Category Archives: Environment

Pic Of The Day #241

View from Duck Haven (Kings Highway North) to Gorham Island (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

“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.

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.

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 #236

Wild black vultures look through the window of Earthplace’s Animal Hall workroom. The vultures are beginning to migrate, and have been seen in groups of 30 or more on the grounds. Staff members have seen Earthplace’s rescued vultures try to share their food with the wild ones. (Photo/Jaime Bairaktaris)

Katharine Huber Has Designs On Kids’ Furniture

As an architect, Katharine Huber spent her career exploring how people interact with buildings. She knew exactly how to design a museum or cultural building for maximum productivity and comfort.

As a mother, she realized that people don’t interact well with children’s furniture. When she got on her knees, she realized that the ubiquitous red and blue plastic kids’ tables and chair were not very kid-friendly.

Huber’s children were 5 and 2 when the family moved to Westport. They’ve enjoyed the amenities — the water, the arts — and her kids were involved in music and sports.

Huber worked on big projects — airports, the Bill Clinton Library, Stanford Law School, WGBH in Boston. After leaving her New York firm, she’s been involved in residential work in this area.

Now her kids are grown. But she’s turning her attention back to the children’s furniture she thought about years ago.

This fall — working out of her (now child-free) home — Huber launched Wit Design. It’s a simple collection that harnesses young imaginations.

“When I became a mother, I noticed the wonderfully weird ways my kids interacted with furniture,” she recalls. “They wiggled, they sat on their feet, they never considered that chairs were only meant for sitting.”

It’s taken years, but she’s finally put her insights into action. Wit Design’s furniture is strong enough for kids’ rambunctious ways, but light enough for them to pick up and rearrange however they wish.

In this age of digital devices, Huber says, children need appropriate spaces and furniture to connect with their creative selves — and other kids. Her table and chairs allow youngsters to “make art and make messes.”

Kids play on Wit Design furniture.

Huber has done it using non-toxic materials too and finishes too. She wants the environment to last at least as long as her furniture does.

Her pieces are produced in the United States. Manufacturing in China would have been less expensive. But she could not monitor working conditions. Plus, Huber says, she wants to support the American furniture industry.

Wit Design has quickly found a following. Millennial parents and grandparents — also important kids’ furniture buyers — like providing an imaginative space to do puzzles and fill in coloring books.

Her furniture is designed for 2- to 6-year-olds. But she’s seen much older children enjoy it.

A recent photo shoot encouraged Huber that she’s on to something. Energetic children instinctively understood that they could move the furniture around, to their hearts’ content.

Who knew kids’ furniture design could be so simple?

Katharine Huber, apparently.

 

Pic Of The Day #231

A recent visitor on Tamarac Road. (Photo/Susan Marshall

White Barn Property Deal Is Near

The White Barn property — once the site of Lucille Lortel’s theater, more recently rumored to be the site of 15 luxury homes — may remain undeveloped after all.

The 15.4 acre site in Norwalk’s Cranbury neighborhood — on the border of Westport — will be sold to the Norwalk Land Trust, for $5 million. If, that is, the non-profit raises that money by April 1.

Westporters have watched the long-running drama involving the property — and Lortel’s stage (which, though actually in Norwalk, used a Westport address from 1947 to 2002) — with interest.

Some hoped to save a legendary structure. Others are concerned about the environmental and aesthetic impacts of a new housing development on the wooded site.

Norwalk Land Trust is applying for a loan from the national Conservation Trust. If you’d like to help, click here.

(Hat tip: Scott Smith)

A portion of the White Barn property.

Green Your Home; Save The Planet!

Westporters care about the environment.

But many of our homes are older — real energy wasters. Even newer homes are not as energy efficient as we might think. All of us can learn more about saving energy.

A golden opportunity comes this Thursday (November 30, 7 p.m., Earthplace). Westport architects Howard Lathrop and John Rountree, and Greentek Consulting founder David Mann, will talk about building a “net zero” home for little — or no — additional cost. They’ll also discuss how to renovate a home, or replace an appliance, without breaking the bank.

“Greening Your Home: Sustainable Energy Saving Solutions” is sponsored by Earthplace, Westport’s Green Task Force and the Westport Library. It’s one more step on the road to making our town “net zero” by 2050.

This energy efficient house could be less expensive than you think.

Rolling Stone: Andrea Dutton Is Saving The World

Rolling Stone recently profiled “25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More.”

They’re the “inventors, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are changing (and maybe saving) the world one brilliant idea at a time.”

One is Westport’s own Andrea Dutton.

The 1991 Staples High School grad — now an assistant professor of geology at the University of Florida — is addressing “one of the most important scientific questions of our time, one upon which millions of lives, and trillions of dollars in real estate and other investments, depend: As our planet continues to heat up, how fast will sea levels rise in the coming decades?”

Andrea Dutton with a fossilized coral reef in the Florida Keys. (Photo/Joshua Bright for Redux)

Dutton studies West Antarctica, which contains enough ice to raise seas by 10 feet. “If West Antarctica is unstable,” she says, “that could be a very big problem for coastal cities in the future.”

Rolling Stone notes:

Dutton is not the only scientist interested in this question. But she has pursued it with a kind of urgency that belies her cool manner, traveling the world to seek out well-preserved fossilized coral outcroppings that help her learn the story rising water can tell about the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate. To Dutton, coral fossils can be read like tree rings, and dating how fast the corals grew on top of each other can reveal not just how high the water rose in the past, but how fast.

Her research involved “a startling amount of physics, from ice-sheet dynamics to glacial rebound of the North American continent.”

The magazine adds this portrait of the former Westport/current world changer:

Dutton is a single mom with 2 young kids. Her Facebook page is full of pictures of their soccer games and stories like the frog that accidentally got puréed in her garbage disposal. “I’m a scientist, and I love my work,” she says. “But I’m not just doing this because I love science. I’m doing this because I care about the future, and the kind of world we’re leaving to our kids.”

(For the full Rolling Stone story, click here. Hat tip: Sandee Cole)