"The need for quality environment is the thing that ties us together."

Those words from Earthplace Executive Director John Horkel framed Tuesday night's selectman debates, which focused solely on the environment. Speaking for the Democratic slate were incumbents Gordon Joseloff and Shelly Kassen, first and second selectmen, respectively.

They faced Republican challengers Gavin Anderson and Kristin LaFleur, vying for first and second selectman, respectively, and write-in hopeful John Izzo, who is unaffiliated.

Prompted by questions posed by moderator Matthew Mandell, the candidates discussed their views on environmental issues regarding legislation, recycling, youth involvement, pesticides, deer, geese, open space, transportation and sharing services with other municipalities, among other topics. Rather than a debate, the evening was more like a discussion, with the group members posing ideas to make the community greener. As Izzo pointed out in his opening remarks, "We're all environmentalists here."

Zoning, agreed the candidates, factors heavily when it comes to preserving open space, but the Planning and Zoning Commission shouldn't be the only town body involved when it comes to making those decisions -- nor has it, traditionally.

Preserving open space is "the most effective way to improve the environment," according to Izzo. But, he pointed out, "Zoning is tough. Sometimes they have laws and rules that we cannot avoid."

Kassen stated that the current selectmen have been dedicated to the enjoyment and preservation of open space, citing the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve as an example. The land for the Sherwood Mill Pond preserve was purchased by the town in 1999, and through financial assistance from the public is being readied for use as a public park.

The town-owned land on Baron's South, she said, is a different example. "While it may not remain open space "� it doesn't mean that we have to decimate a property." The town has been exploring the option of placing various income-level housing units on the site.

Joseloff distinguished the difference between nature preserves -- like the newly anointed Newman/Poses Preserve, which is not meant to be utilized by people, but to preserve the ecology that exists there -- and public parks, like Winslow Park, an area where people can walk, ride bikes and walk their dogs.

"[Winslow Park] is a place that nobody wants to develop, but everybody eyes it," he said. The town has constantly intervened to preserve it as a town park, Joseloff added.

Izzo said he would prefer "no development whatsoever."

"I don't believe increasing the price of public housing. I think we've done enough on that. My point is to protect open space at any cost. It's too valuable and too critical to life itself," he said.

Waterways are just as important as open space, Anderson said. His ideas to protect waterways, especially those abutting private properties, include inserting riparian barriers between lawns and waterways, to prevent lawn fertilizers and other pollutants from getting into the water. "[These] are things that you can't necessarily legislate about, but they are vital to the protection of waterways," he said.

The candidates agreed that a combination of incentives and ordinances is needed to get residents to be more diligent about being kinder to the environment. Responding to a question that likened the incentives to carrots and the ordinances to sticks, Kassen summed up her peers' responses by saying, "You have to use a combination of carrots and sticks. What you really want to do is make the sticks start looking like carrots."

For example, she said, the town's plastic bag ordinance began as a stick (ordinance) but then it was enforced, monitored and evaluated, and people began to see the value in what they were doing.

"Over time, the plastic bag ordinance goes from being a stick into more of a carrot," she said.

LaFleur cautioned about overuse of ordinances. "If you're going to use a stick, you have to use it judiciously. "� If the changes are good, then people will buy your argument."

Speaking in front of an audience comprised largely of Staples students, the candidates agreed that education was the key to improving the town's environmental improvement. Answering a question regarding youth involvement, Joseloff said, "There's nothing better that we can do than educate the next generation." In order for that to happen, he said, education needs to trickle down "to the youngest youngster."

Anderson pointed out that "kids in school do a great deal already," referring to volunteer projects students do like getting water samples and checking fish ladders. "Those are very valuable contributions."

LaFleur said she'd be open to suggestions, but also pointed to the initiatives already put in place by the Board of Education, like green cleaning products being used in the schools, recycling programs and improving air quality.

Going forward, Kassen said she'd like to see more schools using gardens, like the new edible garden at Staples High School. "Those are the kinds of examples that are visible and kids can see them every day," she said.

Though the efforts are being made in the schools right now, the candidates agreed that more must be done.

"We're paying the price for the sins of the past," Joseloff said. He pointed out that the Department of Environmental Protection wasn't established in Connecticut until 1971, and that prior to that, there wasn't a great deal of understanding about the environment. "It's our job to try to correct that and educate the newer generation."

The candidates also agreed that reaching out to other towns can be a way to save money and get new ideas, much in the same way that neighboring towns are looking to Westport for help on setting up their own plastic bag ordinances.

The Westport-Weston Health District is an example of regionalized services already in place, Joseloff said, but there is room for improvement in this area.

"Pollution does not stop at town borders and does not stop at state borders," he said.

Five other topics touched upon included:

Roadside pollution

Anderson: "Have you driven down a road that runs through Westport recently? Who cleans that up? Rotary, Kiwanis [and other] volunteers. These are all things that we can all and should be involved in because we care. We need to share that with our neighbors because that is part of the process."

Izzo: His solution would be to set up a litter patrol: "one little man in a little truck" who picks up the trash throughout town. "There's no reason for Parks and Rec. to have a Maintenance Committee."

Use of pesticides

and herbicides

Joseloff: "It costs money to maintain our roads and golf courses to a quality that people expect, so there's a balance. "� We've made great strides in reduction of our herbicides and pesticides."

LaFleur: The voters would appreciate knowing when and where the spraying will take place, she said. "The worst thing that would happen is that you didn't get there, and you have to make a notice again."

Both Kassen and Joseloff pointed to the pollutants coming from private properties, spraying that cannot easily be controlled by the town.

"It's so important that everybody be aware of the dangers that we are the biggest pollutants ourselves," Joseloff said.

Deer and geese

Anderson: Regarding deer culling, "I think that we need to revisit this. I certainly don't want to use guns. What about tranquilizer guns and humane killing? Wouldn't encourage anything right now, but it's something that we can look at."

Regarding geese, he said, "Educate people on the value of oiling geese eggs in the spring. It is a serous problem."

LaFleur: With regard to deer, "I think it's a sense of how do you do your planting," she said, advocating for smart landscaping. She also cautioned drivers: "[You need to] be mindful when you drive at night and even during the day that there are deer around."

Teardowns that involve cutting

down trees

Joseloff: As opposed to other states, Connecticut lets its towns regulate. "RTM can pass an ordinance. "� I think it's something that we as a town and maybe as a state really need to continue to look at."

Kassen: Pointing to the work the town's Beautification Committee has done on the Post Road, "It's also a matter of setting an example."

LaFleur: "We talk about how much we throw away, and we literally throw away entire houses. It's a shame to be throwing something that large away."

Transportation

Joseloff: Fairfield County has the worst air quality in the state, and Connecticut is among the worst in the nation, largely stemming from the traffic on the interstate. Regionally, he argued, an effort should be made to get the trucks off the road.

Izzo: Citing his work with the trucking industry, "It isn't possible to take the trucks off the road. It isn't possible to get them to be fuel-efficient because of [their heavy] loads. They are better than they were, [but] there's no solution to taking the trucks off the road. We'd all be broke within a few minutes. I ought to know."

Anderson: Priority electric parking spaces. "That's the kind of sensible initiative that we should be thinking. We need to offer that kind of thinking. This is the beginning of the iceberg."

Kassen: "We'd love to have more kids on the school buses. This is something that we need to encourage as parents."