Category Archives: Local politics

Digging The New South Beach Bathrooms

Work began yesterday on the new bathrooms at Compo Beach. They’ll be adjacent to the pickleball courts, between South Beach and the Ned Dimes Marina.

The view from the beach… (Photo/Matt Murray)

… and from the pickleball courts. (Photo/Tammy Barry)

There is no estimated date yet for completion.

Senior Center: An “Old” Home Is Now Very New

Martha Aasen remembers when Westport’s Senior Center was part of Staples High School.

Two small rooms were hidden between the fieldhouse and wood shop. It was open just a few hours a day. Lunch came from the school cafeteria.

In 2003, a new Senior Center opened on Imperial Avenue. It was a spectacular improvement.

Bright and airy, it was filled with rooms for meetings, lectures, fitness and films. There was a library and dining room too. Seniors flocked there for events, classes and camaraderie.

That was 15 years ago. When First Selectman Jim Marpe cuts a ribbon tomorrow (Friday, January 4, 11 a.m.), Westporters of all ages will marvel at the first major enhancement of the Senior Center since it opened.

The 9-month project comes in on schedule — and on budget. The town appropriated $3.975 million. Friends of the Senior Center raised $300,000 for equipment and amenities.

(Clockwise from lower left): Martha Aasen, Leslie Wolf, Stan Nayer and Sue Pfister in the lobby of the newly modernized Senior Center.

Last week, Senior Center director Sue Pfister, Friends president Leslie Wolf, and Aasen — now in her 90s, and as passionate about the Center as ever — offered a tour of the new facility. It blends seamlessly with the original.

The 5,000-square foot new wing includes:

  • A new fitness center, with modern treadmills and machines
  • A strength classroom, also used for tap dancing and Zumba
  • A new library, with a computer and magnifiers
  • A drop-in game room
  • All new furniture and carpeting
  • New display cases for artwork
  • Outdoor access to the adjacent Baron’s South meadow, for tai chi and meditation
  • Offices for program manager Holly Betts, and interns
  • New restrooms with showers (for when the Senior Center is used as an emergency shelter).

Martha Aasen on the new treadmill. Doors open onto the Baron’s South park.

Other parts of the Senior Center have been modernized too. There are new floors, chairs and tabletops in the “Sue’s Cafe” dining room (where “grab-and-go” food will soon be available); a new wood floor next door, for dance classes; a second art room, and a handsome new custom desk in the entry foyer.

“It’s even better than we envisioned,” says Aasen — who was closely involved in the project — proudly.

“We’ve had so many meetings, and we saw all the plans. But when you actually see it finished, it’s unbelievable.”

“Stunning!” adds Pfister.

New windows provide the same airy look as the original wing of the Senior Center.

The Senior Center director credits the project’s smooth completion to “tremendous cooperation” from local officials. The Building Department’s Steve Smith, the Department of Public Works, and Parks & Recreation director Jen Fava were all all-in.

Architect Brian Scheuzger designed the original building too. A.P. Construction — which is also handling the Westport Library’s Transformation Project — did all the work.

The Senior Center attracts a wide range of people, Pfister notes: Those who are very active; those looking for quiet activities; those who want to meet old friends, and those seeking companionship.

It’s a welcoming facility for some, a second home for others.

Now — for all of them — Westport’s Senior Center is better than ever.

Workers were still finishing up — and unloading furniture — last week.

Plastic Fantastic Concert

From a young age, Andrew Colabella hated plastic straws. He couldn’t understand how something that was used for just a few seconds could be so quickly tossed aside, then lie around on land or in our oceans for centuries.

He never used a straw. As much as possible, he tried to avoid all forms of plastic. He used metal forks and ate off porcelain plates. But we live in a plastic, throwaway society. The number of plastic cups used and discarded at bars floored him. He thought he was the only one who noticed.

Colabella is now an RTM member. At last he can do something about plastic that goes beyond changing his own habits.

The District 4 representative has already convinced 38 local restaurants and franchises to find biodegradable alternatives to single-uise products.

Now he’s introduced an ordinance to ban plastic straws in Westport. (There are exemptions for disabled people, who need them because other alternatives are not strong enough.) The proposal is making its way through the RTM Environment Committee.

But this is not some quixotic quest. Colabella has partnered with 4 other longtime Westporters, in what they call the Plastic Pollution Project.

Wendy Goldwyn Batteau was inspired by her first boss — the editor of Silent Spring — to co-found Sierra Club Books. She’s worked for decades as an award-winning editor/executive at major publishers, collaborating with Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Audubon and the Ocean Alliance.

Liz Milwe — in “real life,” a choreographer and dance filmmaker — has a long history of environmental activism. Ten years ago as an RTM member, she helped Westport become the first town east of the Mississippi to ban plastic bags. She’s won awards from the US Environmental Agency and Westport’s Green Task Force.

Ashley Moran is a Saugatuck Elementary School teacher. A founding member of Nurturing Minds in Africa — a non-profit helping educate poor and at-risk girls in Tanzania — she believe that education leads to meaningful change.

Greg Naughton — a filmmaker and producer — grew up in Westport and Weston, in a family of performers. His 9-year-old son is in Moran’s class. Excited by what he learned about plastic straws, composting and the environment, the boy got his dad involved in the cause.

Naughton is also a founding member of the Sweet Remains. The indie folk-rock band has over 35 million Spotify streams.

Which is why and how the Sweet Remains are playing a benefit concert, to raise funds for the Plastic Pollution Project.

The event is Friday, January 4 (Fairfield Theatre Company, 7 p.m.). It starts with a reception in the lobby/art gallery, featuring presentations about plastic problems from P3 members, Westport students and others. The Sweet Remains and P3 founders will be on hand to chat.

It should be a “sweet” concert. And one that helps ensure — in a small but meaningful way — that plastic no longer “remains” on our land and in our seas, centuries after all the rest of us are gone.

(For tickets and more information on the concert, click here.) 

Remembering Ann Gill

As Westport boomed in the 1950s, families flocked to new homes on new streets carved out of thick woods and empty meadows.

The Gill family was one of the first on High Point Road, off Long Lots. Staples High School was rising, just to the west. The street was filled with kids, riding bikes, playing kickball, and going to nearby Long Lots Junior High and Burr Farms Elementary.

The dads commuted to New York. The moms threw themselves into volunteer work.

Ann Gill was particularly active. A 1951 University of Connecticut graduate with a degree in horticulture, she served on PTAs, and with Girl Scouts and the League of Women Voters.

Ann Gill

She spent 8 years on the Planning & Zoning Commission — 2 as chair — and was the Conservation Commission’s hearing officer. She also was treasurer and a director of the Westport Library Riverwalk, and was active in town Republican groups and committees.

Like many women of her time, Ann also joined the workforce. She earned a teaching degree from Western Connecticut State University, and taught 5th grade in Trumbull for 7 years.

Ann was married for 63 years to Ed Gill. She took great pride in her home, her plants and flowers. As High Point Road changed — with  longtime families moving away, new families replacing them, and 1950s-era homes torn down for bigger 2010s ones — the Gills remained. After Ed died, she stayed — the last remaining link to an original family.

Ann Gill died earlier this month — in her beloved home.

Donations in her name may be made to the Ann Collins Gill Fund (#31170), in support of plant science at the University of Connecticut: UConn Foundation, 2390 Alumni Drive, Unit 3206, Storrs, CT 06269.

Board Of Ed: 6th Graders Will Attend Elementary Schools

For the past 3 months, Westport educators and town officials have wrestled with the closing of Coleytown Middle School, due to mold.

Last night, the Board of Education released this statement:

The Board of Education thanks everyone who came out to our board meeting on Monday night. We appreciate all of the comments that were shared on behalf of parents, students, teachers and members of our Westport school community. As a board, we truly appreciate the passion that we all have for educational excellence in our town.

We also appreciate the words of our first selectman, Jim Marpe, who made it quite clear that he and his administration are behind us all the way, supporting the Board’s decision, as well as supporting us in our long-term plans moving forward. We are fortunate to have such great support.

As a result of all the input the Board has received, including listening to those in attendance on Monday night, the input of our Community Advisory Committee, numerous public sessions and substantial email messages and conversations and the recommendation of the Dr. Palmer, superintendent of schools, the Board of Education deliberated and voted to have all 6th grade students attend school in Westport’s current elementary schools commencing with the 2019-20 academic year.

Long Lots is one of Westport’s 5 elementary schools. It opened in the mid-1950s as a junior high,

With this decision, we as a town are working to ensure a smooth transition for our teachers, administrators and, most importantly, our students.

The Board of Education also voted to form the “CMS Task Force” to explore options for returning Coleytown Middle School to service and to make recommendations to the Board of Education. The Board of Education will name the members of this task force in early January.

The Board of Education additionally affirmed its commitment to completing an academic and facility vision by the end of September 2019.  This will be called the NextGenEd initiative and will start in January, 2019.

With these actions, the gears are in motion for Westport to continue to provide the high level of academic excellence now and for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Palmer will be following up with additional information regarding some of the details of the next steps.

The Board of Education thanks our fellow community members, the employees of our schools and town for their continued, valuable support and ideas.  Westport is a town that places great value on the education of each and every child in our community and that is our focus as we move forward.

Regards,
Mark Mathias, Chair
Jeannie Smith, Vice Chair
Elaine Whitney, Secretary
Karen Kleine
Vik Muktavaram
Candice Savin
Neil Phillips

Protesters Face PURA At Water Tower Site Visit

You’ve seen the yard signs up and down North Avenue.

On Thursday, members of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority did too.

They came to Westport last week, on a site visit to the proposed location of 2 concrete water towers. Aquarion hopes to build them — as replacements and improvements on the one current, much smaller facility — directly opposite Staples High School.

Jennifer Johnson joined several other opponents at the regulators’ site visit.

She was not impressed.

PURA members and protesters at the Aquarion North Avenue water tower site visit on Thursday.

“Aquarion didn’t mark out the rough location of the proposed tanks, or mark the trees that are coming down, and/or float a balloon so people could visualize the tanks’ height (squished into a small site),” she says. “Isn’t that the point of a site inspection?

Johnson reports that a few non-Aquarion attendees tried to mark the location of one of the new tanks by standing in the woods at the proposed center, then walking 50 feet in each direction. “It was only partly successful,” she says.

Johnson and her group hoped to convey some of their opposite to the PURA members. They printed out their main objections, part of a fact sheet originally compiled by Save Westport Now:

●  As currently planned, the new tank will not solve the water pressure problems in Westport. Even if the new tanks are built, the majority of fire hydrants in town will still be deficient.

●  The new tanks will allow Aquarion to “push” more water to other parts of Fairfield County, begging the question: Can’t they find another site for the second tank, in a less residential area?

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

●  During the proposed 2-plus-year construction period, trucks and industrial excavators will clog North Avenue and streets around Staples. Combined with traffic from Bedford Middle School and the loss of the sidewalk, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Yet Aquarion remains delinquent in providing a basic construction plan.

●  The real problem is not just the size of the tanks, but the obsolete and undersized water mains that run beneath our roads.

●  To make matters worse, the new tanks are likely to create bigger problems. The large increase in water capacity can lead to stale water.

●  Aquarion has finally acknowledged the problem with the water mains, and agreed to minor upgrades. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. (Aquarion is a for-profit monopoly. Its interest in rewarding shareholders does not necessarily align with residents’ or customers’ interests.)

●  Westport could wind up with 2 extremely ugly tanks, more expensive water—and still have a water pressure problem.

A photo shows the height of the proposed new water tanks.

Opponents ask PURA to require a “full independent review and comprehensive plan for upgrading Westport’s water infrastructure.”

They also want Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission to have the authority to revoke the permit for this project. That way, they say, “Westport and Aquarion can move forward with a workable plan for rebuilding our water infrastructure for the next century.”

Several town officials, including the fire chief, have testified that the towers are necessary for safety.

PURA will hold a public hearing on Thursday, December 20 (9:30 a.m., 10 Franklin Square, New Britain), to consider Aquarion’s proposed towers.

Maria Maisonet’s Beach Bathroom Story

During The Great Compo Beach Bathroom Debate, we’ve heard from taxpayers, pickleball players, politicians, and just about everyone else in town.

Now a very articulate Staples High School senior weighs in. Maria Maisonet grew up in Westport. She works on the “Good Morning Staples” TV show, and for Cablevision’s public access division. Next fall she heads to the University of New Haven, to study communications and film. 

Maria also happens also to use a wheelchair.

She is a paid contributor to The Odyssey and The Patriot, 2 thriving online communities. Westport’s contentious brouhaha impelled her to write a piece, which has already been read by thousands.

Maria Maisonet

Maria wrote about how hard it is just to find a handicap-accessible bathroom.  So she created a video, which she believes helped sway some RTM members.

But not everyone was convinced. Her Odyssey piece mentions the back-and-forth comments, including a particularly hurtful one: that building this is “flushing  money down the toilet.”

“The sheer unbridled joy that filled me when I received word the proposal was approved during the wee hours of the morning at a 26-8 vote is the sad reality for people who live in a world built to exclude them,” Maria concludes.

Beach Bathroom Debate Takes A Detour

When opponents of the new Compo Beach bathroom failed to gather enough signatures to force a town referendum, construction near the pickleball courts seemed assured.

But last night’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting took an unexpected twist.

Commissioner Chip Stephens began by noting that earlier in the day he was at South Beach. Construction has started on a walkway near the boat storage area — in the shortcut by the road that loops near the kayak launch.

Last spring the P&Z approved the walkway, on the south side of the shortcut. But the contractors are working on the north side. They were given plans showing the walkway should go on the north.

Walkway construction at South Beach. (Photo/Matt Murray)

Stephens called it a “trivial” mistake. Things like that happen, he said. And often, the P&Z says (in effect) no big deal. Let’s move on.

Stephens’ point was that the petitioners’ push to move the bathroom away from the pickleball courts is also “trivial.” He asked for a sense of the meeting saying (in effect) that if the Parks & Recreation Department decides now to move the bathroom, the P&Z will be flexible. There would be no need for months of deliberation, Stephens said.

His recommendation was not an official agenda item. No action was taken.

But one thing is certain: This post will get another 50 comments, as if it’s the most important issue facing the town.

Electric Car Dealer May Still Move Into Dragone

Yesterday, “06880” reported that Carvana — the online used car dealer — is moving into the space vacated last spring by Dragone Classic Motorworks.

Though the Planning & Zoning Commission recently passed a text amendment allowing an electric car dealership on the property — provided it remediated all the oil, chemicals and other contaminants there — Carvana would not have to do that. As a non-electric car dealer, the text amendment does not apply.

However, Carvana is only a temporary tenant.

According to a letter sent by David Ross of 176 PRW LLC — the owner of the 176 Post Road West property, diagonally across from Kings Highway Elementary School — to Mary Young, P&Z director, he and his company are “strong advocates” for electric vehicles.

In fact, he says, he’s been involved in their development since 2005. In 2013 he bought an EV, joined the Westport Electric Car Club, and began working to bring an EV facility to Westport. That’s when he first eyed the Dragone site.

“We acquired the property and the lease at 176 with the sole purpose of bringing an EVAD (electric vehicle auto dealership) to Westport,” he writes.

“We believe it would be great for Westport and help the other properties on Post Road West flourish.”

However, he adds, “there are a lot of moving parts in this process, and we are just clearing one hurdle at a time. The EVAD would not commit until we had a site. Thus we took a big risk and purchased the site. We now need zoning approval so our chances to get the EV company can increase significantly.”

Some factors, Ross says, “are beyond our control. The EV company has corporate and legislative hurdles they are working hard to clear. But without the approvals our chances drop to zero.”

The former Dragone property, and its neighbor, on Post Road West.

Ross says that Carvana would be a short-term tenant. 176 PRW is making a business decision “to cover costs, while the EV company works out their challenges.”

Ross has hired a development team to work on the long-term plan, with a “major EV company.”

So there may well be an electric car dealer on Post Road West.

And — according to the P&Z text amendment approved earlier this month — they would clean up the site, contaminated by years of use by regular ol’ gas-powered car dealers.

Beach Bathroom Foes Gather Signatures

Parents with young kids want it. People with disabilities do too.

A few hundred Westporters don’t.

Earlier this month, the RTM approved $840,000 to construct a bathroom at Compo Beach’s South Beach. The vote was 26-8.

But the site — near the current pickleball courts — did not sit well with a number of avid players. They believe the facility — which would replace the port-a-potties there now — will ruin the view of the beach. It could also impede construction of more courts in the future.

Compo Beach pickleball. Existing bathrooms are far in the background.

Opponents hope for a townwide referendum. They’ve gathered over 600 signatures on a petition. Yet they face a tight deadline — 4:30 p.m. tonight — to find over 1,000 more. The town charter provides for a vote if 10% of all registered voters request one.

Bathroom foe Alan Schur believes many Westporters are unaware of the proposed bathrooms; that they oppose the cost, and that — despite 15 public meetings — they wanted more transparency in the process.

Parks & Recreation Commission chair Charlie Haberstroh says that the bathroom will “help everyone experience South Beach. There is a significant lack of facilities there. The port-o-potties are sub-optimal.”

Haberstroh notes that the entire beach is in a 100-year floodplain. Town and federal regulations require any new building to be waterproofed. That requires an 11-foot foundation.

Compo Beach is many things, to many people. Right now, the only permanent bathrooms are on the main beach, and at Ned Dimes Marina. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

Moving the site would add another $60,000 just for studies, he says. Servicing the debt for the $840,000 capital expenditure will cost $5 a year for each beach sticker holder.

The proposal went through many town bodies, Haberstroh adds. Besides the strong RTM vote, the Board of Finance approved it 6-1.

“We have smart, responsible people in government who have asked lots of questions,” he says. “They’ve studied this for a long time.”

Referring to both the approval process and the referendum petition, Haberstroh says, “This is democracy. I’m 150% for it. But it’s been a long, difficult road.”