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.