Contentious meeting over water tanks
WESTPORT — Neighbors whose property surrounds the site of a controversial water tank project on North Avenue met with state and local politicians, as well as representatives from the water company in an event that prompted more questions than answers.
The meeting, which took place at Staples High School Wednesday night, was the first public meeting of its kind between neighbors, who appealed the water tanks; elected officials and Aquarion, which has filed a motion to dismiss the neighbors’ appeal with the Public Utilities Regulatory Agency.
On Sept. 7, the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved Aquarion’s request to build two new water tanks at its North Avenue property, which the company said were necessary to replace the one nearly 70-year-old tank which sits on the property and is apparently beyond its useful life. Aquarion said new, larger tanks are needed to meet Westport’s growing water demands and meet fire protection standards.
The current tank is 12 feet above ground and holds 1.5 million gallons of water. The two proposed tanks would both reach nearly 40 feet above ground and hold a collective 4.3 million gallons.
Neighbors surrounding the property where Aquarion plans to place the tanks say they were not adequately notified of the project or included in the planning process. Moreover, neighbors say the planned tank construction poses a traffic and safety hazard to the surrounding area, which includes four Westport public schools, and does not match the character and aesthetics of the residential neighborhood.
Westport residents, and especially those abutting the Aquarion property, voiced concern about noise and vibrations coming from the property and contested the size and height of the tanks Aquarion plans to begin constructing next spring.
“You guys have shown us your numbers, and we don’t understand,” said Stefanie Lemcke, of 66 North Ave.
She went on referencing the new two-day a week irrigation policy, which First Selectman Jim Marpe described in a press release sent out to residents this week as an Aquarion-mandated, “permanent two-day per week water consumption limit on the use and in-ground irrigation systems and above-ground sprinklers in Westport,” set to take effect durring the 2018 watering season.
“We’re reducing the irrigation and there is almost no population growth. We simply want to understand how this calculation fits.”
Candace Banks, of 3 Tulip Lane, expressed similar confusion about the water capacity Aquarion says is necessary for the new tanks. “We have one 1.5 million-gallon tank and you’re basically doubling something on top of it and then adding another tank, but that’s still not enough: You’re going even higher. It doesn’t make sense. You’re increasing the capacity 186 percent.”
Banks and Lemcke called on Aquarion to pay for an independent water study to verify the water capacity numbers and proposed a fiber tank, which they said can sustain a lower height than the concrete tanks Aquarion plans to build.
Representatives from Aquarion said Westport’s is part of a pass-through system that transports water from Bridgeport all the way to Greenwich and larger tanks are necessary to allow for an increased water to flow to Westport and down to other communities in lower Fairfield County.
Dan Lawrence, Aquarion’s director of engineering and planning, explained the demands of the pass-through system in periods of drought. “Part of the problem this summer is that Westport didn’t have enough water. We don’t have the ability to move water at certain times of the year out into other communities. What we need is for Westport to be able to have a tank large enough to be self-sustaining so we can move water for every community,” Lawrence said.
Neighbors and politicians alike appeared surprised, some letting out gasps, by the revelation that the tanks are necessary not just for Westport, but to meet the water demands of other communities whose water passes through Westport’s tanks.
Resident Jennifer Johnson, a former Representative Town Meeting member, said, “The bottom line is that this information about pass-through has never and was never presented to the P&Z when they reviewed this. This is fundamental to the information the P&Z should have had when they reviewed that, and many people, on reasons like that, and other reasons like the fact that not all the property owners were notified and the notice actually only went in the Norwalk Hour, is reason to validly consider that the P&Z resolution should be voided and we should have the opportunity to continue this.”
Johnson’s statement garnered loud claps from the more than 50 residents who attended the meeting.
John Walsh, Aquarion’s vice president for operations in Connecticut, attempted to appease attendees’ frustration about the pass-through system, saying, “If Westport was not part of a larger system, this is still the volume of tanks we would need.”
State Sen. Tony Hwang said the revelations of Westport’s role in the pass-through adds a new element to the conversation.
“It came as a surprise to me that we may potentially be increasing the capacity and the height of the tower, to handle holding water for pass-through for the rest of Fairfield County. If that’s indeed the case and that’s indeed the process, let us be familiar and know about it so we can make some determinations,” Hwang said.
“Is there the possibility of looking at other locations as you go through the pass-through that could handle the additional capacity?,” Hwang asked. “These are questions, and I’d like to have the clarification and answers for all of us.”
Aquarion representatives, neighbors and elected officials promised to come back with harder data on the pass-through system and to meet in smaller working groups to continue discussing the water tank issue.