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2019: A Year of Not Backing Down

By James Lomuscio

If anything, Westport and its people showcased their time-honored reputation for grit and perseverance in 2019.

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Their tenacity oftentimes seemed against the wind on myriad issues from schools to environmental concerns to affordable housing to bids for elected office — to even fighting a cellphone ticket.

Whether it was the continual debate about the $32 million renovation of Coleytown Middle School (CMS) scheduled to open in August 2020, Summit Saugatuck’s seventh try for a housing complex, banning plastic straws and Styrofoam to finally getting the Westport Library to be what the townspeople wanted, not backing down seemed de rigueur.

What makes up Westport’s indefatigable doggedness?

The Last Straw, Plastic That Is

Westport again took a national lead in environmental activism on May 7 when the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting the use of single-use plastic cups, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam materials in food service businesses.

The vote makes Westport the first municipality on the East Coast to have such a comprehensive ban, according to RTM member Andrew Colabella, the ordinance’s sponsor.

Town officials and members of the public who spoke in favor of the ordinance said it was an extension of Westport in 2008 being the first in the country east of the Mississippi to ban single-use, plastic bags.
“Once again, we are leading by example,” said Colabella about the prohibition that gives merchants six months to comply.

Library Renovation One for the Books

The Westport Library grand reopening after a $21 million renovation was truly one for the books, even if books no longer dominate.

On June 23, after years of public input, designs and persistent, tireless fundraising, First Selectman Jim Marpe, joined by Gov. Ned Lamont and other state and local officials, brandished a huge pair of scissors designed for ribbon cuttings and appeared on the front step.

“How fitting that this ceremony is taking place overlooking Jesup Green, since it was Morris Jesup who funded the construction of the library in 1908,” Marpe said.

“Mr. Jesup was a visionary in his time, and I think he would be pleased that his library now anchors this beautiful green that honors him with an entry that enhances its use,” he added.

The makeover includes two multimedia studios; an 18-foot video wall; expanded MakerSpace; nine conference rooms; seven meeting rooms; a more than 500-seat forum for performances, programs and events; an expanded café with an outdoor deck; a museum-style store; and lest one forget, books.

RTM Approves $32 Million to Restore CMS

When it came to the mold-plagued CMS being shut down, the reshuffling of students to BMS and Staples High School and ways to make it right, the town was nothing if not persistent.

And the Board of Education and Board of Finance meetings seemed endless, repetitive, grueling at times and always emotional.

Adding to the drama were the unexpected resignation of Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer and news that Staples Principal James D’Amico had taken a job in his home district. Dr. David Abbey, who had served as an administrator in town in past years, was tapped as interim superintendent.

On July 16, all the persistence about CMS plus community input and shared designs seemed to bear fruit.

The RTM voted 32 to 0 with 1 abstention, approving $31,972,235 with bond and note authorization to restore CMS back into a sixth through eighth grade facility.

“Let’s once and for all fix the mess at CMS,” Don O’Day, chairman do the CMS Building Committee, petitioned the legislative body.

The RTM followed suit. Vowing transparency to parents throughout the renovation process, O’Day said CMS will open safely by August 2020.

After Seven Failed Tries, Developer Says Eighth Will Be in Court

Southport developer Felix Charney, epitomizes persistence, though his detractors see it as petulance.

Last spring he made his seventh pitch before Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z) to build an affordable housing complex — this time 187 units — in the Saugatuck section of town near I-95’s Exit 17.

“I’m here because I believe in this form of housing,” Charney, a one-time P&Z member, told WestportNow.com about the Summit Saugatuck’s development plan where 30% of the units would be deemed affordable.

“It’s to give them (residents) quality housing in towns with above average educational institutions and to provide those residents access to those institutions to help their children break the cycle of poverty.”

In a work session on Sept. 19, the P&Z denied special permit and site plan applications.

Charney said his last try would be in court, using the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g. It allows a developer to override town zoning laws if the municipality does not have 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable, which as 4% Westport does not.

Public safety, however, takes precedence over 8-30 g, and the P&Z had cited traffic and pedestrian safety concerns, as well as secondary fire truck access.

 

RTM Denies Proposed Ban on Recreational Marijuana

A proposed ordinance to ban the sale of recreational marijuana in Westport if it becomes legal in Connecticut failed by a vote of 16 to 18 at the RTM Oct. 2.

The vote on the proposal came after hours of discussion. The biggest hurdle it faced was that the ordinance would be moot as the state law would preempt a local prohibition.

The preemption caveat was put forth by state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who added that even if the state did legalize recreational marijuana, as expected, such proposals afloat in Hartford offer opt-out provisions for local municipalities.

Petitioners for the ban said the medical marijuana facility approved by the P&Z in 2018, one of only two in Fairfield County, was something akin to a Trojan horse poised to become a recreational marijuana outlet.

 

If at First You Don’t Succeed

After four failed runs since 2011 for the RTM, the town nonpartisan legislative body, Sal Liccione, 42, on Election Day proved the power of hanging in there. He was elected to serve District 9.

Liccione, a former Parks & Recreation Department employee active in Democratic politics, got his big break in August when a district opening occurred and he was appointed via a Town Charter provision.

The appointment did not make him an incumbent, and he still had to petition to get on the ballot, which he did, according to Town Clerk Patricia Strauss.

On Nov. 5, Liccione was all smiles as the votes came in.

“I’m persistent,” he said.

 

For Romeo, Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

For a good businessman, persistence means being true to the bottom line, even if it means saying goodbye to a cherished way of life.

That was the decision made by Joseph Romeo, who for more than 30 years has operated Joey’s By the Shore at Compo Beach and the Longshore Golf Course Halfway House.

On Nov. 20 devoted customers expressed sadness when Romeo announced he was parting ways “effective immediately” with the Town of Westport.

“Regrettably, Mr. Romeo has advised us that he will not pay the full rent due in 2019 under his lease, nor is he willing to fulfill his remaining three years under the lease,” Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Fava said.

“We have made every effort to negotiate mutually acceptable terms, but we have not reached an agreement with him,” she added.

Since 1988, Joey’s By the Shore has been a bustling beach mainstay.a focal point restaurant adjacent to Compo’s pavilion. First Selectman Jim Marpe said that a new concessionaire is being sought.

A Strong Stand Against Redistricting Wins for Next Year

Westport’s Board of Education Dec. 9 nixed a plan for redistricting next year.

By a 7 to 0 vote, the board abandoned a “split-feeder” proposal that would separate Saugatuck Elementary School (SES) graduates into the town’s two middle schools.

The vote came after a number of parents had argued against redistricting, urging the school board at the special Town Hall meeting to scrap the plan steering SES graduates to both CMS, scheduled to reopen for the 2020-21 academic year and BMS.

The rationale behind the split-feeder plan: rebalancing, finding parity in the wake of declining enrollments.

Parents countered they did not want their children split up from their friends.

Hash Brown on Hold

And finally, there’s Westporter Jason A. Stiber who briefly gained national attention with his tale of hashing and rehashing.

He was cited for using a cellphone while driving after leaving a McDonald’s in Norwalk. Not so, said Stiber. It wasn’t a cellphone but a hash brown.

After more than a year of fighting a $300 ticket and spending far more in legal fees because of principle, he won his hash brown-mistaken-for-a-cellphone-while-driving case.

On April 22, Judge Maureen Dennis in Norwalk Superior Court ruled him not guilty.

“Distracted driving violations go on your record, and they never come off,” Stiber told The Washington Post. “Plus, a lot of people don’t realize your insurance rates go up.”

 

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