All four candidates in Westport's two state representative races this year touted their commitment to environmental protection and sustainable economic development during a forum Tuesday night at the Earthplace natural history center.
Moderated by Earthplace trustee and Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell, the forum featured state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, the Democratic incumbent in the 136th Assembly District, which covers most of Westport, and Steinberg's Republican challenger, Stephen Rubin.
The forum's other two participants -- Republican incumbent Gail Lavielle and Democratic challenger Ted Hoffstatter -- are vying for the seat in the 143rd District, which includes a part of western Westport between the Saugatuck River and the Norwalk border, as well as parts of Wilton and Norwalk.
The candidates' shared positions on many environmental issues quickly became evident. In particular, their responses revealed a common support for rigorous state environmental standards, but also a focus on granting autonomy to municipalities in the implementation of environmental protection laws.
"This is a question of towns' ability to dictate the quality of life that they would like to have," Lavielle said of a state ban that prevents municipalities from enforcing pesticide regulations more stringent than state standards. "If a town decides that it wants to be more restrictive than the state law allows, then it should have that option."
Hoffstatter expressed a similar viewpoint.
"What's good for the environment and good for business is not necessarily mutually exclusive," he said. "There's an argument with pesticide [regulation] that, `Well, you're going to hurt those companies.' Well, guess what, when those pesticides go in the aquifers, it's my family that's going to drink that."
Steinberg said, if re-elected, he would help sponsor legislation to repeal the state's "pre-emption" law, so municipalities could establish tougher pesticide rules.
The candidates' support for robust environmental preservation policies has not gone unnoticed. Steinberg this year earned a 100 percent rating from the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters and has been endorsed by that group and the Sierra Club, one of the country's most prominent environmental grassroots organizations. Lavielle has also been endorsed by those two groups and was named an "environmental champion" by the Conservation Voters. Hoffstatter has also picked up a Sierra Club endorsement.
Each of the candidates recognized the existence of climate change. Steinberg and Rubin, however, differed in their prospective responses to the problem.
"I don't think we really have determined the threat and the timeline on when that threat, if at all, is going to affect us," said Rubin, who works in the Westport Parks and Recreation Department. "Then we could address it. We must have the scientific experts telling the legislators exactly what's going on, not just lobbying them for today."
Steinberg argued for a more aggressive strategy.
"I have a great empathy for those who have been living on the shoreline for generations and have watched the sea level rise and seen the land erode," said Steinberg, who serves on the state's Shoreline Preservation Task Force. "Whether the next storm comes next year or 10 years from now, there are things we can do now. We can make the roofs stronger. We can put in the right kinds of houses, we can put houses on stilts or raise them in other ways so that they are less vulnerable."
Hoffstatter, a Wilton public school teacher and also a selectman in that town, emerged during the forum as an enthusiastic supporter of the possible use of Long Island Sound for renewable energy sources such as wind power.
I'd certainly rather investigate putting in a wind farm before putting a gas-storage platform there," he said. "If our legislature is not willing to invest in future energy sources -- it's where the economy is going -- I think Connecticut is going to lose out in the long run."
Steinberg expressed his interest in the potential of tidal energy, while Rubin indicated he would consider allowing "clean and safe" transportation of natural gas through the Sound. Lavielle appeared to be the most circumspect about tapping the Sound as an energy resource.
Private-sector involvement in environmentally sustainable initiatives also garnered bipartisan support from the candidates.
"There's an opportunity for businesses to get behind green technologies," said Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly's Energy and Technology Committee. "It's actually a win-win: It's profitable and it makes good sense for the environment."
Lavielle also pointed to non-governmental organizations as ideal partners for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
"In all of the strategic plans coming out of DEEP, there are opportunities for private financing and user financing," she said. "Not everything has to come from the government, nor should it, given the state that our state budget is in at the moment."
All of the candidates also indicated their support for labeling of genetically modified organisms and for preserving open space in Westport and throughout the state.
"Can anybody in this room imagine if we did not buy Longshore [Club Park]?" Rubin said. "We wouldn't have a golf course, we wouldn't have a marina, we wouldn't have a ballfield or a magnificent playground. I'm saying this to emphasize the need for open space."
In addition, the four nominees signaled their commitment to maintaining current funding levels for DEEP, but they concurred in opposing any tax increases to support the department.
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