Aquarion Water Towers: Jim Marpe Responds

This morning, “06880” reader Robert Harrington criticized 1st selectman Jim Marpe and other town leaders for their actions during the Aquarion/North Avenue water tower debate. The 1st selectman responds:

Thank you for the opportunity to address Mr. Harrington’s concerns and accusations. I will try to clarify certain facts and misstatements, as well as explain how my staff and I have willingly assisted a group of residents who abut Aquarion’s property on North Avenue. I have remained sympathetic with their concerns regarding quality of life and property values, and have sought to mitigate the impacts that this vital infrastructure project may have on them.

The town attorney, operations director, director of public works, fire chief, fire marshal, tree warden, other staff, volunteers and I have devoted hundreds of hours over the past year and a half researching and mediating toward a solution that would help the neighbors, and at the same time address the water supply needs of the entire community. I personally have taken the following actions:

  • led public and work group meetings;
  • facilitated communications between Aquarion and the neighbors;
  • advocated for a peer review paid for by Aquarion;
  • dedicated my staff’s time;
  • enlisted experienced resident volunteers to assist with mediation;
  • remained non-partisan and neutral with the goal of compromise; and
  • wrote several letters to PURA on behalf of the residents.

These are tangible services that I believe speak volumes over appearing at a single public regulatory hearing to make a statement. I appreciate the state legislators’ ongoing efforts to help, but my office and several dedicated town employees have been consistently involved in trying to reach an acceptable solution. The positions that I have taken are not just advocacy. They also reflect a careful weighting of all the options and their outcomes, as well as the benefits to the greater good of all Westporters.

The town stayed involved in this process and conveyed to Aquarion the importance of:

  • finding a way to lower the height by eliminating the dome;
  • increasing the landscaping;
  • managing the traffic and disruption; and
  • expediting the water main upgrade.

Had we not stayed involved, Aquarion would never have agreed to the most recent settlement offer. They also would never have agreed to the peer review. It is clear that my pressure on Aquarion led to the agreement on several concessions.

In advance of the public hearings in New Britain, I submitted a detailed letter to PURA with very specific requests. Furthermore, while I remained in Westport to address other town-related issues, at my behest and with my full confidence the town Attorney and operations director attended the hearings held in November and January. PURA requested that the fire marshal and public works director testify. That totals 4 senior town representatives involved with 2 hearings in New Britain.

Public works director Mr. Ratkiewich is a dedicated 29-year town employee who has no affiliation with Aquarion. He was requested by PURA to testify under oath and responded to specific questions on a factual basis. This testimony, along with that of our fire marshal and Mr. Harrington, are all available for the public to review. I am confident that upon review of the public proceedings, no one would describe Mr. Ratkiewich’s tone and commentary as anything but professional and forthright.  I will not accept attacks on, and I will always defend, our town staff when they are inappropriately accused.

It is easy to say that a tank should go “here” or “there” as an alternative, but Mr. Harrington fails to mention the related costs and potential disruption to our town. Also, he doesn’t point out that his proposed alternate sites include the entrance to the Bedford Middle School property and a location in another residential zone. If PURA believes that these locations or other alternatives should be pursued, then I’ll direct the efforts of our town staff accordingly.

We know that the water main upgrades in Westport have been on Aquarion’s capital plan. Aquarion offered to accelerate them in order to come to a compromise. The town remains skeptical that Aquarion has the ability to complete the work within the accelerated timeframe, which is why the tank construction is vital to our water supply infrastructure.

We have gone above and beyond to assist. I am proud of the compromises the neighbors and the town have accomplished during negotiations with Aquarion. In fact, the final settlement agreement was close to acceptance by both parties until the fire marshal would not agree to further lower the height of the tanks because of the impact on fire flow. Since I trust his expertise and experience, I removed the additional lower height provision from my request to PURA. I agreed that the town should not reduce the fire flow improvements that we are receiving from this project. At that point, several residents split apart because many were ready to settle. Mr. Harrington now represents a smaller fraction of the impacted homes.

Last fall, PURA members — and a few protesters — toured the Aquarion North Avenue water tower site.

Despite all the time, energy, costs and effort that my staff and I have dedicated in the mediation process, the neighbors were not able to reach a settlement with Aquarion. That is why PURA, the regulatory authority tasked with oversight of Aquarion, has become the forum to address the issues. The proposal to allow Aquarion to build one tank while a second site location is found is best left for PURA to decide.

In conclusion, I stand by the efforts of the town as well as my leadership. Other local challenges also require my time and attention, including the rehabilitation of Coleytown Middle School and finalizing the town’s operating budget. Nevertheless, the North Avenue water tanks remain an important issue for the town. As such, our staff and I will continue to be involved as appropriate, and if we believe it can bring us to a settlement that all parties can accept.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to state the facts and provide my support of the town’s dedicated employees.

 

26 responses to “Aquarion Water Towers: Jim Marpe Responds

  1. Elina Lublinsky

    A class act.

    • Residents like Mr Harrington is what gives Westport a bad name. Before you stab a town employee in the back get your facts straight. Keep the good work up Jim. You can’t make everyone happy especially residents like this arrogant one.

  2. David J. Loffredo

    Nice Jim! Everyone put your pitchforks away….

  3. Robert Harrington

    With respect – there were TWO key meetings in New Britain where Westport residents needed your support. Not just one meeting as you suggested. The second meeting was far more important.

    Reality is you showed up to neither.

    People that work for you told – in a call that you hosted in August 2018 – told us to stop requesting better water mains. The plan you signed off on left Saugatuck Shores 800% below on fire flow where it should be. I will call it what it is. A disgrace. You fail to mention that or accept that. You should have been arguing the loudest for these upgrades and you didn’t at the time.

    It is true you did help earlier, and put in many hours but you eventually lost interest. You then turned on the neighbors in a letter to PURA and didn’t bother to tell them face to face. That is NOT leadership.

    You then didn’t show up to either key PURA meeting in New Britain, but sent the town’s attorney instead.

    That is NOT leadership in my book.

    People should go and review ALL the testimony from Mr Peter Ratkiewich. They will find that neither he or any one on his staff attended even 1 minute of the three P&Z meetings in 2018. Secondly, they will hear him siding within and defending Aquarion. Finally, they will hear him tell PURA that he didn’t speak to anyone – including residents or town officials about alternative sites for a second tank.

    Furthermore, people reading your response will see that you have ignored the issue of providing your support for a sensible compromise which which ask for PURA to approve the first tank immediately on North Avenue. No more delays or appeals. A second tank could be approved on the same site later if made smaller, had better screening and ONLY if Aquarion prove they are good neighbors during the first year of construction. You and town officials clearly couldn’t control them during the many issues on Myrtle Avenue last year.

    You may have hosted several working group meetings but you often looked bored, disinterested and Aquarion could clearly see that. That is NOT leadership.

    Others had to step in and represent Westport.

    I congratulate prior State Senator Toni Boucher, Rep Lavielle, State Senator Tony Hwang and Rep. Steinberg. They were asking tough questions and holding Aquarion to account. That momentum faded after you decided to not support the neighborhood in December 2018.

    Since then we have seen Rep Steinberg and newly elected State Senator Will Haskell step up and come and support the town and fight hard to get to a workable compromise. They are still fighting. Senator Haskell may only have been elected for a short while but he is speaking with a strong and clear voice for us all – and working towards that workable compromise. I celebrate that!

    Please show leadership here and try to get this better deal for YOUR residents and YOUR town.

    • Just think-if all those large 8-30g projects did not happen would water still be an issue? Who should you thank?

  4. Stefanie + Marc Lemcke

    Dear Mr. Marpe,

    We are residents in this town. We are not involved in local politics and we don’t aspire to. Opposing the First Selectman is something we do not take lightly and have never done before. This time we do.

    At the very first meeting with Aquarion on June 26, 2017, our question was: “Who knows about these issues and who has verified the numbers?” We became an advocate for smart water solutions and petitioned the P+Z decision as Aquarion’s answer was unsatisfying and the numbers simply didn’t make sense.

    We have always supported the upgrade of our aging infrastructure and the fire chief.

    Following our appeal and this debate for 18 months now, we conclude that

    – this is not about only about some general quality of life issues. It is about specific public health and safety issues and modern water management in our town
    – more importantly, the tanks will create more problems for our town than they are supposed to solve
    – Robert Harrington’s leadership has achieved more for this town than your administration
    – only Mr. Harrington enabled real improvements. He is supported by our State Senator Will Haskell, Representative Jonathan Steinberg, neighbor groups like Save Westport Now and the Coalition for Westport, among others. Your post is, unfortunately, an attempt to isolate Mr. Harrington and others speaking up.
    – Aquarion has on many occasions “misstated” the improvements of the proposed tanks and never mentioned any risk. These risks only came to light because of the petitioners under the leadership of Mr. Harrington.

    Allow us to clarify the facts:

    – Neighbors are united in their appeal and in New Britain at the regulator. Robert Harrington represents the vast majority of residents and petitioners. Only one (1) petitioner chose to split from the group. Your statement that Robert Harrington is not representing the majority of petitioners is simply not true.
    – Aquarion directed your staff to celebrate a 20% fire flow improvement at Saugatuck where more than 3,000% is needed – even after the tanks are built. It is not only Saugatuck. The area around the Coleytown schools needs to be improved by more than 800% according to the Tighe Bond report, the ISO report, confirmed even by the report your administration has commissioned.
    – Your support for Aquarion’s “peer review” was simply wrong. Nobody would declare a car to be safe when the engine is fine, but the tires and the brakes are not. Members of your working group resigned as a result. You let it happen.
    – The peer review confirmed some key findings even after the tanks would be built:
    o Applicable standards and guidelines are not met
    o Not compliant with water pressure
    o Not compliant with water flow at 73% of all hydrant test locations
    o Risk of health issues due to lower water quality. One whole tank is not needed for daily normal operations including a fire emergency protection, so the risk of stale water is real
    o Almost 50% out the total volume tank volume being arbitrary
    o High volume is justified only with future demand. All studies confirm the opposite: this town is not growing and water consumption is likely to decrease.

    – Aquarion has recently shared critical data with your staff, but not with residents or petitioners. These new numbers – 18 months after the P+Z hearings – contradict all previous statements and studies, even the fire marshal’s own testimony.

    – You told residents during the working group meeting in February 2018 that you were aware of the critical issue of fire protection in our town. Your fire chief stated that these issues were new to him. Who is right here?

    I urge everyone to form their own opinion and look at the data and documents – now most of them are public. The available documents can be looked up at the PURA docket 17-10-34 or at www. http://bit.ly/smartwaterwestport. It is important to note that your administration still claims that we cannot obtain access to the full data for confidentiality reasons. What is confidential about fixing our water system? By claiming confidentiality at this stage of the debate your administration is contributing to speculations that the true situations might be even worse.

    Finally, I believe residents have been careful to be reasonable and respectful to our elected officials. The last things we wanted is to accuse anybody, but improve the water situation for the entire community. We had to speak up, but even our achievements are tiny compared to the action needed.

    We are 100% convinced that Westport is one of the best towns in the world. Your administration has not worked with the concerned groups that have by now spent over 20,000 hours investigating numbers. But it is not too late. We would welcome to work together to realize this town’s true potential – not only towards the vision of a better and cheaper solution for a 21st century water management in Westport, but also to be proud again of all our elected leaders and to show that you and your staff are equally good as administrations that have fought alongside their residents until the end.

    Respectfully,

    Stefanie & Marc Lemcke

  5. As a resident who actually attended the meetings rather than reacting here based on something I have just read, I feel obliged to defend Mr Harrington who has tirelessly worked for the benefit of the residents, other than elected officials who seemed to perform a sudden switch over to Aquarion’s side of the debate. The published report from Aquarion’s side which accuses the local residents of mainly having ‘aesthetic ‘ concerns is spectacularly insulting, given that the Smart Water group have focused on engineering best practices that Aquarion failed to do and which would see the whole town much better served for decades to come. Mr Marpe did a fine job to begin with assisting the residents whose efforts resulted in the concessions from Aquarion that he lists in his response, but in the final stretch when it really mattered at PURA, he and his team caved and now – read for yourself – we will all be seeing several million $ of community money spent on a substandard, half-baked, unresearched, corporate utility hack job. Local politics not showing its best face at all!

  6. Jennifer Johnson

    First Selectman Marpe’s response is predictable. Understandably he defends his staff, but unfortunately he offers only general responses to Mr. Harrington’s very specific points. The only real specifics Mr. Marpe adds is the number of meetings he convened and the number of years Mr. Ratkiewich has had a town job.

    No one is arguing that First Selectman Marpe didn’t work hard. The real issue is not how many hours his staff spent on this or how many tax dollars were wasted, but rather the quality of the outcome for Westport. The only way to judge Mr. Marpe’s performance is to assess what he was able to do for Westport. And on this point, Mr. Marpe has indisputably failed when measured against his peers. Other Towns across CT from Greenwich, to Derby to Mystic teamed with residents to successfully fight back against private utility companies. It didn’t happen in this case. This is a sad departure from our Town’s legacy. Westport successfully fought back against well-funded private utility companies when we blocked a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island in 1967, then later stopped high-voltage power lines (now buried) from marching down the Post Road like giant aliens. Westport could have pushed back harder on this project, with a better result but that’s not what has happened.

    Regardless of PURA’s final ruling on this project, our Town owes a debt of gratitude to the neighbors and other concerned citizens alike who stood up against corporate arrogance, dug into the facts and fought hard for a better solution for Westport. It should be noted that all conditions that Aquarion has now agreed to since since the unfortunate and arguably strong-armed P&Z approval back in September 2017 came as the result of citizen efforts. Had citizens like Mr. Harrington not dedicated themselves to digging into the facts behind Aquarion’s numbers none of these points would have ever been negotiated for Westport’s benefit.

    Thank you Mr. Harrington for helping the community more fully understand both sides of this story.

  7. Jim. You are a wonderful man and have been a true leader in a Westport. Too bad people like Harrington cannot accept the complex issue the town faces.

    Everyone in Westport should thank you for your leadership and how you guided our town thru the difficult financial condition you inherited. Debt was growing and so were the pension and medical costs of the town employees. You took an active and concerted role to drastically improve the financial condition of the town. Despite the loss of millions in state aide to Westport, your leadership created an environment for businesses to want to come to westport.

    The issue of the water supply is complex. Yes, some might find the solution not the exact ending they want. But insuring the needed water for our fire department is more than critical. You care about Westport and your actions should be congratulated.

  8. Mr Marpe,

    The room in New Britain felt more empty as you were not there, on two critical occasions, fighting for your residents.

    You can try and spin the facts here – but it doesn’t make them right.

    Thanks to the State representatives – and especially Senator Haskell and Rep. Steinberg for showing up and representing Westport well.

    When it was time to look Aquarion in face (not via a letter) and tell them what we needed to do to make this work project work for Westport you didn’t do that.

    The solution for Westport risks being less effective for all residents because of this.

    • While you are thanking the two politicians, please thank them for the 8-30g assuktnin westport and the upcoming tax increases. Especially thank Steinberg for all the tax increases.

      • Dick Lowenstein

        A perfect example of a non sequitur to the conversation

        • Dick-enjoy the 8-30g housing. Enjoy the higher taxes. Enjoy the tolls. That what these politicians are all about.

          And while you are enjoying all that, just think of the loss of Amazon that could have helped drive growth in fairfield county. Enjoy the loss Dick.

          That what those politicians are all about. Jim Marpe has done an amazing job trying to protect Westport and our wonderful town. Too bad he had no help.

          Bart Shuldman

          • Dick Lowenstein

            Redux!

            • Dick-how much more water is needed with all the large housing complexes being built? That one on the Post Road must have caused a serious amount of new water to be needed.

              • Robert Harrington

                More water is needed. I am not disputing that.

                The question is will this solution that will last for 100 years offer a real fix for Westport?

                No one is attacking Jim Marpe the man – but is questioning the output of this project. I am attacking his leadership on this issue – not the man.

                Average daily water consumption is similar to what it was in the 1980s. Reality is Westport has been living with too little water, fireflow and water pressure for far too long.

                I just don’t think a solution that leaves Saugatuck Shores for example needing a further 800% increase in fireflow to meet recommended guidelines – is a particularly good solution.

                There was a major church fire in 2011 that exposed Westport’s vulnerabilities – yet not one proposal was put forward for the following 6 years. Also the data and the costs keep on changing. The great members on the P&Z were misled and were also given false promises by Aquarion. That is not good enough in my book.

                We are asking for 1) a proper fix and 2) an appropriate development on a 3.5 acre plot ithat sits in a major residential zone. Two 35ft+ high and 106ft wide tanks – sat next to a pump station and wetlands – barely fit on to the site.

                It’s so tight they can’t be properly screens and existing mature trees cannot be kept.

                The common sense solution ?

                Approve one tank now and build one elsewhere

                Or Approve one now (will give almost 50% increase in water in one year versus today) and only grant approval for the second tank if Aquarion acts like a good neighbor while constructing the first tank – and commits to a proper timetable on water main upgrades / and agrees to taller tress to be planted for better screening.

                Is that so controversial ? Why wouldn’t the First Selectman support that?

  9. This letter doesn’t seem to directly answer any of the points made by Mr. Harrington, hence proves his point that Westport leaders are, at best, ineffectual at helping residents, and at worst derilic in their duty. Just the lack of engagment on the numbers, which should be easy to publish and understand, is incredibly suspicious. – Chris Woods

  10. William Strittmatter

    I’m surprised folks are spending their time talking about this when there are much bigger issues facing Westport. Aquarion is a public utility. At the end of the day, they can do all sorts of things in the general public interest notwithstanding local objections. Sounds like Westport has been able to extract a number of concessions which everyone should be thrilled about. Might get the original plan (or worse) if you keep pushing. Sometimes, knowing when to accept a compromise is valuable.

    Then again, maybe if you fight some more, Westport can get more concessions at some other, less well off municipality’s (or Westport neighborhood’s) expense by forcing new tanks/pumps there. Sweet…stick it to someone else.

    Anyway, here is what you should be worried and yelling at your state senators and representatives about. With tolls proposed for I-95 and the Merritt, just think of the impact on traffic on the Post Road and all the local road alternatives as people seek to avoid the tolls. All those 18 wheelers barreling down the Post Road. Fairfielder’s that currently take the turnpike to get to Stewie’s now coming through Westport. Not to mention when the new Norwalk mall opens.

    It occurs to me that maybe Westport should think about putting tolls on the Saugatuck River crossings to discourage non-Westporters from using local roads. I mean, why should they get away with not paying for the congestion and inconvenience to Westporter’s they cause.

    Anyway, much bigger issue than a couple of tanks that folks will soon forget about as they blend into the background.

    Or you might also think about the 19 3-bedroom condo 8-30g proposal on Morningside Drive. It will be interesting to see if a Historic District trumps state government policy that Westport’s representatives support. Hopefully, it will. But interesting case study in what might happen if you push back too hard.

  11. Without regard to the merits of the Aquarion plan, as to which I am not fully informed, I find this exchange to be most disturbing. Clearly something is wrong when an earnest group of citizens feels that its concerns have not been recognized or dealt with fairly by the town. Most concerning are the assertions (which I assume to be true) that the town did not participate fully in the approval process. I agree with Jennifer Johnson that Mr. Harrington and his citizen consituency deserve a great deal of credit for their attempts to expose the shortcomings of the project and to improve it, and I think they deserve better than the treatment they have received at the hands of their local government.

  12. With respect to the Tighe & Bond report that was mentioned above:

    http://www.aquarionwater.com/files/pdfs/North%20Avenue%20Tank%20Alternatives%20Analysis.pdf

    The south side of the BMS entrance on North Avenue was considered as an option. This alternative is more expensive than the proposed project at the existing site, but because it is at a higher elevation than the existing site, the tank(s) could be “completely or mostly buried.”

    I apologize for not understanding all of the dynamics, but why was this option rejected?

    • William Strittmatter

      Interesting read. Alternatives are at least double the cost for equivalent results.

      Based on experience with other public utilities, I would imagine the BMS alternative was rejected because no one volunteered to pay the extra cost. Public utility commissions are generally loathe to pass on unnecessary costs to utility ratepayers (you’d scream if they did) and the utility shareholders would likely scream if Aquarion unilaterally took on the cost reducing profits to that extent. Further, I’m guessing neither the town of Westport nor the protesting neighbors offered to pick up the incremental costs.

      Of course, that alternative wouldn’t address the construction traffic issue on North Avenue which was one of the original primary talking points against the current proposal. And I would imagine the neighbors would get annoyed at the blasting required when they encounter ledge while excavating.

      Bottom line, I’m guessing if the good taxpayers of Westport stepped up with 80-90% of the cost differential and the neighbors would tolerate the traffic and increased blasting, Aquarion would be happy to pick up the rest and do one of the alternatives.

  13. The south side of the BMS driveway is a 5.8 acre parcel that is owned by the town. The trucks and cement mixers will have a lot more room to navigate in that space, which will mitigate some of the disruption to the neighborhood.

    Aquarion could remove the tank and remediate the present site, sell that three-acre parcel of prime real estate and use the proceeds to install the tank(s) up the street. If the town allows Aquarion to lease the property near BMS, it might work out for all involved.

    • William Strittmatter

      Unfortunately, at least per the report, the alternative sites would still require a new tank at the existing site (rather than two) so that land can’t be sold to cover costs.

  14. Robert Harrington

    Bart – More water is needed. I am not disputing that.

    The question is will this solution that will last for 100 years offer a real fix for Westport?

    No one is attacking Jim Marpe the man – but is questioning the output of this project. I am attacking his leadership on this issue – not the man.

    Average daily water consumption is similar to what it was in the 1980s. Reality is Westport has been living with too little water, fireflow and water pressure for far too long.

    I just don’t think a solution that leaves Saugatuck Shores for example needing a further 800% increase in fireflow to meet recommended guidelines – is a particularly good solution.

    There was a major church fire in 2011 that exposed Westport’s vulnerabilities – yet not one proposal was put forward for the following 6 years. Also the data and the costs keep on changing. The great members on the P&Z were misled and were also given false promises by Aquarion. That is not good enough in my book.

    We are asking for 1) a proper fix and 2) an appropriate development on a 3.5 acre plot ithat sits in a major residential zone. Two 35ft+ high and 106ft wide tanks – sat next to a pump station and wetlands – barely fit on to the site.

    It’s so tight they can’t be properly screens and existing mature trees cannot be kept.

    The common sense solution ?

    Approve one tank now and build one elsewhere

    Or Approve one now (will give almost 50% increase in water in one year versus today) and only grant approval for the second tank if Aquarion acts like a good neighbor while constructing the first tank – and commits to a proper timetable on water main upgrades / and agrees to taller tress to be planted for better screening.

    Is that so controversial ? Why wouldn’t the First Selectman support that?

  15. Addison Armstrong

    I have two words for the town’s recent experience with Aquarion construction projects: MYRTLE AVENUE. Quite honestly, considering that this disgrace of a paving project runs past town hall, I’m surprised that town officials would have any confidence in Aquarion’s abilities to manage a far more complex project.