As Compo Beach plan nears completion, details still in crosscurrents

Work on a master plan for Compo Beach is nearing fruition, but some details remain unresolved on the plan designed to guide future use of the shorefront recreation property for decades to come.

Members of the Compo Beach Site Improvement Committee met again last week, with much of their focus on whether the full driving loop around the beach should remain, and if so, where parking should be located.

"The main question is: Is the half-loop the right compromise?" asked Chairman Andy Moss.

Compromise will likely be pivotal where the final details of the master plan is concerned. Entertaining a range of opposing views on what changes should -- and should not -- be made at the 29-acre park, committee members hope to make a recommendation that addresses concerns and placates the majority of residents.

"For a lot of the people that have your opinion, there are a lot of people who have the opposite opinion, and we've been trying to find a balance," Moss told one resident.

"To accommodate one set of requests, there are tradeoffs, and to accommodate another set of requests, there are tradeoffs," he said.

"I'm pleased and excited by the progress that the Compo Beach Site Planning Committee has made," First Selectman Jim Marpe said later.

"They are doing their best to strike a balance between the old and familiar aspects of Compo Beach that Westporters love, while introducing new or upgraded concepts," he said.

Ironically, many people at the beach during a recent visit were not aware of the impending changes. Still, opinions about the park and potential upgrades varied.

"It does seem that pedestrian-friendly is a good idea," said Pat Razzano, a Westport native.

While he said a bike path could be a positive thing, he added, "I also don't want it to turn into the Tour de France," referring to the high-speed bikers zipping around town.

"I like the drive-through loop," he said. "Traffic is slow enough that I think we can co-exist."

Now, most pedestrian traffic has to make a choice, however, between staying on the sand or venturing between the roadway and parked cars. Adding a walking path will be a key change in the proposal, which is being designed by AKRF, Inc., of White Plains, N.Y.

Ashley Ley, a planner with the firm, suggested that closing traffic to the south beach, where cooking grills are, would logically make it safer for walkers.

"Any time you can reduce your interactions with cars and pedestrians, you're creating a safer plan," she said.

"The goal is to make it more pedestrian friendly, so that when people want to walk from here to there, they don't have to walk around people's tailpipes," Moss said.

Yet many residents value the chance to take the traditional drive around the extensive perimeter of the beach, which for some includes parking at the western point to watch the sun set.

Stuart McCarthy, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said that the goal of redesigning the beach should focus on plans that prompt people to get out of their cars.

"To make one of the main objectives of this plan to be able to drive through the beach is shortsighted," he said, favoring more opportunities for foot traffic.

Like some other members of the committee, however, Skip Lane spoke in favor of keeping the general design intact.

"I think it's going to be a really hard sell to the town," he said of the half loop. "I think in order to get the town to accept this, you have to make as few changes as possible."

One longtime Westporter, Michael Calise, is adamantly opposed to the proposed change to move parking farther away from the grills.

"You're actually forcing families to be put in compromising situations," he said, denying direct access to their cars. "It's just a tremendous inconvenience to put people in that position."

"There are going to be people who are going to be unhappy," Moss said. "The question is can we make enough people satisfied."

"There are still many steps and approvals to complete before we can begin to make the proposed changes," Marpe said.

Whatever the final details of the Compo Beach master plan, a redesign of the current parking areas will be part of it. The committee hopes to see more structured access, with delineations for traffic flow.

The entrance to the park itself is also marked for expansion, with a new lane being proposed to the north of the current entrance, cutting through what is currently part of a field.

Another major proposal would be construction of a pavilion adjacent to the south beach, which will include bathrooms.

"They need more bathrooms," said Ann Kennedy, whose family recently moved to Westport. "It's crazy at the moment," she said, with calls from nature at Compo Beach sometimes demanding she get the kids back in the car to find a restroom.

"That's a biggie," she said.

"We come here for dinner a lot," said Ed Strong of Weston. "Having a pavilion would be nice."

Ley said a number of short-term drop-off areas can be created along the beachside.

Questions remain on the future of the trees along the east beach, which have formed a popular panorama over the years. The committee has asked the tree warden to examine them before recommending whether they will remain.

"What I don't understand is, it's a popular facility," Calise said. "It's so successful. Why do we have to change it?"

"I don't think anything we're going to do here is going to make the beach less popular," McCarthy said.

"Compo Beach has always been a place of introspection," said Jim Francek, formerly a longtime resident who now lives in Shelton. "A place to gather your thoughts, or to sit quietly, or with your neighbors."

"Anything that you can do to make it more friendly for the people who live here can be helpful."