Category Archives: Local politics

Compo Skate Park: The Sequel

While discussion about the Compo Beach renovation plan has died down recently — the calm before another storm, perhaps — a subset of users has been quietly at work, hoping to save their beloved section of sand.

Well, asphalt.

It’s not a group known for their political activism: skateboarders.

But there’s a grassroots effort in town to save the Compo skate park. On Saturday afternoon — the final weekend of the beach’s skateboard season — they sponsored a skating party, with pizza and a DJ. The weather was fantastic, drawing luminaries like 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Compo Beach Improvement Committee member George Franciscovich.

A small part of the big crowd of Saturday's skaters.

A small part of the big crowd of Saturday’s skaters.

The skaters will be out in force this Thursday (October 30, 7:30 p.m., Town Hall) for the next Parks and Rec Commission/Compo Beach Site Improvement Committee meeting. It’s listen-only for the audience, but they want to hear what’s in the works.

Some teenage skaters have formed their own committee. They want to present their side to town groups like Parks & Rec, the Compo Beach committee and the Westport Youth Commission. (The skate park itself was an outgrowth of a Youth Commission objective, back in the day.)

They’re figuring out how Compo’s skate park can be brought up to date to enhance its appeal and safety, and lower maintenance costs.

They’re marshaling plenty of good arguments. They’re learning how to participate in town democracy.

They may wipe out once or twice. That’s part of the process.

If so, they’ll get right back up. They hope to be standing — and skating — at the end.

The scene last Saturday.

The scene last Saturday.

 

A Sneak Peek At What’s Coming Down The Pike…

…or, more accurately, next to the Turnpike.

And on the Post Road.

A Westporter with political connections gives some background:

Connecticut legislation known as 8-30g mandates that new development projects include 30% “affordable” residential units. Developers around the state have made humongous proposals that include large amounts of affordable housing — then “offer” a “compromise” of scaling back, in order to get what they really originally wanted.

Last week, a developer came to Town Hall with an application to demolish the Westport Inn. In its place would come 2 levels of underground parking. On top would be 2 stories of housing — with 50 units per floor. It would be the largest new building on the Post Road in decades — rivaling the Wright Street office complex across town.

The Westport Inn has stood on the Post Road East since 1960 (it started as a motel). It may not stay there forever.

The Westport Inn has stood on the Post Road East since 1960 (it started as a motel). It may not stay there forever.

Also across town from the Westport Inn, a developer is eyeing Hiawatha Lane. That’s the limited access neighborhood adjacent to the I-95 Exit 17 on/off ramp, which already includes some of the most affordable houses in Westport. The developer would like to build 100 — maybe even 200 — units of housing there.

If both — or even one — of those proposals passes the many approval hurdles, it would affect every aspect of life in Westport. Education, traffic, emergency services, you name it — all would be impacted, in a variety of ways.

Neither proposal is on the Planning & Zoning calendar yet, where such developments usually begin.

But people on the street — Post Road East, Saugatuck Avenue, and points in between — are already talking about them.

Town Takes Over Riverwalk Maintenance

In 1992, a volunteer committee led by the indefatigable Betty Lou Cummings created the Library Riverwalk and Gardens.

A 6-month fundraising campaign drew 5,000 contributors, donating cash as well as services.

Together with a 2nd phase 7 years later, the accomplishments are stunning:

  • 11,000 bricks, many of them engraved, in a path 638 feet long
  • 57 benches, 3 picnic tables, 23 pole lights and 2 sculptures
  • 127 shrubs and bushes, plus 19 trees (and a sprinkler system)
  • Stairs from the library to the water, and a boat launch walkway.
A small portion of the library Riverwalk.

A small portion of the library Riverwalk.

After 22 years, the committee has asked the town to take over responsibility for maintanance. They’ve turned over $15,000 in their account to help.

Parks and Rec is happy to accept the responsibility. Over the past several years they’ve taken a more active role in assisting the committee. With the opening of the renovated Levitt Pavilion nearby, the time is ripe for the transfer to happen.

The Riverwalk is one of Westport’s hidden gems.

Okay, it’s not really hidden. Plenty of people enjoy it, at all times of day and throughout the year.

But many others don’t know it exists. And not many know the back story of its creation.

Thanks, Betty Lou and the 5,000 donors who helped make it a reality. More than 2 decades later, your work is greatly appreciated.

And it looks better than ever.

Save Westport Now: P&Z Denial Of Senior Housing Plan Was Correct

In response to recent “06880” posts — by 2 Planning & Zoning commissioners, and the Coalition for Westport — regarding the denial of senior housing on town owned property Save Westport Now adds its voice. Chairman Sidney Kramer says:

We would like provide clarity to the decision and offer high praise to all those who have, and will, continue to work diligently to address this complicated and challenging issue. In addition, we compliment the current P&Z Commissioners, who are duly elected representatives of both the Democrat and Republican parties, for their thoughtful deliberation of this matter.

We believe that the Commission’s near-unanimous decision to reject this text amendment was correct. It needed to be rejected—not because of political pressure or bias, but because the amendment itself was deeply and unacceptably flawed and would have created far more problems than it solved, all at the expense of Westport taxpayers.

Part of the Baron's South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.

Part of the Baron’s South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.

As the town moves toward an acceptable solution, we must keep in mind some of the problems with the denied amendment (see below), many of which have gotten lost in the heat of the discussion. These are things every Westport resident — and most especially our seniors — should know:

  1. The Amendment would have required developers to set aside ONLY 20% (or just 29 units) as “affordable”—whereas current state law requires that 30% be set aside and our P&Z has already determined that 60% is the appropriate number to justify utilizing town land for this purpose;
  2. If passed, the town would basically have been subsidizing housing for the well-to-do, since the income tests for the non-affordable units were very high;
  3. The amendment would have put the town further behind in terms of meeting the state minimum for affordable housing dictated by Connecticut State Statute 8-30G, since it would have increased the total number of units in town without a corresponding 30% increase of affordable units. That, in turn, would allow developers of other affordable housing projects to override existing zoning regulations anywhere in town, given that we would no longer have the benefits of a moratorium on the state-mandated minimum;
  4. The amendment would have allowed a private developer to acquire a valuable town asset (8+ acres of prime real estate with an estimated value of $10,000,000) for a mere $1,000,000 — less than the average cost of many residential building lots;
  5. The Amendment would have allowed for a 99-year lease that contained liberal assignment clauses that the town would not fully control;
  6. The additional amenities being offered by the developer were minimal (a therapy pool not the same as a full-sized town pool) and could not make up for the loss of this valuable asset or the increased problems this project would create in terms of the state mandate on affordable housing;
  7. The amendment would have exempted the entire project (as opposed to just the 29 affordable units) from the current 10% town-wide cap on multi-family dwellings. With 13 sites eligible for the same treatment, we could have easily ended up with significantly greater density, traffic and stresses on our town services (fire, police, emergency, and recreation); and
  8. Although the amendment purported to cover 13 sites, it was primarily targeted for Baron’s South (potentially making it illegal “spot zoning”), with insufficient thought given to its impact on the other eligible sites in town.

Finally, we note that portraying Westport as a place with no senior housing is inaccurate. One only needs to look at Whitney Glen, where the owners tried to get the town to lower the age requirement from 65 to 55 due to the fact that there are too many vacant units and not enough seniors applying.

The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.

The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.

We appreciate that this recent decision will delay things. But in the context of Westport’s more than 200-year history and with such valuable resources in play (for decades to come!), the 6 years spent on this matter is a drop in the bucket. We honor those who came before us, and those who will follow, by taking the long view and acting with great care in managing our town’s scarce and precious resources. Progress has already been made, and the investments of time and effort to date have not been for naught.  If we can solve the problems outlined above, we can find a solution that works for all of Westport.

Compo Beach Plan Gets Rocky Reception

A member of the Compo Beach Master Plan Committee called last April’s public meeting — where opposition to new proposals, particularly perimeter parking, surfaced strongly — a “flash mob.”

Last night’s meeting at Town Hall — the 1st time the Parks and Recreation Commission reviewed the plan — was far less contentious. Citizens waited patiently through the consultants’ presentation of conceptual — not final — ideas, and a few commissioners’ questions, before speaking.

But when they spoke, they voiced a number of concerns.

As First Selectman Jim Marpe noted, Compo is used in “an amazing number of ways, and in common.” He spoke of the importance of investing in, upgrading and improving areas of the beach “where it makes sense.”

Compo Beach: a town jewel, beloved by all.

Compo Beach: a town jewel, beloved by all.

Introducing 2 plans — Options A and B — Consultants AKRF and Lothrop Associates expressed the hope that “everyone will like everything,” but cautioned, “no one will like everything.”

They sure didn’t.

Both plans show:

  • a new entrance across from Bradley Street, with permit pass-checking deeper into the beach than now exists
  • a driving loop around the beach, with perimeter pathways for walkers, joggers and bikers
  • an extended boardwalk, toward the cannons
  • exercise stations
  • upgraded bathrooms, lockers and Joey’s
  • redesigned marina promenade
  • unobstructed parking spaces
  • new trees
  • improved facilities (including a bathroom) on South Beach
  • a central lawn for picnics and special events, like Lobsterfest
  • new walkways along Soundview Drive and Compo Beach Road.

Option A pushes all parking back from the beach. Option B removes some of that, but allows some parking similar to what now exists on South Beach.

Both plans remove 200 to 300 parking spaces from the current number, which is around 1900.

Parking is one of the most contentious parts of the 2 beach proposals.

Parking is one of the most contentious parts of the 2 beach proposals.

Parks & Rec chair Charlie Haberstroh allowed youngsters to speak first. Several spoke eloquently and passionately of the need to retain the skate park. It does not appear in the current plans, but Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy said room could be made for it.

Then came comments from older folks. An early question covered costs. New buildings would run approximately $4 million; site work would be another $4 million. (Paving alone — included in site work — is about $2 million.)

Speakers zeroed in on specific concerns: Bradley Street will become more congested. The amount of asphalt and concrete that would be added to what are now “pervious” parking lots. The number of kayak racks that would be lost (none, McCarthy said).

Among the comments:

“You’re sacrificing 200 to 400 parking spaces for lawn and shrubs.”

“Parking and views are there 365 days a year. Traffic problems, they’re only 40 days or so.”

“I don’t understand all the talk about safety. The Sound is more dangerous than the beach.”

John Brandt referred back to an earlier speech. “You don’t fracture a gem,” the longtime Westporter said. “You polish it. We need to find a way to polish this gem.”

Compo Beach: a true town gem.

Compo Beach is a true town gem.

As Compo Beach Master Plan committee chair Andy Moss noted, plenty of dialogue and debate lie ahead. The Compo Beach proposals — which are still only design concepts — must still make their way through the Recreation Commission. Then comes the Planning and Zoning Commission, the selectmen, back to Parks & Rec, back to P&Z, and finally to the town’s funding bodies (Board of Finance and RTM).

Meanwhile, Westporters will continue to debate what they want — and don’t — for the town’s crown jewel.

The dialogue began last night. It can continue here. Click “Comments” — but please, be civil. Debate ideas; don’t castigate people. And use your full, real name.

Full House For Parks & Rec Meeting

It’s perhaps the biggest turnout ever for a Parks & Recreation Commission session.

And one of the biggest in memory for any public meeting.

The Town Hall full house turned out to hear — and comment on — 2 draft proposals for improvements to Compo Beach.

At 9:05 p.m., the public got to speak. Parks & Rec Commission chair Charlie Haberstroh gave the 1st slots to “anyone under 15 years old.” A number of teens advocated for the skate park, which is not in the current plans.

Another teenager, Theo Koskoff, said simply, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Plenty of other Westporters lined up to speak on other parts of the proposal, such as perimeter parking, the new entrance opposite Bradley Street, and changes to the marina.

A full report will appear in “06880” tomorrow morning.

But one thing was already clear: No one is planning to do anything to the cannons.

The scene at Town Hall.

The scene at Town Hall.

Coalition For Westport: P&Z Can’t “Reject Progress”

Denise Torve — chair of the Coalition for Westport — weighs in on the Planning & Zoning Commission’s 6-1 defeat of a proposal to build senior housing on the Baron’s South property. Saying the P&Z “may have nailed the coffin lid on the subject of senior housing,” she writes:

In the 2013 campaign, the Coalition spoke often of an active, not static vision for Westport that considered the needs now and in the future, of all Westporters. Instead we have a commission that seems bent on obstruction. It is comprised for the most part of individuals who, in spite of their explanations to the contrary, are dedicated to the reactionary philosophy that change is bad and Westport must be “preserved” in its original state. The rejected proposal for senior housing and recreational facilities on town-owned land would have been a plus for seniors, a positive motivation for the developer and brought significant revenues to the Town.

The public response of P&Z commissioner David Lessing, who was the sole vote in favor of the text amendment, made for interesting reading. It’s also déjà vu. Lessing’s views mirror CFW’s platform of last year’s campaign. Indeed, the Coalition was founded on the idea that Westport was in dire need of a Planning & Zoning Commission that would proactively plan for the future. The Coalition issued an urgent call for a P&Z that provides a “framework for planned and controlled growth.”

The senior housing project was first proposed 6 years ago by then-First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, and strongly supported by our current First Selectman, Jim Marpe. In order to save this project the P&Z must be willing to enter into discussion and dialogue with the Selectman’s Office, the Board of Finance and other officials. Otherwise, 6 sitting P&Z commissioners will have undermined 6 years of work and the hopes of many Westport seniors.

We support the Selectman. We echo his thoughts on the subject and call for efforts to begin immediately to craft a solution. If the best use of Baron’s South is a facility for people to use, enjoy and remain in Westport, we as a community must resolve to make it happen.  As it stands we have no new facilities for a significant segment of our population, and we have no new revenue. So much to gain and so little achieved.

An artist's rendering of the now-rejected senior housing complex on Baron's South.

An artist’s rendering of the now-rejected senior housing complex on Baron’s South.

The Coalition stands for a P&Z that is engaged, and against one that is merely reactive and dedicated to preserving Westport in a fossilized state. Yes, we live in a town with a unique character. Yes, that character should be preserved. But no, that does not mean we should reject progress, improvements and benefits that inure to various segments of our population and to the town as a whole. Our elected officials must keep an eye to the future, and plan for the needs of both our current and future residents. Westport must remain attractive for us and to generations that follow.

Coalition for WestportThe Coalition stands for open discussion, free of partisanship about projects that affect the quality of life and value to Westport. We reject intra-agency back-biting and competitiveness. We reject motivations that diverge from anything but the best interests of the Town and its residents. In the 2013 campaign CFW referred often to the consequences that would ensue from a 7-member P&Z, all of whom were endorsed by the one party that is opposed to new development. Westport missed an opportunity last year to have a P&Z comprised of a number of non-partisan members – Republicans, Democrats, Independents. Hopefully, this will be rectified in the next election.

With the downtown development project moving swiftly along, ably led by Melissa Kane of the Downtown Steering Committee, the P&Z must take a proactive role and listen to the entire community and not focus on the views of one group. The Downtown project cannot follow in the path of Baron’s South.  Westporters deserve more from our elected officials.

David Lessing: Put The “P” Back In “Planning And Zoning”

David Lessing is a Planning & Zoning commissioner. He responds to chairman Chip Stephens’ recent comments on “06880,” regarding the P&Z’s vote against developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property:

Chip Stephens has attempted to defend his vote against text amendments that would have facilitated progress on developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property. While Westporters should appreciate his effort to help us make belated sense of the disappointing vote, unfortunately the defenses he offers are internally contradictory and fail to provide a road map for our other elected officials. In the future, the P&Z needs to fulfill its responsibility for “planning,” rather than — after an abbreviated deliberation — handing down “no” votes that sharply reverse progress made by the painstaking efforts of other elected officials from both parties over multiple years.

In his statement, Mr. Stephens cites as his reasons for voting against the text amendments: concerns about fairness regarding who would be eligible for the new senior units, and a desire to limit density of development and preserve open space. These are each valid concerns, but are mutually exclusive.

If Mr. Stephens opposes the text amendments because they would permit additional development and more density in Westport, then he should not also purport to be concerned about the quality and fairness of allocation of the senior housing that he would not allow in any case. Arguing about who gets housing you don’t support in the first place is a pointless exercise.

Debate over what to do with the Baron's South property has continued for years.

Debate over what to do with the Baron’s South property has continued for years.

I understand the rhetorical benefit of offering both rationales and not wanting to appear unsupportive of senior housing, but as elected officials we have a responsibility to the town to provide guidance that can actually be used in planning for the future. The P&Z vote and Mr. Stephens’ explanation of it leave it unclear whether any proposal for senior housing and recreational facilities on town-owned land would be approved, regardless of how much affordable housing is associated with it.

A different result could have been achieved if members of the P&Z participated earlier and more often in public consultation with other elected officials. Too frequently, our commission criticizes plans that are developed by others, rather than rolling up our sleeves and helping guide the development of plans that would either satisfy existing zoning regulations or present strong justifications for changing them. Rather than publishing statements defending our votes rejecting efforts as significant as Baron’s South, we should be embarrassed that we were forced to vote that way in the first place.

Certainly we had ample opportunity in the several months of public testimony and the more than 5-year saga leading to last week’s vote to contribute to the development of a proposal that would have satisfied our concerns. We cannot be viewed as setting ourselves above and apart from others working to keep Westport the wonderful community we all love. We need to form consensus through our public decision-making process that will give direction to others who rely on us to provide guidance on solutions that will work.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The need to improve how we operate will become even more critical in connection with the ongoing efforts of the Downtown Steering Committee, which has worked for months to gather input from a broad range of Westporters. The DSC hosted a successful and well-attended 2-day charrette that I attended last weekend. They have had effective leadership from a bipartisan group, including chair Melissa Kane and Westport operations director Dewey Loselle. As a community, we cannot afford to have this group devote significant effort on our behalf to improve our town, only to subject any eventual recommendations requiring P&Z approval to the same process we just experienced with Baron’s South.

To be clear, the P&Z cannot always give unified, clear, and actionable guidance for why it makes its decisions. However, by not even trying, we weaken our credibility and waste the time of the well-intentioned individuals and groups trying to improve Westport. It is our obligation to provide a positive road map for the development of our town. As a member of the commission and the sole vote in favor of the text amendments, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to meet that obligation in the future.

Chip Stephens: Why I Voted No

In the wake of Thursday night’s 6-1 vote by the Planning & Zoning Commission defeating a text amendment that would have permitted development of senior housing on the Baron’s South property, Chip Stephens sent this statement to all Westporters:

As chair of the Planning & Zoning, I owe you my explanation of our decision on text amendment 677.

Let me address 3 points that drove me to my position. There were more, but these were the biggest issues in my decision: fairness, density and open space.

Chip Stephens

Chip Stephens

Fairness. 20% is the bare minimum affordability required of most projects, mandated by state statute. It is the minimum that also entails fairness of the affordable units, so they are not clustered by themselves, and match the same quality and size as other units.

This idea was dismissed in the original sub-text. It showed that affordable units would be limited to 1 bedroom, not necessarily the same size and type. It was later withdrawn due to concerns of the commissioners.

It was obvious from the start that the project planners were trying for the very minimum affordability offering they could get away with, in order to satisfy the developer’s “needs.”

Then we were told there would be a second tier of “moderate” affordable units (20%, with the possibility of being raised to 25%). This level may be moderate to some, but in reality was out of reach for many Westporters of that certain age. Believe it or not, not all have $1 million or more left in home equity or resources when they reach the qualifying age. Add to this the true price of market-driven units (the new 60 %).

Also, the affordability of the nursing or memory units was not addressed. Both of those units were guaranteed to be very profitable and very pricey, but merited very little discussion in the proposal (understandably so, to sell this project).

My  biggest problem regarding fairness was that we were told to “believe” that well-deserving Westporters would be the first and only to qualify for these subsidized units. What is a “deserving” Westporter ? Who decides this? On what basis?

Is it a lifelong resident? A resident of less than, say, 5 years? One who rented, or was on subsidized housing, or just summered in Westport and spent the balance of the time in Florida?

Is it a paid elected official? A non-paid elected official? A Little League coach, teacher, artistic contributor or longtime charitable volunteer ?

Chip Stephens wonders who would determine which "deserving" Westporters would be able to live at the Baron's South housing complex.

Chip Stephens wonders who would determine which “deserving” Westporters would be able to live at the Baron’s South housing complex.

Would there be a point system of lifelong taxes paid, of public and charitable activity, or would it just be whoever was the longest on the list of those wishing this type of housing?

Who would make that decision, and who makes the rules of what is right and fair? Would these decisions and rules be challenged by social advocates, using laws that “protect” the poor, religious rights, or race and nationality? This is a very slippery slope I believe we would face with such an exclusionary policy, whether state and federal funds were involved or not.  There is no certain promise or guarantee of such a “deserving Westport” — only entitlement.

Density. Regulations that set a cap on multifamily housing units to limit density were enacted by prior commissions. That cap is close to being reached. With hundreds of units being considered and on the drawing boards, we better be thinking about what kind of density we envision here in the next 3-5 years.

Do we accept the eventual morphing of Westport into a community like many Westchester County neighbors?  The recent downtown planning survey showed very strong agreement that residents appreciate the character and rural nature of the town today — not of the town of the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s. When we envision hundreds of new multifamily units, how will that impact our resources, taxes, schools and infrastructure?

Yes, the sub-text proposed said that raising this cap would apply to this one “issue” (though it did open the door to at least 13 qualifying locations). Nothing we face at P and Z is one-off. Just look at the issue of preservation of historic houses, or listen to developers use previous “one-offs” to justify their proposals.  This is a discussion which we all face now. It will intensify over the coming months.

Chip Stephens worries about other proposals for multifamily housing that are in the pipeline.

Chip Stephens worries about other proposals for multifamily housing that are in the pipeline.

Open space. Westport open space, both public and private, is a finite resource. Once developed, open space is unlikely to revert back. Robert Moses tried to run multi-lane highways through Central Park in the ’60s. If not for the efforts of those looking to maintain New York’s open space as a sacred cow, today’s city would be much different.

Our beaches, open spaces and parks are not out of the reach of development. Such use has been discussed beyond just this project. Some people want more athletic fields, new art venues, new community center space, more affordable housing. All are very well-intentioned, laudable goals.  But there is only so much free space left in this town. When it is gone, it is gone.

We need to balance our goals, expectations and well-intentioned wants with the realities of limited space, our fragile watershed, etc. Our predecessors on earlier P&Z Commissions, along with others, worked long hours and gave great thought to the regulations that make Westport what it is today.

As your  current commissioners, we are the guardians of those rules. Of course, we are open to all who look to alter those rules to fit their intentions, whether socially or financially driven. It is our mandate to fairly consider all that comes before us. But it is our responsibility to judge in the spirit of  yesterday’s lessons, today’s opinions, and tomorrow’s inheritance of the legacy we leave behind.

The Planning & Zoning Commission must consider many different  -- and often competing -- "town character" interests when interpreting existing regulations, and crafting  new ones. Chip

The Planning & Zoning Commission must consider many different — and often competing — “town character” interests when interpreting existing regulations, and crafting new ones.

In conclusion: Remember, there still stands a regulation allowing a project of the Baron South type. That has not changed.

To those who are passionate and committed to this: The door is not shut. To all who that came and spoke both for and against; to those who worked hard over the past years on this effort, and to those who agree or disagree with our decision:  We gave it our best. We gave it an abundance of our time and thought. We gave all their chance to speak and their voices heard. We did what we saw as right, affirming Westport’s regulations and character.

We stand on our decision. I hope this helps you understand it.

 

P&Z Shuts Door On Senior Housing Proposal

By a 6-1 vote, the Planning & Zoning Commission defeated text amendment 677 last night.

The controversial proposal would have permitted senior housing to be built on the Baron’s South property, between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue.

Much of the discussion centered on whether Westport residents would be guaranteed units in the complex; if those on fixed or lower incomes would benefit from it, and whether the text amendment would allow increased housing density on other town-owned properties.

Artist's rendering of housing at Baron's South. Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission defeated the

Artist’s rendering of housing at Baron’s South. Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission defeated the proposal.