Category Archives: Local politics

Westport At The Crossroads

Fred Cantor is an alert “06880” reader — and a talented researcher with an eye for intriguing stories about Westport’s past.

The other day, he sent 4 clippings from the New York Times. All were from 50 years ago. Westport was in the midst of a historic transformation, Fred said, as the town’s population rocketed skyward.

On February 2, 1964, 1st Selectman Herb Baldwin announced the formation of a Development Commission. The aim was to attract light industry, thus broadening the tax base.

“The move grew out of a recent fiscal seminar where concern was voiced over the town’s high bonded indebtedness, principally due to school construction,” the Times reported. The debt was approximately $12 million.

On June 26, the Planning and Zoning Commission tightened restrictions against new apartment buildings — despite acknowledging the need for apartments serving “older people and young married couples.” The previous day, the Zoning Board of Appeals denied an application for construction of a 48-unit apartment on the site of the Tennex factory on Riverside Avenue.

Many of today's familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.

Many of today’s familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.

On October 4, 1964, the Times said that a group of Greens Farms property owners were  “aroused by a proposal to build a department store, a supermarket and a parking lot for 617 cars in their midst, two miles east of the town’s center.” The centerpiece would be an Arnold Constable store.

Opponents cited a traffic hazard for students at nearby Green’s Farms Elementary School, and destruction of the “rustic charm” of the area. One person said, “We don’t want to turn Westport into another Rye or New Rochelle.”

Proponents countered it would add “sorely needed town revenue. They say the chief reason the town has sunk into debt over the last 20 years is that it has resisted business growth.”

The 7 1/2-acre property — bounded by South Morningside Drive and Church Street — would add between $40,000 and $52,430 a year in taxes.

Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.

Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.

Two months later, the P&Z proposed action to reverse the “hodgepodge” and “visual mayhem” — town officials’ words — of the Post Road. Fifteen properties along busy Route 1 would need special permits for development. New zones would be limited by “natural boundaries, such as topography, existing streets or similar barriers.”

Included was the Greens Farms tract. It took a number of years, but the shopping center — anchored today by Barnes & Noble — eventually was built.

Half a century later, some things haven’t changed. Westporters still debate property taxes and affordable housing.

But we no longer argue about shopping centers. They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere.

There’s nowhere left to put a new one.

Jimmy Izzo: “At Compo Beach, Sometimes Less Is More”

Jimmy Izzo is a native Westporter and Staples High School graduate; the longtime owner of Crossroads Ace Hardware; a District 3 RTM member, and — importantly for the purposes of this story — a longtime Compo beachgoer. 

He notes the Parks & Recreation Commission‘s public meeting on Monday, September 29 (Town Hall auditorium, 7:30 p.m.) to hear public opinion on the proposed Compo Beach 2.0 master plan, and writes:

Many of us are passionate about our beach. This topic will continue to be debated.

There is no crime in adjusting this plan to meet the needs and wants of Westport taxpayers and beach users. The crime would be for the Compo Beach Committee, Parks & Recreation Commission and Board of Selectmen to not listen to the public.

Compo Beach: a town jewel, beloved by all.

Compo Beach: a town jewel, beloved by all.

I personally see no need to spend between $5 million and $7 million on a park venue that really doesn’t need much more than added bathrooms to the south beach; cleaner, more functioning bathrooms by the bathhouse, and a minor facelift — not a complete makeover.

First, the bathhouses. For a structure that is used only a few months out of the year, and brings in between $10,000 and $12,000 annually, I see no reason to blow it up. The history and historic meaning to our community, past and present, is reason enough to leave it alone. If the Masonic temple is good enough to be deemed historic, so should our Compo bathhouse.

The Compo Beach committee has brought up weekend traffic as being a problem, and proposed moving the entrance and creating another lane. Again, in my opinion, there is no need to blow up what already works 95% of the time the beach is being used.

Compo Beach is timeless. This photo from the 1980s could have been taken any time. (Photo/Larry Silver, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery)

Compo Beach is timeless. This photo from the 1980s could have been taken any time. (Photo/Larry Silver, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery)

Here are some options which I believe would be a better alternative than spending taxpayer money:

  • No day beach passes purchased at the gate on weekends and holidays.
  • Passes can be purchased at the Parks & Rec Department as late on Saturday at 12 p.m., or until the office closes.
  • Allow passes to be purchased online, like other Parks & Rec purchases. They can be printed out like airline tickets.
  • Create an “out of town parking area” in the middle of the beach for weekends and holidays. There is no reason prime parking spots should ever go to non-residents.
  • Post a sign by Owenoke Road laying out our “day pass policy.”

These are just suggestions. By entertaining a few of these simple steps, we alleviate Parks & Rec employees from spending unnecessary time conducting “business transactions” that take them away from other important things at the beach, like making sure our restrooms are clean, garbage is picked up, and parking lots filled accordingly. Conducting business at the gate creates traffic jams.

I commend the Compo Beach Committee for their hard work in trying to help make our beach better. We have to realize that Compo is already a really good place. Improvements must be handled with care and sensitivity, with concern for the many residents who have for generations enjoyed Compo, and appreciate its natural beauty as is.

Jared Frank captured this Compo rainbow.

It is important that, in the end, everyone is on the same page when it comes to our beach. We as a town cannot afford — financially or emotionally — not to have complete public support when it comes to proposed changes at Compo, regardless of how large or small they may be.

We don’t need another contentious situation like the Y to Mahackeno, where the wounds ran deep and the healing process was long.

Let’s not complicate simplicity, and always remember that sometimes less is more.

 

 

 

After-School Bus Route Funding Extended Through December 31

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is extending funding for the Westport Transit District’s after-school bus route through the end of 2014.

That’s good news for parents who have scrambled to provide transportation for youngsters headed to programs at Earthplace, Temple Israel and other spots around town.

State Representative Steinberg commended the FTA for its “flexibility and commitment to fairness. The town of Westport followed the process which FTA laid out and the arguments for an extension were well-received.”

Involved with Steinberg in the bipartisan effort to secure the funding extension were Westport 1st selectman Jim Marpe, Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and Congressman Jim Himes.

Now, Steinberg says, Westport must turn its attention to longer-range transportation options.

FTA logo

 

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.