I was busy this afternoon, posting a story about the Planning & Zoning Department’s decision to remove all illegal signs from town-owned property.
Chip Stephens and Al Gratrix were busy too.
They did the actual removal.
The P&Z Commissioners — call them the “De-Signers” — uprooted several dozen offending placards, all over town. Many were in otherwise handsome traffic islands and gardens, like those at the eastern end of the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Post Road bridge. (Regulations concerning such signs have been in place since at least 2002.)
A small bit of Chip Stephens and Al Gratrix’s haul.
They’re not finished.
Every illegal sign — even those for beloved institutions like the Westport Library book sale — is fair game, Chip says.
Westport’s streetscape is changing. The signs are everywhere.
On Monday, Chip Stephens saw an “06880” post announcing that 1st selectman candidates Jim Marpe and Melissa Kane would meet with North Avenue residents concerned about Aquarion’s plan to build 2 water tanks on North Avenue.
As he read it, the Planning & Zoning Commission member saw red.
In an email to “06880,” Stephens responds:
The North Avenue water tanks are not a campaign issue. To say they are shows little respect for the hard work to date addressing needs and concerns, and no attention to facts.
The P&Z spent 4 months reviewing and working on this. We came to our conclusion based on facts from Aquarion, neighbors and public safety officials. For example:
The current steel tank dates back to the 1950s. That was before Staples High School was built on North Avenue, back when we hosted Nike missiles in town, and before many large housing developments — including the the current tank’s neighbors — were built. Homes are now bigger, and there are more of them. Multifamily housing complexes did not exist then. They do now, and they are increasing.
The current tank is way past its freshness date. Steel rusts, and degrades. The tank needs to be replaced. That is a given.
The Aquarion water tank, during recent pump station construction.
As part of a gravity feed system,, the tank needs to be at its current elevation or higher. Different locations, including Bayberry or Bedford Middle School, were looked at. But that would entail new piping, and other neighbors being offended.
All the numbers calculated in the needed capacity were scrutinized, revised, reviewed and argued over. The fire chief, water experts and all other experts agreed that with Westport’s growth and larger schools, businesses and multi-family complexes, and the safety of Westport, these volumes of water must be served.
Westport’s water come from Fairfield. The needs are ours. Norwalk has its own water authority, not linked to Aquarion. Weston has no public water (which is scary, with failing wells and tainted quality).
Any decision by P&Z could be overturned by the state utility regulators, and most likely would have been if the application was denied. Water utilities are required to work with towns, but ultimately have broad power to locate their resources. Phone, electricity, rail all do what they want, with no requirement to listed to affected neighbors (though sometimes they do).
The neighbors have valid and pressing concerns. They got much attention from Aquarion, with multiple meetings. Many of their issues were heard. Not all were fully addressed — but Aquarion did try to accommodate higher plantings, color of tanks, very slight lowering of height, and promises to consider traffic and noise better than the previous pump project.
Remember, this is a public utility. Relocation, reworking and/or rebuilding the distribution system pipes and pumps — or any other major change — would involve major costs. These would be carried by Westport public water users, resulting in significantly higher water bills. And good luck finding that location with high enough elevation, and where all neighbors welcome the tanks with love and understanding for the greater good.
P&Z and local officials tried to hard to do our best, working with the parties. Regulatory, financial and logistical issues are hard to fight. And when it comes to the water system, there is no way to alter the laws of gravity and physics.
Recently, the Connecticut General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to loosen the restrictions of 8-30g — the state’s affordable housing standards, which incentivize municipalities to make 10 percent of their housing stock be “affordable.”
(Westport has a long history with 8-30g. Some affordable housing units here were built before the 1990 date on which state standards are based. Developers have proposed large buildings on small lots, marking a few units as “affordable.” Some observers have called those proposals “blackmail.” Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission has denied several such proposals already. They approved one, on Post Road East.)
A proposed 4-story rental property at 1177 Post Road East.
The vote — 30-6 in the Senate, 116-33 in the House — makes it easier for towns and cities to reach “moratoriums,” and in some cases increases those moratoriums beyond the previous 4 years. (For an in-depth analysis of the measure from CTMirror, via WestportNow, click here.)
Governor Dannel Malloy vetoed the bill. The Senate overrode the veto by the closest 2/3 margin possible — 24-12. The House overrode it 101-47.
Local reaction was swift.
Westport Representative Jonathan Steinberg said: “I’m going to tell people in my town, ‘Put up or shut up.’ Build the units. Get to the moratorium. Stay on that path.”
That infuriated P&Z member Chip Stephens.
He emailed an “open letter” to Steinberg:
We got your message.
How dare you grandstand and throw your fellow town officials and residents under the bus last night:
“Steinberg said he plans to take an unwavering message to his town’s leaders — act.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to tell people in my town, ‘Put up or shut up. Build the units. Get to the moratorium. Stay on that path,’” Steinberg said. Only after they have been given that chance, he said, can leaders “talk about whether or not 8-30g is working.””
I suggest you consider that your town officials have worked long and hard on affordable housing, both 8-30g qualifying, and more importantly quality affordable housing as Hales Court, Sasco Creek, Canal Park and other IHZ and multifamily components.
Canal Park offers affordable housing for seniors, near downtown. Because it was built before 1990, it does not count for points under 8-30g standards.
In passing the newest 8-30g complex on Post Road East we will have our first moratorium application ready as soon as the developer completes the project and gets his CO.
Next time you crawl up on that stump and blow hot air directed at your town, think hard before letting your common sense filter down hurling inflammatory and demeaning comments at Westport. We hear and we will remember.
Steinberg fired back:
I have fought for 7 years to amend 8-30g to make it easier for Westport to achieve a moratorium, while you have done very little.
How dare you lecture me on this statute when all I stated that it’s now on towns to take advantage of this new opportunity to get to a moratorium and avoid developer predation.
You have real gall calling me out, given your abject failure as a Commissioner representing Westport’s interests.
I’m responsible for giving you a tool to protect our town. Shut up and get it done.
Like the 8-30 g/affordable housing debate, this political dialogue will continue.
State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (left) and Westport Planning & Zoning commissioner Chip Stephens.
Easter and Passover are coming. Alert “06880” reader — and Staples High School Class of 1973 grad — Chip Stephens is thinking about those holidays, and the flowers associated with them:
Back in the 1960s there were many greenhouses — Fillow (on Clinton Avenue), Daybreak (on East Main Street), Parsell’s (now the new “Geiger” retail and residential complex), and the Flower Farm (South Turkey Hill, now Flower Farm Road).
Daybreak Nurseries, back in the day.
They all grew their own flowers. And they all had big annual flower displays.
The community event — combining art, nature, retail and people of all ages — was a much-anticipated treat for my family. I remember walking through those hot, humid greenhouses, viewing the previews of spring flowers and the summer that would follow.
After church — usually Palm Sunday — we drove to every florist. Each greenhouse was filled with geraniums (soon to be handed out at churches to kids), Easter lilies, hyacinths and many other fragrant flowers.
Families wandered through the greenhouse labyrinths, enjoying coffee, donuts and treats provided by the owners. It was a wonder walk, heightened by displays like Daybreak’s waterfalls.
Today the last of those great greenhouses — Daybreak — is being carted away to the dump.
The last of Daybreak Nursery gets carted away, earlier today.
With the arrival of spring, I’m considering the loss of all those greenhouses, and their replacement by McMansions. How do we balance that, keeping the character of Westport that many enjoyed growing up, and many others move here for?
Let’s welcome both spring and the new, while incorporating and saving the treasures and memories of Westport that remain.
News that culvert work will close Compo Road North between Cross Highway and Main Street beginning Monday — for 30 days* — has raised the specter of even-longer-than-usual delays from Coffee An’ to the take-your-life-in-your-hands Main Street/Weston Road/Easton Road intersection. And, of course, on side streets.
Alert “06880” Westporter Chip Stephens has a simple, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?! solution:
Open Cross Highway to 2-way traffic, from North Compo to Main Street.
This short stretch of Cross Highway is now one-way. Temporarily opening it to two-way traffic could ease construction-related delays.
It’s not unheard of. Back when Chip — a 1973 Staples High School graduate — was a kid, traffic flowed both ways there. Now it’s eastbound only.
The temporary fix would not solve all of Westport’s traffic woes.
But it couldn’t hurt.
*Official estimate. If you believe that, I have a North Avenue Bridge to sell you.
On Friday, very alert — thankfully — “06880” reader Chip Stephens wrote:
I almost killed someone today.
I was heading into Parker Harding Plaza from the Post Road. It was a typical Westport morning there: cars running red lights to make it through to save a few seconds, others blocking the intersection so no one could move.
I was in no rush. I’ve been numbed to the idiocy of drivers to get nowhere fast.
Westport has plenty of congested corners. This (with a photo showing a parked car in a no-parking zone) is one of the worst.
As I turned to enter the lot for my morning Starbucks fix, I luckily observed a middle-aged man stopped at the corner, waiting to cross the street toward the bridge.
He had stopped to adjust his earbuds or read his latest text. You know where this is going.
As the car behind me with orange plates blasted his horn so I would rush forward — the light had turned green an instant earlier — I started into the lot. That’s when the iPhoneiac walked right in front of me, oblivious to the world around him.
I jammed on my brakes. The guy from New York behind me jammed on his brakes (and hit his horn). The iPhone man did not flinch. Instead he flipped the bird to us all.
I almost killed him. It was that close.
Pay attention, dude!
Jackson Browne sang it so well: “They say the end is a blink of an eye.” Would his family miss him tomorrow? Would his wife ask why him, why her? Would his friends question fate or karma? Would the police blame me?
Would the world have changed for many who knew this man who lost his life because of his cyber bad habit of turning off the realities of the world around him, not knowing or caring if God or fate would protect him?
I know I thought all those things in those brief moments after I almost killed him with my SUV this morning.
I thank God he spared all involved. I promised myself I would tell the story in the hopes maybe one person would get it.
So: Unplug. Pay attention. Your ignorance will not only involve checking out of 06880. You will affect many other lives in a bad way. And the resulting mess will really piss off lots of bad drivers.
In the 1st stop along what may be a long legal journey, the Planning and Zoning Commission last night unanimously denied an application to build a 6-story, 48-unit apartment complex on one of the busiest, most environmentally sensitive corners of Westport.
Concerns about safety and damage to wetlands adjacent to the 1.16-acre parcel at the corner of Wilton Road and Kings Highway North dominated last night’s proceedings in Town Hall.
P&Z commissioners questioned the developer — Garden Homes Management — about many aspects of the plan. They also appeared miffed that a consultant and lawyer for Garden Homes did not attend (due to illness and a conflict), and that Garden Homes submitted a raft of supporting materials at the meeting, but refused to request an extension so the P&Z could study that information.
P&Z members also refuted Garden Homes’ contentions that the commissioners’ minds were already made up — and that they were opposed to the plan because a portion of the apartments would be deemed “affordable” under state 8-30g regulations.
“We never said we’d fight 8-30g,” P&Z chair Chip Stephens said. “We said we would fight inappropriate locations for 8-30g. Period.”
Garden Homes president Richard Freedman promised to appeal the decision.
122 Wilton Road — site of the proposed 6-story, 48-unit apartment building — sits at the corner of Kings Highway North. The property abuts the Taylortown Salt Marsh.
But no one can argue that the area in Baron’s South — once the handsome home of Baron Walter von Langendorff and his wife — looks a lot better today than it did yesterday.
This morning, historic preservationists Morley Boyd and Wendy Crowther organized a work party. They and Planning & Zoning Commission members Al Gratrix and Chip Stephens were joined by Mike Bernie, one of the baron’s original landscapers.
Golden Shadows is hidden from view, in the middle of the property. (Of course, the town owns Baron’s South, and it’s open from sunrise to sunset.)
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of it. Nice to see some concerned Westporters lend a helping hand.
Morley Boyd and Wendy Crowther, hard at work.
Chip Stephens (left) and Al Gratrix get their hands dirty.
The still-impressive hillside near Golden Shadows, after trimming, raking and weeding.
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