Category Archives: Local politics

Fire Department Tour: A Day To Remember

“06880” reader Sharon Maddern sent this letter to 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Fire Chief Robert Yost and Deputy Fire Chief Brian Meadows. But it’s worth sharing with a much larger audience:

I’d like to let you know about an outstanding experience my son and I recently had visiting the Westport Fire Department, and what an impressive, dedicated and professional team they are.

My son Derek is 21. Though he has some disabilities, he is a huge firefighter fan. He listens to all the calls over the scanners, and follows them online. For him this was a super-exciting day.

With the help of Sal Liccione, who set up the visit, we arrived on a Saturday morning. I expected a basic 20-minute overview. But our guide, Lt. Jonathan Piper — a veteran fireman of 20-plus years — gave us an incredibly informative tour of the facility. Even I was enthralled by the advanced technology, and his extensive knowledge of all the sophisticated equipment.

He explained the various roles of the department beyond firefighting, including HazMat and emergency responses like pulling cars out of ditches.

We also got a firsthand look at the new fire engines.

Derek gets a close-up look at a Westport fire truck.

I cannot tell you how meaningful this was to my son, and how appreciative I am of the time Jon took with us. Even I could follow his articulate, enthusiastic and patient explanations!

While I have spent the last 17 years working in commercial real estate in Westport, I was never aware of the extent that the fire department and these men are involved in: all the day-to-day aspects of our safety, including road hazards, building inspections, alarm responses, etc.

I hope that the WFD continues to receive Westport’s respect and the funding that it deserves, as they have an enormous burden of responsibility. They are an invaluable part of the community, and should be generously supported in their endeavors to continue to provide such an efficient, effective resource for the town.

This was a day both my son and I will always remember. Our thanks go out to the WFD!

And The Worst Sign In Town Is …

Last week, “06880” reported on Planning and Zoning’s enforcement of the town’s longstanding ordinance against temporary signs.

The removal of dozens of placards — promoting everything from the Library book sale to (ironically) junk removal — drew dozens of comments.

It’s about time! praised some.

Governmental overreach! howled others.

Predictably, the discussion veered away from the direct topic at hand. Eric Bosch noted that there are 309 permanent signs at Compo Beach alone.

Chris Woods suggested that people send in photos of the “worst” signs in town.

Great idea! 

Here’s mine, from Wilton Road:

Hey — this is Westport! Every place here has a school bus stop ahead.

Besides, have you ever seen this sign flashing? How would that even work? Do school buses have a special method to switch on these lights?

That’s my worst/least favorite/most annoying sign (though there are many contenders). What’s yours?

Email photos to dwoog@optonline.net. And let us know exactly why that particular sign is worse than all the others.

Plastic Straws: The Sequel

The drive to eliminate (or diminish) plastic straws in Westport — reported yesterday on “06880” — is a multi-pronged battle.

RTM member Andrew Colabella — the youngest elected official, and a member of the body’s Environment Committee — brought up the idea and started researching it then.

He has met with over 16 managers, owners, chefs and staffs of Westport’s many restaurants.

His goal is “to change the material of a product that we use for a couple of minutes at convenience” — which then sits in a landfill for hundreds of years. 

Colabella is taking aim too at styrofoam containers and cups, even plastic foodware.

He has gotten signatures on a petition, and has drafted an ordinance. He’s contacted the Westport Weston Health District and Conservation Commission about enforcement, and is using their feedback for a final edit.

As of now, these restaurants have joined the campaign:

  • Terrain
  • Amis
  • Spotted Horse
  • The Granola Bar
  • Westport Farmers’ Market
  • Joey’s By The Shore
  • Little Barn
  • Saugatuck Sweets
  • Viva Zapata’s
  • Match Burger Lobster
  • Rizzuto’s
  • Sakura
  • The Pearl at Longshore
  • Westport Pizzeria
  • Bartaco
  • Winfield Street Coffee & Deli

Meanwhile, Staples High School students — and even younger ones, like Bedford Middle Schooler Michael Rossi Pontoriero —  have worked to eliminate plastic straws, and plastic wrapping on individual utensils in Westport schools. Details will be finalized this fall.

It takes a village — to rid a village of plastic.

81-Unit Housing Application Withdrawn; Aquarion Meeting Still On

You know that controversial plan to build 81 units of housing on the small parcel of land between Post Road West, Lincoln Street and Cross Street? The one that was going to draw a huge crowd to tonight’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting?

It’s off the table — for now.

Cross Street LLC has withdrawn its site plan application. P&Z director Mary Young said it will be resubmitted. Public hearings will begin again September 6.

But there’s still plenty of action at Town Hall tonight. The P&Z meeting has been switched to Room 201/201A.

Moving into the auditorium — also at 7 p.m. — is a Public Utilities Regulatory Authority public hearing.

The topic: Aquarion’s proposal to build 2 large water tanks on North Avenue.

 

Cribari Bridge Advisory Committee Formed

The William F. Cribari/Bridge Street Bridge saga rolls on.

The 1st Selectman’s office just sent out this press release:

The state Department of Transportation recently announced the creation of a Project Advisory Committee for input and guidance as the project to rebuild the William F. Cribari Bridge advances.

The first meeting will take place on Wednesday, July 18 (6:30 p.m., Town Hall Auditorium).

According to the DOT:

CTDOT is initiating preliminary engineering work to address structural and functional issues affecting the bridge. As part of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act, an Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Evaluation will be conducted in order to determine the socio-economic and environmental impacts of various design alternatives. The purpose of the EA/EIE is to explore options that accommodate safe vehicular, bicycle, pedestrian, and marine travel, are resilient to the changing shoreline climate and environmental conditions and consider the historic character of the bridge.

The Cribari Bridge does open. The other day, a mechanical issue kept it in this position for a while. (Photo/David Squires)

Based on the concerns and needs of the community, the Department has identified a group of project stakeholders whose expertise may provide helpful input into a variety of issues, including safety, mobility, environmental concerns, and historic considerations. A Project Advisory Committee is being developed to provide critical input and assist the Department in its decision-making process. Other stakeholders may be identified during the study process and incorporated in the PAC as warranted.

The PAC will meet at key milestones during project development in fulfillment of its role.

Local organizations, businesses and government entities that CT DOT has identified in its initial PAC roster include:

Town of Westport:

  •             First Selectman
  •             Fire Department
  •             Police Department
  •             Public Works Department
  •             Conservation Department
  •             Historic District Commission
  •             Shellfish Commission
  •             Harbormaster
  •             Boating Advisory Committee
  •             Downtown Plan Implementation Committee

Also:

  • Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce
  • Westport Preservation Alliance
  • Bridgebrook Marina
  • All Seasons Marine Works

State and regional entities that have been invited include:

  •             CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
  •             CT Commuter Rail Council
  •             CT Trust for Historic Preservation
  •             CT Fund for the Environment / Save the Sound
  •             Federal Highway Administration
  •             State Historic Preservation Office
  •             Western CT Council of Governments

The Selectman’s office suggested a number of additional organizations and individuals to be included in the PAC when it was made aware of the formation in late June. To date however, CT DOT did not include those groups in its initial invitation, but noted that other stakeholders may be identified and added to the PAC.

The future of the William Cribari (Bridge Street) Bridge is central to any discussion of the future of Saugatuck.
(Photo/Patricia McMahon)

First Selectman Jim Marpe commented, “The creation of this PAC is part of an ongoing environmental assessment that is required due to both the historic nature of the bridge and its location over the Saugatuck River. It should be stressed that this step in the process is not a sign of any intent or decisions regarding the ultimate design or rehabilitation of the bridge. Neither is it a reflection on any conclusions that may be made by the Town to accept the State’s offer to rehabilitate the bridge and turn its ownership over to the Town, as proposed by CT DOT in 2017.”

Marpe continued, “I recognize the Cribari Bridge contributes to the historic character of the Town of Westport and in particular, the Saugatuck community. This will be an important opportunity for the members of the PAC and eventually, the whole community to once again offer its opinions and observations related to the bridge and any environmental impacts that may result from its rebuild or rehabilitation.  The meeting on July 18 is open to the public, although CT DOT management has indicated that public input will be limited at this session.  It is unclear how much input or level of participation will be accepted from those individuals and organizations not identified as members of the PAC in either this or subsequent meetings that will be organized and conducted by the CT DOT.”

Comments or questions regarding the Environmental Impact Assessment process, the formation of the Project Advisory Committee and the agenda/conduct of the July 18 meeting should be directed to CT DOT’s Project Manager, Priti S. Bhardwaj by email (Priti.Bhardwaj@ct.gov) or phone (860- 594-3311).

Another view of the William F. Cribari Bridge. It’s interesting that everyone photographs it from the Riverside Avenue side. (Photo/Michael Champagne)

Down By The Riverside

The Saugatuck River is a Westport jewel.

But unless you belong to the Saugatuck Rowing Club, rent a kayak or paddleboard at DownUnder or live on the water, your direct access is limited to a few public parks.

There’s one named for Grace Salmon on Imperial Avenue. Another for Gene Pasacreta is on Riverside.

One of the least known — and least maintained — is also on Riverside, just north of the merge with Saugatuck Avenue (right beyond the VFW, before the houses and commercial buildings).

A view of the Saugatuck River, from the Riverside Avenue park.

It’s been designated as open space, with activities limited to walking and viewing. This morning, members of the Parks Advisory Committee toured the property. They saw the beautiful view of the river, which right now hardly anyone knows about.

Tree warden Bruce Lindsay was there too.

If he works the same magic on this pocket park as he did on the Wadsworth Arboretum across town, Westporters will have one more connection to the Saugatuck River.

And many more opportunities to enjoy it.

P&Z Signs Off: The Sequel

I was busy this afternoon, posting a story about the Planning & Zoning Department’s decision to remove all illegal signs from town-owned property.

Chip Stephens and Al Gratrix were busy too.

They did the actual removal.

The P&Z Commissioners — call them the “De-Signers” — uprooted several dozen offending placards, all over town. Many were in otherwise handsome traffic islands and gardens, like those at the eastern end of the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Post Road bridge. (Regulations concerning such signs have been in place since at least 2002.)

A small bit of Chip Stephens and Al Gratrix’s haul.

They’re not finished.

Every illegal sign — even those for beloved institutions like the Westport Library book sale — is fair game, Chip says.

(Photos/Chip Stephens)

Westport’s streetscape is changing. The signs are everywhere.

 

Public Hearings Next Thursday On Aquarion Water Tanks

Aquarion wants to build 2 big water tanks on North Avenue.

Next Thursday, there will be 2 big meetings about them.

Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority will hear public comments at both, in Town Hall. The July 12 2 p.m. session is set for the auditorium. The 7 p.m. meeting is in Room 201/201A. (If you’re wondering why the evening session is in a smaller space than the afternoon one: I am too.)

The hearings are a result of a petition against Aquarion’s proposal, from 9 immediate property owners and 76 other Westporters. PURA may add more hearings after Thursday, if necessary.

Letters will be accepted from the public through the last day of the hearing (Thursday or later). The address is 10 Franklin Square, New Britain, CT 06051.

Click here for all filings made in the case thus far.

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

Police Pension Draws National Attention

A pension dispute involving Westport’s Police Department has drawn national attention.

The Economic Policy Institute — a left-leaning think tank — is focusing on a dispute between the police union (AFSCME Local 2080) and the town.

Negotiations have gone to binding arbitration. A decision may come this fall.

“Why would Westport mess with a system that works?” asks economist Monique Morrissey on the EPI’s Working Economics Blog.

“The police department is tiny and the town can easily afford the benefits. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, spending on police pensions amounted to just 1.2 percent of the town’s revenues, so even drastic benefit cuts wouldn’t noticeably affect anyone’s tax bill.

“Westport’s property tax rate is already among the lowest in the state, though taxes are high in dollar terms as would be expected for a wealthy town in a high cost of living area.”

Morrissey notes that Westport police officers do not receive Social Security, nor is overtime factored into their final pensions. She frames efforts to reduce Westport police pensions as part of “an ideological campaign” to get rid of pensions in favor of riskier 401(k)-style savings plans.

She says that kind of campaign could backfire as municipalities start to restore benefits in an effort to prevent losing experienced officers.

“The 64 members of the Westport police department, who signed on for what they thought was a career of public service that would be rewarded with a secure retirement, may still pay a price, unless the citizens of Westport realize that that the police force they have come to rely on may be torn apart by shortsighted pension ‘reforms,’” Morrissey writes.

Click here to read Morrissey’s full story.

Beltas’ Plan: Keep Part Of Family Farm

Five years ago, I wrote about Belta’s Farm.

My story began:

Bayberry Lane is like many Westport streets. There’s a mix of homes: handsome converted barns; stately Colonials; 1950s split-levels; modern, multi-gabled McMansions.

Nothing — not a sign or a peek through the trees — indicates that the driveway at #128 leads to a 23–plus-acre farm.

It could be Westport’s best-kept secret: There’s a working farm a few yards from the intersection of Bayberry Lane and Cross Highway.

Four generations of Beltas — the farm’s founding family — live there. Dina is the widow of Jimmy Belta, who first farmed the land in 1946. Greg is her son. His children and grandchildren are there too.

How much longer, though, is uncertain.

An aerial view of Belta’s Farm from several years ago shows fields, greenhouses, a compost pile (near the top), and the family’s two homes (bottom).

Five years later, the farm — which has supplied Stew Leonard’s for decades, and since 2012 offers fresh produce and eggs through Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions — has edged closer to its next chapter.

The Belta family cares deeply for its farm, and the neighborhood. As Westport — and their lives — change, they’ve worked hard to come up with a plan they believe will enhance the area, while helping settle their patriarch’s estate.

On July 26, they’ll present a proposal for a text amendment to the Planning & Zoning Commission.

They hope to create an Agricultural Heritage Overlay District. It will enable them to build 9 single-family homes, on 1-acre lots — and retain 8 acres of the property for use as a working farm.

Four generations of Beltas would be able to stay on the land.

A site plan for the proposed Agricultural Heritage Overlay District.

Over the years — especially after the death of Jimmy Belta in 2012 at age 88 (a farmer to the end) — many developers have approached the family. Each time, they said no. The plans were not in keeping with the Beltas’ concept for the future of their farm and homestead.

The Agricultural Heritage Overlay District would, they say:

  • Allow the family to retain its 2 primary residences, both over 50 years old
  • Retain 8 acres of rich farm land in perpetuity, growing the same amount of produce as they currently sell at their farm stand
  • Develop 9 additional building lots that complement the farm property
  • Provide a buffer area with neighboring properties, and preserve the farm’s natural beauty.

Current zoning regulations permit 2-acre lot subdivisions. So they could sell the entire property, to be filled completely with homes.

The Beltas’ say their proposal is “a unique land use concept that will enhance the surrounding neighborhood.”

Belta’s Farm Stand provides great produce to Bayberry Lane and beyond.

For over 70 years, the Beltas have been good neighbors — and great providers of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs to Bayberry Lane and beyond.

They no longer raise poultry and livestock there. The slaughterhouse is gone. Times change.

This time, they’re asking the town to help them move forward.

Without leaving their farm behind.

The greenhouse and outbuildings, today.