If you’re a Westport homeowner, there’s a 40% chance you live on wetlands, or in a floodplain.
If you’re part of that 40% and have moved here since 2001, you’ve received a letter — and fat informational packet — from Alicia Mozian, telling you what that means, and how to care for your property.
And advising you to call her, before beginning any work on the land.
That’s just one of the proactive approached Mozian has brought to her job as Conservation Department director.
Low-key but intensely passionate, her blandly named office oversees nearly every aspect of Westport’s environment. Shellfishing, Cockenoe Island camping, the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve, single-use plastics, the plastic bag ban — all are in Mozian’s domain.
But most important may be protecting the town’s wetlands and watercourses.
We have 13 named waterways. We sit at the bottom of several watersheds, which feed into Long Island Sound. Our groundwater table is very high.
“Westport is very wet,” Mozian says simply.
On Saturday, her 2-decade career as Conservation director — and 36 years of service to Westport — come to an end. She’s retiring — kayaking off into the sunset, you might say.
The Westport she leaves is much different than the one the Pennsylvania native found, soon after graduating from Nasson College with a degree in environmental studies.
Westporters are much more aware now of the effects of water on our properties, and our lives. At the same time, larger houses — and the construction they entail — impact things like runoff and silting.
Mozian has been the right person to manage the interactions between residential and business property owners, builders, neighbors, politicians, environmentalists, and everyone else with a stake in Westport.
Her first job here was in 1986, as an aide to Planning & Zoning director Mel Barr. She moved on to conservation analyst; earned a master’s in resource administration management, and was named assistant zoning planner.
In 2001 she succeeded Fran Pierwola, as only the second Conservation director in our history.
Mozian had already made an important mark. In the 1990s she helped Westporters get a 10% discount on flood insurance — a reward for town-wide flood hazard mitigation that continues today.
As Conservation director, she spends much of her time talking to people. Mozian answers questions, and educates property owners about upcoming work.
A lot of that entails “managing expectations. People don’t always know what they bought, or design their project to meet the land. They want their land to meet the project, not the other way around. That can lead to problems.”
During Westport’s booming construction decades of the 1950s and ’60s, many wetlands were filled in. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 slowed that, but the damage was done.
Now those homes are being torn down. Their replacements are larger — and their high basements sink into groundwater. Nothing in the state building code prevents that, Mozian says.
“Where does the water go? In other directions — on other people’s properties,” she says.
“You’re supposed to capture runoff from driveways and roofs. But you can’t do a lot about groundwater.”
Above ground, large-scale tree-cutting also affects where water goes.
Fortunately, Mozian says, Westporters are environmentally conscious. Her small office is augmented by a host of volunteers, from the Conservation and Shellfish Commissions to Sustainable Westport and the Sherwood Mill Pond Committee.
Fortunately too, she is not stuck in Town Hall. Mozian says her favorite days are “picking up garbage on Cockenoe Island, or the Mill Pond. That’s when I get instant gratification. I can see I made a difference.”
It’s harder to see the effects of educating a variety of constituencies about the environment. Still, Mozian says, “I think I’ve done pretty well, balancing what people want versus what they need. I want their plan to be better when they walk out the office than when they walked in.
“I don’t love all the teardowns. But I’ve learned to work with them, and make them as environmentally sound as possible.”
The low point of her career was the protracted fight with the Westport Weston Family Y over its proposed, and largely untested, Fixed Activated Sludge Treatment (FAST) sewage system at the Mahackeno site.
There are many more highlights. Mozian is proud of her Wetlands Community Leader Award from Washington’s Environmental Law Institute. It was presented for her work improving water quality, through the Sasco Brook Pollution Abatement Committee.
She’s also proud that none of the Conservation Commission’s decisions have ever been overturned by a court challenge. She’s been sued by developers, homeowners and neighbors — sometimes more than one group, for the same project.
She has done it all with a staff of just 5.25 people. That quarter employee — the sediment and erosion control inspector — is shared with Planning & Zoning.
“We used to have complaints about sediment from construction sites getting into waterways,” Mozian says. “But not now.”
She does not know of any other community that funds such a position.
Overall, Mozian says, Westport is in “pretty good” environmental shape. It can be measured by metrics — which the Board of Finance demands every year at budget time.
She prefers a different measure: “If you can swim in the water, drink the water and eat shellfish, we’re doing our job.”
Next week, Colin Kelly takes over that job. He’s spent 18 years with the Conservation Department, first as compliance officer and now analyst.
“It’s time for the next generation. He knows things I don’t know,” Mozian praises. “He has good rapport with builders and others. He’ll deal with violations quicker. The department is in very good hands.”
It’s been in great hands for the past 21 years, for sure. Now Alicia Mozian looks forward to seeing her 92-year-old mother more, and her niece’s upcoming baby.
She will visit friends across the country, hike, and go to concerts. (She was a DJ in college.) Perhaps she’ll teach; she’s interested in subjects like citizenship, and helping realtors understand wetlands, aquifers and floodplains.
She will not miss the daily commute from Orange. But Westport will miss Conservation Director Alicia Mozian very, very much.
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