By James Lomuscio
As in past years, 2017 was marked by changes aimed at maintaining Westport’s quality of life, and at the same time the witness of the town’s national, even international prominence.
The international spotlight burned brightly this year from Justin Paul, a 2003 Staples High School graduate, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score for “City of Stars” from the film “La La Land” and two Tony Awards for “Dear Evan Hansen,” to resident Scott Gottlieb, a physician, picked by President Donald Trump to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Westport also drew worldwide attention for its TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism) Westport essay contest in which the prompt was about white privilege.
In a town predominantly white and privileged, the prompt stirred controversy, with some here saying it inculcated white guilt by race baiting.
With mainstream media weighing in, the story soon spanned the globe with people as far away as Singapore commenting. In the end, TEAM Westport Chairman Harold Bailey said the prompt was a success, generating needed conversations.
Westport also gained international attention in July when WestportNow told the story of heroism displayed by strangers following a horrific crash on Post Road East. They came to the aid of a trapped driver in an overturned, smoking car.
One of the rescuers, Aaron Tucker, 32, jumped off a bus where he was headed to a Stamford job interview and used a dress shirt he had been given at his Bridgeport halfway house as a bandage on the injured man’s head. A GoFundMe page raised almost $66,000 to thank him for his efforts.
Not all national and international headlines were positive. One was cringe worthy. Beachside Avenue resident and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was exposed by a New York Times investigation choreographing the Hollywood power player’s decades of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Other news caused head scratching on both sides of the political aisle — what to make of former Westporter and former FBI Director James Comey concerning Hillary Clinton’s email scandal and his firing by Trump.
Though he sold his Westport home in January for $2.47 million (for a $500,000 loss), the town appears to remain front and center on Comey’s fond memories list. In December, he posted on his Instagram account a photo with the caption “Beautiful Long Island Sound from Westport, CT.”
Compo Beach, often cited as one of the town’s jewels, along with Longshore Club Park, as well as Westport’s stellar school system, saw continued upgrades, which will culminate the summer of 2018 with sidewalks and a restroom building at its South Beach.
Upgrades that maintain Westport’s small town New England charm and historic identity were the thrust of the implementation of the Downtown Master plan, as well as the focus of the Saugatuck Steering Committee.
Preserving the historic William F. Cribari Bridge spanning the Saugatuck River has been a major focus, so much so that First Selectman Jim Marpe rejected $42 million in Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) money for its restoration.
The reason: Marpe feared acceptance of the funds could have the potential of a major replacement of the 1884-built swing bridge currently on the National Register of Historic Places.
Marpe’s calculated risk did not hurt him at the voting booth. In November, as he sailed to victory in all districts winning a second term against Democratic challenger Melissa Kane, as well as Independent John Suggs, a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member and unaffiliated newcomer Timothy J. Elgin.
Preserving the town’s historic past was even evident in commercial renovation and construction. Bedford Square, a $100 million retail, residential and restaurant complex at 159 Post Road East officially opened, securing Anthropologie as its anchor tenant.
Its developer Bedford Square Associates, one of its principals David Waldman of Westport, was honored with a Westport Historic District Commission (HDC) 2017 Preservation Award presented at Town Hall. In making the award, the HDC said, “This Tudor revival edifice has anchored the central crossroads of downtown Westport and helped define the center of town by virtue of its prominent location.”
Waldman and Westport real estate developer Roger Leifer this year also purchased Sconset Square, adjacent to Bedford Square, for $5 million.
In June, Hearst Connecticut Media announced acquisition of the Westport Minuteman newspaper. Soon afterward, the company said it was closing down the weekly rival to its Westport News after 24 years of publication and turning the Westport News into a free weekly.
Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) kept busy in 2017, drafting and eventually finalizing a new town Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), a key document guiding the town’s future growth. P&Z members and some outsiders bemoaned that despite the POCD’s critical importance, public interest was at best tepid.
Public interest was also minimal in June when the P&Z, after years of moratoriums, unanimously approved its own text amendment allowing no more than two medical marijuana dispensaries in commercial districts. Commissioners stressed that amendment 735 is for medical, not recreational, marijuana and for people in serious pain for maladies ranging from glaucoma to cancer, as an alternative to opioids.
The P&Z also approved the Arts Center’s use of Baron’s South dwellings and cleared the way for expansion there of the Westport Center for Senior Activities.
National politics piqued public interest in the March to DefenDemocracy, a show of force by Democrats, mostly women, who protested the Trump Administration in a march from Jesup Green to Veterans Green where they were joined by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, and Marpe.
Passions seemed highest during the town and school budget processes as the town’s Board of Finance braced itself for the state’s fiscal malaise and the fact that little, if any aid, such as educational cost sharing grants, would be coming from Hartford.
Throughout the budget season, Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern warned of more dark clouds swirling in Hartford and urged as he had in past years for greater cooperation between the town government and the Westport Public Schools in sharing services, so they are not duplicated.
Despite the Board of Finance’s failed attempt to cut the education budget (narrowly restored by the RTM), it managed to keep the mill rate unchanged.
With the RTM overwhelmingly rejecting a petition to allow trapping coyotes and coyote-wolf hybrids in Westport, the town remained the only municipality in the state to maintain a ban on hunting and trapping of animals. Westport is the only Connecticut municipality with the right to control such matters.
While environmental issues typically stoke activism, this year the continued push to go green got some pushback, as Saugatuck neighbors fought against and succeeded as the P&Z denied a Tesla dealership on Saugatuck Avenue.
But that appeared a mere bump in the road, as P&Z members urged Tesla to look elsewhere in town, the Post Road in particular.
And in keeping with Westport’s leadership in environmental awareness, the RTM voted unanimously on a sense of the meeting resolution to reduce energy consumption and produce renewable energy toward the goal of becoming a “Net Zero” community by 2050.
Finally, Westport’s first responders continued to shine despite a slew of retirements as new pension agreeements were negotiated.
Police nabbed shoplifters and suspected car thief suspects, including five who rammed a police cruiser in Saugauck Shores in a desperate attempt to escape.
But there was still time to respond to even the smallest of matters.
When a resident called late one evening to report missing jellybeans from a jar “in case other items were missing,” an officer was dispatched to check it out.
He later radioed that “all appeared in order.”