Category Archives: Environment

This Open Space Is Deadly

Every spring, Westporters marvel at the “Daffodil Mile” that marks the long entrance to Willowbrook Cemetery on Main Street.

And the Saugatuck Congregational Church had made a strong commitment to the upkeep of its historic — though no-longer-accepting-bodies — cemetery on Evergreen Avenue.

But what about Westport’s smaller, lesser-known graveyards? Who is in charge of mowing the grass, raking the leaves, straightening the headstones? 

Alert “06880” reader Scott Smith would like to know. He writes:

As I’ve been driving along Wilton Road to the Y, I’ve noticed an old cemetery behind a stone wall. It’s near #280. Recently I parked on Twin Falls Lane, and ducked across the road to explore.

A hidden cemetery off Wilton Road. (Photo/Scott Smith)

A hidden cemetery off Wilton Road. (Photo/Scott Smith)

It’s pretty cool, in the way that old cemeteries are. Many headstones are in disarray, and it seems that the most recent ones are from the early 1900s. Hard to say when the older graves first came to be. The family name Fillow appears on a few markers, though many etchings are worn away beyond recognition.

But as “06880”is filled with discussions about open space and other property issues, I wonder who owns and maintains the many small cemeteries around town. Are they private? Are they treated as open space? Is there an inventory of all these plots? And what’s the policy about walking among these memorials?

On a related note, I discovered a scenic (and pollen-covered) pond just beyond the cemetery, which is located on a bluff above the water. It’s a couple of acres in size. I never knew the pond was there, though I suspected it from the hole in the tree canopy you can just glimpse from the road.

The pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)

The pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)

How are these ponds treated on our property rolls? Are they all privately owned? Counted as open space as well? Are they taxed differently than land? And is there a census of the freshwater ponds within our borders?

The pond below the cemetery has a small dock at the far end. Judging from a Google map, this pond is close to the Partrick Wetlands, but separate fromt it.

Scott hopes that “06880” readers can answer his questions. Fire away!

I’ll add this: Westport is filled with tiny, forgotten cemeteries — from the Battle of Compo Hill-era plots on opposite side of Gray’s Creek (Compo Beach Road and Longshore) to the hidden-in-plain-view one on Post Road West, near the Norwalk line.

If you’ve got a story about any of our small old cemeteries, click “Comments.” This should be a lively (ho ho) discussion.   

Unearthing A Mosquitoes-And-Malaria Mystery At Burying Hill Beach

As beach season barrels down upon us, alert “06880” reader Rob Schmidt asked a question that has vexed him since the 1950s:

All along the salt marshes at Burying Hill and Sherwood Island, a perfectly laid out grid of small canals is apparent at high tide. I’m guessing they where dug in the 1930s by the WPA or some conservation group. I have not seen them maintained for 60 years, and have never figured out their purpose except drainage of some sort. Do you know the history behind them?

An aerial view of the

An aerial view of the “canals” (faintly seen above the inlet; click or hover over photo to enlarge). The inlet running from Long Island Sound separates Burying Hill Beach (right) from Sherwood Island State Park (left).

I not only did not know the answer; I’d never even thought about them. Although our junior high posse played there back in the day, I’d always thought they were natural.

But I knew who would have the answer. I contacted an engineer friend I grew up with. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to Green’s Farms (and a desire for anonymity).

He replied almost instantly:

I’ve seen these since I was a kid in the Burying Hill and New Creek Road area. I’ve also seen extensive evidence of this in Branford and Guilford.

My understanding is that these are hand-dug “mosquito ditches.” The idea was to better drain low-lying salt marshes where mosquito larvae thrived due to stagnant pools.

They were started after the Civil War, when there was a serious malaria outbreak. Long after malaria was controlled we continued the practice because mosquitoes were a nuisance. The practice continued slowly to 1900, but blossomed in the 1930s. It became a WPA effort in the Depression. By 1940 virtually all of Connecticut’s coastal salt marshes were ditched for mosquito control.

Hand-digging ditches during the Great Depression.

Hand-digging ditches during the Great Depression.

In 1970, when we became much more environmentally aware, we figured out that the practice caused more harm than good. In 1985 the DEP stopped the practice altogether. When feasible they seek to fill in these ditches and let the natural flooding process take place.

Nowadays the Connecticut DEEP encourages the development of a minnow population that feeds on mosquito larvae to control mosquito populations.

The next time you’re at Burying Hill or Sherwood Island — or Branford or Guilford — think about the hand-dug “mosquito ditches.”

Be thankful you didn’t live during the 1800s, when mosquitoes were a nuisance.

And malaria was deadly.

Michel Nischan: James Beard’s Humanitarian Of The Year

When Michel Nischan closed his Dressing Room restaurant in January 2014, the farm-to-table chef/pioneer said he wanted to devote his full energies to Wholesome Wave.

That national non-profit — based at the time in Westport, now in Bridgeport –helps underserved urban and rural communities gain more affordable access to healthy, locally grown foods, while supporting the small and mid-sized American farmers.

Michel Nischan

Michel Nischan

“Wholesome Wave is ready to explode,” Nischan told “06880” then. “It’s what I want to do when I grow up.”

In just 15 months, Wholesome Wave has certainly made its mark. And the world is noticing.

On Monday in Chicago, the James Beard Foundation honored Nischan as its Humanitarian of the Year.

The foundation called Nischan — also co-founder of the Chef Action Network — “a trailblazer of the sustainable food movement and celebrity chef with over 30 years of experience advocating for a more local, (healthful, equitable) and regenerative food system.”

Citing initiatives like the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Healthy Food Commerce Investments — and its efforts with key decision makers in states, Congress and at federal agencies — the foundation said that Nischan’s organization has become “a model for forward-thinking, imaginative solutions that go beyond charity to focus on economic viability.”

Nischan thanked the Beard Foundation for the honor, adding, “I wholeheartedly agree with James when he said, ‘Food is our common ground.’”

In other food news, Opinionated About Dining may not carry the same cachet as the James Beard Foundation. But the self-styled “leading source of global restaurant rankings for devout diners” has just unveiled its 4th annual “Top 100 European Restaurants.”

Alex Burger

Alex Burger

Sitting at #1 — up 18 spots from last year — is that “champion of sustainability and pioneer of modern Basque cuisine, Azurmendi.”

What makes that spectacularly beautiful and very cool restaurant 15 kilometers east of Bilbao “06880”-worthy is that the chef de cuisine is Alex Burger. He’s a 2004 Staples grad  who took every culinary class he could there. He honed his skills at Daniel in New York, then Asia and Malta.

After starting at Planet Pizza, right here in Westport.

“06880” is indeed where Westport meets — and eats — the world.

(Hat tips: Bart Shuldman and Cecily Gans)

 

How Our Gardens Grow

You can see the Westport Garden Club‘s work all over town.

In the early 1970s, Ginny Sherwood asked fellow members to reclaim a 3-acre landfill on Imperial Avenue. Her vision of a refuge along the Saugatuck River came true. Today, Westporters love the hidden-in-plain-sight beauty of Grace Salmon Park.

It’s a delightful spot for a walk, picnic or simply a few moments of peace and quiet.

Over the years though, the land has flooded. Vegetation has been lost. It needs improvement.

The Garden Club will once again help. Members are recommending which plants to save, and which native species to add. They’ll provide volunteers to do the labor, and keep Grace Salmon Park looking great.

To accomplish this — and so much more — the club needs funds. They raise money the best way they know how. This year’s annual plant sale is set for Friday, May 8 (9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.) at the Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Among the Westport Garden Club's many activities: keeping the Compo Beach entrance looking gorgeous. Members were hard at work recently. (Photo/Ann Pawlick)

Among the Westport Garden Club’s many activities: keeping the Compo Beach entrance looking gorgeous. Members hard at work recently (from left): Roseanne Mihalick, Jane Eyes, Jenny Robson, Debbie Tiede, Lori Meinke, Sue McCabe. (Photo/Ann Pawlick)

The Garden Club is one of those organizations whose work Westporters constantly admire, even if we don’t know it’s theirs. They’re responsible for — among many other things — planting, weeding, pruning and mulching sites like the Compo Beach entry and marina; Adams Academy; the Earthplace entrance; the Library’s winter garden near Jesup Green; various cemeteries, and the Nevada Hitchcock Memorial Garden at the Cross Highway/Weston Road intersection.

We also owe the club thanks for what we don’t see.

In the 1930s — just a few years after its founding — the Westport Garden Club persuaded the town to ban billboards on all local roads.

The prohibition still stands.

So on Friday, buy a plant to support the Westport Garden Club. For nearly 100 years they’ve made our hometown look beautiful — just like home.

Westport Garden Club logo

 

Wondrous Westport

Definitely, the forsythia look fantastic. For sure, the cherry blossoms are spectacular.

But it’s not only flowers and trees that make a Westport spring so special.

Yesterday — near Indian River Green, just south of the train station on Saugatuck Avenue — alert “06880” reader Scott Singer spotted a couple of beautiful birds.

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler

“A seemingly boring little pond by the side of the road has turned into an Audubon Society member’s dream (I am not one, but I own one of their books),” he writes.

“The amazing treasures of Westport are all around, if we simply take a moment to look closely.”

Common grackle. (Photos/Scott Singer)

Common grackle. (Photos/Scott Singer)

 

Staples Students Are Complete SLOBs

Today was as sweet as it gets.

Staples students could have celebrated the spectacular weather by going to the beach. Playing tennis, golf, frisbee or with each other. Studying for AP tests that start tomorrow, even.

Instead, over 100 boys — and 80 or so parents — spent the day on community service projects all around Westport.

The Staples Service League of Boys — SLOBs for, lovingly, short — headed out to the Bacharach Houses, Gillespie Center, Compo and Burying Hill Beaches, Wakeman Town Farm, Linxweiler House, Powell House, Project Return, ABC House and Earthplace.

They wielded tools...

They wielded tools…

They weeded, planted, mulched, picked up garbage, painted and cleaned.

...got dirty...

…got dirty…

They worked long and hard. They did manual labor, and learned some skills. They worked side by side with their parents, and a few siblings.

...picked up garbage...

…picked up garbage…

It’s all part of SLOBs’ ongoing commitment to their town. So far this year, they’ve contributed more than 2,300 hours of service.

And how did you spend your day?

...filled and hauled wheelbarrows...

…filled and hauled wheelbarrows…

...learned new skills...

…learned new skills…

...took down branches...

…took down branches…

...bonded with their parents...

…bonded with their parents…

...and siblings...

…and siblings…

...and left the town far better than it had been just a few hours earlier.

…and left the town far better than it had been just a few hours earlier. (Photos/Emily Prince)

Gentlemen (And Ladies): Start Your (Very Quiet) Engines!

Westport celebrated “Greenday” — actually “Greenweekend” — with festivities at Wakeman Town Farm, WeGreen awards, Earthplace nature walks and much more.

Including the 3rd annual Electric Vehicle Rally.

Art Cohen's hybrid BMW i8 drew many admiring  glances.

A hybrid BMW i8 drew many admiring glances.

Several dozen EVs — and their drivers, navigators and admirers — assembled at the train station. They compared EV notes, munched on free food from Steam (quaint imagery there, no?), then embarked on a silent ride to Wilton.

Robin Tauck (center) lent selectmen  Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner (left) her 2 electric vehicles last year. Kaner liked driving it so much, he bought this Tesla P35D model. It goes from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds -- not that anyone does that on local roads. On the right is Westport Electric Car Club president Leo Cirino.

Robin Tauck (center) lent selectmen Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner (left) her 2 electric vehicles last year. Kaner liked driving it so much, he bought this Tesla S P85D. It goes from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds (not that anyone does that on local roads). On the right is Westport Electric Car Club president Leo Cirino.

PS: The weather was perfect all weekend long. Despite all we’ve done to her, Mother Nature threw us a bone.

Two of the clever license plates seen at the Electric Vehicle Rally today.

Two of the clever license plates seen at the Electric Vehicle Rally today.

Stacy Bass’ Gardens Of Delight

With spring in full bloom, Westporters have headed outside with a vengeance.

This is a town that loves gardens. But no matter how much time, effort and money we (or our hired help) spend on our plants, flowers and pathways, they seldom look the way we want them to.

Or the way Stacy Bass makes them look.

Phoebe Cole-Smith's garden in Weston. (Photo/Stacy Bass)

Phoebe Cole-Smith’s garden in Weston. (Photo/Stacy Bass)

The renowned Westport photographer — a Barnard, Columbia and NYU Law School graduate whose work has been featured in solo exhibitions, private and corporate collections, and magazines like House Beautiful — is about to publish Gardens at First Light.

Stacy chose 12 exceptional gardens in the Northeast. The book includes more than 200 photographs — all taken at daybreak. The light at that special time of day makes the gardens shimmer with hope and possibility (and create not a little envy in those of us whose gardens look nothing like these).

The backyard garden of Arlene Scanlan, in Westport. (Photo/Stacy Bass)

A page from Stacy Bass’ book, showing the backyard garden of Arlene Scanlan in Westport. (Photo/Stacy Bass)

Hand-drawn sketches offer a bird’s-eye view of each property. Additional photos provide even more perspective.

Two of the featured gardens are in Westport: her own, and Arlene Scanlan’s. Phoebe Cole-Smith’s is in Weston.

But enough about Stacy, and her beautiful gardens. Stop reading. Go outside. There’s work to be done!

(Gardens at First Light will be published May 5 by athome Books. The Connecticut launch party is Thursday, May 7, 5:30-7:30 pm at White Birch Studios in Sconset Square.)

Stacy Bass' own Westport garden. (Photo/Stacy Bass)

Stacy Bass’ own Westport garden. (Photo/Stacy Bass)

Baron’s South To Remain Open Space

In a vote that will resound for decades to come, the RTM affirmed the Planning & Zoning Commission’s designation of the Baron’s South property as open space.

The 22-acre, wooded and hilly property — bordered by South Compo Road, the Post Road and Imperial Avenue — is already home to the Senior Center, on its western edge. But further development — for instance, of a hotly debated senior housing complex — will not take place.

A majority of RTM members — 20 — actually voted to overturn last month’s P&Z decision (4-1, with 1 abstention) designating the entire area as open space.

But 14 members sided with the P&Z. Overruling the P&Z required 24 votes — 2/3 of all members.

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

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

The roll was called after midnight. Debate was intense but civil throughout the long evening. Many issues were raised, ranging from the importance of open space and the inevitability of more development once construction began, to the speed and propriety of one commission deciding such a major issue for the town.

Some speakers declared that the vote should be about the “open space” decision alone — not the merits of one particular senior housing proposal. The need for senior housing, however, was noted by other speakers.

The baron’s property will now remain undeveloped — an “urban forest” just steps from downtown. Was today’s early morning vote comparable to previous decisions (for example, to purchase Longshore when a developer proposed building 180 houses there — or to allow construction of the Wright Street and Gorham Island office complexes), or a missed opportunity to build on town-owned land?

Check back in a decade or two.

There are already buildings on Baron's South. The baron's Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance.   A debate will begin soon on their fate.

There are some existing buildings on Baron’s South. The baron’s Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance. A debate will begin soon on their fate.

“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.

——————————————————————–

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.

——————————————————————-

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.