Thursday, August 29, 2013
By James Lomuscio
The need for keeping Westporters safe while safeguarding town-owned open space clashed at the Representative Town Meeting’s (RTM) Long-Range Planning Committee public meeting tonight as Fire Department officials noted that the property adjacent to Riverside Park was being eyed at as a possible site to relocate the Saugatuck firehouse.
Though no formal proposal has been put forth, and at least four other sites in the area on under consideration, word that the riverfront park might be compromised brought out more than 60 to the Town Hall auditorium. A score of them reiteratied that while they fully support the Fire Department, the site at 427 Riverside Ave. adjacent to the park is the wrong place.
“I worked very hard to protect that land,” said committee member Carla Rea, who pushed for the purchase when she was on the Planning and Zoning Commission in 1996.
“Can you please forget about it,” she added to Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury, who was at the podium.
“I wish I could,” Kingsbury responded, “but I have a sworn duty to protect the people of Westport.”
According to fire officials, the Saugatuck firehouse, built in 1921 and gifted to the town, is outdated and cannot house a sufficient number of firetrucks.
It only has two bays, and three, two-vehicle-deep bays are needed. An optimum fire station would be about 10,000 square feet, with about 5,500 square feet needed for vehicle and apparatus storage, fire officials said.
Kingsbury only mentioned two other potential sites, state-owned property near Exit 17 off I-95 and land near the train station. Other possibilities were not discussed, he said, since they are privately owned and discussing them at this point could affect the sale prices.
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff reiterated that condition.
“The town has looked at possible land acquisition over the years,” he said, “but we cannot do it publicly.
“The information we can make available, we will make available,” he added.
The two candidates for first selectman in November since Joseloff is not seeking reelection were among those who spoke, underscoring that the property should be left alone and formally annexed to Riverside Park.
“This process is not just for the Fire Department,” Helen Garten, Democratic candidate, said. “This is a community decision.”
Calling the area a beautiful “pocket handkerchief park,” Garten said the site should remain open space.
“I absolutely believe in public access to the river, and it would be a shame to give that up,” Jim Marpe, Republican candidate for first selectman, agreed.
Marpe said he was committed to what Joseloff had said earlier at the meeting: to have a study conducted to survey all the firehouses as to optimum location and find the best spot for a new Saugatuck firehouse.
Joe Arcudi, who was first selectman when the town bought 427 Riverside, said that the reason the town purchased the property was “with the idea of making more of a park.”
He also questioned the urgency of relocating the current station.
“There is no crisis as far as protecting this town,” Arcudi said, lauding the Fire Department’s work. “I’m not convinced we have to move Saugatuck.”
According to Kingsbury, the current riverfront firehouse’s drawbacks were evident during Hurricane Sandy when despite sandbags placed around it, rising tidewaters caused $20,000 in damage.
Others who spoke against relocating the fire house to 427 Riverside, noted that the 6.5-acre park serves as a means of flood control, and that it would be compromised by the construction of a 10,000-square-foot building.
Speaking on behalf of the Aspetuck Land Trust, Grayson Braun, touted the need for preserving land, especially along the riverfront watershed.
Suzanne Tanner, who lives near the park, said that she and others have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation for the Fire Department, and that she has enough trust in the first responders to understand their need.
“But it’s the wrong place for a fire station,” she said. “Respectfully, I say it’s wrong.”
Posted 08/29/13 at 03:11 AM Permalink
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I too, have the utmost respect for the fire department. When I have a crisis, they are there for us - and that is noble. However, the fire department has is claiming we have a town emergency - the current firehouse is in jeopardy of repeated flooding. If this were so, then why would they consider building another firehouse in a location so close to the river. This is a waste of time and money for everyone on both sides of the issue. There is a short-sightedness amoungst those running the Long-range planning committee that I find humorous. If your going to volunteer to be a leader in this community - Lead!
Some facts that everyone in Westport should know. We are one of the most indebted towns in Connecticut. Our fire service is one of the most expensive in Connecticut. Fires are on the decline in Westport. We have to be very smart about where we invest in Westport, or those same firemen will be asking why we can’t pay our obligation to their pension funds in 30 years. It is for the citizens to decide, based on advice from independent advisors on the current and future needs of the town. Only then should we be seriously considering any new large capital expenditure. Anything short of that is irresponsible.
Open spaces along the river are a win-win for the environment and for Westport residents. We can conserve and beautify these irreplaceable assets with community support. Westporters should be able to enjoy the river actively as well as passively by viewing it as they drive, walk, or bike by. We must improve access - not degrade access.
Last night, Jim Marpe stated his support for a professional siting study that looked at the needs of Fire Department coverage for the entire Town before any decisions are made regarding specific locations and capabilities of new firehouses. I wholeheartedly agree.
Chairman, Board of Finance
One of the most important reasons this property at 427 Riverside Avenue was purchased as park land and has been repeatedly rejected for development is because as park land, it absorbs significant flood water. Paragraph F (Flood Zone Designation) of the January 31, 1995 letter from Carla Rea, Chairman, Planning and Zoning Commission to Joseph Arcudi, First Selectman recommending the purchase of this land at 427 Riverside Avenue states “Town acquisition of site preserves its flood storage capacity and does not add run-off generated by residential buildings.” If a large commercial facility, a firehouse with parking and significant foundation underpinnings were built on this property, this land would no longer have that flood storage capacity and could not absorb tidal flood waters, particularly with storms to the level of Sandy. Flood water previously absorbed by this land would be forced to go elsewhere and cause significant flooding, not only to the new fire station, but also to residential and commercial property on either side of the river, including downtown Westport.
Based on the support voiced at last night’s meeting by both candidates running for First Selectman, it is clear that the need to preserve and enhance our remaining open space, especially as it pertains to land along the riverfront, is not a partisan issue. It was refreshing to hear Carla Rea speak up to ensure that history would not now be rewritten with regard to 427 Riverside Ave and its incorporation into Riverside Park as additional passive recreational space, as reflected in the P&Z minutes at the time its purchase. Kudos also to Helen Garten for taking a crystal clear position on this matter.
I seem to recall that a significant portion of the $20k worth of damage from the flooding was to mechanicals. In order to give the town enough time to make an informed decision, without another cost impact of this magnitude, couldn’t these mechanicals be moved to the rooftop of the current fire station? Many of the houses around Compo who incurred flooding of much larger consequence have done so in order to protect the items most likely to incur these expensive damages with even minor flooding. Surely this has been considered already?