Woog's World: Welcome to Westport

Seven months ago, when the coronavirus swept into town, Realtors panicked.

With the town - and country - locked down, who could move? Sellers would stay put. Buyers would be terrified of venturing out. The real estate market - already slow - seemed ready to crash.

Instead, it’s red hot. Families - nearly all from Manhattan and Brooklyn - seeking more space, fewer people and a great school system, ignited a frenzy. Westporters - empty nesters thinking about leaving, folks considering a move, others looking to cash in - watched in amazement as bidding wars erupted.

It’s one more crazy chapter, in an endless crazy year.

Since spring, hundreds of newcomers have made Westport their home. They’re getting to know our neighborhoods, our rhythms, our quirks.

They’re learning, for example, that we don’t have a mayor or city council. We may be 20 miles from the New York state border, but we like to think of ourselves as an old New England town. We are governed by three “selectmen” (some of whom are “selectwomen” - don’t even try to say “selectpeople”).

First selectman Jim Marpe is in his second term. He’s in charge of plenty, from budgets and public policy to hiring key personnel. He’s also ubiquitous, appearing at every art show, school event and new store opening. He even carries his own, giant ribbon-cutting scissors.

One thing the first selectman is not in charge of though is education. The school system budget is separate from the town’s. It’s big, but it’s a point of Westport pride. It’s also a point of contention. Everyone went to school once, so everyone believes they’re an education expert. Any Board of Education decision — from major ones on distance or hybrid learning; school start times; more STEM or more arts to minor ones, like cupcakes in classrooms — elicits cascades of emotions.

The Board of Ed has perhaps the most thankless task in Westport - though being superintendent of schools comes close. Tom Scarice has been in that post only since July. He was eager to join us despite a daunting list of challenges, including how to deliver education during a pandemic and while one of our middle schools was closed. His introductions to colleagues and staff - the men and women he’ll work most closely with - came largely via Zoom. His decision to make such a career move despite those difficulties speaks volumes about him - and about Westport’s school system.

Two other institutions animate Westporters.

One is zoning. If you’re going to be a Westporter, you need to know one thing: 8-30g. That’s a state regulation mandating 10 percent of a town’s housing stock be “affordable.” A formula defines the term, but it’s even squishier than it seems. Anything built before 1990 does not count. That means that Westport seems to have less affordable housing than we do.

Developers, meanwhile, often use 8-30g to their advantage. All over town they propose projects that include many market rate units, and a few “affordable.” Proposals have been denied for reasons like safety (fire trucks could not access the property), traffic (too dense for the neighborhood) and environment (too close to wetlands).

Many Westporters understand the need for more diverse housing stock. It’s been decades since town employees - teachers, police officers, firefighters, Public Works crews - have been able to buy homes here. We’re pricing out other people too, like retirees.

But it’s never easy to build new multi-family housing here, with or without an 8-30g component. Too many neighbors object, for too many reasons.

Of course, 8-30g is a Catch-22. No developer can afford to include too many “affordable” units; the price of land and market values don’t allow it. So the more apartments, townhouses and condos are built, the tougher it is to reach that goal. We’re currently in a moratorium period, thanks to a spate of building that got approved after lengthy battles. Once that’s over though, it’s back to the planning drawing board.

You may think that after Westporters get all worked up over education and zoning, they’d relax at the beach.

We do. But some of the most raucous controversies in town have involved Compo.

In the 1980s, a plan to build a playground caused chaos. “It will ruin the vista!” one faction said. “Teenagers will hang out there, drinking and having sex!” others warned. Today of course the Compo playground is a town jewel. But it wasn’t easy.

Just two years ago, construction of bathrooms at South Beach raised a similar ruckus. Once again, residents worried about the location and views. Now it seems like it’s been there forever.

So if you’ve just moved from New York to Westport: welcome. Get involved. Enjoy everything our town has to offer. But if you think you’ve escaped some of the city’s nuttiness: You’re crazy.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.