[OPINION] Robert Harrington: Leadership Needed On Aquarion Tanks

Robert Harrington, his wife and 4 children have been Westporters since 2004. He speaks out on local issues — including the Aquarion/ North Avenue water tank debate. 

“I live over a mile away from the approved tanks, so this is not a NIMBY issue for me,” he says. “It’s about elected representatives supporting local residents.” In the wake of a recent regulatory hearing in New Britain, he wrote this letter to 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

I was greatly disappointed by how several town officials came to speak out against community requests at the recent Aquarion Public Utilities Regulatory Authority hearing in New Britain. This will likely ensure that the town of Westport will fail to get the best results for all residents.

No Westport resident should be put in a situation where the quiet use and enjoyment of their property is destroyed by a private company.

This is not just another large-scale development. This is the largest public works project in our town’s history. It is being placed in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

An aerial view shows the North Avenue Aquarion tank site. It is opposite Staples High School.

In particular, I was personally angered by the tone and commentary from public works director Peter Ratkiewich.

Neither Mr Ratkiewich nor any of his staff attended any of the P&Z meetings in 2017 when the project was discussed and voted on. He never explored valid alternatives. Then, at PURA, he sought to undermine any attempt to consider alternatives that could have offered  increased fire protection and fire flow.

At times during his testimony, Mr Ratkiewich sounded more like an Aquarion employee than a town of Westport representative.

Other towns across the state from Greenwich to Derby to Mystic have supported residents and successfully fought back against private interests. They found workable alternatives. Westport did not.

I was very careful not to attack our fire marshal in New Britain. I didn’t want to undermine one of our key leaders before the commission. However, if this project is really that urgent why are we not looking at all potential supplies, in addition to tanks? Why did Aquarion and Westport do nothing for 5 years following the Saugatuck Congregational Church fire in 2011? Why are the key players not making a much stronger argument for water main upgrades?

The water mains may yet be improved, although we have not been able to get concrete guarantees from Aquarion. Our community group fought hard to have upgrades included in any deal, despite the fact that in August 2018 your staff meekly recommended that we drop the effort given Aquarion’s stubborn refusal to do so. We wouldn’t take no for an answer, and upgrades are thankfully back on the table.

Even more worrisome, Aquarion has changed the fire flow numbers that were contained in the original reports they gave to rgw town. No one from our town is questioning this.

Why have these numbers changed?

The town of Westport has approved a plan that is better than the current situation — but will leave places like Saugatuck Shores vastly below what is recommended for fire flow.

Party politics should play no role in a project that will last for the next 100 years. That said, as a Republican I was embarrassed by the fact that Republicans didn’t come and represent any of the people in the room at PURA, New Britain over the past 3 months.

Westport was well represented by many Democrats and small parties. We had wonderful representation from State Senator Will Haskell, Representative Jonathan Steinberg and many RTM members

You took the explicit choice not to stand with the community — or even attend.

We also had strong participation from community leaders like Valerie Jacobs and Ian Warburg from Save Westport Now, and Jennifer Johnson from the Coalition for Westport.

Many residents spoke about losing value on their homes, and had to do the work that Aquarion and the town of Westport should have done.

We will likely see 2 huge tanks constructed on the current 3-acre site, which is far too small to provide full screening.

Balloons show the height of Aquarion’s proposed water tank on North Avenue.

We also offered several alternatives to PURA to evaluate. PURA could immediately approve one tank on the site and rule that a second location must be found for a second tank. You and your staff dismissed this.

Alternatively, Aquarion could build two2 shorter tanks on the  site. But getting approval for the second tank, they would have to demonstrate to the community that they were being good neighbors and honoring their commitments while the first tank is constructed – including committing to material water main upgrades.

If 2 tanks are squeezed on to the site, Aquarion could plant taller trees to fully screen the tanks — and reduce the side wall by 3 feet. They offered the community this height reduction in August 2018, but didn’t bother to speak to the fire department first.

You and your staff chose not to support these common sense proposals.

There is a potential deal to be done on Bayberry Lane for a second tank location, but that would require political leadership. Alternatively, you could have explored leasing land on school property — potentially giving the town a much needed revenue source.  None of that happened.

Any delay at this point is your responsibility.

We urge PURA to approve one tank on the current site, and begin the work immediately driving almost a 50% increase in storage within 12 months versus the current single tank. Until the current old tank is decommissioned, the 2 tanks will contain almost 150% more water today.

The Westport P&Z was misled by Aquarion. Your town employees are helping to ensure a project that won’t fix Westport’s water pressure and fire flow gets the go-ahead because this is the easiest and cheapest route for Aquarion.

We need your leadership.

11 responses to “[OPINION] Robert Harrington: Leadership Needed On Aquarion Tanks

  1. Daryl Styner, D.D.S.

    Of late, our town leaders seem to become “wall flowers” on issues that encroach on town assets, and clearly stir Community residents to stand-up for themselves, when they should be able to count on having more support from the very people they put into office, who should be safeguarding our taxpaying residents.

    Mr. Harrington is absolutely correct, when he says this isn’t a political party issue. This is everybody’s issue when it effects the “quality-of-daily-life” in any one of our neighborhoods. Alternative suggestion/solutions should be aired, explored and researched thoroughly, BEFORE any construction even starts. Anything less, will be too late. Of course Aquarion is going to take the easiest, least expensive way to revamp an existing site regardless of its impact on the surrounding area.


  2. Dermot Meuchner

    Maybe stop building 5000-6000 sq. foot homes with 5 bathroom’s and a pool? It’s lunacy really.

    • actually, it’s the high density housing – the 8-30g and other multi-family housing projects – that increase the Town’s population and lead to greater water demand loads.

      Big houses on single family lots with fewer people living in them does not increase water demand.

      • Jack, re local population: the town’s peak population per the census was when we were growing up (in 1970). According to the most recent census (2010), Westport’s population was roughly 1000 less than it had been 40 years earlier (and, as you know, in 1970 we didn’t have the condo developments and certain multi-family units that exist now). I’m not sure where water demand is now vs 1970, but if it is greater now the population numbers would not seem to be the critical factor. There would seem to be other factors that figure into this.

  3. One more note: perhaps the increase in the daily number of people working locally somehow is a factor. I would be curious to hear the answer.

    • well, I am quite familiar with Wrstpirt’s population figures – and I believe my point remains valid.

  4. Outstanding evaluation.. and one that took a tremendous amount of time and education! I get “it”… and will support your suggestions! Joan K GOLDMAN..

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Cynthia Mindell

    I have not been following the Aquarion issue closely but was surprised and a bit perturbed to see the company’s name come up in “America Is Not a Democracy,” an article in the March 2018 “The Atlantic:” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/america-is-not-a-democracy/550931/

    A quick search yielded an article about the 2014 incident mentioned in the “Atlantic” story: “Water company lobbyist admits pulling fire alarm at Oxford town meeting,” published in the Worcester, Mass. “Telegram & Gazette:” https://www.telegram.com/article/20140812/NEWS/308129558

    In order to come to an informed and sound solution regarding this matter, I believe it is essential for Westport elected officials, activists, and citizens to know as much as possible about Aquarion’s track record in other communities.

  6. In contrast to Mr. Harrington, this is very much a NIMBY issue for me since I would be at this site in under three minutes walking a beeline from my back door. I’ve lived in the same home now for over 30 years and have seen neighborhood traffic congestion grow progressively worse. It’s obviously about to get WAY worse for a long time if this project proceeds, and afterwards a permanent eyesore will remain in its wake. I’m therefore grateful to Mr. Harrington and others who are speaking out against the proposal.

    However, I disagree with his characterization of the issue as somehow one in which a private company is trampling the public interest. As a water company, Aquarion provides the most vital of public services to our community. It has both a right and an obligation to go about its business in as efficient manner as possible within the constraints of competing interests such as my own here and those of my neighbors. Balancing such messy equations is what local politics are all about.

    I know nothing about the engineering or logistical issues involved here, or the costs. However, based on what I’ve heard, I’m not satisfied that alternatives have been adequately explored, including that of simply killing the project. So I would add my voice to others urging our leaders either to slow down with this or to force a halt.

  7. Jodi Christensen Hardin

    All vibrant and forward thinking communities, Westport included, must think about the future and how best to serve all of it’s constituents. It is to be expected that in those efforts the burden falls to some to sacrifice for the good of all. However, it is the responsibility of our elected officials to ensure that those who are asked to sacrifice do so only when absolutely necessary. The residents near the Aquarion site on North Ave have been sacrificed for Aquarian’s financial benefit and convenience. It is unfortunate that our concerns have not been taken seriously. Mr Marpe, your response aside, whether you feel that you have been proactive or not, the fact that it doesn’t seem that way to many who put you in office should be of concern to you. Regardless of the out come I would like to thank Robert, Stefanie, Marc, Jennifer,Kuku and the many others who fought the good fight, for standing up.

  8. How come the town isn’t interested in the numbers at just about every stage of this controversy? Seems that they would be simple to produce and understand?