RTM won’t investigate contaminated fill
WESTPORT — Despite warnings from town officials, the Representative Town Meeting voted down a sense-of-the-meeting-resolution and petition to investigate contaminated fill on the town-owned Baron’s South property on Tuesday.
The petition, spearheaded by Westport resident Morley Boyd, came after it was reported in June traces of arsenic were found in the soil pile. The fill currently at the site was dug up during the expansion of the Center for Senior Activities, which is also on the Baron’s South property, and moved to a meadow on site.
“I want to be clear the petitioners are not dictating any particular outcome here,” Boyd said. “We’re only asking this be referred to committee for discussion.”
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However, it was the opinion of the town attorney’s office that the petition did not fall within the role of the RTM.
“The issue of the disposition of the fill fits squarely within the purview of the Department of Public Works and the executive branch — the first selectman and the Board of Selectmen,” assistant town attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug said.
First Selectman Jim Marpe noted the town would have a plan in place by Jan. 15, at which point it would be discussed at a public meeting.
“We want to assure you the decisions made around this will be in the best interest of Westport,” Marpe said, adding all of the department heads are dedicated to handling the issue properly.
Public Works Director Pete Ratkiewich, as well as former director and current environmental consultant Stephen Edwards, also addressed Boyd’s concerns.
According to Edwards, moving fill within a property was common practice, and it is not uncommon for there to be low levels of arsenic present in Fairfield County towns.
Nevertheless, the discussion drew concerns from two Planning and Zoning commissioners.
Commissioner Chip Stephens said it was important Boyd brought light to the topic, pointing to Fairfield’s ongoing investigation into contaminants at a fill pile.
“Granted that is a bit larger than this issue, but it’s the same thing bottom line,” Stephens said, adding an RTM committee could thoroughly vet the issue.
Stephens was also in favor of moving the fill out of town, a decision that could cost around $40,000.
“You have the power to investigate what you want,” he said to the RTM. “You’ve done many things that are way above and beyond what was expected and what some people may say was allowed. But you pushed forward.”
“I’ll be danged if I want that dirt mixed up and put on another park, land, or possibly on a school property,” Stephens added. “I think this town should get rid of it before you’re put in liability or problems like the town of Fairfield.”
Fellow commissioner Al Gratrix said the stock pile was a “serious problem” and balked the town’s zoning regulations, which could set a bad precedent for future developers.
“I don’t think we’re sending the right message,” Gratrix said.
While RTM member Amy Kaplan said she was encouraged to hear there will be a plan presented, she argued it wouldn’t have happened without pressure from petitioners. Kaplan supported allowing an RTM committee to have some oversight on the issue.
“Part of what bothers me about this topic is, of course, the potential toxicity of the material,” she said. “I’m also really dismayed that Baron’s South was kind of a dumping ground.”
The hourslong debate on the topic led to several amendments, one including a referral to the RTM’s Planning & Zoning Committee and another postponing the vote until Feb. 4. However, both were voted down.
Several RTM members ultimately voiced support for town departments devising a proper plan. Others suggested waiting until a plan is proposed would be a more appropriate time to investigate the issue if necessary.
RTM member Jack Klinge voted against the resolution, looking instead to the Public Works Department to take on the job.
“I just don’t think the RTM was elected to execute and police all of our town projects,” Klinge said. “I think we have departments to do that job under the first selectman.”