Author Archives: Dan Woog

Unsung Hero #27

Every school in Westport is filled with Unsung Heroes: its custodians. Dozens of men and women work day and night. They clean floors, empty trash, move equipment and do countless other tasks so that our kids can learn — and our teachers can teach — in the cleanest, nicest and best environments possible.

I could single out many Westport custodians as this week’s Unsung Hero. I’m focusing on Jose Alvarez — but he stands for all of them.

Jose begins work at Staples High School at 5 p.m. His domain is the first floor — including the main office wing. It’s the most visible part of the school, and the pride he takes in making it shine is palpable.

He stayed late one night, because there were scuff marks he was still working to remove. That’s a regular occurrence: He won’t leave until his area is perfect.

He washes coffee mugs on administrators’ desks. They don’t want him to, but he insists.

Jose Alvarez

Jose is Colombian. He learned English by listening to lessons on headphones, as he worked.

One of his proudest moments was the day he became an American citizen. He’d studied hard for the test. Principal John Dodig arranged for a cake, and a small ceremony. Jose beamed with pride.

“He’s grateful for everything,” says current principal James D’Amico. “And we’re grateful for him. People come in, and can’t believe how clean and shiny the building looks.”

Staples head custodian Horace Lewis — an Unsung Hero himself — says Jose “never takes a day off. He’s always here, and always does his job so well.”

When he does have a vacation, Jose travels. He’s been to Israel and Italy. Of course, he returns to Colombia whenever he can.

But then it’s back to Westport. There is a school to take care of, and Jose is proud to do it.

(Hat tip: Karen Romano)

“Asphalt Is Asphalt. Snow Is Snow.” Steve Edwards Has Seen It All.

There are 2 things Steve Edwards dislikes: snowstorms, and talking to the media.

Last week — on the eve of the winter’s first snow — he sat down with “06880.”

But it could be the last time for both events. Westport’s public works director retires December 31. He’s spent 32 years in the department — 25 in charge — and is leaving just as he came in: low-key, steady, ready to tackle any problem, fully committed to his job and town.

Edwards calls himself “a farm boy from Easton.” After Joel Barlow High School he double majored in biology and chemistry at Bethany College — with a minor in physics.

He headed to the University of  Connecticut for grad school. Edwards planned on being a researcher. But he realized he liked “actually getting things done.” His early jobs as an engineering consultant involved site work for power plants, with an emphasis on lessening environmental impacts.

He traveled constantly. When a public works job in Westport opened up, he knew his background fit well.

Edwards joined the department in 1985, as Jerry Smith’s deputy. Five years later, he succeeded Smith.

In 1985, Edwards recalls, public works was “the wild west. There were not a lot of controls in place.” It was an old boys’ network.

Now, every employee needs a commercial drivers’ license. Standards are high. Locators on each truck record the speed, and tell where it is.

“When I got here, you sent a guy out to plow and couldn’t find him for 6  hours,” Edwards says.

Westport’s Public Works guys, in action a few years ago. (Photo/Luke Hammerman for Inklings)

“In this town, everyone’s looking at you. People take us to task if we don’t do our job. And they should.”

He praises his highway, building maintenance and sewer treatment supervisors. They help him lead his 55-person department.

Another change involves meetings. In the beginning, Edwards went to one night session a week. Now there are three.

“Back then we’d go to the Board of Finance for money, then to the RTM to okay it. Now there are grant meetings, informational meetings, charettes.

“Westport has a very educated population. They all want their opinions heard. Employees sift through a lot of information. It takes time to listen to everyone.”

That’s true across town government. “Poor Jen (Fava),” he says. “She’s got even more: Boating Friends, Tennis Friends, Golf Friends. I don’t have any friends.”

But in other ways, his job has not changed.

“Asphalt is asphalt. Snow is snow,” Edwards notes.

“Most everything people take for granted comes through us: town roads, and dead squirrels on them. The transfer station. Sewers and clogged drains. Snow removal. Beach repairs. You name it, we do it.”

When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.

Sometimes, Westporters expect public works to do everything. “A lot of people now come from New York. They’re used to concierges,” Edwards says.

“We’re their concierge. They don’t know who to call, so they call our department.” Sometimes he must explain that a road belongs to the state — not the town.

Edwards does what he can. Edwards gets great satisfaction from helping those who can’t fend for themselves. He has less patience with people who call in the middle of the storm “from an 8,000-square foot house with a generator, but they can’t get their favorite cable channel.”

Edwards has worked for 7 first selectmen. They’re all different, he says. But all recognize that Westport’s department heads are professionals. And “all of them realize that a lot goes on in public works.

“Quality of life comes through here,” Edwards adds. “We should be like a good referee: No one knows we’re there. If I’m in the press, it’s usually because I’ve done something wrong. I want to stay under the radar.”

Sometimes that’s hard. Six months after coming to Westport, Hurricane Gloria hit. His boss Jerry Smith was on leave, after a heart attack.

“I was wet behind the ears,” Edwards admits. “I had my hands full. Back then it was every man for himself.”

These days, he says, “the town is much better prepared. There’s so much more training and support.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Public Works took care of a section of boardwalk that ended up far from home. In emergencies they coordinate with other departments to keep Westport safe.

During Hurricane Sandy, he notes, “the amount of interdepartmental and inter-municipal coordination was phenomenal.” Public works, police, fire — even human services — all work together.

Edwards is retiring while he still feels good.

His wife wants to travel. “But I’m a homebody,” he says. “I’ve got my dog and my bike. I can hike. I’m happy.”

He’ll miss the people he’s worked with. Every employee now is someone he’s hired.

Edwards will stay on as a contract employee, consulting on projects like the pump station underneath the Saugatuck River. He started it, and wants to see it finished.

Next month, town engineer Pete Ratkiewich takes over. He knows the ropes: He’s been a town employee for 26 years.

Still, I asked: Does Edwards have any advice for his successor?

“You can’t take anything personally. We’re all professionals,” he said.

“We make recommendations. But at times things are way beyond our control.”

One example: during tight economic times, Edwards’ paving budget was once cut by $1 million.

“I went home, and I went to bed. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

He found a way to pave the roads.

And — a few months later — to plow them.

That’s what he’s done for 32 years. Thanks, Steve, for doing it very, very well.

Pic Of The Day #239

A tree on Hillspoint Road — near Schlaet’s Point — looks perfect for Christmas. Or the Festival of Lights. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

Aquarion Douses Daily Watering

It was a weird time for Aquarion’s announcement: a rainy day, a week or so before winter begins.

But the water company chose today to say that due to an “ongoing precipitation deficit,” it will introduce permanent 2-day-a-week water limits on in-ground irrigation systems and above-ground sprinklers.

The program will take effect “during the 2018 watering season.” Residents may continue to use drip irrigation, soaker hoses and hand-held watering devices at any time.

Aquarion will also ask golf courses to reduce water use by 10%.

The Westport restriction is similar to those in place in Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich and Stamford for the past 18 months.

Aquarion says that the 4 other localities where restrictions are in place have already saved 860 million gallons of water. The company adds that lawns and gardens thrive on reduced watering. Roots grow deeper into the soil, absorbing more moisture and nutrients — even during dry spells.

Beginning next month, Aquarion will conduct public presentations in Westport to provide the rationale and expected benefits, and describe the actual process.

Westport’s water consumption is “well above average,” Aquarion officials say.

The restrictions come as some North Avenue residents oppose the utility’s proposed new water tanks across from Staples High School.

First selectman Jim Marpe says:

Aquarion must be clear on its agenda for Westport. I know that Westport residents will be willing to do their part to conserve water if our local supply is truly vulnerable. However, if we are looking at 2 new water tanks that take into account an increase in water usage, Aquarion must be forthcoming with its calculations. We need to understand the relationship between having another public utility structure in town with the requirement to reduce water utilization.

 

The irrigation schedule will be based on the last digit of street addresses. Even- numbered homes — and those with no number — can water on Sundays and Wednesdays; those with odd numbers can water on Saturdays and Tuesdays. All watering is restricted to before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.

Variances are available in certain circumstances — for example, if new plantings or sod have been installed.

For more information — including how to landscape and garden with less water — click here.

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

Next New Mixed-Use Development? The Empty Lot Off Long Lots.

Come for the Daybreak application. Stay for another one that’s flown way under the radar.

Thursday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting (Town Hall, auditorium, 7 p.m.) was already expected to draw a crowd. The first item is 500 Main Street — the old Daybreak Nursery site. Able Construction is proposing to build 12 age-restricted, 2-bedroom houses. As seen from the comments on yesterday’s “06880” story, there are strong feelings for and against.

The 2nd item has drawn less attention. “DMC Westport” wants to develop 793 Post Road East/5 Long Lots Road.

That’s the empty lot between Westport Wash & Wax and Ruta Court, opposite the old Bertucci’s.

The proposed development would be built at 793 Post Road East (shown here) …

Like the Daybreak area, this is a neighborhood with lots of traffic. Every morning, a line of cars — coming from drop-offs at Staples, Bedford and Long Lots schools, plus folks commuting into town — backs up on Long Lots Road.

Like Daybreak too, the Post Road/Long Lots property may have soil issues from previous owners (a landscaping company and gas station, respectively).

… and extends to 5 Long Lots Road (above).

But while Daybreak neighbors are concerned about 12 homes, those on Ruta Court and Long Lots have bigger issues.

Literally.

DMC Westport is proposing 2 mixed-use buildings — 3 stories, 10,000 square feet each. Retail and offices would occupy the first floor; residences would be above.

Plus 4 more 3-story buildings, at the rear of the property. Two would include 4 townhouses each; 3 would have 3 townhouses apiece.

There would be room too for 93 parking spaces.

If you’re going to Town Hall on Thursday, get ready for a long night.

A site plan for 793 Post Road East/5 Long Lots Road. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 

Bah, Humbug!

You can debate the quantity (how much is enough?) and quality (wreaths? stars? lights on poles or overhead?) of Main Street holiday decorations all you want.

But what you can’t debate is what the backside of downtown’s main drag — Parker Harding Plaza — looks like.

It’s grim. 

This is not the face we want to show shoppers.

A grossed-out Westporter took these photos on Sunday. She sent them to “06880,” along with these thoughts:

I know the Chamber of Commerce sponsors events to celebrate the season — carolers, carriage rides, tree lightings and a holiday mixer.

These events are fine. But they don’t contribute to a festive feeling unless you’re actually in attendance.

What matters more to most of us is what we experience day-to-day, while shopping and making our holiday preparations downtown.

Small shops that decorate storefronts are great. But with so many chains, it’s the Downtown Merchants Association and Chamber that ideally would pick up the slack.

Most of the chains are very festive inside. It’s the streetscapes that need attention.

The situation in Parker Harding is a holiday horror. It doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident. Every year there’s something similar, it seems.

If the DMA and Chamber members aren’t sure how to set the stage for holiday cheer, they could ask those of us who run around from Thanksgiving to New Year’s what we would like to keep our spirits and energy high.

Personally, I’d love to see some beautiful greenery and a few twinkling string lights. Plus trash that is well managed, open sidewalks and open parking spaces – – not torn up and blocked off with tape.

Kids selling hot cider for a good cause would be icing on the cake.

Please stop the madness that is these photographs — dumpsters, port-a-potties, closed sidewalks and blocked off parking spaces! This is no way to welcome holidaymakers!

 

Pics Of The Day #238

Saturday’s snowstorm: Bedford Square…

… and Assumption Church. (Photos/Katherine Bruan)

[OPINION] Intersection Issue Trumps Daybreak Approval

This Thursday (December 14, Town Hall, 7 p.m.), the Planning & Zoning Commission discusses a proposal for 12 homes on the former Daybreak Nursery property. Earlier today, “06880” described the project. Neighbor Bonnie Dubson opposes the idea. She writes:

Daybreak Nurseries is sited at a crossroads: the notoriously dangerous confluence of Main Street, Weston Road and Easton Road. It is the unavoidable cross-your-fingers blind merge, hope-for-the-best junction that is an unfortunate part of our daily commutes.

A plan has been proposed to develop the property, which is within spitting distance of the Merritt Parkway Exit 42 interchange. The specifics of the plan are not important here. Suffice it to say that the proposal has both proponents and detractors. But regardless of the details, this Westporter believes any proposal concerning the Daybreak property should be tabled until Westport and the Connecticut Department of Transportation remedy this dangerous intersection.

Over the years, plans have been floated to upgrade the intersections’ existing stop signs to traffic lights, or create a series of traffic circles, but not one of these measures has been implemented.

A roundabout proposal for the Main Street/Weston Road/Easton Road intersection. Click to enlarge.

The time to act to mitigate this unsafe intersection is now.

Now is the time for a “Longshore moment” – such as in 1960, when the town’s leadership envisioned the future benefits of purchasing the private club and then opening it to the public.

While we will never get an 18-hole golf course out of the 2.18-acre lot, the former nursery presents a golden opportunity to re-envision and redesign the Exit 42 gateway into Westport.

We have a chance to repair a dysfunctional intersection and inject some much-needed green space into this corner of town.

Several new homes are proposed for the former Daybreak Nursery, at the corner of Main Street and Weston Road.

Westport’s leadership can opt to be near-sighted and rubber-stamp this development for the short-term gain of bolstering the town’s coffers. Electing to do so is tempting, but this choice is riddled with unintended consequences:

Exacerbated traffic; an intersection that poses imminent danger to drivers and pedestrians; huge liabilities for the town because this imminent danger is actually avoidable.

An intersection makeover requires finagling, and working with state agencies. It will take a huge investment: time, money and patience.

Let’s ask ourselves: What is our shared vision for the future of Westport?

Mine is simple: I want to preserve the small-town character and integrity of Westport, and the safety of its residents. Voting to approve this development means that the Daybreak intersection may never be fixed. Once something is built there, the opportunity will lost.

Approving the development is tantamount to throwing our hands in the air and saying, “oh well, there is nothing that can be done.”

But I think our elected officials can rise to this challenge. They won’t duck and run when things get tricky.

“Daybreak” signals new beginnings and fresh starts. Daybreak is ready for an intersection do-over. Act now.

Daybreak Development Dawns

When Daybreak was thriving, up to 800 vehicles a day pulled into and out of the small parking lot. The business included a nursery, florist shop and landscaping operation.

Daybreak closed in 2014. The buildings were demolished last spring.

The Daybreak property, after the nursery and landscaping business closed.

New owners hope to build 12 housing units — age-restricted, generating minimal traffic — on the 2 1/4-acre site. They’ve spoken with town officials, and adapted their plans several times to meet traffic and other concerns.

Still — on the eve of Thursday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting — opposition remains.

The owner is Able Construction. During the past 25 years, the firm has built over 80 houses in town. Some are new; others are historical renovations, like 268 Wilton Road. They’re also redoing the old Three Bears restaurant — now Chabad — on Newtown Turnpike.

Able Construction owner Peter Greenberg (right) and partner Johnny Schwartz.

Able bought the Daybreak property at a foreclosure auction. At the time, owner Peter Greenberg admits, he had no clear plan for the land.

He could have built 4 gigantic homes on the 1/2-acre-zoning land. Or he could have put a grandfathered business — like a nursery or landscaping company — there.

“There” is important. The property fronts Main Street, near the heavily trafficked, highly visible and bizarrely complicated intersection with Weston and Easton Roads.

The area — including the now-vacant Daybreak site — is an important gateway to Westport. It’s a first impression for anyone arriving from the Merritt Parkway, and an early look for drivers from Weston and Easton.

Originally, Greenberg and Able partner Johnny Schwartz talked with town officials about putting a coffee shop or service station there. They also considered mixed-use — perhaps retail, with apartments or multi-family housing on a 2nd floor or behind.

The last of Daybreak Nursery was carted away in March.

The property is not served by a sewer. Greenberg asked if Able could pay to extend outside the blue line. The town said no.

Planning and Zoning members were interested in the possibility of smaller homes. But no town regulations encouraged developers to build such cluster-type housing.

Able proposed creating an overlay zone. Current zoning permitted 4 houses. Typically, Greenberg says, they’d be 5,000 square feet each, with 6 bedrooms.

Instead, his firm designed 8 2-bedroom homes, of 3,000 square feet. The total number of bedrooms was the same — 24 — but, Greenberg says, 2-bedroom homes would not typically sell to couples with children.

No kids means fewer in-and-out vehicle trips. No stop-and-start bus stops. And no additional children entering the school system, at a cost of nearly $20,000 a year.

The P&Z balked. 3,000 square feet was not small enough. The national average is 1,600 square feet. (Of course as Greenberg notes, “Westport is not average.”)

Able went back to the commission. Architect Bill McGuiness — who designed the Kensett community in Darien — envisioned 12 2-bedroom homes, averaging 2,000 square feet. None would be more than 2,400.

Designed for an older population, the homes included elevator shafts. Most of the living would be on the 1st floor, with sloped roofs and virtually no attics. Five duplexes would share a common wall. Two would be single-family units.

Front and rear views of an attached duplex.

P&Z liked the idea. But they asked Able to include an affordable or age-restricted component

Able proposed that 7 of the 12 units be limited to buyers 55 and older. (Greenberg says he’s willing to make it 100% age-restricted, if needed.)

The “smaller home development” text amendment was accepted. Public hearings were held, and a traffic engineer hired.

Able spent the past 8 months finalizing plans, and getting permits.

Views of one of the detached homes.

But at a hearing 3 weeks ago, neighbors voiced strong opposition. Major concerns were raised about traffic at that very dizzying intersection.

Greenberg notes that when Daybreak had up to 800 trips a day — including customers, employees and landscaping trucks — there were 5 driveways in and out of the property. He sited the new driveway — 1-way in, 1-way out — as far from the intersection as possible. (It’s the same direction as 1-way Daybreak Lane, to avoid cut-throughs by drivers seeking to avoid the 4-way stop.)

Able looked at ways to improve the intersection. They learned that a decade or so ago, the state Department of Transportation wanted 3 roundabouts — one there, and 2 others at the Exit 42 ramps. But Wassell Lane was a stumbling block. According to roundabout standards then in place, it was too close to other roads to feed into the mix.

Now, however, standards have changed. Wassell Lane could work. Greenberg says that town officials have contacted the state DOT about reopening discussions. They have not yet heard back.

A roundabout proposal that includes Wassell Lane. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

According to Greeenberg, a traffic study shows that at peak times, 3,000 cars an hour pass through the intersection. He says that Able’s new development will add less than .05% to the mix.

“Right now, taxes on Daybreak are about $30,000 a year,” Greenberg says. “If these 12 units are built, we figure Westport would get $180,000 a year.” He proposes that the town earmark some of those increased taxes for Westport’s contribution to intersection improvements.

“There’s no land left in Westport,” he adds. “We buy houses. We knock them down, and build new ones. That’s our business.

“But we hear from people all over town that after their kids are grown, they don’t want a big house. They want to stay in Westport, in a smaller one. These houses would help.”

Able Construction’s Daybreak site plan. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

He says his company has done everything to address concerns. A Phase II environmental study found no herbicides or pesticides left over from the nursery. There were, however, petroleum products in the soil. Greenberg promises to stockpile the soil during construction, and dispose of it if needed.

“We’re part of this town,” he says. “We want to do the right thing.”

The P&Z hearing this Thursday (Town Hall auditorium, 7 p.m.), is one of the last stops on the road to a permit for the Daybreak development.

“This property has been unsightly for years,” Greenberg says. “It’s at a very impressionable intersection. We want to put this property to work. We’ll build smaller houses, so people can age in place. It’s something the town wants, and needs.

“The P&Z told us they want more diversity in housing in Westport. This gets us closer to that.”

Pic Of The Day #237

The Cribari Bridge at Christmas. (Photo/Joel Treisman)