Category Archives: Local politics

2 More P&Z Members Resign

Chip Stephens’ resignation last night from the Planning & Zoning Commission surprised many Westporters. The 3-term member — and native Westporter — has taken a new full-time job in Maine.

But his resignation was bracketed by 2 others. Al Gratrix resigned hours earlier, after 7 years as a full commissioner, and the past 4 as an alternate.

This afternoon, former chair and 13-year member Cathy Walsh submitted hers too. 

All 3 are Republicans. Jon Olefson is the lone Republican remaining, on what should be a 7-member board. By statute, the remaining commissioners choose the trio’s replacement. All must be registered Republicans.

Today, Stephens offers these tributes to his fellow former P&Z members. 

Al is the poster boy; the jack of all trades. He brought wisdom, understanding and service to the commission.

He knows the regulations and how they related to the applications at hand. He is well versed in all building technicalities, codes and everything else, and he gave his wisdom and guidance to all his fellow members.

From left: Al Gratrix, Cathy Walsh, Chip Stephens.

Additionally, he co-chaired the Enforcement Sub-Committee that dealt with all types of offenses and issues that went against the rules that 95 percent of time are followed, but when broken must be addressed, fixed or handed to lawyers.

Al also held a volunteer position on the Tree Board for 3 years. He earned expertise as a Trumbull firefighter and policeman, a part-time builder, and through various degrees in biochemistry and environmental biology.

Al initiated the Westport Evergreen Land Initiative, which helped create the beautiful Lillian Wadsworth Arboretum adjacent to Earthplace.

Al and his vast knowledge of planning, zoning, conversation and landscaping will be sorely missed by the commission, the staff and most of all Westport. Please thank Al for his service. And if you see his wife Nancy Austin around town, thank her for her patience and support of his time spent for our town.

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Cathy, meanwhile, was the non-partisan leader as chair, and even more so when not in her official role.

She is smart, savvy, and always had her say, win or lose (she did not lose very often).

She led the commission on town character, local land knowledge, landscaping and planning initiatives that faced almost every submission, study or issue that came up.

Cathy, along with Al, Jack Whittle and I, spearheaded the Save Baron’s South open space project. She created over 6 open space park designations, maintaining sparse valuable open land in Westport for all.

Cathy Walsh and Chip Stephens, at a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting.

She got her smarts and strengths from her upbringing in Pennsylvania steel country, and her hard-driving success trading steel as a profession.

Her local smarts come from her relationships and many friends in Westport and statewide. Fairness and firmness is always Cathy’s modus operandi.

Although she is thorough and fair in her deliberations and decisions, you don’t want to mess or cross Cathy.

On her soft side, Cathy is a huge proponent of outdoor dining and dancing events.

Cathy co-chaired the landscape committee with Al Gratrix, sat on the Downtown Plan Committee, the Saugatuck Transit District Plan Committee, and dozens of other plans and committees. She always won the most votes when she ran.

Westport will be hard pressed to replace Cathy. Hopefully she will stick around and help newbies as they come aboard. After all, she still has her full-time steel business, and 2 daughters and their 6 kids.

You better thank Cathy when you see her around town!

Chip Stephens Heads North

When Chip Stephens leaves Westport for Maine this month, the Planning & Zoning Commission will have big shoes to fill.

And our town will lose one of its most ardent boosters, and dedicated public servants.

Chip Stephens

The 1973 Staples High School graduate — a Westport resident since the age of 5 — will become code enforcement officer for 2 towns northwest of Augusta. He honed his skills as a 3-term P&Z member, including serving as chair. He also chaired the Village District Regulation Committee, Superstorm Sandy Recovery Regulation Committee, and other groups.

Stephens has worked to preserve Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall), Cockenoe Island and open space.

Last fall, he was the Republican nominee for State Representative in District 136, against incumbent Jonathan Steinberg.

In addition, Stephens coached Staples High School wrestling, and PAL football, basketball and baseball.

Danielle Dobin — the Democratic chair of the P&Z — says:

Chip has been a larger-than-life tour de force on the commission.

It’s challenging to put into words the love Chip feels for Westport, except to say that he dedicated his heart and soul to this town. His tough-guy presence on the P&Z belies the warmth and love he shows his fellow commissioners. When Chip invites you into his life, you are like family, no matter your politics.

When Michael Cammeyer and I joined the P&Z, Chip took us for a tour of “secret” Westport. He showed us old military sites and hidden parks, and shared stories from his youth.

When my son fell ill at camp up in Maine, Chip wanted to rush to the hospital to help. When I co-chaired the Monster Mash, he showed up to hang massive spiders from the ceiling. The Commission will not be the same without him.

Well said, Danielle! Chip Stephens’ service here has been long, strong, passionate and proud. Westport’s loss is certainly Maine’s gain.

Classic Chip Stephens: Last fall, he ran against incumbent Jonathan Steinberg (left) for State Representative. But when they met outside the polling place at Coleytown Elementary School, they greeted each other with COVID-friendly elbow bumps and — behind their masks — smiles. (Photo/Jack Whittle)

Unsung Hero #184

Judge Edward R. Karazin, Jr. is one of 12 men and women to be inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame this year. 

That’s just the latest honor for the longtime Westporter (and 1957 Staples High School graduate). In her nominating letter to the Hall of Fame, his daughter Deborah Owens writes: 

My father and mother were married on May 8, 1965. The newlyweds expected to spend my father’s 2 years in the Army in Georgia at Fort Gordon, where my father would serve as a civil affairs officer.

The war in Vietnam changed all that. In November of 1965 he was sent to Vietnam for a 1-year tour of duty as a civil affairs officer working the Pacification Program in Quang Tin Province as a MACV advisor.

Edward Karazin in Vietnam …

He served with distinction, and upon discharge he was presented with the Bronze Star. The Vietnamese government also awarded him the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross.

After his return to he civilian world, my father immersed himself in his 2 other passions: the law and his family. He started his career in Westport, serving as an assistant prosecuting attorney for the State of Connecticut.

Over the next 2 decades he did trial work as an attorney, helping clients in civil cases and family law matters.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s VFW Post 399 on Riverside Avenue undertook major renovations. Improvements included new docks for boats on the river and a new brick addition. My father did much of the legal work pro bono. It included land use work with the town, review of contracts, and preparation and review of many other documents.

The VFW was so appreciative that he was given a lifetime VFW membership! As an aside, I had my “Sweet 16 Party” in the renovated party room.

In 1990 my father was nominated to a state Superior Court judgeship by Governor O’Neill. He accepted with honor, and served in that role until becoming a judge trial referee in 2010.

… and Ed Karazin today.

He has not only served justice traditionally, but has given his time to others in many additional ways. He has spoken on panels about law and justice, served on the Ethics Commission, led the Veterans Day ceremony at the courthouse and even come to my children’s schools to talk about law, military service and honor. He helped my son’s Cub Scout pack achieve a badge by telling them about the branches of the government and the importance of democracy.

As chief administrative judge, my father undertook the daunting task of opening the new courthouse in Stamford. Under his leadership, everything and everyone moved successfully from the old facility to the new one.

My father never tires of working, sharing stories, and engaging with others. Even now at 80, he continues to work as a judge trial referee in Stamford. (His court is temporarily closed due to COVID.) Last year he was honored by the Fairfield County Bar Association with the Robert J. Callahan Judiciary Award. It recognizes dedication to the highest professional ideals, and long-term conscientious service to the community as a judge.

My father was born the son of a home maintenance man who eventually ran his own small business on the Post Road, and a homemaker. He went all through the Westport school system, including Greens Farms Elementary School, Bedford Junior High and Staples.

Ed Karazin in uniform, on Veterans Day.

He was the first in his family to go to college. After earning a BA from Boston College in 1961, he headed straight to law school. He graduated from Fordham University in 1964. He was also commissioned a 2nd  lieutenant in the Army in 1961, which began his military career.

My brothers Edward and Michael and l went through the Westport public school system. We were fortunate to have our dad working locally so he could coach our Little League teams, play lawn darts, take us to BC football games, and host backyard barbeques for his Vietnam veteran buddies.

My father was a dedicated volunteer who helped shape our community. Our garage overflowed with equipment for the town’s baseball teams. His many, many volunteer positions (including Board of Finance), civic engagements, awards and organizational affiliations are important, but the bottom line is that my father was (and still is) busy, and the majority of what he did (and does) is for the good of others: his family, town, state and country.

My father’s community-minded spirit led me into a life of law and volunteerism as well. Both of my brothers are also active members of their communities, and all-around good citizens. After too many Sunday night dinners with “Grandpa” to count, both of my college-aged children are considering future lives of service as well.

Ed Karazin (far right) and his wife Rene (2nd from left), with chlldren and grandchildren.

My father’s favorite game — “What Would the Judge Do?” — helped my children develop critical thinking skills, and showed them there are always many sides to any given issue.

From his days as a young government lawyer and his service in Vietnam to his never-ending devotion to his family and community, my father, Judge Karazin, has served his country, his state, his community, and his society as a whole with honor, integrity and selflessness.

His story is one that would inspire others. It reflects highly upon the State of Connecticut, its public schools, and its people. Judge Karazin would be a wonderful addition to the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.

Congratulations, Judge Edward Karazin, on your latest honors: Selection to the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame, and “06880” Unsung Hero of the Week!

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Another family portrait.

Belta’s Farm Subdivision Preserves Open Space

It’s one of Westport’s best-kept secrets: a working farm a few yards from the intersection of Bayberry Lane and Cross Highway.

Since 1946, 4 generations of Beltas have worked the land. Gone are the poultry,  livestock and slaughterhouse. The farm no longer supplies Stew Leonard’s with a ton of tomatoes a day, as it did in the 1970s.

An aerial view of Belta’s Farm from several years ago shows fields, greenhouses, a compost pile (near the top), and two homes (bottom).

But for over 70 years the Beltas have been good neighbors — and great providers of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers to the neighborhood, plus any other Westporters savvy enough to stop at their stand.

Belta’s Farm Stand, right on the road.

Last week, the Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously approved a plan to subdivide Belta’s Farm into 9 building lots.

The 23-acre site will be developed as an Open Space subdivision. P&Z regulations permit a reduction in lot size, in exchange for land used as open space.

The open space set-aside totals almost 5 acres of the site. Two of the newly approved building lots will be retained by the Belta family, along with existing residential structures.

A proposed new Beltas Farm Road — without an apostrophe, at the request of emergency services — will extend nearly 1,000 feet from Bayberry Lane. It will be served by 2 fire hydrants, and landscaped with 20 shade trees.

The 23-acre Belta’s Farm, at 126 and 128 Bayberry Lane, is outlined in red. Bayberyy, (dark on the left), is partially obscured by trees.

An earlier subdivision plan was denied by P&Z in 2019. It proposed more dwelling units per acre than currently allowed, an agriculture site for farming in lieu of open space, and a seasonal farm stand.

The Belta siblings said, “As we transition to the enjoyment of our retirement years, the time has come to provide for a zoning-compliant and environmentally sensitive development of our property for single family homes.

“We could not be happier with this outcome. It will provide almost 5 acres of open space and conservation easements on over 2 additional acres of the property.

“Our family plans to retain 2 lots for our use. We are very pleased about this. It is good to know that the Beltas can remain a presence on the property and in Westport, as we have for over three-quarters of a century.”

There is no timetable yet for site development.

Connie and Greg Belta, in the field in 2013.

Hundreds Rally In Support Of Asian-Americans

Eloquent, heartfelt speeches — from a US Senator, Asian-American elected officials, Westport politicians and parents, and Staples High School students — highlighted this morning’s rally at Jesup Green.

A crowd of about 500 — Asian-Americans, white and black; longtime residents and newcomers; senior citizens, toddlers and everyone in between — held signs, wore t-shirts, and joined together to condemn violence against the AAPI community.

Behind the Jesup Green crowd, a flag flew at half staff in memory of Asian-Americans killed last week in Atlanta.

State Attorney General William Tong and State Senator Tony Hwang described their own experiences as children of immigrants, and blasted myths like “the model minority.”

State Senator Tony Hwang, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, State Representative Jonathan Steinberg.

US Senator Richard Blumenthal noted that his own father arrived in the US alone, at 17, and believed, like so many others, in the American Dream. He said that he and a Republican colleague will introduce a “No Hate Act” next week, adding — in a nod to the diverse crowd — that “this is what America should look like.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal addresses the crowd.

Staples students Jacob Lee, Anya Nair, Gary Lu and Carrie Everett, plus college student Minnie Seo and parent Rosie Jon, spoke honestly about their own lives too.

A contingent of Staples students spoke eloquently.

It was a powerful outpouring of support. But — as several speakers noted — much more remains to be done.

Vijay and Kerstin Rao.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey spoke. His wife, TEAM Westport member Bernicestine McLeod Bailey, was at the rally too.

Rally organizer Sarin Cheung (left) and Westport artist Rosie Jon both spoke.

There were many young people at the rally.

A small part of the large crowd.

(All photos/Dan Woog)

 

Restaurant Owners Feast On Outdoor Dining

The Planning & Zoning Commission seldom hears “thank you.”

Their decisions are often controversial — or humdrum.

But this month’s unanimous vote to extend outdoor dining until further notice was met with effusive praise from restaurant owners throughout town.

From Tutti’s to downtown (where the other day all the well-spaced tables outside Basso were filled) — and even spots like Sherwood Diner — outdoor dining has been an important lifeline during a difficult time.

Basso. on Jesup Green (Photo/Dan Woog)

If neighboring property owners give consent, restaurants can use otherwise unusable setbacks, as Rizzuto’s has done with their popular igloos.

Rizzuto’s popular igloos. (Photo/Joel Treisman)

They can use adjacent property too, as Rive Bistro does.

Restaurants can even request Board of Selectmen permission to put tables in street parking and on sidewalks. Railroad Place (Romanacci, Tarantino, Harvest) and Church Lane (Spotted Horse, Manna Toast) are prime examples of town-restaurant cooperation.

Romanacci’s Xpress.

The application process is simple. It’s managed by P&Z director Mary Young, with support from fire marshal Nate Gibbons, to ensure the safety of patrons and staff.

As the weather gets better, more outdoor dining options are sure to appear.

And who knows? They’re so popular, the P&Z may decide to keep them, long after the pandemic ends.

[UPDATE] Marpe, Scarice Speaks Out On Anti-Asian Violence

1st Selectman Jim Marpe says:

I am heartbroken by the recent surge in the despicable acts that are targeting members of the Asian American and Pacific Island community. An attack on any is an attack on all that we hold dear as a community that embraces inclusiveness in how we govern, and in how we interact with our neighbors. I wholeheartedly condemn such violence.

Town Hall flags fly at half staff, in memory of the victims of the Atlanta shooting. (Courtesy of Town of Westport/Facebook)

We celebrate diversity in this community, and we do all that we are able to insure everyone, residents and workforce alike, feels safe, secure, and welcome in Westport.

Together, we must support and encourage programs and policies that include frank discussions on race and inclusivity. By doing so, we will come to a better understanding and open acceptance of our unique personal qualities. We accept and honor every aspect of the human experience that makes us members of a civil society.

To that end, I will request that the Board of Selectmen approve a resolution condemning the hate and violence against Asian-Pacific Americans at its regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 24.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice says:

Like many of you, I felt great sorrow over the tragic events in Atlanta last week.  I made a prepared statement for the Board of Education meeting this evening.  However, after receiving a number of heartfelt emails over the weekend, I was moved to share my comments with the school community prior to the meeting.

The unspeakable act of violence in Atlanta last week was yet another reminder of the chasm between our world today, and the ideal of the world we envision.  The violent loss of life, of any life, is destructive to what we aspire to be as a nation, and to what we aim to build as neighbors.

The Westport Public Schools stands with all communities in denouncing all forms of violence, racism, and xenophobia. The commitment of our district is to embrace and respect all people, while creating inclusive school environments where all students and adults feel a strong sense of belonging, affiliation, and connection.

This work takes commitment from all levels of the school community. On behalf of the Board of Education, and the faculty and staff, I want to affirm that as we stand beside all members of our community, that we particularly show support for our brothers and sisters in the Asian American community, which has experienced a tragic increase in acts of violence and hatred.

Our district has made a strong commitment to ensuring that each and every student and adult is treated with dignity and feels an abiding sense of belonging.  We continue this work as we engage in an equity study, pushing us to confront our practices and to ensure that we are doing our part to make this a more equitable and peaceful world.

By collaborating with community groups, initiating school based equity teams, and working with our curriculum coordinators to incorporate the appropriate discussion of these topics in our classrooms, the Westport Public Schools can successfully make all those in our schools feel welcome, while preparing our students for the diversity of the modern world.

Although our flags fly at half mast in remembrance of those lost in an horrific act of violence, let us not forget that it is in the day to day work of our schools, the incremental steps we take, that we see the most profound change and progress over time.

Bus Shelters: The Sequel

This morning’s story on Westport’s (lack of) bus shelters should have noted some of the people who have pushed the issue to the forefront.

Westport Planning & Zoning Commission alternate Neil Cohn started the Economic Growth Subcommittee, and reached out to 3rd Selectwoman Melissa Kane. As subcommittee chair, he made this a P&Z-sponsored text amendment. 

The initiative is part of the P&Z’s broader approach of looking at many types of equity.

Pippa Bell Ader and Jennifer Johnson have worked on the issue for a long time too.

In addition, P&Z chair Danielle Dobin made an important comment at last night’s meeting. She noted that women waiting on the side of the road, waiting to wave down buses after a long day at work, face an additional hazard besides bad weather and safety.

Too often, men driving by honk, yell out crude invitations and remark on their bodies.

“It’s terrible. But we can do something about it,” Dobin said. “Shelters don’t just protect against wind and rain. They also reduce street harassment.

This is not a Westport bus shelter. It’s located at Lexington, Kentucky. There, says former Westporter Fran Taylor, the city initiated an art/design competition, called Art In Motion..Clever and beautiful bus shelters emerged, including solar panels. Lexington used federal funds as seed money.

Bus Shelters Get Boost

Maybe you’ve seen them, and thought about them.

Maybe you’ve seen them, but never given them another thought.

“They” are the men and women who work in Westport, live elsewhere, and rely on Coastal Link buses to travel back and forth.

They wait, after hours of work, by the side of the road.

They stand in the heat of summer, in rain and sleet. They stand as cars race past, sometimes spraying water from puddles. When snows piles on the sidewalk, they stand in the road.

Our lack of concern, care and protection for bus riders is a townwide embarrassment.

Waiting for the bus. (Photos courtesy of Planning & Zoning Commission Bus Shelter Working Group

In May of 2009 — 2 months after launching “06880” — I wrote about this topic. Twelve years later, nothing has changed.

Finally, it might.

Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission’s Economic Growth Subcommittee heard a presentation about the need for covered bus shelters.

3rd Selectman Melissa Kane — representing the Bus Shelter Working Group — addressed the need. They’ve worked for months with TEAM Westport, town officials and other stakeholders.

TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey says:

Bus shelter support is a portal into the issue of who belongs in Westport. That is an issue upon which TEAM Westport is squarely focused. Citizens, workers and visitors use bus transportation, and  deserve protection from the elements when waiting for a bus.

Addressing this issue not only enhances the experiences of those who live, work and visit Westport, but sends a clear signal that all three truly “belong” here.

The working group has drafted language for a P&Z text amendment. They’ve reached out to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which controls US 1 (the Post Road). State legislators Will Haskell, Jonathan Steinberg, Tony Hwang and Stephanie Thomas are all on board.

So are Westport officials, including 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Public Works director Pete Ratkiewich.

Funds would come primarily from the state, and private groups. Some town money has already been earmarked.

Covered bus shelters would provide safety and shelter. They’d include information on routes and schedules.

They’d also be visible. That, in turn, would make bus riders — the men and women who work to make Westport work — more visible too.

There are not many ideas for improvements that should get 100% support, from 100% of the town.

This is one of them.

Special Needs Housing Planned For Riverside Avenue

One of the Westport’s greatest needs — supportive housing for people with special needs — is moving through the regulatory pipeline.

136 Riverside Avenue is a 12-room 1880 Colonial Victorian just north of Saugatuck Elementary School. Owned by the town, it’s used now by the Board of Education.

A few years ago it was considered for special needs housing. That opportunity has come around again.

Rick Redniss — principal at Redniss & Mead, a surveying, civil engineering and planning firm — has been exploring possibilities for “off-site affordable housing” for developments like 41 Richmondville Avenue and The Residence at Westport for several years.

That’s the process by which approval is granted for new market-rate housing at one location. In exchange, builders create affordable housing units elsewhere in town.

136 Riverside Avenue.

Redniss has met with parents of special needs individuals and Westport’s Commission on People with Disabilities to determine the best design. Based in part on a Darien model, he realized that if individual units include a private bath, kitchenette (to help with independent living) and deed-restricted lease, they count toward the town’s moratorium points (granted for showing that a municipality is actively building affordable housing).

The current plan would convert 136 Riverside to 5 apartments. Four would be for people with special needs; one would be rented to a staff member, who also would qualify under regulations for affordable housing.

Abilis — the 70-year-old nonprofit serving over 800 people with special needs — sees this as an excellent opportunity. They’ve been collaborating with the 41 Richmondville Avenue developers to make this a reality. Redniss has met with neighbors, and continues to address concerns.

The proposal — which includes remodeling that respects the original architecture, and enhanced landscaping — is going through the 8-24 (municipal improvement) and special permitting process. It’s on the agenda for the Architectural Review Board’s March 23 meeting.

If approved, 136 Riverside heads to the Planning & Zoning Commission, Board of Finance and RTM, for lease oversight.