Woog’s World: What kind of town does Westport want to be?
The elections are over. Westport voters have chosen a new Board of Education, Board of Finance and Planning and Zoning Commission. There’s a new Representative Town Meeting too. All take office soon.
As they do, many old issues remain. They have defied easy solutions so far. But the time is near when we must make some crucial decisions. The stakes are high: What kind of town does Westport want to be?
No one envies the Board of Education. They face three enormous tasks, and all will shape Westport for years to come. And because property values are so dependent on the perception that our school system is one of the best in the tri-state region, those decisions should concern every person in town, whether they have children in the school system now, not yet, never will, or their kids are long gone.
The first is redistricting. It’s long overdue, fraught with emotion and complex. It involves the concepts of neighborhoods, neighborhood schools, possible grade realignments, the middle school model, class size, transportation, even preschool.
Everyone has an opinion. Most are advocated through a narrow lens: What’s in it for me and/or my kid? The debate, and final vote, will certainly not be easy. It may be rancorous, yet any decision should be made with the best interests of everyone in mind. Some people will not be happy, but every child will still get a Westport education and it will still be a great one.
The Board of Education will decide too whether to change start times. This is another hot topic, another one that can devolve into “what I want for my kid.” Sleep, child care, academics, sports, transportation — all are part of this intense discussion. Let’s keep it civil and objective.
Finally, the board will hire Westport’s new superintendent of schools. He or she will earn the town’s highest salary — and boy, will he or she earn it. There are so many dimensions to this position and so many responsibilities. My vote is to keep interim superintendent Dr. David Abbey, but he’s already retired once, and as much as he loves this town, he wants a life beyond Town Hall.
If we can’t have him, let’s make sure we get someone with his same wonderful qualities of maturity, calmness, experience, and an unwavering respect for children, parents, teachers, administrators and Westport.
Part of the redistricting debate centers around the school-age population. And that may be determined, in part, by changing housing patterns.
Hundreds of new units — apartments, townhouses and private homes — have been added in the past few years, or will soon be available. They’re all over: across from Greens Farms Elementary School, near the old Bertucci’s, on the former Daybreak property. Nearly 200 more have been proposed, for more than a decade, at Hiawatha Lane, near I-95 Exit 17. Who will move into them? Families with children? Single people? Older, downsizing folks?
What will they want and need in terms of services? How will their vehicles impact our already crowded streets? Where are they coming from? Are their expectations of our community different from our own?
Planning and Zoning deals with the nuts-and-bolts of new housing applications: coverage, parking, safety, legality, etc. But just beneath the surface of every developer’s request is the issue of affordable housing. The P&Z must weigh many factors before every vote. No two commissioners or residents have the same vision of what Westport is, or what it should become. But nearly everyone has a backyard. Enough said.
One common thread in all of the above examples is transportation. Our roads are choked (and, thanks to Waze, they’re more choked in more places and during more times than ever before). We can’t build more streets, and we can’t drive on the sidewalks (though some of us try).
We can’t even decide what kind of bridge we want over the Saugatuck River. The Cribari Bridge is 133 years old, and it shows. Renovation will be costly. If we use state funds, we are at the Department of Transportation’s mercy. They might demand a much bigger — as in, able to handle 18-wheelers — span. But is not replacing the bridge a fool’s errand?
Planning and Zoning decisions affect every facet of life in town, none more so than downtown. Our merchants have been battered for years by forces ranging from online shopping to frequent flooding. Some wounds are self-inflicted, like a flood of chain stores and the disappearance of mom-and-pops. The P&Z can’t mandate massive changes, but every downtown decision helps ensure whether retail survives or dies.
Elections have consequences. We can’t know yet what the outcome of our votes on Tuesday will be. All we can say is: Congratulations and kudos to the men and women who have stepped up and will make them.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.