Woog’s World / Compo beachgoers become politically active, again
It’s all about the view.
That’s what the pickleballers say. Over the past few years, this large, quickly growing and very passionate group has made a once-obscure patch of the Compo Beach parking lot their home.
Two courts have been carved out next to the skate park, between the Ned Dimes marina and South Beach. If you haven’t wandered by — or even you have, and didn’t know what was there — you should check out pickleball. The relatively new sport is a hybrid of tennis, badminton and ping pong. Played with a paddle, plastic ball with holes and a slightly modified tennis net, it has taken the country (and Westport) by storm.
Pickleball can be played indoors or out. The location of the Compo courts is part of the sport’s booming popularity here. Players get a good workout, then hang out with fellow aficionados a few feet from the water.
They worry, though, that next year their view of the shore will be obscured.
For several years, Parks and Recreation has studied ways to build a bathroom on South Beach. Parents with young kids, beachgoers with infirmities, and folks who simply gotta go have long had to use a couple of grotty port-a-potties dumped near the circular driveway, midway between the cannons and the kayak launch.
A relatively small, permanent structure seemed like a great solution. Until the pickleballers learned exactly where it was going.
Yet this is not the first time Compo beachgoers have worried about a new structure ruining the view.
In the mid-1980s, a group of Westporters figured it was time for a new playground. Back then, the grassy area near the basketball courts included a carousel, a few swings, and a set of monkey bars. Why not create a much nicer, more inviting and creative structure closer to the shore?
The parents hired Robert Leathers, who had a thriving business going around the country, meeting with kids, getting their ideas (a pirate theme? dinosaurs? space ships?) and incorporating them into a playground design that was both unique and suspiciously similar to every other one he did.
The process proceeded well — until the first renderings were shown. Immediately, a typical Westport uproar ensued.
“The new playground will ruin the vista,” some Westporters shouted. “How dare you put something like that on the sand?”
That was not the only complaint. There were concerns that it would attract drinking, pot-smoking, sex-crazed teenagers and/or tons of “out-of-towners.” Inevitably, of course, all that would lead to depressed property values. Not to mention, the end of the beach as we knew it).
Court battles followed. Finally, the pro-playground people prevailed. One April weekend, hundreds of volunteers - including tons of kids - showed up to work. The playground was built.
It promptly became one of Westport’s most favorite attractions. It’s well used, and much loved. To this day, it’s one of the first places we show out-of-town visitors. Some of the staunchest opponents not only have no problem with it - they love it. (And property values have never been higher.)
But the playground battle pales in comparison with the one two decades earlier, over Cockenoe Island.
In the mid-1960s United Illuminating — the predecessor to Eversource — had a brilliant idea: put a nuclear power plant on the island a mile off Westport’s shore.
You read that right. The utility company figured there would be NO PROBLEM building a Three Mile Island-type structure right there in Long Island Sound. Not to mention a causeway leading out there, from Saugatuck Shores or Norwalk.
You might think that’s crazy. Cockenoe Island was a favorite destination of boaters and campers. It was an environmentally sensitive haven for birds. It was not a smart site for a nuclear power plant. Unlike a playground, this one would definitely have sent property values plummeting.
Even the upside — warmer water — was actually a downside.
Fortunately, there was a media outlet on the case: the Westport News. The paper had been launched a couple of years earlier, to compete with the well-established Town Crier. Editor Jo Brosious —a boater herself — devoted herself and her paper to the cause. She wrote news stories and editorials, published letters to the editor and editorial cartoons about the controversy.
The Town Crier, meanwhile, supported the plan. It would be good, editor Lu Villalon said, for Westport’s tax base.
A long legislative battle ensued. Eventually, the town of Westport bought Cockenoe Island from UI for $200,000 - the utility’s original purchase price. We now own the island, in perpetuity.
It’s remained open and pristine. Nothing, except for a bit of erosion — has changed since 1969. There’s not even a bathroom there.
Which may or may not be the case next year, at the Compo Beach pickleball courts.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.