perhaps we can ask CL&P/Eversource and Sherwood Island to help the humans too?

The Sherwood Island "osprey cam," earlier this morning.

The Sherwood Island “osprey cam,” earlier this morning.

The Ospreys Are Back!

In the surest sign yet that our long, nightmarish winter is giving way to spring, Westport’s favorite ospreys have returned.

Last year, they nested on a dangerous high pole near Fresh Market. After they caused a power outage in July, CL&P (now Eversource) rerouted an electrical feed, to save the magnificent birds from harm.

In October — after the birds flew south for the winter* — the utility company relocated the nest to a higher utility pole, 150 feet away. This one had fewer wires. The hope was that the ospreys would return to the less dangerous nest this spring.

They did. Today, Jo Ann Davidson observed them, home again for the summer.

Welcome back!

Ospreys 2 - Jo Ann Davidson

The ospreys' new home. (Photos/Jo Ann Davidson)

The ospreys’ new home. (Photos/Jo Ann Davidson)

*Something all of us should have done.