Category Archives: Local politics

“Asphalt Is Asphalt. Snow Is Snow.” Steve Edwards Has Seen It All.

There are 2 things Steve Edwards dislikes: snowstorms, and talking to the media.

Last week — on the eve of the winter’s first snow — he sat down with “06880.”

But it could be the last time for both events. Westport’s public works director retires December 31. He’s spent 32 years in the department — 25 in charge — and is leaving just as he came in: low-key, steady, ready to tackle any problem, fully committed to his job and town.

Edwards calls himself “a farm boy from Easton.” After Joel Barlow High School he double majored in biology and chemistry at Bethany College — with a minor in physics.

He headed to the University of  Connecticut for grad school. Edwards planned on being a researcher. But he realized he liked “actually getting things done.” His early jobs as an engineering consultant involved site work for power plants, with an emphasis on lessening environmental impacts.

He traveled constantly. When a public works job in Westport opened up, he knew his background fit well.

Edwards joined the department in 1985, as Jerry Smith’s deputy. Five years later, he succeeded Smith.

In 1985, Edwards recalls, public works was “the wild west. There were not a lot of controls in place.” It was an old boys’ network.

Now, every employee needs a commercial drivers’ license. Standards are high. Locators on each truck record the speed, and tell where it is.

“When I got here, you sent a guy out to plow and couldn’t find him for 6  hours,” Edwards says.

Westport’s Public Works guys, in action a few years ago. (Photo/Luke Hammerman for Inklings)

“In this town, everyone’s looking at you. People take us to task if we don’t do our job. And they should.”

He praises his highway, building maintenance and sewer treatment supervisors. They help him lead his 55-person department.

Another change involves meetings. In the beginning, Edwards went to one night session a week. Now there are three.

“Back then we’d go to the Board of Finance for money, then to the RTM to okay it. Now there are grant meetings, informational meetings, charettes.

“Westport has a very educated population. They all want their opinions heard. Employees sift through a lot of information. It takes time to listen to everyone.”

That’s true across town government. “Poor Jen (Fava),” he says. “She’s got even more: Boating Friends, Tennis Friends, Golf Friends. I don’t have any friends.”

But in other ways, his job has not changed.

“Asphalt is asphalt. Snow is snow,” Edwards notes.

“Most everything people take for granted comes through us: town roads, and dead squirrels on them. The transfer station. Sewers and clogged drains. Snow removal. Beach repairs. You name it, we do it.”

When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.

Sometimes, Westporters expect public works to do everything. “A lot of people now come from New York. They’re used to concierges,” Edwards says.

“We’re their concierge. They don’t know who to call, so they call our department.” Sometimes he must explain that a road belongs to the state — not the town.

Edwards does what he can. Edwards gets great satisfaction from helping those who can’t fend for themselves. He has less patience with people who call in the middle of the storm “from an 8,000-square foot house with a generator, but they can’t get their favorite cable channel.”

Edwards has worked for 7 first selectmen. They’re all different, he says. But all recognize that Westport’s department heads are professionals. And “all of them realize that a lot goes on in public works.

“Quality of life comes through here,” Edwards adds. “We should be like a good referee: No one knows we’re there. If I’m in the press, it’s usually because I’ve done something wrong. I want to stay under the radar.”

Sometimes that’s hard. Six months after coming to Westport, Hurricane Gloria hit. His boss Jerry Smith was on leave, after a heart attack.

“I was wet behind the ears,” Edwards admits. “I had my hands full. Back then it was every man for himself.”

These days, he says, “the town is much better prepared. There’s so much more training and support.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Public Works took care of a section of boardwalk that ended up far from home. In emergencies they coordinate with other departments to keep Westport safe.

During Hurricane Sandy, he notes, “the amount of interdepartmental and inter-municipal coordination was phenomenal.” Public works, police, fire — even human services — all work together.

Edwards is retiring while he still feels good.

His wife wants to travel. “But I’m a homebody,” he says. “I’ve got my dog and my bike. I can hike. I’m happy.”

He’ll miss the people he’s worked with. Every employee now is someone he’s hired.

Edwards will stay on as a contract employee, consulting on projects like the pump station underneath the Saugatuck River. He started it, and wants to see it finished.

Next month, town engineer Pete Ratkiewich takes over. He knows the ropes: He’s been a town employee for 26 years.

Still, I asked: Does Edwards have any advice for his successor?

“You can’t take anything personally. We’re all professionals,” he said.

“We make recommendations. But at times things are way beyond our control.”

One example: during tight economic times, Edwards’ paving budget was once cut by $1 million.

“I went home, and I went to bed. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

He found a way to pave the roads.

And — a few months later — to plow them.

That’s what he’s done for 32 years. Thanks, Steve, for doing it very, very well.

Aquarion Douses Daily Watering

It was a weird time for Aquarion’s announcement: a rainy day, a week or so before winter begins.

But the water company chose today to say that due to an “ongoing precipitation deficit,” it will introduce permanent 2-day-a-week water limits on in-ground irrigation systems and above-ground sprinklers.

The program will take effect “during the 2018 watering season.” Residents may continue to use drip irrigation, soaker hoses and hand-held watering devices at any time.

Aquarion will also ask golf courses to reduce water use by 10%.

The Westport restriction is similar to those in place in Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich and Stamford for the past 18 months.

Aquarion says that the 4 other localities where restrictions are in place have already saved 860 million gallons of water. The company adds that lawns and gardens thrive on reduced watering. Roots grow deeper into the soil, absorbing more moisture and nutrients — even during dry spells.

Beginning next month, Aquarion will conduct public presentations in Westport to provide the rationale and expected benefits, and describe the actual process.

Westport’s water consumption is “well above average,” Aquarion officials say.

The restrictions come as some North Avenue residents oppose the utility’s proposed new water tanks across from Staples High School.

First selectman Jim Marpe says:

Aquarion must be clear on its agenda for Westport. I know that Westport residents will be willing to do their part to conserve water if our local supply is truly vulnerable. However, if we are looking at 2 new water tanks that take into account an increase in water usage, Aquarion must be forthcoming with its calculations. We need to understand the relationship between having another public utility structure in town with the requirement to reduce water utilization.

 

The irrigation schedule will be based on the last digit of street addresses. Even- numbered homes — and those with no number — can water on Sundays and Wednesdays; those with odd numbers can water on Saturdays and Tuesdays. All watering is restricted to before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.

Variances are available in certain circumstances — for example, if new plantings or sod have been installed.

For more information — including how to landscape and garden with less water — click here.

Balloons show the height of Aquarion’s proposed water tank on North Avenue.

Next New Mixed-Use Development? The Empty Lot Off Long Lots.

Come for the Daybreak application. Stay for another one that’s flown way under the radar.

Thursday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting (Town Hall, auditorium, 7 p.m.) was already expected to draw a crowd. The first item is 500 Main Street — the old Daybreak Nursery site. Able Construction is proposing to build 12 age-restricted, 2-bedroom houses. As seen from the comments on yesterday’s “06880” story, there are strong feelings for and against.

The 2nd item has drawn less attention. “DMC Westport” wants to develop 793 Post Road East/5 Long Lots Road.

That’s the empty lot between Westport Wash & Wax and Ruta Court, opposite the old Bertucci’s.

The proposed development would be built at 793 Post Road East (shown here) …

Like the Daybreak area, this is a neighborhood with lots of traffic. Every morning, a line of cars — coming from drop-offs at Staples, Bedford and Long Lots schools, plus folks commuting into town — backs up on Long Lots Road.

Like Daybreak too, the Post Road/Long Lots property may have soil issues from previous owners (a landscaping company and gas station, respectively).

… and extends to 5 Long Lots Road (above).

But while Daybreak neighbors are concerned about 12 homes, those on Ruta Court and Long Lots have bigger issues.

Literally.

DMC Westport is proposing 2 mixed-use buildings — 3 stories, 10,000 square feet each. Retail and offices would occupy the first floor; residences would be above.

Plus 4 more 3-story buildings, at the rear of the property. Two would include 4 townhouses each; 3 would have 3 townhouses apiece.

There would be room too for 93 parking spaces.

If you’re going to Town Hall on Thursday, get ready for a long night.

A site plan for 793 Post Road East/5 Long Lots Road. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

 

Daybreak Development Dawns

When Daybreak was thriving, up to 800 vehicles a day pulled into and out of the small parking lot. The business included a nursery, florist shop and landscaping operation.

Daybreak closed in 2014. The buildings were demolished last spring.

The Daybreak property, after the nursery and landscaping business closed.

New owners hope to build 12 housing units — age-restricted, generating minimal traffic — on the 2 1/4-acre site. They’ve spoken with town officials, and adapted their plans several times to meet traffic and other concerns.

Still — on the eve of Thursday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting — opposition remains.

The owner is Able Construction. During the past 25 years, the firm has built over 80 houses in town. Some are new; others are historical renovations, like 268 Wilton Road. They’re also redoing the old Three Bears restaurant — now Chabad — on Newtown Turnpike.

Able Construction owner Peter Greenberg (right) and partner Johnny Schwartz.

Able bought the Daybreak property at a foreclosure auction. At the time, owner Peter Greenberg admits, he had no clear plan for the land.

He could have built 4 gigantic homes on the 1/2-acre-zoning land. Or he could have put a grandfathered business — like a nursery or landscaping company — there.

“There” is important. The property fronts Main Street, near the heavily trafficked, highly visible and bizarrely complicated intersection with Weston and Easton Roads.

The area — including the now-vacant Daybreak site — is an important gateway to Westport. It’s a first impression for anyone arriving from the Merritt Parkway, and an early look for drivers from Weston and Easton.

Originally, Greenberg and Able partner Johnny Schwartz talked with town officials about putting a coffee shop or service station there. They also considered mixed-use — perhaps retail, with apartments or multi-family housing on a 2nd floor or behind.

The last of Daybreak Nursery was carted away in March.

The property is not served by a sewer. Greenberg asked if Able could pay to extend outside the blue line. The town said no.

Planning and Zoning members were interested in the possibility of smaller homes. But no town regulations encouraged developers to build such cluster-type housing.

Able proposed creating an overlay zone. Current zoning permitted 4 houses. Typically, Greenberg says, they’d be 5,000 square feet each, with 6 bedrooms.

Instead, his firm designed 8 2-bedroom homes, of 3,000 square feet. The total number of bedrooms was the same — 24 — but, Greenberg says, 2-bedroom homes would not typically sell to couples with children.

No kids means fewer in-and-out vehicle trips. No stop-and-start bus stops. And no additional children entering the school system, at a cost of nearly $20,000 a year.

The P&Z balked. 3,000 square feet was not small enough. The national average is 1,600 square feet. (Of course as Greenberg notes, “Westport is not average.”)

Able went back to the commission. Architect Bill McGuiness — who designed the Kensett community in Darien — envisioned 12 2-bedroom homes, averaging 2,000 square feet. None would be more than 2,400.

Designed for an older population, the homes included elevator shafts. Most of the living would be on the 1st floor, with sloped roofs and virtually no attics. Five duplexes would share a common wall. Two would be single-family units.

Front and rear views of an attached duplex.

P&Z liked the idea. But they asked Able to include an affordable or age-restricted component

Able proposed that 7 of the 12 units be limited to buyers 55 and older. (Greenberg says he’s willing to make it 100% age-restricted, if needed.)

The “smaller home development” text amendment was accepted. Public hearings were held, and a traffic engineer hired.

Able spent the past 8 months finalizing plans, and getting permits.

Views of one of the detached homes.

But at a hearing 3 weeks ago, neighbors voiced strong opposition. Major concerns were raised about traffic at that very dizzying intersection.

Greenberg notes that when Daybreak had up to 800 trips a day — including customers, employees and landscaping trucks — there were 5 driveways in and out of the property. He sited the new driveway — 1-way in, 1-way out — as far from the intersection as possible. (It’s the same direction as 1-way Daybreak Lane, to avoid cut-throughs by drivers seeking to avoid the 4-way stop.)

Able looked at ways to improve the intersection. They learned that a decade or so ago, the state Department of Transportation wanted 3 roundabouts — one there, and 2 others at the Exit 42 ramps. But Wassell Lane was a stumbling block. According to roundabout standards then in place, it was too close to other roads to feed into the mix.

Now, however, standards have changed. Wassell Lane could work. Greenberg says that town officials have contacted the state DOT about reopening discussions. They have not yet heard back.

A roundabout proposal that includes Wassell Lane. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

According to Greeenberg, a traffic study shows that at peak times, 3,000 cars an hour pass through the intersection. He says that Able’s new development will add less than .05% to the mix.

“Right now, taxes on Daybreak are about $30,000 a year,” Greenberg says. “If these 12 units are built, we figure Westport would get $180,000 a year.” He proposes that the town earmark some of those increased taxes for Westport’s contribution to intersection improvements.

“There’s no land left in Westport,” he adds. “We buy houses. We knock them down, and build new ones. That’s our business.

“But we hear from people all over town that after their kids are grown, they don’t want a big house. They want to stay in Westport, in a smaller one. These houses would help.”

Able Construction’s Daybreak site plan. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

He says his company has done everything to address concerns. A Phase II environmental study found no herbicides or pesticides left over from the nursery. There were, however, petroleum products in the soil. Greenberg promises to stockpile the soil during construction, and dispose of it if needed.

“We’re part of this town,” he says. “We want to do the right thing.”

The P&Z hearing this Thursday (Town Hall auditorium, 7 p.m.), is one of the last stops on the road to a permit for the Daybreak development.

“This property has been unsightly for years,” Greenberg says. “It’s at a very impressionable intersection. We want to put this property to work. We’ll build smaller houses, so people can age in place. It’s something the town wants, and needs.

“The P&Z told us they want more diversity in housing in Westport. This gets us closer to that.”

Pic Of The Day #228

First Selectman Jim Marpe — and a bunch of little kids — officially lit the Christmas tree in front of Town Hall this evening. Then came family picture time.

“American Housewife”: No Laughing Matter

Residents of Norwalk complained to executives in New York about a show set in Westport, and filmed in Los Angeles.

The pressure worked.

Norwalkers were fed up with their city’s portrayal on “American Housewife” — a show set here, originally and far more grossly titled “The 2nd Fattest Housewife in Westport.”

Does this dress make me look fat? Or just offensive?

A Halloween episode last month showed someone dressed up as a pregnant “Norwalk prom girl.” Other references — including one about a Westport family’s discomfort at using a Norwalk swimming pool — also portrayed our next-door neighbor in racially, ethnically and economically divisive ways.

A petition calling on ABC and Disney — its parent company — to stop insulting Norwalk was signed by over 400 Norwalkers. Another 150 signers live outside the city. Many people added comments, expressing pride in Norwalk.

In news reports on the controversy, State Senator Majority Leader Bob Duff — of Norwalk — said the show mocked children, and made light of the fact that “we are a city rich in diversity that I view as a strength, not a weakness.”

Norwalk mayor Harry Rilling and school superintendent Steven J. Adamowski joined in the criticism.

Late yesterday, the bullies backed down.

The show’s producers said: “As a comedy, ‘American Housewife’ isn’t intended to offend anyone. We’ve heard the concerns of the people of Norwalk and have made the decision to omit any mentions of the city from future episodes.”

That’s a weak, weasely non-apology.

Too bad they didn’t go one step further, and omit both Norwalk and Westport from the airwaves altogether.

(Click here for the online petition. Click here for a full list of insults to Norwalk. Hat tip: Beth Cody)

Norwalk, Connecticut – home to the Oyster Festival, SoNo, Maritime Aquarium, great shopping and restaurants, thriving diversity, strong schools, beautiful parks and beaches, wonderful people, and much more.

On Deck For Saugatuck…

A year ago, the Transit Oriented Design Master Plan Committee — the group studying long-term development in and around the Saugatuck train station — and local citizens made it clear to project consultants that 2 ideas were non-starters:

  • No deck parking
  • No 3-story buildings.

This morning — after a year of input and study — a final draft was presented. It included:

A parking deck …

… a 3-story building …

… and, for good measure, substantial new development.

Oh, yeah. When asked what these proposals would mean for traffic in and around Saugatuck, the consultants replied that “any details on lessening the traffic burden” were “outside the scope” of their study.

Thanksgiving Balloons

Many Westporters enjoyed Macy’s 91st annual Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday. Some ventured into New York. Most watched from the comfort of their homes. The main attractions — as always — were huge balloons.

Others headed to North Avenue, for the annual Staples-Greenwich football game.

Along the way, they were treated to balloons that looked nothing like Superman, Snoopy and Scrat.

This balloon shows the location and 38-foot height of 2 proposed water towers Aquarion hopes to build opposite the high school. A smaller tank now sits on the property.

Accompanying the balloons were signs opposing the project. Among them: “If you think traffic is bad now, 5 years of industrial park construction across from Staples HS.”

“In Wonderful Westport…”

When technical difficulties prevented a video of 2nd graders singing Westport’s praises from being shown at last night’s swearing-in of town officials, most of the Town Hall audience probably breathed a sigh of relief.

There’s a thin line between cute and cringe-worthy. Very few of the board, commission and RTM members wanted to test it.

But 1st Selectman Jim Marpe had an ace up his sleeve: Suzanne Sherman Propp,  and her Greens Farms Elementary School music students.

The song — which she and the kids wrote, with Cheryl Buck — is catchy and clever. It covers tons of Westport people, places and history. The 2nd graders are not the Vienna Boys’ Choir (for one thing, there are girls), but they carry a tune better than I do.

And the video — produced by Josh Margolis — is first-rate. Newcomers, old-timers and (especially) ex-pats will love the fast-paced photos. (It’s also clever. When the kids sing about famous families and come to “Sherwood,” there’s a shot of the diner.)

So go ahead. Click below. Enjoy the show!

Nicole Klein: National Election Inspires Local Race

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election last year, Nicole Klein felt “helpless and hopeless.”

The Westport resident could not understand how America had chosen such a man as its leader.

“I’m a very positive person,” Klein says. “But I became very negative.” She vowed to do something to change her state of mind.

The New York City native had spent 17 years at McKinsey; now she was global event manager. In April 2014 she, her husband Fred and young son Carter had moved to Westport from the city, for the schools and amenities.

Nicole and Fred Klein.

In the past, Klein had volunteered for presidential campaigns. But she had never — not in New York, or her new hometown — been involved in local politics.

Now was the time.

She quit her high-powered job. In March, Klein became deputy registrar of voters.

Working in Town Hall, she learned the ins and outs of Westport government. The Representative Town Meeting intrigued her.

“RTM had just been an acronym to me,” she says. “But I realized how important it is. It’s Westport’s legislative branch.”

When 2 members of her Greens Farms district decided not to run for re-election — and Klein realized there were no “moms,” or even any females — representing District 5, she threw her hat in the ring.

She knew nothing about campaigning. Friends offered advice: Go to the train station. Go to the transfer station. Make signs.

It was a very competitive race. In 8 of Westport’s 9 districts, 4 or 5 candidates vied for 4 seats. District 5 had 8.

“People made websites, brochures, mailings and signs,” Klein says. “There was a lot of canvassing.”

The 1st-time candidate faced hurdles. A random draw placed her name at the bottom of the ballot.

Because election season is the busiest time of year for the registrars’ staff, she could not campaign for herself on that crucial Election Day. Fortunately, an “amazing team” — including her husband and son — stepped in.

Carter Klein scrupulously obeys the electioneering law.

Oh, yeah: Just a few days before the election, the Kleins moved from their rented condo into a new home.

“There was a lot going on,” Klein says understatedly.

With over 1,900 voters to reach, she focused on the population she felt she could best impact: the school community. “I hoped people were excited about a mom running,” she says.

They were. Klein earned the 2nd highest number of votes in District 5.

It took a while before she learned the news, though. She was so busy at Town Hall, she could not immediately check the text her husband sent from the Greens Farms Elementary School polling place, with the results.

As an unknown quantity in a heavily contested race, lacking name recognition, Klein had steeled her son for the possibility of defeat.

“I told Carter the important thing was to get involved, go for it and try your best,” she recalls. “I told him I would still be committed, win or lose.”

During the campaign, Klein surprised herself by realizing how much she wanted to win. The closer Election Day loomed, the more she hoped she could serve.

Now she looks forward to learning even more about how Westport works — and about how to help her district. She has heard constituents’ concerns about high-speed trains coming through the Greens Farms station, maintaining the stellar school system, and the financial stability of the town. She is not afraid to asks questions, and learn more.

Klein knows a handful of RTM members, current and new. She is excited to meet her colleagues — “a great group, with a fantastic influx of new people.”

The other day, a League of Women Voters member asked Klein to serve coffee at tonight’s swearing-in ceremony for Westport elected officials (7:30 p.m., Town Hall).

Klein had to say no. She’ll be busy taking the oath of office herself.