Category Archives: Local politics

Save Westport Now: Stop Hiawatha’s Sewer Request

Valerie Seiling Jacobs, co-chair of Save Westport Now, sends this letter:

The Westport Water Pollution Control Authority, which is comprised of our 3 selectman, is meeting tomorrow morning (Thursday, July 21, 8:30 a.m., Town Hall auditorium) to decide whether to allow a developer to extend the sewer to the Hiawatha Lane area in Saugatuck.

The Planning & Zoning Commission has already rejected this developer’s request twice, on the grounds that the nearby pumping station and the sewer pipe that runs under the river from the Saugatuck area to our wastewater treatment plant are already in danger of failing.

Both items are on the town’s list of infrastructure repairs, but before work can start, the town needs to obtain a lot of permits and approvals from the state and feds, which still hasn’t happened. P&Z recognized that adding potential effluent to a failing system was not a smart move. If, for example, the repairs are delayed and the pipe bursts, it could have catastrophic environmental and other consequences for the Town.

Westport's wastewater treatment plant, across the Saugatuck River from the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

Westport’s wastewater treatment plant, across the Saugatuck River from the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

Save Westport Now agrees with P&Z’s conclusion: that it would be foolhardy for the town to approve a sewer extension before the pipe and pumping station are actually fixed/replaced. This is especially true since — no matter what we hope or the developer claims — the repairs are likely to take more time than usual, since they will need to be scheduled around other projects already planned for the area, including most notably the rehab of the I-95 overpass, the repair of the MetroNorth bridge, and the repair of the Cribari/Saugatuck bridge.

This will not be a simple or quick repair, and the Town should not risk the town’s resources just because a developer stands to lose money if he doesn’t get his way.

I hope you will attend the meeting or email the selectman’ office (selectman@westportct.gov) about the matter as well. As residents and taxpayers, we need to let our elected officials know that we care about the environment — and that we believe in smart planning. Adding effluent to a failing sewer system before we are sure when and how the system will be fixed is just not smart.

Town Fights 8-30g — And Wins

A real estate developer buys suburban land. He announces plans to build a massive number of housing units on it. Citing Connecticut’s 8-30g statute, 30% will be “affordable,” according to state guidelines.

Townspeople — worried about the impact of such a massive development — rise up to oppose it.

Sound familiar? It happens all over — including Westport.

Here’s the unfamiliar part: The townspeople won.

The town is not Westport. But it’s nearby.

Easton residents and officials just got big news. A 5-year battle against a 99-unit, 31-building townhouse complex, on 124.7 acres of watershed bordered by Sport Hill, Westport, Silver Hill and Cedar Hill Roads, has come to an end. An appellate court declined to hear the developer’s appeal of a January decision by Hartford’s housing court, which upheld Easton’s Planning and Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission’s 2011 denial of that plan (and a previous one for 105 units).

Part of the Easton property proposed for a 99-unit 8-30g housing development.

Part of the Easton property proposed for a 99-unit 8-30g housing development. (Photo/Google Earth)

How did they do it?

Ira Bloom explains. He was legal counsel for the town commissions. He’s also Westport’s town attorney, so he knows something about 8-30g.

Unlike most zoning applications, Bloom says, if a town commission turns down an 8-30g application, the burden is on them — not on the developer — to prove they made the right decision.

There are a couple of ways to do that, Bloom says. One is to show there is “substantial public interest” in the denial. “Mere traffic congestion” does not work, Bloom notes. Traffic safety, however, may. “Substantial public interest” must clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing in that town.

Another way is to show that no possible modification of the proposal would satisfy the requirements.

Ira Bloom

Ira Bloom

“That’s a heavy burden of proof,” Bloom says. In fact, last year 9 8-30g cases were decided by Connecticut courts. 7 were won by developers. Towns prevailed in only 2 — including Easton.

Bloom argued that because the 99 units would be built on public watershed — serving most of the Easton — the town had a substantial public interest in denying the application. He cited Department of Energy and Environmental Protection guidelines that no more than 1 unit be built on every 2 acres of watershed.

In Westport, officials used the “substantial public interest” argument in denying a proposal for a large 8-30g complex on Wilton Road, near Kings Highway North. The fire chief testified there were severe safety concerns, about the ability of his department to access the proposed complex.

Westport is now writing briefs for that case. They’re due August 12. The developer — Garden Homes — then submits their own briefs.

Easton has very little affordable housing. Westport has more.

But when it comes to 8-30g, no town is out of the woods.

And, Bloom notes, the Easton developer still owns that property. A new proposal may be in the works.

Hiawatha Lane Sewer Denied; Scenic Highway Approved

Two big decisions — both of which could impact the future of Saugatuck — were made yesterday.

The Planning & Zoning Commission denied the request for a sewer line from Davenport Avenue to Hiawatha Lane. The proposal was crucial to approval of a larger project: the construction of 155 rental units on Hiawatha Lane Extension.

The vote was 4-0, with 1 abstention 5-0. The reason, P&Z commissioners said, was that other Westport sewers — including a pump that runs underneath the Saugatuck River — cannot handle the increased flow.

This was the 5th request from developer Felix Charney to build multi-family housing in the already dense area off Saugatuck Avenue. Right now, many of the units there command some of the lowest resale and rental prices in Westport.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

Earlier in the day, the Westport Preservation Alliance announced that the state Department of Transportation has agreed to designate part of Route 136 — specifically Compo Road South, Bridge Street and the William F. Cribari (aka Bridge Street) swing bridge — a “state scenic highway.”

The WPA says the designation “adds an additional level of protection for this important area of our town. Any proposed changes to the bridge must be reviewed by the State Scenic Highway Advisory Committee. Effectively, this allows a different set of state officials, who may be more sympathetic to scenic beauty and preservation, to weigh in on the DOT’s plans.”

The William Cribari (aka Bridge Street) Bridge.

The William Cribari (aka Bridge Street) Bridge.

Plans for multi-family housing on Hiawatha Lane, and for major changes to the bridge, are not yet dead.

But neither are they as healthy as they were yesterday.

Carolanne Curry: Don’t Turn Hiawatha Community Into A Commodity

Alert — and worried — “06880” reader Carolanne Curry writes:

I am trying to understand how the strong and resilient community of Old Saugatuck finds itself under siege for the 5th time, by a developer who wants to build a building he shouldn’t be building, in a residential area he should be building in, and (as a topper) he wants the Town of Westport to give him public sewer access for his proposed 155 apartments on Hiawatha Lane Extension.

All this building on a nondescript street carved out of wetlands and swamps, bounded by roads, railroads and highways, so that a natural cocoon of 8 streets slowly shaped this community.

Hiawatha Lane is a narrow street, filled with homes that are modest by Westport standards. It's accessible only via West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, next to the I-95 eastbound entrance/exit ramp.

Hiawatha Lane is a narrow street, filled with homes that are modest by Westport standards. It’s accessible only via West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, next to the I-95 eastbound entrance/exit ramp.

Felix Charney of Summit Saugatuck LLC is the developer with this fixation to build on Hiawatha Lane Extension. Surprisingly, despite his failed efforts, he is making his 5th request for public sewer access before the Planning and Zoning Commission tomorrow (Thursday, July 7, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium). This time, he is appearing with the active encouragement of the 1st and 2nd selectmen.

I’m curious how Charney and Westport Housing Authority chair David Newberg got to be “building” partners on Hiawatha Lane Extension? When in 2015 did the town, through the offices of the 1st and 2nd selectman, invite and encourage the formation of a Charney/WHA partnership? Why would WHA accept such a contentious role in further alienating residents of Old Saugatuck?

Why would the 1st and 2nd selectmen resurrect such a poorly conceived proposal for 155 apartments? It comes with the same problems that existed in 2005. There is no sewer. Has anything changed?

And why make WHA complicit in the destruction of a community that is an authentic model of affordable, workforce housing, exactly the kind of housing for which WHA advocates? Housing in Old Saugatuck is the direct result of its history with the railroad, the Saugatuck River and the construction of I-95.

Old Saugatuck is a community. Felix Charney would make it a commodity.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

On an even more critical note, when did our Town Hall leaders plan to tell the residents of Old Saugatuck that they were no longer on the side of preserving the precious heritage and homes of the community, but had given their allegiance to Felix Charney? Was this what voters and taxpayers had in mind from their leaders?

In the David and Goliath scenario that will play out tomorrow, before the P&Z with this developer once again, the residents of Old Saugatuck call out to their neighbors, friends and supporters to come to Town Hall. Be a presence and a voice with us, and for us.

——————————————

1st Selectman Jim Marpe replies:

Felix Charney put forth a sewer extension request last year related to his proposed development that received a negative recommendation by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Earlier this year, Mr. Charney presented a pre-application proposal for his Hiawatha Lane properties that differed from the previous year by incorporating a joint venture with the Westport Housing Authority.

Westport sealHe has now presented another sewer extension request related to that latest proposal. Because that request is in process, I cannot comment on the merits of this proposal outside of public session. The sewer extension request and rationale will be discussed following the town’s standard policies and procedures tomorrow in public session. That will be the time for the public to hear more about the proposed plans, to comment, and to have an open dialogue with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The sewer extension request will ultimately be heard by the Town’s Water Pollution Control Authority in public session, which will afford another opportunity for dialogue. Because I am a member of the WPCA that will hear this sewer application, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this proposal outside of the WPCA public hearing process.


I offered the Westport Housing Authority a chance to reply. They declined to comment at this time.

Westporters Will Be Prominent At Rio Olympics

Westport may not have any athletes competing at this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But our town will be represented, just the same.

In typical fashion, we’re all over the media — on camera, and behind the scenes.

Four Westport residents will play big roles as commentators.

Rebecca Lowe

Rebecca Lowe

Rebecca Lowe hosts her 2nd Olympics for NBC, following her debut at Sochi in 2014. She’s well known as the 4-year host of NBC’s Premier League soccer coverage, including live pre- and post-match shows from the Stamford broadcast center.

Paul Burmeister will announce water polo. He’s an NFL studio host and play-by-play announcer. Right now he’s in Europe, covering the Tour de France.

Rob Simmelkjaer also heads to Rio, reprising his 2012 role as MSNBC studio host. MSNBC will carry men’s basketball, beach volleyball, rugby, soccer, volleyball, water polo and more. Currently senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures, he’s also a member of Westport’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

Dave Briggs will be back in Stamford, making his Olympic debut hosting tennis on Bravo. He’s currently a host and anchor for NBC Sports Group, working on a wide range of sports including “NASCAR America” and NHL coverage.

Jeff Clachko — NBC Sports Group’s senior vice president for ad sales — will also be in Brazil.

If you’re going to Rio — for work or pleasure — please let us know. And if you’re headed there as an athlete, we really want to hear from you!

NBC Sports Group

 

Commission On Disabilities Moves Toward Reality

Over the past 40 years, great progress has been made at the federal and state levels protecting and advancing the rights, awareness and support of people with disabilities.

At the local level: not so much.

Jim Ross is well aware of the work that’s been done — and how much remains. He’s chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee, a group that among other tasks helps connect disabled people with transportation options.

He himself has a disability: He’s lost his vision. (That does not prevent him from working in the financial services field, building electronic equity marketplaces.)

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Ross is also involved in a new initiative. For the past 2 years, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Barbara Butler — the soon-to-retire director of Westport’s Department of Human Services — have spearheaded an effort, with a steering committee, to investigate the creation of a permanent Westport Commission on People with Disabilities.

The new group would ensure that this is a town where people with disabilities — whether physical or mental — have the opportunity and support to enjoy full and equal access to lives of independence, productivity, inclusion and self-determination.

Ross notes, “This is not about putting in ramps. It’s about involving and including people in meaningful ways.” In other words, it’s about creating policies and environments that welcome all Westporters.

“It’s a 2-way street,” he adds. “We want to help everyone here — politicians, businesses, organizations, citizens — have a meaningful dialogue about disabilities.”

Ross says that many people with disabilities excel in many areas. “They can teach us a lot,” he says. “We do a disservice to society by not having them participate fully in town activities.”

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Specifically, he explains, the commission could examine the services that Parks and Recreation provides. By looking at needs and wants, it could help the department help all physically and intellectually challenged Westporters.

In another area, he says, the commission could spark a discussion about how to provide housing for people with disabilities.

Transportation has been “very humbling” for Ross, the Citizens Transit Committee chair. “As great as our transportation strategy is for commuters, seniors and people with disabilities, we have to message it better,” he admits.

At an RTM meeting in June, Marpe and Butler took the first step toward making the Westport Commission on People with Disabilities a reality. A vote may be taken in July. No funding is involved.

Ross says that about 12% of Westporters live with a disability (including learning disabilities).

If he and town leaders have their way, that 12% will be part of the 100% of Westporters who participate fully and meaningfully in every aspect of town life.

Walkable, Bikeable Westport

Tracy Yost’s new business is taking Westport by storm. Her Westport Bike Rentals offers pre-planned routes around town. She’s carefully selected safe roads: wide shoulders, bikeway signage, slower speed limits.

But too often she hears: “I’d never ride my bike around here.” She thinks that’s wrong. If we want to ride bikes safely in Westport, Tracy says, we all need to get involved. “It takes a village to make our community livable, walkable and bikeable.” 

Here, Tracy explains what that means:

Livable, walkable, bikeable communities have a designed plan to improve the way everyone — young, old, handicapped, etc. — connects to our town amenities. These are our main streets, our train and transit system, our schools and beaches.

Taking the new bike for a test run at the beach. Watch out for all the people! (Photo/Chip Stephens)

Compo Beach is a great place for walking and biking. Tracy Yost would like to see more people able to walk and bike TO the beach. (Photo/Chip Stephens)

When some people hear the word “bikeable,” they think of groups of cyclists out for a 50-mile ride on weekends. I’m all for more cyclists on the road. But I’d like to connect the average person — elderly, school-aged, handicapped, without a license — by walking, biking or transit. Anything except a personal car.

There are many reasons to embrace the idea of a livable, walkable, bikeable community. It’s environmentally friendly. It builds stronger local economies. It creates stronger bonds among residents. It’s safer. It’s healthier for minds and bodies. It’s also more appealing in the real estate market.

Earlier this month I attended the Connecticut Bike Walk Summit in New Britain. Keynote speaker Mark Fenton — a public health, planning and transportation consultant — challenged us to stretch the idea of what’s possible, by presenting real-life scenarios from around the country.

I imagined: What if there was absolutely no parking or driving downtown? What if it were much more appealing to walk or ride a bike?

Imagine a downtown where it's okay to walk in the middle of Main Street.

Imagine a downtown where it’s okay to walk in the middle of Main Street.

Picture downtown like a campus: walker- and bike-friendly, with few or no cars.

Picture parking on the outskirts, in lots behind Town Hall, on Imperial Avenue, the garage across from Bartaco. Picture a riverwalk from Main Street to the train station.

Picture an attractive, useful transit system. Picture a bikeway (protected or off-road) from the schools to Main Street and the beach.

Picture an event like the Dog Festival with a transit system drop-off, and the Playhouse parking lot filled with strollers, bikes and wagons.

I know this is an extreme scenario, one that requires a drastic shift in thinking. But the Bike Lady can dream.

Tracy Yost, with some of her 20 bikes.

Tracy Yost, with some of her 20 bikes.

The picture I see is of a bustling downtown, where people and places are connected safely and enjoyably. It’s a place to shop and dine and be outdoors. It’s a place that cares about the health of the earth, and its people. It’s a place accessible to everyone, modeling healthy living for its children.

Here’s another real-life scenario, shared by Mark. Consider how many parents drop their children off at school with their cars, rather than having them take the bus. What if we made walking and biking to school the safer, healthier and preferred mode of transportation?

What if walkers and bikers were released first from school? Volunteer parents could lead both groups.

In 2012 -- once -- Saugatuck Elementary School youngsters walked to school. (Photo/Gina Beranek)

In 2012 — once — Saugatuck Elementary School youngsters walked to school. (Photo/Gina Beranek)

Bus riders would be dismissed next, and children being picked up by parents last. Parent pick-up would be at a church or public place (like the VFW) with adequate parking, a walkable (and parent-led) distance from school.

We’d have children who are more active, cars that are not idling, buses that are more filled, and a policy that promotes walking and biking.

I know Westport has a downtown plan. As a recent addition to the Downtown Planning Committee’s biking subcommittee, I’m catching up on where we are in the process of moving from surveys and plans, to the execution of those plans.

We will need buy-in and commitment from our town officials, leaders, boards, agencies, departments, businesses,schools, Chamber of Commerce, churches and synagogues, library — and every voter.

Mark believes in a pyramid system to elicit change. At the bottom is policy. We must change rules, ordinances, practices and procedures to get outcomes that stick.

The next step up in the pyramid is projects. We need an infrastructure that improves our willingness to walk, bike and use transit. It must be safe, appealing and rewarded.

This is what a jogging and biking path might look like.

This is what a jogging and biking path might look like.

At the top, we must create and support programs that educate people and businesses in Westport about the importance of being walkable and bikeable. We must build awareness, and get buy-in.

Take a look at some the resources available to inspire towns with low-cost, effective ways of implementing safer streets: SmartGrowthAmerica, Better Block, National Association of City Transportation Officials.

I was amazed by these. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes you need to see what is possible and already happening in order to be inspired.

Try to imagine Westport as livable, walkable, bikeable. What does it look and feel like to you?

bikers

For me, those words evoke a vibrant, active downtown, with everything accessible to everyone.

It’s a safe, visually appealing place — one where people feel connected to their community.

It’s a place where I can choose to be without my car for an entire day, whether I’m going downtown, to the train or the beach.

It’s a place that’s wonderful.

RTM Paves Way For Train Station Parking Plan

Construction begins next month on the renovation of Saugatuck train station parking lot #1.

The RTM voted last night 24-2 — with 3 abstentions — to approve the controversial $1.5 million plan.

There will be 2 exits, not 1 as in the original design. The one next to Luciano Park is larger too, with 1 entrance and 2 exit lanes.

Also included: new LED lights; another stairway; repaving; raising the lot out of the flood zone; trees; a sidewalk, and an improved streetscape.

Work is projected to be finished before Labor Day.

An aerial view of train station parking lot 1 (center).

An aerial view of train station parking lot 1 (center).

Bart Shuldman: Town Leaders’ Hard Work Controls Costs

Wherever they were last week, Westporters appreciated hearing that our mill rate will actually fall in the coming fiscal year.

Bart Shuldman was in China. On his flight home, he reflected on the news:

Westport taxpayers received good news regarding the mill rate for fiscal year 2016-2017. The Board of Finance approved a 6.8% decrease from the previous year, based on the growth of the Grand List and the good work by Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and the Board of Finance at controlling costs for the coming year.

In addition, Westport taxpayers will also pay less property tax on their cars. We should all thank Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance for their diligent work, as Westport is not like any other town in Connecticut. Many, if not all surrounding towns are experiencing either small or large mill rate increases.

Westport's 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westport’s 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westporters also learned additional good news: The town will continue to pay down debt, and also continue to pay the Actuarial Required Contribution for the town employee pension plan. I do not think most people know how important this piece of the news is to all of us.

Some background: Many years ago the town implemented 2 major employee benefit programs, a defined pension plan and something called OPEB (Other Post Employee Benefits). In addition, past town leaders borrowed a lot of money and accumulated a large amount of debt.

In 2011, after a very deep recession, Westport’s debt stood at over $156 million. Our pension liability was over $186 million, and the OPEB liability was more than $84 million.

Making matters worse, for years before 2011 Westport was not funding the Actuarial Required Contribution necessary to meet the pension obligations promised to town employees. Then the stock market went through the 2009 recession, causing pension assets to decline. Westport taxpayers were on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is NOT a photo of Westport's pension fund.

This is NOT a photo of Westport’s pension fund.

Fast forward to today. With the good work of Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance, the town is in much better financial shape.  While the pension obligation has grown to over $270 million, the pension is 85% funded.

As noted above, Westport is now paying the total Actuarial Required Contribution and also making up for past underpayments. Meanwhile, the town’s debt is down to $115 million.

What might surprise many residents is that debt service, employee pension and OPEB obligations are an enormous percentage of the budget. Principal and interest cost on the town’s debt is over $14 million. Pensions cost the town over $16 million, and it appears OPEB costs over $10 million each year. Therefore, almost 20% of the town’s budget goes to decisions made many years ago, and does not fund current town needs and potential projects.

Westport residents should thank our current town leaders for doing what is needed to control costs and manage the town’s obligations.

Saugatuck Bridge Historic, Rehabilitation Processes Move Forward

Westport’s Historic District Commission has voted unanimously to accept a report documenting the historical significance of the Bridge Street (aka William F. Cribari) swing bridge. The commission recommends designating it as a Local Historic District.

That starts the clock ticking on a series of actions: public hearings, state review and more. This happens at the same time as discussions on renovation, rehabilitation or replacement of the 1884 structure, believed to be the oldest active pin-connected swing truss highway bridge in the nation.

One of the most important upcoming events is Wednesday, June 15 (Town Hall auditorium). The Connecticut Department of Transportation holds a public meeting to discuss findings of its Rehabilitation Study Report. The formal presentation begins at 7 p.m., An open forum for individual discussion with DOT officials precedes it, at 6:30 p.m.

First Selectman Jim Marpe says the report will address questions related to the bridge’s structural and functional deficiencies, possible alternatives and costs.

(To read the full — and fascinating — historic district study report, click here. The complete DOT report will be available June 1 at www.ct.gov/dot/cribari-bridge. Copies will also be available at the June 15 Town Hall meeting.)

Westport artist Robert Lambdin's "Saugatuck in the 19th Century" (1969) prominently featured the swing bridge.

Westport artist Robert Lambdin’s “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” (1969) prominently featured the swing bridge.