Out of the Woods: Look for room to compromise in open-space battle
Published 6:25 am, Thursday, March 26, 2015
Forty-seven years ago when I moved to Westport from Manhattan, the talk of the town here could be summed up in two words: "open space."
Riding a commercial and residential building boom that had been launched after World War II, real estate developers continued to gobble up open space, leaving Westport residents concerned about being "urbanized" in the future, which was then labeled "exurbia."
Looking back now, the historic battle to transform the beautiful, untouched 27-acre Wakeman Farm on Cross Highway into a baseball field -- which involved the powerful Little League baseball lobby against the "old Yankee" land owners and staunch defenders of "maintain the status quo" old-timers -- was a turning point in our history in the early 1970s.
History is repeating itself today.
Those families and their descendants who have hung in here since the town's founding in 1835 and the remarkable growth ever since have come to treasure every foot of open space.
As my good friend and outstanding public servant Ken Bernhard said in an insightful letter to the editor last Friday, (referring to the still unapproved plan for an affordable senior housing complex on Baron's South, "If it is eventually approved there will still remain 15.7 acres which should be used for more open space."
He is spot on. Sounds like a plan!
First Selectman Jim Marpe inherited a full plate of projects when he took office more than a year ago, involving virtually all of the town's agencies and town bodies that report directly to him. At the same time, he has been approachable and open to new ideas.
Instead of rubber stamping what crosses his desk purely "to get things done" and start working on his legacy, he has embraced Westport's tradition of holding public hearings where citizens can be heard and has attempted to run a transparent administration.
Above all. perhaps, Marpe has kept a vigilant eye on the need to preserve open space as we continue to build up and out and turn our 22.4 square miles of precious land into a virtual mini-city with more pavement, fewer trees, far too much traffic and a critical shortage of parking spaces.
The projects since Marpe took over as the man at the helm of Westport range the private-sector completion of the new Family Y to a series of proposals in various stages -- a not very popular plan (so far) to refurbish Compo Beach; a possible new theater on Main Street; a renovated Westport Library; a new Westport Arts Center near the library, and putting additional trees, gardens, walkways and small shops downtown to recreate some of the small-town environment that once thrived on Main Street.
There is an obvious tug in town to support Westport's economic growth while at the same time maintaining its treasured traditions of the arts, music, theater and as an intellectual hub for speakers and political and social events.
We are a town constantly in transition, quite often in conflict with ourselves, creative yet resistant to change, liberal on some political issues, yet conservative in our social mores.
But we're always in need of open space to express ourselves.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org