Thursday, July 21, 2016
By James Lomuscio
After more than three contentious hours—including conflict of interest accusations—Westport’s Board of Selectmen today postponed a vote on a controversial Saugatuck sewer extension.
Acting in its capacity as the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), the board, meeting in an unusual and sparsely attended 8:30 a.m. Town Hall auditorium session, postponed to next week a vote on an application to build the 1,500-foot extension.
Opponents have said approval of the extension, the needed first step in developer Felix Charney’s plan to construct 155 rental housing units on Hiawatha Lane Extension in the Saugatuck section, would destroy the character of old Saugatuck.
At issue for the WPCA was the status of the area’s sewage pump station, which Public Works Director Steve Edwards says cannot handle the flow. Even more critical, says Edwards, is the failing sewage line that runs under the Saugatuck River.
Upgrading the pump station to force more sewage would be like raising the blood pressure of someone with a weak blood vessel, he said.
In short, Edwards said the request before the WPCA was premature since it would take several years of approvals, funding and construction to have a new pipe installed across the river to the town’s sewage treatment plant.
Sewers aside, Charney faces the pressure from the neighborhood and others in town. The area of mostly single family homes is the last remaining neighborhood of old Saugatuck, one that was not razed when I-95 cut a swath through the community in the 1950s.
With Charney’s purchase of more than eight acres in the area, the opposition group Save Our Saugatuck formed.
Charney, who told the meeting he grew up in town with a single mother and whose family needed housing, has teamed up with the Westport Housing Authority (WHA) on this application. He said 70 of the planned units would be for the WHA and 80 would be market rate.
“I know what it means to need housing,” said Charney, 61, a Staples High School graduate who once served on the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, and who now lives in Weston.
“I believe in this type of housing. Somebody has to do it. I know it’s controversial, but sometimes good things are.”
On July 7, the P&Z issued a negative 8-24 report to the WPCA—a review procedure mandated by state law when town property is involved.
In the past, the WPCA has usually upheld negative P&Z recommendations, if heard at all. Only a two-thirds vote by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) can overturn a negative 8-24 report.
Tim Hollister, land use attorney representing Charney, cautioned the WPCA that its decision not be predicated on land use and developement matters, but on sanitary sewers.
He also dismissed the negative P&Z report, saying there could be no valid report since he had been denied the opportunity to have his full say at the commission’s July 7 meeting by P&Z member Chip Stephens. (See WestportNow July 7, 2016)
P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh, who was present at today’s meeting, countered that all statutory rules and procedures were followed.
Perhaps the biggest monkey wrench thrown into today’s procedures came from John Suggs, an RTM member known for impassioned, and, some say, outlandish overtures.
Suggs accused Selectman Avi Kaner sitting on the WPCA of a conflict of interest for having met privately with Charney, and he asked that Kaner recuse himself.
He took it a step further when he asked First Selectman Jim Marpe and Town Attorney Ira Bloom to recuse themselves since they held a preliminary meeting, which he said was not noticed, with Charney.
Suggs even suggested that the WPCA should not be allowed to hear the request.
Bloom countered that such coordination was not improper. Kaner later took the opportunity to respond to Suggs’ accusations.
“I have no financial conflict of interest; I’m in the supermarket business in New York City,” Kaner said.
He added that he has a practice of meeting with constituents, and that he and Charney had met at Starbucks to discuss the administration’s quest to establish senior housing in town.
Kaner said the search for senior housing had been ramped up after the P&Z shot down a planned senior housing complex on town-owned Baron’s South.
“I met with Felix at Starbucks,” Kaner said, adding that he had suggested to Charney that he contact Carol Martin, WHA’s executive director.
Kaner said he later learned that the WHA could not limit its affordable housing to seniors, though seniors can live in WHA properties.
“I had zero negotiations,” Kaner said about what followed.
Posted 07/21/16 at 01:03 PM Permalink