Category Archives: Local politics

Peter Flatow: Assessments, Inspections And The Status Quo

Alert “06880” reader Peter Flatow writes:

Last week I read a news story about the upcoming revaluation of real estate. When I learned that appraisers would enter my home, my reaction was negative. (Not about the revaluation. I agree it needs to be done – periodically).

I told Dan I’d like to research the topic for “06880.” Here’s what I found.

First, I would like to thank the RTM members who responded to my email or spoke with me in person. Also thanks to town assessor Paul Friia for his thoughtful and prompt responses to my questions.

I learned that no one must grant access to their home. It is voluntary. So much for my concern.

Paul reports, “the 2005 revaluation resulted in interior inspections of just under 60% of the properties in Westport.” Reading the enabling legislation (which is almost unreadable) and state reports on the internet, I found what’s required: a statistical assessment every 5 years, and a physical assessment every 10.

Would an interior inspection change the assessed value of this Westport home?

Would an interior inspection change the assessed value of this Westport home?

What is unclear (at least to me) is the rationale to include a voluntary internal inspection as part of the physical inspection. Fairness is inferred: The more data, the more accurate the assessment.

As anyone who analyzes data will tell you, accuracy (and fairness) diminish when samples are not equally drawn and consistent. Assessments are to some degree subjective because no two homes are exactly alike, so adding the variable of some homes having both internal and external assessments, and some not, would in my opinion make them less alike (less fair). While this all started as a feeling of invasion of privacy, it has turned into a question about whether our elected officials question what they are being asked to approve. Are they in a “maintain the status quo” mentality?

I asked Paul if, when the reappraisal RFP went out, he asked for the cost of just an exterior reassessment.

He said he did not, “because that wasn’t part of the scope of services that we were looking for.  I have always been under the opinion that the better the data that we have, the better chance we have at being fair and accurate.” I totally agree with the last sentence.

This is not critical of Paul. He is doing what has been done, and he is expected to do. But what if we began to question the status quo? What if we ask, “does this still make sense?” What would the town save if only an external (all that is required by law) “physical inspection” were conducted?

Every corporation I have ever worked with continually looks for ways to save money (improve profits) by changing or stopping unnecessary practices. What if all levels of government did the same thing?

Kemper Gunn: 3-0 And Done

This morning, the board of selectmen approved a lease for the Kemper Gunn house. The vote was unanimous: 3-0.

Soon it will move across Elm Street, to the Baldwin parking lot. The Y will already have left, and the renovation/reconstruction/renaissance of Church Lane will begin.

Bedford Square will become a reality. Kemper Gunn will be leased to non-chain outlets.

Downtown will never look or be the same.

In a very good way.

An artist's rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

An artist’s rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it  is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

 

Jim Marpe: Federal Response To Transit District Request Coming Soon

Tonight, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe released this statement regarding the Westport Transit District:

In response to the “06880” story regarding transit service for some of our after-school programs, I would like to provide additional information on this evolving situation and update Westporters as to what your elected representatives and transit directors have been doing to find both short and long term solutions to this unexpected event.

In early July the Federal Transit Administration notified the Norwalk Transit District of its determination that the after-school bus service that NTD operates on behalf of Westport is an unauthorized public transit service route. The stops and clientele primarily involve students and, as such, the service was deemed equivalent to a “school bus service” and thus was “non-compliant” with Federal transit regulations.

Without getting into a long explanation of those regulations, suffice it to say that NTD and the Westport Transit District were given only 30 days to present a plan to become compliant or lose Federal funding (approximately 65% of the total program cost) for these after-school routes and the use of the NTD buses.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport's buses.

The Norwalk Transit District operates Westport’s buses.

This program has successfully operated for over 30 years in Westport. The program had recently passed its triennial Federal review, so its sudden disqualification came as a surprise. Unfortunately, the short time frame given to address the problem does not give us time to develop a solution in a manner which would meet the new federal interpretation of the regulations. Ultimately this may not be possible at all.

As soon as we were alerted to the problem by the NTD, the Selectman’s Office, in conjunction with State Representative Jonathan Steinberg and the Westport Transit directors, began a multi-avenue effort to find solutions. With the new school year upon us, and with hundreds of students, their parents and the programs counting on this service, our first and primary initiative has been to obtain a stay of this ruling. We are seeking a 5-month extension of our funding and continued use of the buses until January 1, 2015 so that an alternative solution can be found.

DOT logoToward this end, we have formally applied for an extension to the appropriate FTA administrator as well as to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which is supporting our appeal. We have also been working closely with our state and federal representatives. Senators Blumenthal and Murphy and Congressman Himes have all signed a joint letter to the FTA strongly supporting Westport’s request for an extension.

Today I received a phone call from the FTA administrator in response to our letters and phone calls.  She informed me that relevant FTA officials will meet tomorrow  (Tuesday) to review our request, and expect to give us a response no later than this Wednesday.

In the interim, we have been exhaustively examining all other options to provide alternate service through other bus service providers in the region. The unfortunate reality is that, at this late date, most bus service providers are fully utilized at the time of the day when we would need 3 more buses to provide the service. There is very little additional bus capacity in our area at this moment.

If our request for an extension is granted, our objective will be to find a way to restructure our current program so that it is considered “compliant” by the FTA.  Alternatively, by working with programs and families, we can seek to find an alternative method of providing after-school transit services.

Hopefully on Wednesday we will have a positive response from the FTA so that we will not have to deal with the disruption and difficulty that the immediate cessation of this important service will cause. I will keep you informed.

Update: Earthplace, Temple Israel, And The Future Of Westport Transit

An “06880” post earlier today reported that the after-school Westport Transit District bus routes serving Earthplace and Temple Israel would be suspended indefinitely.

“06880” has learned that last-ditch negotiations may provide a solution. But time is running out.

EarthplaceThe reason for the suspension of the routes is cessation of federal funds. Because the route is geared to students traveling from schools to afternoon activities — but not run by a school district — it is out of compliance with government regulations.

If the funds are cut, dozens of Westport parents will have to figure how to get their kids to Earthplace programs, and religious education.

One result, of course, would be more cars on the road.

Temple IsraelBroader issues include: What’s the future of the Westport Transit District? How does it fit in with other area organizations? How do we live and move around in town? Is there any role for mass transportation, suburb-style?

A number of folks are working hard, seeking a resolution. State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, First Selectman Jim Marpe and town operations director Dewey Loselle, the WTD’s Jennifer Johnson and Gene Cederbaum, along with Earthplace and Temple Israel officials, have pulled many levers seeking a stay of execution — or at least a delay.

There are many layers to this onion. Stay tuned as Westport peels them back, one by one.

A Westport Transit District bus.

A Westport Transit District bus.

Kemper-Gunn House Moves One Step Closer To Move

Historic Church Lane is nearing its new look.

Earlier today, a notice was posted in the Baldwin parking lot. It announces a hearing next Wednesday (August 13, 8:30 a.m., Town Hall Room 309) regarding a .13-acre lease in the lot. The board of selectmen will be asked to approve a lease, to accommodate the relocation of the Kemper-Gunn House from across Elm Street.

That vacated property will then become part of the retail/residential development that replaces the soon-to-be-vacated Westport Family Y.

The Baldwin parking lot lease, which has already been approved by the Board of Finance and Planning & Zoning Commission, awaits final Board of Selectmen action.

The meeting announcement sign, in the Baldwin parking lot.

The meeting announcement sign, in the Baldwin parking lot.

According to 3rd Selectman Helen Garten — a member of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group — “the lease creates a unique public-private partnership that not only will ensure the preservation of a historic downtown structure, but also will return the building to productive commercial use as a home for small, independent businesses.”

Major components of the plan include rental of the Baldwin lot land by the town to DC Kemper-Gunn LLC for 50 years, with renewal options up to 98 years.

DC Kemper-Gunn LLC will own the house and pay for all site work, relocation expenses, renovation and ongoing maintenance and repairs. The town will incur no operating expenses.

An old door and lock, in the Kemper-Gunn house. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

An old door and lock, in the Kemper-Gunn house. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

DC Kemper-Gunn LLC has agreed to preserve any original exterior features of the house that are in good condition, or replace them with original materials.  Garten hopes that some interior architectural features can be reused or donated to the Westport Historical Society.

The plan calls for refitting the interior for commercial use. The lease requires all tenants to be small, independent, preferably locally owned businesses — no chain stores. Garten says, “Our aim is to add to the diversity and vibrancy of our downtown business offerings.”

The town will receive taxes on the building and improvements, as well as rent and — eventually — a share of net profits generated by the commercial rental operation.

“Since we are receiving no income now, this is a net gain to the town financially,” Garten notes. “But the real reward for Westport is how this venture will help restore a sense of place to our downtown.”

The actual relocation is tentatively set for November. A giant Elm Street block party may accompany the move.

An artist's rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

An artist’s rendering of the Kemper-Gunn House, after it is moved to the Baldwin parking lot.

 

Downtown Trees Get Priority Treatment

Remember all the hand-wringing 2 years ago, when trees were suddenly removed from Main Street? And when others were posted for removal in front of Town Hall?

Westporters love their trees. And, true to its campaign promises, the Marpe administration is making sure the next generation of trees gets the care they need.

A company cleverly named “Care of Trees” is deep-watering the roots of 5 new trees on Main Street, with an injection method. One or 2 slow-drip 20-gallon bags of water continue to nurture each tree throughout the week.

Tree care on Main Street.

Tree care on Main Street.

Taking care of young trees after planting is tricky, notes tree warden Bruce Lindsay.

“Their root systems are new. Watering is really important, to help them take hold. Street tree planting requires a great deal of planning, design, maintenance and funding to reach establishment.”

The Main Street trees were donated. The weekly cost of $300 per visit by Care of Trees comes out of the town’s tree maintenance budget. Lindsay says that after this year — once the trees are acclimated to the environmental conditions — watering will not be needed.

“The initial growing years are hardest on newly planted trees, especially in difficult site conditions like Main Street,” Lindsay notes. “Heat is radiated from cars, asphalt and sidewalks. There is limited root space and lower water access.”

The 8 new trees around Town Hall are getting the same treatment (below):

Tree in front of Town Hall

Meanwhile, Lindsay had a company trim and crown clean the trees around the Imperial Avenue parking lot, near the bridge leading to the newly renovated Levitt Pavilion.

Invasive growth was removed, and the area was scoured for safety and higher visiblity purposes. Each tree was climbed and cleaned, in a very detailed process.

Tree work being done near the Imperial Avenue foot bridge.

Tree work being done near the Imperial Avenue foot bridge.

Lindsay says, “People see me removing hazardous trees. But a lot of my job consists of stewardship: trimming, cleaning, watering. We want to make sure we preserve what we have, and mitigate any potential problems.”

Trees — their cutting, growth and regeneration — will continue to be a hot topic in Westport.

But right now, their maintenance has not fallen by the wayside.

A Taxing Question Is Answered

On Thursday I got my “sewer use charge and benefit assessment” bill.

Last year I paid $257.

This year, the charge was $5,487.00

First, I chewed some aspirin to stave off the heart attack I figured was coming.

Then I wondered: If this is my sewer bill, what will my property tax look like?

But after I did a quick calculation, I realized the increase was 20 times last year’s charge — and there are 20 units in my condo. Obviously, the tax collector charged me for all 20 owners.

Yikes!

Yikes!

Town Hall was already closed for the July 4th holiday. No biggie. I figured I’d call on Monday.

But a simple tax bill mistake is not what makes this story “06880”-worthy. Here’s the great part:

On Saturday I got an email from my upstairs neighbor, cc-ed to every unit owner.

At 12:13 a.m. Friday, she told us, she’d emailed the “Water Pollution Control Authority Coordinator” at the Department of Public Works — the contact for appeals listed on the sewer bill — with the same question I had: Had she been assessed for every owner in our building?

Yes, replied coordinator Bryan Thompson. It was a system error. New bills were being printed, and would be mailed out Monday.

What’s incredible is that Bryan responded less than 8 hours later — at 7:54 a.m.

On July 4th.

“I’m pretty sure no one in the history of the universe has ever gotten back to me that quickly,” my neighbor replied to Bryan.

And, I’d add, I’m pretty sure no one in the history of government, at any level, has ever replied that quickly to any tax complaint on a national holiday.

 

 

Melissa Kane: Downtown Westport Must Be Both “Soulful” And “Economically Vibrant”

You can’t say Melissa Kane doesn’t have roots in Westport.

The newly appointed chair of the Downtown Steering Committee — she takes over from Dewey Loselle, who is now town operations director — spent summers here, beginning when she was less than a year old.

From that summer of ’69 on — when her parents brought her out from Manhattan — she has loved what she calls “my favorite place in the world.” Her downtown memories include Ship’s, the movie theaters (“I saw ‘ET’ there!”), and Bobbie’s Ice Cream (now L’Occitane), where Melissa served homemade scoops as a summer job.

Melissa Kane remembers when Ship's restaurant (background) anchored downtown.

Melissa Kane remembers when The Ships restaurant (background) anchored downtown.

Her boyfriend Jonathan nailed his marriage proposal: It was on a Compo Cove sandbar, which he knew she especially loved.

Melissa and Jonathan moved here nearly 12 years ago, 3 weeks after their daughter Lily was born. (She has an older brother, George). She quickly got involved with A Child’s Place, where she met her first group of “incredible people.”

She is one of Westport’s extraordinary volunteers: with the Westport Library trustees, Booked for the Evening and Friends group; Young Women’s League; Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection, Westport Arts Center,a nd Green Village Initiative.

Melissa Kane

Melissa Kane

Kane did all that while starting MKK Designs, a floral company that specializes in weddings and special events. throughout Fairfield County. Before moving to Westport, she worked in non-profit development and PR for a variety of social service providers, and others. She also was a food and entertainment columnist.

Her activism in town affairs led to an interest in the RTM. (“I actually liked the meetings!” she laughs.) She was elected to the governing body in 2011. She ran for 2nd selectman last November.

She and running mate Helen Garten lost to Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner, but Marpe was impressed with her focus on community-building, along with her expertise in conservation and sustainability. He appointed her to the Downtown Steering Committee shortly after the election, and named her chair when Loselle took his new post.

So what does all this mean to the future of downtown Westport?

“We have to make sure downtown is a soulful place for everyone who lives here,” Kane says.

To do that, she notes, “we’ve got to leverage the power of every organization in town. We have to include Town Hall, and we have to promote more public/private partnerships.”

Melissa Kane wants to involve all stakeholders in deciding the future of downtown Westport.

Melissa Kane wants to involve all stakeholders in deciding the future of downtown Westport.

She promises to continue Loselle’s focus on transparency and inclusion. After what she calls an “unprecedented” effort to reach out to as many constituencies as possible — a survey runs through July 13 — she looks forward to the committee’s next phase.

They held their 2nd “Visioning Workshop” on Monday. Ahead on July 21 at Town Hall: a series of presentations, by consultants, of survey results and workshops. That will be followed by open committee meetings and work sessions. Then comes a multi-day charrette, for even more public involvement.

“We’ll be involving all the stakeholders: residents, town officials, the Downtown Merchants Association, the library, Arts Center, Cinema Initiative, Bedford Square developers — you name it,” she says.

So what is Kane’s vision for downtown?

“As chair, that’s not important,” she says. “But what I am firm about is this. I never want to compromise the soul of Westport. Downtown must represent what’s real and authentic, and wanted by Westporters. But ‘soulful’ goes hand in hand with ‘economically vibrant.’

“Right now, we’re heading along the path toward that.”

 

Westport’s RTM: 65 Years Young!

65 years ago, Westport replaced its “town meeting” form of government with a “Representative Town Meeting” (RTM). 

Ann Sheffer used that anniversary as the theme of her invocation at last night’s session. As Westport prepares to celebrate Independence Day — and America’s special democracy — Ann’s remarks are very instructive.

When Velma Heller asked if I would give the invocation tonight, she suggested I talk a bit about the history of the RTM and its relevance today… because the 500 or so people who have served over the years embody the traditions and values of our town.

Ann Sheffer, at last night's RTM meeting. (Photo/Dave Matlow)

Ann Sheffer, at last night’s RTM meeting. (Photo/Dave Matlow)

I am one of a number of Westport families with multiple family members who served on the RTM. My father was on the RTM from 1953 until 1969, and served as moderator from 1959 to 1969. I was on the RTM from 1993 to 2005, as was my husband Bill Scheffler. That makes us one of 11 sets of married couples who have served on the RTM (though not necessarily at the same time).

But more importantly, I realized that July 16 marks the 65th anniversary of the date in 1949 when the citizens of Westport approved the change from a town meeting to a Representative Town Meeting – which made us one of only 7 towns in Connecticut to have this form of government. We are the only fully non-partisan one.

In 1999, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the RTM, we published a history of this body (it’s available here). Here are a few details that show how the RTM has evolved.

In 1949, there were 124 candidates for 26 seats. But only 4 women were elected that first year. Today, both the moderator and deputy moderator are women, a first for the RTM.

Each member was to represent 250 citizens (today it’s about 700). One commentator observed that it was “as democratic as Congress and twice as personal.”

There were notable votes over the years. My favorite, with my father presiding, was the 1972 resolution asking President Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam. It passed, 17-15. There were also many, many evenings, often until 3 am, spent debating the education budget, sewers, and, of course, dog leash laws.

RTMIn essence, the history of the RTM is the history of the Town. We were reminded of that in recent months, when we lost 2 of the most notable members: Allen Raymond (the 4th Moderator) and Bill Meyer, who gave many an impassioned speech from this lectern.

I was going to add David Royce, but I remembered he was never a member of the RTM — just a wonderful gadfly who was actually arrested during one of his protests.

There are traditions that I hope you will learn about and continue. For example, RTM Rules of Procedure call for the “first right-hand seat of the left-hand section as you face the Moderator” to be left empty as a memorial to Maclear Jacoby, one of the original members, and to all deceased RTM members.

I want to leave you with the words that Gordon Joseloff wrote when he was elected moderator of the RTM in 1995:

“May those who serve in this body, and hold the responsibility for our Town, be

  •  Respectful of our past
  • Confident of our present
  • Bold about our future.”

Ann nailed it. Happy anniversary, RTM — and happy Independence Day, Westport!

 

Compo Beach Plan Moves To Parks & Rec On Monday

For nearly 3  months — ever since a raucous public meeting at which dozens of Westporters decried the possible removal of perimeter parking from Compo — the town’s Beach Site Improvement Committee has held work sessions.

This Monday (July 7, 7:30 p.m., Town Hall auditorium), the group hands off their draft master plan to their bosses: Westport’s Parks and Recreation Commission. The meeting is open to the public.

“We look forward to an opportunity to discuss the plan and receive public input regarding the recommendations,” says Parks and Rec chair Charlie Haberstroh.

“Compo Beach is one of the town’s crown jewels. Future plans for Compo Beach are important to all Westporters.”

Part of the plan. It shows new entranceways, an expanded boardwalk, and a parking area in the center of the beach.

Part of the plan. It shows new entranceways, an expanded boardwalk, and a parking area in the center of the beach.

First Selectman Jim Marpe notes that this is not the end of the process. “The plan is still a ‘draft’ document subject to further change and revision, based on the review of the Parks and Recreation Commission and additional input from the public.” He invites interested citizens to attend the meeting, and continue to provide suggestions and feedback.

If you’d rather  watch at home, the meeting will be televised (Cablevision Channel 79, AT&T Channel 99). And if you’re out enjoying Compo — parking close to the sand — check out the videostream at www.westportct.gov.

(The final draft of the Compo Beach Master Plan is available at www.compobeach2.com.)