This morning, “06880” reader Robert Harrington criticized 1st selectman Jim Marpe and other town leaders for their actions during the Aquarion/North Avenue water tower debate. The 1st selectman responds:
Thank you for the opportunity to address Mr. Harrington’s concerns and accusations. I will try to clarify certain facts and misstatements, as well as explain how my staff and I have willingly assisted a group of residents who abut Aquarion’s property on North Avenue. I have remained sympathetic with their concerns regarding quality of life and property values, and have sought to mitigate the impacts that this vital infrastructure project may have on them.
The town attorney, operations director, director of public works, fire chief, fire marshal, tree warden, other staff, volunteers and I have devoted hundreds of hours over the past year and a half researching and mediating toward a solution that would help the neighbors, and at the same time address the water supply needs of the entire community. I personally have taken the following actions:
- led public and work group meetings;
- facilitated communications between Aquarion and the neighbors;
- advocated for a peer review paid for by Aquarion;
- dedicated my staff’s time;
- enlisted experienced resident volunteers to assist with mediation;
- remained non-partisan and neutral with the goal of compromise; and
- wrote several letters to PURA on behalf of the residents.
These are tangible services that I believe speak volumes over appearing at a single public regulatory hearing to make a statement. I appreciate the state legislators’ ongoing efforts to help, but my office and several dedicated town employees have been consistently involved in trying to reach an acceptable solution. The positions that I have taken are not just advocacy. They also reflect a careful weighting of all the options and their outcomes, as well as the benefits to the greater good of all Westporters.
The town stayed involved in this process and conveyed to Aquarion the importance of:
- finding a way to lower the height by eliminating the dome;
- increasing the landscaping;
- managing the traffic and disruption; and
- expediting the water main upgrade.
Had we not stayed involved, Aquarion would never have agreed to the most recent settlement offer. They also would never have agreed to the peer review. It is clear that my pressure on Aquarion led to the agreement on several concessions.
In advance of the public hearings in New Britain, I submitted a detailed letter to PURA with very specific requests. Furthermore, while I remained in Westport to address other town-related issues, at my behest and with my full confidence the town Attorney and operations director attended the hearings held in November and January. PURA requested that the fire marshal and public works director testify. That totals 4 senior town representatives involved with 2 hearings in New Britain.
Public works director Mr. Ratkiewich is a dedicated 29-year town employee who has no affiliation with Aquarion. He was requested by PURA to testify under oath and responded to specific questions on a factual basis. This testimony, along with that of our fire marshal and Mr. Harrington, are all available for the public to review. I am confident that upon review of the public proceedings, no one would describe Mr. Ratkiewich’s tone and commentary as anything but professional and forthright. I will not accept attacks on, and I will always defend, our town staff when they are inappropriately accused.
It is easy to say that a tank should go “here” or “there” as an alternative, but Mr. Harrington fails to mention the related costs and potential disruption to our town. Also, he doesn’t point out that his proposed alternate sites include the entrance to the Bedford Middle School property and a location in another residential zone. If PURA believes that these locations or other alternatives should be pursued, then I’ll direct the efforts of our town staff accordingly.
We know that the water main upgrades in Westport have been on Aquarion’s capital plan. Aquarion offered to accelerate them in order to come to a compromise. The town remains skeptical that Aquarion has the ability to complete the work within the accelerated timeframe, which is why the tank construction is vital to our water supply infrastructure.
We have gone above and beyond to assist. I am proud of the compromises the neighbors and the town have accomplished during negotiations with Aquarion. In fact, the final settlement agreement was close to acceptance by both parties until the fire marshal would not agree to further lower the height of the tanks because of the impact on fire flow. Since I trust his expertise and experience, I removed the additional lower height provision from my request to PURA. I agreed that the town should not reduce the fire flow improvements that we are receiving from this project. At that point, several residents split apart because many were ready to settle. Mr. Harrington now represents a smaller fraction of the impacted homes.
Despite all the time, energy, costs and effort that my staff and I have dedicated in the mediation process, the neighbors were not able to reach a settlement with Aquarion. That is why PURA, the regulatory authority tasked with oversight of Aquarion, has become the forum to address the issues. The proposal to allow Aquarion to build one tank while a second site location is found is best left for PURA to decide.
In conclusion, I stand by the efforts of the town as well as my leadership. Other local challenges also require my time and attention, including the rehabilitation of Coleytown Middle School and finalizing the town’s operating budget. Nevertheless, the North Avenue water tanks remain an important issue for the town. As such, our staff and I will continue to be involved as appropriate, and if we believe it can bring us to a settlement that all parties can accept.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to state the facts and provide my support of the town’s dedicated employees.