Neighbors, town, utility agency debate water tanks
Editor's note: The date Aquarion sent out a June notice has been changed.
WESTPORT — European expats Stefanie and Marc Lemcke moved with their two children to 66 North Ave. four years ago unaware their new home was across from a water tank.
“It was perfectly covered, nobody knew what was going on until two years ago when construction started on the site,” Stefanie Lemcke said of the North Avenue water tank. “When we walked over and asked what this was for they were like, oh, we are upgrading the water pump.”
Lemcke asked the Aquarion Water Company workers how long their work would take and she said they said six months.
But, “It wasn’t six months,” Lemcke said. “It almost took them 18 months to complete the upgrade of the water pump. There was a lot of noise and construction lights in our house. We were like, wow, it’s really weird no one has informed us.”
“Fast forward, they finally completed this and never planted anything,” Lemcke said. “Then we got a notice we are now invited to a neighborhood meeting with two days notice basically informing us they’re planning to build new water tanks. Not just the one tank that’s in the ground, but tanks.”
Lemcke was traveling for work and couldn’t attend. Her husband went instead and said only five neighbors attended.
Aquarion's Director of Public Relations, Peter Fazekas confirmed Aquarion sent out a notice on June 13 for the June 28 meeting.
“We heard about this gigantic project tripling the water storage, building two 40 foot towers where the one tower is. The current tower is only 12 feet above ground,” Lemcke said.
“There were a lot of questions coming up. Why this location? This is across from Staples and one of the busiest roads in the town,” Lemcke added.
At the July 20 Planning and Zoning Commission public meeting Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young attempted to assuage resident concerns.
“I guess I’m speaking from a defensive position because I was at that meeting, I spent a lot of time working with Aquarion along with some of my department heads to make this as modest a scope of work as possible to simultaneously meet the demands and the needs of Westport residents.,” said Young at the June 20 meeting.
Officials say water demands in town have increased dramatically since the North Avenue water tank was built in 1956. As Robert Yost, Chief of the Westport Fire Department said at the same meeting, “Homes in this town are getting larger and larger, as we all know, and made of synthetic building materials. All this requires more water to extinguish.”
“During peak summer usage sometimes that tank gets down to three feet,” Yost said. “I’m losing a lot of sleep. I think back to the Saugatuck Congregational Church Fire that happened in the winter. Had that happened in the summer, those hydrants would’ve went dry and we would have lost the church.”
On July 25, P&Z member Danielle Dobin sent a letter to Aquarion asking for a revision to the size and scale of the tanks.
“This is a sweet, lovely neighborhood and the proposed tanks would be monstrously out of place there,” Dobin wrote.
Zoning Chairman Cathy Walsh said Aquarion then met with neighbors and redesigned the project.
The tank sizes were reduced from 5 million gallons to 4.3 million gallons and additional landscaping was added to sheild the tanks.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with several of their neighbors, the Lemckes hired an attorney, Alan Spirer, who submitted a memorandum in opposition to the tanks on Aug. 23.
“What has for years been a storage tank largely obscured by existing trees will, if the application is granted, become an industrial use, visible to all, that will loom over the surrounding neighborhood,” Spirer wrote.
“The service to be provided by the proposed 5 million gallon water storage structure will extend far beyond that which ‘is necessary for the services of the surrounding residential area,’” Spirer continued.
A week after Spirer submitted the memorandum, the zoning commission held another public hearing on Sept. 7.
At the hearing, Westport Fire Marshal Nathaniel Gibbons said, “lawn watering in this town causes the biggest drop in the tank between two and four in the morning. Ironically, that’s when most of the bad house fires occur.”
“The application not only addresses this, but it increases available fire flows in parts of town that traditionally don’t get so much water, specifically Saugatuck Shores, a very problematic area,” Gibbons added.
At the end of the Sept. 7 meeting, all seven zoning members voted to approve the tanks.
“Regardless of our questions and Cathy Walsh’s concerns about the project, the P&Z approved the ask,” Lemcke said. “They allowed for a five year construction period without having any of the questions we asked, and they asked, answered by Aquarion.”
Following the project’s approval, Spirer terminated his representation of the Lemcke’s and their neighbors. “He said we should not appeal the decision, and we disagreed with him, so we couldn’t hire him any longer,” Lemcke said.
“We will appeal this because it’s the only way for us to have a chance to negotiate,” Lemcke added.
“We have very clever people in the neighborhood so we said, you know, let’s sit together, think this through, and we drafted our own appeal,” Lemcke said.
On Oct. 15, owners of 76 properties surrounding the tanks submitted an appeal to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
“We’re basically waiting for a schedule on the appeal filing from PURA,” Fazekas said of the project’s current status.
Lemcke insists the neighbor’s primary goal is not with the tanks themselves, but the process by which they were approved.
“Aquarion and the town negotiated behind closed doors for 18 months and basically when they presented it was a done deal and the neighbors were only told last minute, which is not the right way to do this,” Lemcke said.
When asked whether residents were given enough time to provide feedback on the tanks, Fazekas said, “Absolutely, I believe so,” and added, “I think the pushback has primarily been from the abutting neighbors.”
The Lemcke’s and several of their neighbors created a Change.org petition against the tanks in mid-October that has received 678 signatures to date.
“We are not trying to stop an improvement on water tanks. We are for better water tanks,” Lemcke said.
“But we are asking, has there been an independent study done really confirming the numbers and that this water is for Westport and Westporters alone and not for the entire region and not for bottling it and selling it for commercial use? ” Lemcke asked.
The only study cited in the P&Z hearings regarding Westport’s water needs was conducted by Aquarion itself.
First Selectman Jim Marpe met with the Lemckes and several of their neighbors on Oct. 30. Lemcke said Marpe seemed amenable to issuing an independent study of Westport’s water needs.
“What I have done is facilitated subsequent discussions between homeowners in that area and Aquarion to allow Aquarion and homeowners to work together,” Marpe said.
“Has there been any investigation of whether this is the right location?” said Lemcke.
Lemcke’s other concerns include construction time, safety, and traffic congestion on North Ave.
“We have to look into how to make this a faster process by bringing in prefabricated tanks that can be put there much faster,” Lemcke said.
“This is not just ‘Not in my backyard’”, she added. “This is Staples, this is the reason people move here, the good school system, and ugly, huge construction for five years will affect not only the real-estate around the school, but it affects all Westporters who have kids in the school system.
“We want to get back to sit at the table with Aquarion and discuss how this will be done,” Lemcke said.
PURA spokesperson Michael Coyle confirmed technical and legal staff have been assigned to the neighbor’s case and a schedule for the appeal will be announced soon.