Friday, April 07, 2006

Open Space

Drop Cap Letter: The issue of open space has long been discussed in Westport and recently it was in the news again. Today’s Westport News printed a column I wrote in response to recent comments in its news columns as well on its editorial pages. It is reprinted below:

By Gordon F. Joseloff
Westport First Selectman

The issue of “open space” has been discussed in the news columns of this newspaper and most recently in Woody Klein’s “Out of the Woods” column. Unfortunately, my good friend Woody ends his column in a manner that might lead some to believe that I am in favor of turning Westport into “just another overcrowded, polluted exurb with no particular character or room to breathe clean air.”

Northing could be farther from the truth. In my 14 years on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) I repeatedly advocated for and voted for purchase of land for use as open space and for municipal use. I have repeatedly objected to selling portions of Baron’s South to the Y because Westport has so much need for land for its own purposes.

At the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting the other night, Finance Director Don Miklus and I told members that setting aside $500,000 a year in a fund to purchase land was not as cost-effective as seeking to bond a purchase when something comes available. We have adequate funds in place now ($300,000-plus) to put down a binder on a property or to pay for other land acquisition preliminaries.

I emphasized to the commission and later to Westport News reporter Kirk Lang that purchase of open land while a priority, was one of a number of my priorities, including erecting housing for our seniors who want to downsize, for empty-nesters who want to remain in Westport, and for our municipal employees, most of whom cannot afford to live here.

For our police and firefighters, it’s not merely an issue of convenience. It’s a serious public safety concern. With most of our first responders living out of town, they would not be here in case of a sudden crisis and would have a hard time getting here.

We have made progress in recent years in purchasing land for open space. We have done miserably in developing more affordable housing. Yes, they often are competing interests. But if Westport ends up a place where only the truly wealthy are left to take advantage of open space, we have not served our community well.

Woody Klein says open space in residential areas should be preserved. Of course it should be—where practicable. But my remarks were addressed to those who have told me the town should compete against developers when a homeowner decides to sell so open spaces can be created in neighborhoods where they do not now exist. While that is an admirable goal, I’d rather put my taxpayer dollars into the larger parcels of existing open space – or mostly open space—that would serve more people.

We have had a number of large parcels on our potential acquisition list for many years. These were identified by the Land Acquisition Committee in its comprehensive report issued in June 2000.  Our priority ought to be in acquiring—or at minimum expressing an interest in acquiring—these properties. But equally important is the need to increase our stock of affordable housing. If it can be done on land already owned by the town (Baron’s South, for example) that makes it less expensive, more doable, and more attractive to developers.

In any case, increasing our stock of open space and erecting affordable housing where we can are not mutually exclusive goals. Together they would prevent Westport from becoming “just another overcrowded, polluted exurb.”