Category Archives: Local politics

[OPINION] Robert Harrington: Leadership Needed On Aquarion Tanks

Robert Harrington, his wife and 4 children have been Westporters since 2004. He speaks out on local issues — including the Aquarion/ North Avenue water tank debate. 

“I live over a mile away from the approved tanks, so this is not a NIMBY issue for me,” he says. “It’s about elected representatives supporting local residents.” In the wake of a recent regulatory hearing in New Britain, he wrote this letter to 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

I was greatly disappointed by how several town officials came to speak out against community requests at the recent Aquarion Public Utilities Regulatory Authority hearing in New Britain. This will likely ensure that the town of Westport will fail to get the best results for all residents.

No Westport resident should be put in a situation where the quiet use and enjoyment of their property is destroyed by a private company.

This is not just another large-scale development. This is the largest public works project in our town’s history. It is being placed in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

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

In particular, I was personally angered by the tone and commentary from public works director Peter Ratkiewich.

Neither Mr Ratkiewich nor any of his staff attended any of the P&Z meetings in 2017 when the project was discussed and voted on. He never explored valid alternatives. Then, at PURA, he sought to undermine any attempt to consider alternatives that could have offered  increased fire protection and fire flow.

At times during his testimony, Mr Ratkiewich sounded more like an Aquarion employee than a town of Westport representative.

Other towns across the state from Greenwich to Derby to Mystic have supported residents and successfully fought back against private interests. They found workable alternatives. Westport did not.

I was very careful not to attack our fire marshal in New Britain. I didn’t want to undermine one of our key leaders before the commission. However, if this project is really that urgent why are we not looking at all potential supplies, in addition to tanks? Why did Aquarion and Westport do nothing for 5 years following the Saugatuck Congregational Church fire in 2011? Why are the key players not making a much stronger argument for water main upgrades?

The water mains may yet be improved, although we have not been able to get concrete guarantees from Aquarion. Our community group fought hard to have upgrades included in any deal, despite the fact that in August 2018 your staff meekly recommended that we drop the effort given Aquarion’s stubborn refusal to do so. We wouldn’t take no for an answer, and upgrades are thankfully back on the table.

Even more worrisome, Aquarion has changed the fire flow numbers that were contained in the original reports they gave to rgw town. No one from our town is questioning this.

Why have these numbers changed?

The town of Westport has approved a plan that is better than the current situation — but will leave places like Saugatuck Shores vastly below what is recommended for fire flow.

Party politics should play no role in a project that will last for the next 100 years. That said, as a Republican I was embarrassed by the fact that Republicans didn’t come and represent any of the people in the room at PURA, New Britain over the past 3 months.

Westport was well represented by many Democrats and small parties. We had wonderful representation from State Senator Will Haskell, Representative Jonathan Steinberg and many RTM members

You took the explicit choice not to stand with the community — or even attend.

We also had strong participation from community leaders like Valerie Jacobs and Ian Warburg from Save Westport Now, and Jennifer Johnson from the Coalition for Westport.

Many residents spoke about losing value on their homes, and had to do the work that Aquarion and the town of Westport should have done.

We will likely see 2 huge tanks constructed on the current 3-acre site, which is far too small to provide full screening.

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

We also offered several alternatives to PURA to evaluate. PURA could immediately approve one tank on the site and rule that a second location must be found for a second tank. You and your staff dismissed this.

Alternatively, Aquarion could build two2 shorter tanks on the  site. But getting approval for the second tank, they would have to demonstrate to the community that they were being good neighbors and honoring their commitments while the first tank is constructed – including committing to material water main upgrades.

If 2 tanks are squeezed on to the site, Aquarion could plant taller trees to fully screen the tanks — and reduce the side wall by 3 feet. They offered the community this height reduction in August 2018, but didn’t bother to speak to the fire department first.

You and your staff chose not to support these common sense proposals.

There is a potential deal to be done on Bayberry Lane for a second tank location, but that would require political leadership. Alternatively, you could have explored leasing land on school property — potentially giving the town a much needed revenue source.  None of that happened.

Any delay at this point is your responsibility.

We urge PURA to approve one tank on the current site, and begin the work immediately driving almost a 50% increase in storage within 12 months versus the current single tank. Until the current old tank is decommissioned, the 2 tanks will contain almost 150% more water today.

The Westport P&Z was misled by Aquarion. Your town employees are helping to ensure a project that won’t fix Westport’s water pressure and fire flow gets the go-ahead because this is the easiest and cheapest route for Aquarion.

We need your leadership.

State Of The Town

Presidents have their State of the Union address.*

Governors have their State of the State.

This Sunday (February 10), Jim Marpe tells us all the State of the Town.

The first selectman will be joined by Board of Education chair Mark Mathias. After they deliver their thoughts on the town and schools, RTM deputy moderator Jeffrey Wieser will lead a question-and-answer session.

The event — a joint initiative of Westport Sunrise Rotary and the Westport Rotary Club — is set for 4 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.

Judging by one criterion, the state of the town is very good: There are refreshments afterward, in the lobby.

*Sometimes.

Town Hall is the site of Sunday’s State of the Town event.

8-30g Affordable Housing: More Proposals On The Way

For Westport, this has been a winter without much snow.

But a blizzard of 8-30g proposals continues to swirl all over town.

8-30g is the official name of Connecticut’s affordable housing statute. It mandates that municipalities make 10 percent of their housing stock “affordable” (according to a state formula). Though Westport has a variety of such units, many were built before 1990 — the date upon which the standards are based.

Which means that developers now eye all kinds of property. Incorporating 8-30g housing helps ease the legal path toward approval.

This week, a plan was submitted for 5 residential buildings on the Roger’s Septic Tank site at 1480 Post Road East. It includes 18 1-bedroom apartments, 14 more with 2 bedrooms — and would be 30% affordable housing, as defined by 8-30g. (Click here for the complete application.)

Roger’s Septic Tanks, Post Road East

The property — between the Rio Bravo/Julian’s Pizza strip mall, and a gas station — is a throwback to the days before the Post Road was greened and cleaned. Roger’s was there for decades; before that, it was Bob’s Welding.

Several years ago, a private agreement was reached between the owner of the commercial site and homeowners on Cottage Lane — which runs behind — stipulating that no housing could be built on the property. The agreement did not involve the town. A legal battle is sure to ensue.

Meanwhile, a couple of hundred yards east, there’s talk that several properties are being gathered together for at least one 8-30g proposal. These includes Redi-Cut Carpet, Innovation Luggage and Pane e Bene restaurant; houses behind it on George Street; the now-shuttered Sono Baking Company and adjacent A&J’s Farm Market, and the Westport Tennis Club behind it.

Those properties are not all contiguous, so there could be more than one proposal. No applications have yet been filed.

The former A&J Farm Market.

Next month, another proposal — much more concrete, in the works for far longer, and at the opposite end of Westport — comes (again) before the Planning & Zoning Commission.

Felix Charney will be back with yet another plan to construct 187 units on Hiawatha Lane. The narrow road is accessible by West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, between I-95 exit 17 and the railroad station parking lot. The developer hopes to create a “medium density housing opportunity zone” there.

The P&Z is up to its eyeballs in 8-30g issues. Still on the docket: 20-26 South Morningside Drive (where discussions continue about the historic Walter and Naiad Einsel property), and on-again, off-again 81-unit Lincoln Street/Cross Street/Post Road West development (it’s back on).

The fate of 20-26 Morningside Drive South — on Walter and Naiad Einsel’s former property — remains in doubt. (Photo/Anna DeVito)

But wait! There’s more!

This week, a legal challenge was filed after the commission turned down an application for 122 Wilton Road. That’s the 1.16-acre parcel at 122 Wilton Road — at the Kings Highway North intersection, adjacent to the Taylortown Salt Marsh and wetlands. A developer wants to build a 19-unit, 3-story, 20,078-square foot rental complex there.

“Complex” is the right word, for all these proposals.

Though it’s easy to see why developers look at the 8-30g statute, and see a cash register.

And why they’re filing a blizzard of applications and lawsuits now. As of April — thanks to recent construction like 1177 Post Road East, opposite Greens Farms Elementary School — Westport may qualify for a 4-year moratorium on affordable housing proposals.

Like shoppers stocking up on bread and milk before a snowstorm, developers race to beat the clock.

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.