Westport Housing Authority tenants fume over ban on grilling

Dozens of Westport residents looked forward to throwing hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken -- maybe even steak -- on the grill as summer winds down this Labor Day weekend.

However, plans for family cookouts at Westport Housing Authority properties have been doused. Letters informing tenants of a ban on grills were sent to Hidden Brook, Sasco Creek Village and Hales Court residents this week, along with rent bills. The letter cites a large fire sparked at Sasco Creek Village by a grill in July. That incident destroyed two trailers. Residents of Hidden Brook, behind 1655 Post Road East, said that one man's negligence, or lack of grill skills, should not result in everyone else being penalized.

Many residents would not give their names out of fear of retribution by the housing authority, but Steve Rubin, who is a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member, did not shy away from commenting. He said Wednesday during a visit to Hidden Brook that it's his job as an RTM member to "protect my constituents."

"To take an American tradition away by intimidating them is appalling," said Rubin, who noted the letter from the WHA states the grills must be removed from the premises prior to Sept. 15 and failure to comply may result in fines and jeopardize a tenant's continued residency in a WHA unit.

One woman at Hidden Brook said, "Why should I be punished because somebody did something stupid?" She and other residents said the man who caused the fire had the grill up against his trailer and used charcoal in a gas grill. Also, during the fire, Rubin said a police officer reported hearing what sounded like fireworks coming from the man's trailer.

Rubin wondered if perhaps there were a fire involving a Christmas tree in the future, might the housing authority ban Christmas trees?

"We might be instructed to do anything the management company (Millennium Real Estate Services) dictates us to stop. Where will it end?" asked Rubin. "Will we be allowed to come home after dark or will we be subject to punishment because we're disturbing a neighbor that wants to go to sleep early?"

Along the same lines as the grill bans, Rubin wondered if someone's stove malfunctions and ignites a fire, would the housing authority require people to remove their stoves. He added that WHA residents are being treated like second-class citizens just because they can't afford an expensive condominium.

At a recent meeting led by Todd Whitaker of Millennium, residents were told the fine would be $25 a day for every day after Sept. 15 the grills have not been removed. The notice that residents received this week suggests the grills can be disposed of at the Westport dump or, if a grill has a propane tank, it can be disposed of at fire headquarters. For residents who may not have the means to dispose of their grill on their own, the WHA will help take them away, according to the letter.

Some residents said Wednesday that the WHA is overreacting by imposing a grill ban because it had to spend money to house residents displaced by the fire somewhere else. The letter states that "in consultation with the fire marshal and other risk management professionals, it has been determined that the use of barbecue grills or any other type of open-flame device will not be allowed on any property owned by the Westport Housing Authority."

However, Rubin contacted Fire Marshal Ed Zygmant, who he said told him that there is nothing illegal about grills at the WHA properties.

Zygmant, contacted late afternoon Thursday, said he is displeased being blamed for the grill ban. "I don't mind being blamed for something that is enforceable, but it's something that we actually have no jurisdiction over," he said.

Zygmant said a grill or any appliance or device must be used according to the manufacturer's safety instructions. While the Connecticut Fire Safety Code has no specific rules regarding grills, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a grill be at least 10 feet from a home or any other building. In the case of the July grill fire, the grill was close to the structure and not being used according to its guidelines, Zygmant said.

Housing authority officials were unavailable to comment by press deadline Thursday.

The grill ban has many upset ahead of Labor Day weekend. But grilling is more than a holiday event for many residents.

"I barbecue from April to October," said one woman who paid $130 for her grill and $30 for the tank. Another mother said she grills five times a week.

"They're treating us like kindergartners," she said. Other residents said that while they can cook hot dogs and hamburgers on their stoves, that doesn't make for the same great taste produced by grilling. One woman added that when meat is cooked on a grill, it also is "not cooking in its own fat."

Another resident said banning grilling is taking away "our sense of community."

One person besides Rubin was brave enough to go on the record Wednesday.

Karina Reininger said what the WHA has done is "unfair."

She said grilling is largely done for youngsters and if "one takes the necessary precautions, there shouldn't be any problems."

Another mother at Hidden Brook said what the WHA has done more than ban grilling. She said it has taken away the "cheapest way for me to feed my kids" when they come home from sporting activities with friends.

Rubin called the WHA action totally uncalled for.

"Should we wear a star on our shirt saying we don't make $200,000 a year, that we live in Hidden Brook and we are inferior?" he asked.