Category Archives: Local politics

[OPINIONS] State Budget Woes Will Strike Westport Hard

Hartford often seems to be a lot more than 60 miles from Westport. This part of the state is New York-centric. We sometimes think our state capital is Albany.

But decisions made in Connecticut’s capital can have quite an impact on our lives here. With the state budget in free fall, that’s seldom been more true.

Alert “06880” writer Peter Flatow writes:

When people talk about the advantages of living in 06880, our schools and educational programs almost always top the list. Many people move to 06880 for the schools.  We did!

Among the many subjects Westport students study: robotics.

Among the many subjects Westport students study: robotics.

Having great schools requires adequate funding. In the past, both the state and federal (to a much less degree) governments have assisted in funding our school system, through grants and subsidies.

That appears to be changing — and not for the better. Reviewing the educational budget, Westport has over the last 5 years been doing more with less.

Now, with the state looking to eliminate over $1.5 million in grants to Westport, the situation will get tougher.

And while the federal government accounts for roughly 4% of Connecticut’s revenues for schools (8% nationally), who knows what pressures the new administration will put on the State and local school systems.

What does this mean for Westport? Is our biggest asset under attack? If so, what can or should we be doing now? Will local taxpayers just make up the difference?  Will programs be cut? If so, which ones? Will school athletics programs be eliminated? After school activities? Is there a silver lining? If towns don’t get state or federal funding, does that allow them to set their own education rules?

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is best to be proactive. We have an excellent Board of Education. It will be instructive to learn how they view these forces against our top town asset.

Peter Flatow worries about the state budget crisis impact on Westport's schools. Greens Farms Elementary is shown above.

Peter Flatow worries about the state budget crisis impact on Westport’s schools. Greens Farms Elementary is shown above.

Equally alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman worries about the cost in taxes — particularly to seniors. He writes:

Residents face the serious potential of higher property taxes, or cuts in service and funds to education, as Governor Malloy transfers some costs normally paid by the state down to Westport.

At the same time funds are cut, Governor Malloy is requiring Westport taxpayers to fund 1/3 of the teacher’s pension that was already paid by us, through state income tax dollars. State income taxes will most likely increase, as the governor tries to balance a $3 billion deficit over th next 2 years.

Shuldman’s figures show the loss of $465,334 in state education cost-sharing grants from the state; a loss of $646,975 to cover costs of educating severely disabled students, and a cost to Westport of $5,877,870 in 1/3 pension sharing for the fiscal year beginning July 1. He warns:

If you live elsewhere in Connecticut, a similar negative financial impact will happen to your town.

Sidewalks And Snow

Clearing sidewalks of snow is not just courtesy.

It’s the law.

Here’s what it says (thanks, RTM moderator Eileen Flug!):

“Sec. 50-407. – Business use sidewalks—Snow and ice removal.
The owner or person in possession and control of any property adjoining any business use sidewalk shall provide for the removal of snow and ice from such business use sidewalk within 24 hours after the deposit or formation of snow or ice.”

Here’s the definition of “business use sidewalk”:
“Business use sidewalk means any adjoining sidewalk abutting a public street located in any district in which business uses are permitted under the Planning and Zoning Regulations of the Town. The term “sidewalk” shall include curbing, integral, adjoining or detached, and that portion of the pedestrian walkway which crosses a driveway.”

Alert “06880” reader Molly Alger knows at least one property owner who has not complied:

snow-on-sidewalk-post-road

I wonder where that poor guy is going to go in a couple of yards.

 

Villa Del Sol Sequel: Land Swap Still Alive

This morning’s “06880,” on the travails of Villa Del Sol during the construction phase of Bedford Square, noted that “a proposed land swap — exchanging the restaurant and adjacent parking lot for a parcel across the street — has been scuttled.”

However, despite reports in local media, that land swap is still very much alive.

Second Selectman Avi Kaner said this afternoon that the town has continued negotiations with David Waldman, developer of Bedford Square. That retail/residential project — on the site of the former YMCA — stretches along Church Street, with an entrance on Elm Street.

Kaner says the town and Waldman are close to an agreement on a deal. Details are unavailable. However, the original plan would have traded 36 Elm Street — the site of Villa del Sol — for a section of the town-owned Baldwin parking lot across the street. Waldman hoped to build an 8,477-square foot building behind Lux Bond & Green, with small retail stores and 4 apartments.

Under the original plan the town would demolish the Villa del Sol building, creating additional parking, walkways and greenery.

A view looking south, with the Brooks Corner shopping center at bottom center.

A view of the original land swap looking south. Villa del Sol is the building outlined in yellow at the top. Brooks Corner shopping center is at bottom center. A new building would be built in the outlined lower yellow section.

Kaner presented a status report at a Board of Finance executive session last week, and solicited negotiating advice.

Based on that discussion, he says, it is likely that the Elm Street/Baldwin lot land exchange will be discussed and voted on in an open public session, at the finance board’s April meeting.

Any decision would be subject to approval by other town bodies. The Planning & Zoning Commission has already given the swap a positive 8-24 review.

In this artist's rendering, Here’s an artist’s rendering. The new parking lot (old 36 Elm Street) is at left; across Elm Street is the new building (white), with Serena & Lily next to it.

In this artist’s rendering, the new parking lot (old 36 Elm Street) is at left. Across Elm Street is the new building (white), with Serena & Lily next to it.

 

 

 

A Semi-Shoutout For Starbucks

Recently, Starbucks moved across the Post Road. It exchanged comfy, friendly digs with limited parking near the diner for cold, unfriendly digs with equally limited parking — but a drive-thru! — near Bank of America.

Fairly quickly, customers noticed that the coffee chain with the green logo was anything but environmentally green. The outside was a mess — though that’s been cleaned up a bit.

starbucks-garbage

The new Starbucks, a few days after opening.

Meanwhile, inside there was no way for customers to separate paper and plastic goods from everything else.

Robie Spector had spent years trying to get managers at the previous Starbucks location to recycle. Facing defensiveness and obfuscation, she stopped going there.

Robie gave the new place a try. She was distressed to see no recycling.

She tried again. Again, she got the same lack of answers and “a dash of odd vibe.”

She contacted Starbucks corporate. A district manager called back, blaming the landlord.

Robie contacted the first selectman’s office, who told her to call Public Works. They had good news: State law mandates that businesses recycle.

However, there are no inspectors. So companies do what they want, unchecked.

As they chatted, Robie and Scott Sullivan of Public Works realized that Panera by Home Goods does a great job of recycling. Robie set up a meeting with Sharon, the general manager, who was quite helpful. She emboldened Robie to keep pressing Starbucks’ district manager.

She did. Finally, Robie says, Starbucks is recycling.

starbucks-recycle

At least, it seems that way. Of course, it could all end up in the same place out back. (Thankfully though, that trash has been cleaned up.)

As Thomas Jefferson sort of said, eternal vigilance is the price of a grande iced sugar-free vanilla latte with soy milk.

Coming Round The Bend? High-Speed Rail Line May Slice Through Saugatuck

It pays to read what the government puts out.

Lawmakers are fond of sticking something on page 1218 of proposed bills that turn out to be a windfall for one constituent who runs a casino, owns a farm or wants to sell something in China.

Department officials, meanwhile, put out studies about future projects. Take this recent one from the Federal Railroad Administration, about high-speed transportation from Boston to Washington.

Speeds of 200 miles an hour sound great!

Of course, we’d need new rail lines.

Whoooosh!

Whoooosh!

According to “NEC Future” — NEC meaning Northeast Corridor — a new 2-track infrastructure would begin in New Rochelle. It would run through coastal Fairfield County.

And it would terminate in Westport, west of the Greens Farms station.

This “preferred alternative” would be constructed “parallel to I-95, typically on embankment or aerial structure.”

According to Matthew Mandell — RTM representative, Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce director and Slice of Saugatuck founder — “we could be talking about a train running right along 95, above and over Tarry Lodge, Tutti’s, the Duck and out over the river.”

Or, he says, “maybe a bit more north through who knows what.”

A map in the "NEC Future" report, showing a possible high-speed rail line route. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

A map in the “NEC Future” report, showing a possible high-speed rail line route. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

First Selectman Jim Marpe is on the case. He wrote a letter to the Railroad Administration, noting “extreme concern” — at minimum — in Westport about the possible route.

Marpe cited impacts on coastal resources, property owners and the Saugatuck neighborhood.

Mandell says, “While this may be decades away, so was 95 at some point — and look what it did.”

(Click here for the entire “NEC Future” report. For the appendix only — with maps — click here. Hat tip: Scott Smith)

Coyotes!

Alert, angry and saddened “06880” reader Peter Mackey writes:

The other day we said goodbye to our dear friend Murphy. We rescued our snaggle-toothed mixed breed dog a dozen years ago. He was a childhood companion to our kids, and the inseparable buddy of our other dog, Leilah.

Murphy did not die of old age. He died from a vicious, brutal attack by coyotes in our front yard, on Charcoal Hill Road.

It was a quiet Saturday evening. As usual, I let our dogs out at dusk, to do their final duties. But I’ll never forget that night.

Murphy

Murphy

Murphy had 27 puncture wounds, his muscles ripped from his spinal cord, and internal damage he would never recover from. I apologize for the graphic description, but it’s important we all are aware of how deadly these animals are.

As harrowing as that evening and the next day were, it’s the experience we had afterward that prompts this note. In the process of dealing with this, I’ve discovered that Westport is the only town in Connecticut that has an ordinance against trapping or killing wild animals on private property. Even predators as cruel and ferocious as coyotes.

Officer Gina Gambino of Westport Animal Control told us that Westport Code of Ordinance 10-1 and 10-2 forbid trapping or hunting  coyotes in this town. She said there is nothing that she or her department can do to protect our neighborhood from predators.

“I don’t make the laws. I just enforce them,” was the general response.

Coyotes are now at the top of the Westport food chain. Because surrounding towns allow trapping, they’re proliferating here.

All pets, and even small children are at risk. Murphy was a medium-sized dog weighing 40 pounds. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection warns owners of pets under 25 pounds to be aware of coyotes. That’s an outdated standard.

As our climate warms, coyotes who would normally be in their dens are roaming our yards, looking for food wherever they can find it. With their proliferation comes increased adaptation to human environments. The longer they’re here, the more comfortable they become.

The Mackey family (minus Peter) and their dogs.

The Mackey family (minus Peter) and their dogs.

I hope this letter increases awareness of this clear and present danger; opens dialogue between residents and the RTM about this ordinance, and encourages Westport Animal Control to take some responsibility for helping citizens deal with this issue, ordinance or no ordinance.

If you recently sighted a coyote on your property, report it to the police. Get your RTM members involved.

I can’t imagine I live in the only Connecticut town that places the safety of its predator population above its citizens and their pets.

Last night the coyotes were back in our yard, howling 10 feet outside our bedroom window. Fortunately, Leilah was inside.

I Am More Than …

For a few weeks now, the Westport Arts Center has been asking folks what they are “more than.”

Men, women and kids, old-timers and newcomers, well-known and unknown, politicians and business professionals, artists and athletes, religious figures and atheists — more than 500 people have responded.

They say: “I am more than … a housewife … my bank account … bi-polar … gay … Jewish … a twin … middle-aged … my pretty clothes … a mailman … a bald guy … an immigrant … a nun.”

They say it graphically: with words and photos.

i-am-more-than-1

The images — dramatic and strong — were taken by Xenia Gross.

i-am-more-than-2

Last night, the WAC hosted an opening reception for those dozens of “As We Are” portraits, and hundreds more cards. They’re part of a larger “MORE Than Words” exhibit — dedicated to artistic expressions of gender, racial, religious, geopolitical and age inequality, along with the impact of bullying.

Guests at last night's Westport Arts Center opening reception viewed dozens of "I am more than ..." posters.

Guests at last night’s Westport Arts Center opening reception viewed dozens of “I am more than …” posters.

A picture is indeed worth more than 1,000 words.

Or 7.

i-am-more-than-3

The Westport Arts Center is located at 51 Riverside Avenue. The exhibition continues through March 11. Click here for more information. NOTE: A supporting event — a SlamJam featuring dance, music, rap, poetry, spoken word and song, performed by teens with something to say about empathy — is set for tomorrow (Sunday, January 29, 5 pm) at the Westport Country Playhouse. Click here for more information on that event.

Cayla Yang Wears The Pantsuit

Donald Trump’s election took a lot of people by surprise. Many were “paralyzed or scared,” says Cayla Yang.

“I don’t do well with those emotions,” says the 2009 Staples High School graduate. “I’m not like, ‘woe is me.’ I’m more, ‘what can I do?'”

Cayla Yang

Cayla Yang

Cayla — a Staples field hockey player and yearbook editor who graduated from Northeastern University and now lives in Weston, while working as a consultant for a cloud computing company — always assumed that politicians would take care of her.

Now she’s not so sure.

But instead of paralysis, she chose action.

In the aftermath of Trump’s win, she reached out to Pantsuit Nation. The group of nearly 4 million (mostly) women had used Facebook to share stories of their support for Hillary Clinton. After her loss, it became a place to vent, express fears and frustrations, and find hope.

It also spun off local organizations, where (mostly) women began working together to do more than talk.

The Fairfield County group is called PSNCT — Pantsuit Nation without the actual name. And Cayla is one of its leaders.

“Telling stories is incredibly important. But this group is about advocacy,” Cayla says. “It’s about issues, concerns, and how to help.”

PSNCT has forged connections with politicians. A recent Town Hall meeting with Senator Chris Murphy in Bridgeport was “fantastic,” Cayla says.

Congressman Jim Himes came to an early PSNCT meeting. He discussed his priorities, and offered his assistance.

A photo posted to the PSNCT Facebook page shows a statue of PT Barnum in Bridgeport, "supporting" Saturday's women's march on Washington.

A photo posted to the PSNCT Facebook page shows a statue of PT Barnum in Bridgeport, “supporting” Saturday’s women’s march on Washington.

“We’ll do local fundraisers, and put our money where our mouth is,” Cayla promises.

“We recognize we have a privileged position here in Fairfield County. We want to use our influence to help people and organizations that don’t have our resources.”

Though Pantsuit Nation was created by Hillary Clinton supporters, Cayla says, “we shy away from labels. We want Republicans like Gail Lavielle and Toni Boucher” — state legislators representing this area — “to speak to us, and break down barriers.” Rep. Tony Hwang — a Republican state senator — attended Murphy’s Town Hall session.

As Inauguration Day looms, Cayla says PSNCT is focused on the days after.

“We’re looking to do good, and do it well,” she says.

(Click here for the PSNCT Facebook page. Hat tip: Julia McNamee)

Disabilities Commission: It’s Way More Than Ramps

The Americans With Disabilities Act — signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 — had many consequences.

Some were intended. Others were not.

It opened employment and educational opportunities for tens of millions of Americans with physical and emotional issues. Curb cuts and other design changes now benefit pregnant mothers, parents with youngsters and the elderly.

The ADA also impelled the state of Connecticut to create grants, allowing towns to fund initiatives studying the best ways to promote inclusion for people with disabilities.

In 2006, Westport and Wilton formed a task force. One recommendation was followed: Today our town has a designated official for disability issues (Sarah Heath, in Human Services).

One recommendation was not followed: the creation of a permanent commission.

Until now.

Jim Ross

Jim Ross

Earlier this month, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced appointments to Westport’s new Commission on People With Disabilities, which the RTM approved in July. Members include Marina Derman, Diane Johnson, Stacie Curran, LuAnn Giunta, Tom Holleman and Evan Levinson.

The chair is Jim Ross. A successful businessman, he’s also the former head of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee.

Ross is legally blind, and the father of 2 special needs children. “I live this every day,” he notes.

He became a voice for the disabled community in 2012, when  he helped pass legislation giving students access to epilepsy medicine when a school nurse is not present.

Along the way, he  met Human Services director Barbara Butler, who told Ross that the proposal for a town commission had never been implemented.

Ross went to work. Now — with Marpe’s help, and broad public support — it’s a reality.

Westport's former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

Westport’s former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

There’s a reason so many Westporters support the new commission. Twenty percent of the town’s population is directly affected by their own or a family member’s physical or intellectual disability. In a community like ours, that means all of us have neighbors, friends and fellow members of civic groups and congregations with disabilities.

“This is an exceptionally humbling opportunity,” Ross says of his post. “It’s a chance to take the ADA — a magnificent civil rights initiative — to the local  level.”

He notes that Westport — a “very socially aware town” — has already done good things. There are ramps everywhere. Compo Beach has a sand wheelchair. The Levitt Pavilion is quite accessible.

But, he adds, “this is about a lot more than ramps. It’s a 2-way conversation between people with disabilities, and the community as a whole. It’s a chance for businesses, organizations, the town and people to have a dialogue to create avenues, paths and bridges for everyone to come together.”

In many ways, Ross says, “people with disabilities are heroes. We can learn a lot about ourselves by including them, and letting them contribute to a more vigorous, dynamic environment. This is not about clubbing people over the head. It’s about everyone working together.”

Beach wheelchair sign

He mentions education, housing, transportation, recreation, employment, the arts and emergency preparedness as areas in which discussions involving people with disabilities can lead to “logistical and tactical benefits” for all Westporters.

He’s eager to get started. Ross calls the 7-member commission “a dynamite group. Everyone has a different area of expertise.”

The Commission on People With Disabilities will meet publicly the 3rd Thursday of every month. The 1st session is Thursday, January 19 (8:30 a.m.), at Town Hall.

Of course, it’s handicap accessible.

Coalition For Westport: Study Saugatuck Carefully!

Recently, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe appointed a Saugatuck Transit Oriented Development Steering Committee. The group is charged with developing a master plan for that ever-changing retail/restaurant/residential area.

The Coalition for Westport — a non-partisan group originally formed to seek election to the Planning & Zoning Commission — commended Marpe for establishing the committee, then sent this note to co-chair Mary Young:

The time is right for the Saugatuck area to be carefully studied. It is attractive to residents, visitors and developers for a variety of reasons: It is the historical root of Westport; it provides attractive access to the river; it is a destination for foodies and perhaps most importantly, it is a primary transit hub.

What is more, many of the buildings in the area defined as Saugatuck in the Town Plan of Conservation and Development retain features of their original design and construction, despite having been repurposed.

In the 1920s, Esposito's gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it's Tarry Lodge.

In the 1920s, Esposito’s gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge.

The challenge for land use agencies and planners is a classic balancing act: What shall be saved and what replaced? Do we envision the area as a 2nd downtown? Or, as seems lost likely and most prudent, do we encourage/require a mix of controlled residential (including multi-family and affordable housing within walking distance to the train station) and commercial development which respects the scale and character of the neighborhood?

The Coalition believes that Saugatuck should retain its historical heritage and small town character. Therefore we support an expanded and enhanced neighborhood concept rather than the idea of a 2nd downtown. We come down squarely in favor of a mixed-use plan favoring residential expansion and enhanced essential services — local businesses, to cater to the requirements of the residential population that will need a pharmacy, hardware store, market and other essential services not now present in the area, which can be provided in a “mom and pop” form without competing with Main Street retail. We also foresee new retail and dining services that would attract additional visitors.

One area that can and should be developed for those types of commercial uses is Railroad Place. This can be done without sacrificing the architectural features or facades at the easterly end of the street which are deemed worth preserving. A drop-off lane could also be created for the station.

The Coalition recommends that the remainder of the square block (with the possible exception of the office building) be devoted to a mix of housing types — 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments and townhouses, both rental and condos — with adequate parking and passive open space. An appropriate percentage should be truly affordable.

Land Tech has already developed plans for a mixed-use development at a new Railroad Place. Mario's is, of course, now Harvest restaurant.

LandTech has already developed plans for a mixed-use development at a new Railroad Place. Mario’s is, of course, now Harvest restaurant.

To address the ever-present need for additional railroad parking, we urge adoption of a “Transit District” zoning regulation that provides an incentive to private developers to create parking to be administered by the town, in exchange for increased (but controlled) development density calculated in accordance with a regulatory formula.

Saugatuck residents will need relief from additional vehicular traffic. Therefore both additional visitor and commuter parking should be created — most efficiently at, above or below grade in the ordinary course of construction.

The Coalition would also support traffic flow rerouting plans that would alleviate congestion without any major construction or disruption for residents.

We encourage the new Saugatuck Steering Committee and P&Z to adopt a plan that implements these thoughts, and to coordinate efforts to arrive at a consensus to be formalized in the 2017 Town Plan of Conservation and Development.