Tag Archives: Peter Ratkiewich

The Sidewalks Of Westport

With Staples High and Bedford Middle Schools closed, it may be a while since you’ve driven on North Avenue.

If you have, you’ve noticed construction underway on a new sidewalk. It parallels the old one, from Long Lots Road north to Cross Highway. But it’s closer to the road, with no grass strip in between.

The old sidewalk was separated from North Avenue by a grass strip …

What’s up with that? several readers wondered.

I asked Peter Ratkiewich. The Public Works director said the new sidewalk will be 5 feet wide, elevated above the road by a 6-inch concrete curb. For the most part, it will run along the edge of the road. In certain areas with obstructions, it will deviate from the road edge.

The old sidewalk — parts of which were over 30 years old — will be removed entirely. That area will be restored with topsoil and seed.

… while the new one will not be. (Photos/Michael Fleming)

The new construction will facilitate maintenance (including winter, when it must be plowed or shoveled).

This is the same method of construction used all over town. The North Avenue sidewalk will look very similar to the one on Imperial Avenue, built about 6 years ago and hailed by many residents.

North Avenue resident Michael Fleming is not pleased, however. He started a petition asking the town to retain the sidewalk buffers.

The Imperial Avenue sidewalk.

In other sidewalk news, Public Works has nearly completed a new sidewalk on Maple Avenue North. They’ll start the Myrtle Avenue project soon.

Ratkiewich is still waiting for word from the state on the Riverside Avenue reconstruction project. It will include some sidewalk replacement.

The Main Street sidewalk project has been submitted to the state for final review. He hopes to have that project underway before fall.

Next year, Ratkiewich hopes to rebuild the Hillspoint Road sidewalk from Old Mill Beach to Greens Farms Road, and the Compo Road South sidewalk from the Post Road to Bridge Street.

The North Avenue project was scheduled before COVID-19. And yes, the lack of traffic has made the work easier.

 

“Asphalt Is Asphalt. Snow Is Snow.” Steve Edwards Has Seen It All.

There are 2 things Steve Edwards dislikes: snowstorms, and talking to the media.

Last week — on the eve of the winter’s first snow — he sat down with “06880.”

But it could be the last time for both events. Westport’s public works director retires December 31. He’s spent 32 years in the department — 25 in charge — and is leaving just as he came in: low-key, steady, ready to tackle any problem, fully committed to his job and town.

Edwards calls himself “a farm boy from Easton.” After Joel Barlow High School he double majored in biology and chemistry at Bethany College — with a minor in physics.

He headed to the University of  Connecticut for grad school. Edwards planned on being a researcher. But he realized he liked “actually getting things done.” His early jobs as an engineering consultant involved site work for power plants, with an emphasis on lessening environmental impacts.

He traveled constantly. When a public works job in Westport opened up, he knew his background fit well.

Edwards joined the department in 1985, as Jerry Smith’s deputy. Five years later, he succeeded Smith.

In 1985, Edwards recalls, public works was “the wild west. There were not a lot of controls in place.” It was an old boys’ network.

Now, every employee needs a commercial drivers’ license. Standards are high. Locators on each truck record the speed, and tell where it is.

“When I got here, you sent a guy out to plow and couldn’t find him for 6  hours,” Edwards says.

Westport’s Public Works guys, in action a few years ago. (Photo/Luke Hammerman for Inklings)

“In this town, everyone’s looking at you. People take us to task if we don’t do our job. And they should.”

He praises his highway, building maintenance and sewer treatment supervisors. They help him lead his 55-person department.

Another change involves meetings. In the beginning, Edwards went to one night session a week. Now there are three.

“Back then we’d go to the Board of Finance for money, then to the RTM to okay it. Now there are grant meetings, informational meetings, charettes.

“Westport has a very educated population. They all want their opinions heard. Employees sift through a lot of information. It takes time to listen to everyone.”

That’s true across town government. “Poor Jen (Fava),” he says. “She’s got even more: Boating Friends, Tennis Friends, Golf Friends. I don’t have any friends.”

But in other ways, his job has not changed.

“Asphalt is asphalt. Snow is snow,” Edwards notes.

“Most everything people take for granted comes through us: town roads, and dead squirrels on them. The transfer station. Sewers and clogged drains. Snow removal. Beach repairs. You name it, we do it.”

When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.

Sometimes, Westporters expect public works to do everything. “A lot of people now come from New York. They’re used to concierges,” Edwards says.

“We’re their concierge. They don’t know who to call, so they call our department.” Sometimes he must explain that a road belongs to the state — not the town.

Edwards does what he can. Edwards gets great satisfaction from helping those who can’t fend for themselves. He has less patience with people who call in the middle of the storm “from an 8,000-square foot house with a generator, but they can’t get their favorite cable channel.”

Edwards has worked for 7 first selectmen. They’re all different, he says. But all recognize that Westport’s department heads are professionals. And “all of them realize that a lot goes on in public works.

“Quality of life comes through here,” Edwards adds. “We should be like a good referee: No one knows we’re there. If I’m in the press, it’s usually because I’ve done something wrong. I want to stay under the radar.”

Sometimes that’s hard. Six months after coming to Westport, Hurricane Gloria hit. His boss Jerry Smith was on leave, after a heart attack.

“I was wet behind the ears,” Edwards admits. “I had my hands full. Back then it was every man for himself.”

These days, he says, “the town is much better prepared. There’s so much more training and support.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Public Works took care of a section of boardwalk that ended up far from home. In emergencies they coordinate with other departments to keep Westport safe.

During Hurricane Sandy, he notes, “the amount of interdepartmental and inter-municipal coordination was phenomenal.” Public works, police, fire — even human services — all work together.

Edwards is retiring while he still feels good.

His wife wants to travel. “But I’m a homebody,” he says. “I’ve got my dog and my bike. I can hike. I’m happy.”

He’ll miss the people he’s worked with. Every employee now is someone he’s hired.

Edwards will stay on as a contract employee, consulting on projects like the pump station underneath the Saugatuck River. He started it, and wants to see it finished.

Next month, town engineer Pete Ratkiewich takes over. He knows the ropes: He’s been a town employee for 26 years.

Still, I asked: Does Edwards have any advice for his successor?

“You can’t take anything personally. We’re all professionals,” he said.

“We make recommendations. But at times things are way beyond our control.”

One example: during tight economic times, Edwards’ paving budget was once cut by $1 million.

“I went home, and I went to bed. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

He found a way to pave the roads.

And — a few months later — to plow them.

That’s what he’s done for 32 years. Thanks, Steve, for doing it very, very well.

Spying On Your Neighbor Just Got A Whole Lot Easier

One of Westporters’ favorite hobbies — finding everything about someone else’s property — just got a hell of a lot easier.

According to the Westport News, Esri — the company providing the software that enables anyone to find maps and aerial photos of every property in Westport, along with information on zoning data and permits — has changed its platform.

“It’s similar to when Microsoft said, ‘We’re not going to be doing DOS anymore; we’re moving to Windows,” notes town engineer Peter Ratkiewich.

And just as Microsoft engineered a paradigm shift, so too does this represent a huge step forward in projecting GIS (Geographic Information System, duh) data.

No, it's not a QR code. It's a map of Westport. Drill down, and you'll see much more.

Last week, Ratkiewich gave a demonstration to a dozen or so people, mostly town employees. He showed them how to zoom in and out of properties; pull up information on them; find estimates of square footage; determine parcel lines, rights-of-way and easements, and see rough contours the land.

The “public viewer” provides great aerial views showing how close a property line is to a house.

The News noted that “layering” the maps can show wetlands, flood zones and zoning classifications. (Layering is different from “lawyering,” which some of the info may lead to.)

Users can combine properties to see, for example, how much land is available for a subdivision.

The News says that permit information — from 1990 to now — is updated daily. It shows active, approved, closed and voided permits, as well as certificates of occupancy. Parcel information (such as the owner’s name) is updated quarterly.

Users can search for a specific property by address, owner name or parcel ID.  They can even get mailing labels for residents within a 250-foot radius, in case they have to contact them for some, um, zoning issue.

(Click here to use the public viewer. Computers should have Internet Explorer 8 or better, and pop-up blockers must be turned off. Tutorials on using the new public viewer are set for Thursday, March 1 [9 a.m. and 1 p.m., Town Hall auditorium.])

I can see my home too, via Bing. No, it's not a mansion -- I live in a condo.