The William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge, a 140-year-old swing bridge spanning the Saugatuck River, has been at the center of local debates for nearly seven decades. / Photo by Nathan Holth, historicbridges.org

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Two major projects in the Saugatuck section of town, both the subject of heated debates — one consuming decades, the other “merely” months — took tentative steps forward Thursday.

The future of the 140-year-old William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge and the yet-to-be-built Hamlet at Saugatuck mixed-use development were among the significant initiatives reviewed by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments at its midday Thursday gathering.

Aspects of each infrastructure project won support from WestCOG.

Funding for Cribari bridge redesign back on the road

First Selectwoman Jenninfer Tooker, at Thursday’s meeting of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, emphasized that $4.1 million sought by the state Department of Transportation is only for design options to repair or replace the Cribari bridge.

Efforts to either replace or rehabilitate the Cribari bridge — the 1884 iron swing bridge carrying Route 136 over the Saugatuck River — have proved controversial dating to the late-1950s.

In the 1960s, the state proposed replacing the bridge with a fixed span — 60 feet high at its apex — with relocated approaches much longer and broader than currently in place. The plan was dropped a few years later in the face of local opposition.

In the 1980s, another tug-of-war erupted between the town and state over replacing the deteriorating bridge and, after much political drama, an agreement was forged to preserve and repair the span. It was temporarily removed from service while a stand-in fixed bridge carried traffic across the river, according to a detailed bridge history at the website, preservewestport

Further complicating what could, or could not, be done to the Cribari bridge was its addition to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2016, another guardrail on the span’s future was designation of that segment of Route 136 as a State Scenic Highway.

And, most recently, furor flared again in 2015 after the state Department of Transportation classified the bridge as “severely deficient” and in need of extensive repairs or perhaps complete replacement. 

Several years of pushback from local residents and officials ensued until 2017. That’s when then-First Selectman Jim Marpe asked WestCOG to delete a request for rehab/replacement funds from the DOT until that agency “completed a more thorough assessment with consideration of community input and consideration of the Cribari bridge’s impact on the history of the Saugatuck neighborhood, traffic concerns and design alternatives,” as described in a statement from First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker.

That led to creation of a project advisory committee, which gathered local feedback on various options to repair or replace the bridge. In the meantime, the DOT conducted an environmental assessment and coordinated “with other state and federal agencies, as well as various stakeholders, to consider specific concerns, such as the various alternatives and impacts on historic properties,” according to Tooker’s statement.

The issue before WestCOG on Thursday was whether to endorse a recent DOT request to restore $4.1 million for the right-of-way and final design phase for the Cribari bridge’s rehabilitation or replacement in its statewide transportation improvement plan, or “TIP.”

For an issue that consumed nearly seven decades of contentious debate, Thursday’s discussion of the design funding request was both positive and brief.

Tooker, attending the WestCOG meeting in person, noted the DOT cannot release its environmental survey without WestCOG’s “administrative action” restoring design funds to the TIP.

The first selectwoman took pains to emphasize the funding will pay only for design options, and not for actual work to repair or replace the bridge.

Noting there were “lots and lots of Westporters” watching the WestCOG meeting via Zoom, Tooker emphasized that when the design work is complete, there would be more meetings to gather local feedback before any plans for the bridge’s future are settled.

“No decision is being made,” Tooker said. “We just need to continue the process in looking at whether we rehabilitate or replace the bridge — and we need to do it before it becomes a problem.”

Supporting the funding request, while emphasizing it was not a commitment to any specific plan of action, was Wilton First Selectwoman Toni Boucher, who previously represented Westport in the General Assembly as a state senator.

The agency wants to “assure members of the community that this is no way predicting either refurbish or rebuild” of the bridge, Boucher said. “It’s just to continue the process of potential designs that will be reviewed again by the community.”

WestCOG board members then voted unanimously to support the DOT request for design funding. There was no timeline available for when that work might be completed.

“Hamlet” brownfield cleanup application backed

An illustration of what the Hamlet at Saugatuck mixed-use development might look like if the transit-oriented development wins final approval to be constructed in the heart of the neighborhood.

WestCOG on Thursday also endorsed an application by the developer of the Hamlet at Saugatuck for $12 million to clean up three contaminated “brownfield” sites within the boundaries of the proposed mixed-use development near the Saugatuck Railroad Station.

The sweeping project to redevelop swaths of Saugatuck, proposed by ROAN Ventures, won rezoning approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission in December 2022 after several months of contentious public hearings. The plan envisions retail space, a hotel and residential buildings between the Saugatuck River, Charles Street, Franklin Street and Railroad Place, with a 25 percent affordable housing component.

However, specific Hamlet site plans have yet to be filed, and remediation of contaminated properties is a needed step for the project to advance, according to documents filed with WestCOG.

The planning agency was asked to endorse the developer’s application for a $12 million grant — $4 million to clean up each of three polluted Saugatuck sites — to the state Department of Economic and Community Development. 

WestCOG officials called the request a “pass-through” application, since it involves no agency money, with the endorsement allowing Hamlet’s developer to be considered for assistance from the DECD’s Brownfield Municipal Grant Program, which awards aid on a competitive basis.

The three polluted sites to be remediated are: 

  • 96 Franklin St., which according to documents, “historically served as a railroad coal yard. Byproducts related to coal and industrial activity are suspected in the upper 4-6 feet of soil.”
  • Railroad Place vicinity, consisting of 91 Franklin St. and 16, 40 and 606 Riverside Ave. Contamination likely resulted from “current and historical use [that] includes a dry cleaner, automotive repair and service center …” in the upper 4 to 6 feet of soil, according to documents.
  • 601 and 609 Riverside Ave., now primarily used for a marina and boating services, were formerly the site of Saugatuck Manufacturing Co., where contamination is likely from “use and storage of gasoline, oil and waste oil, in addition to byproducts related to coal …,” according to WestCOG. Pollutants are probably in the upper 4 to 6 feet of the site’s soil, documents indicate.

The state’s help with remediating the properties is “integral to a locally supported redevelopment initiative, named the Hamlet at Saugatuck, [which] will restore this area to a destination where people live, restaurants thrive and events take place,” according to WestCOG’s description.

Matthew Mandell, RTM member and director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, objected to what he felt was an unfair impression of Saugatuck as a “polluted and desolate” area portrayed in a WestCOG report.

The document also states, “The Hamlet at Saugatuck will transform this largely vacant area into a transit-oriented development (TOD) with a mixed-use neighborhood featuring a hotel, residences (with 25 percent affordable units), retail marina, dining, wellness, event spaces and a market featuring local produce.”

WestCOG unanimously endorsed the developer’s application for a brownfields grant, but several Westport speakers took issue with what they felt was an inaccurate negative characterization of the Saugatuck area as it now exists.

Matthew Mandell, a District 1 member of the Representative Town Meeting and executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, told Thursday’s meeting the WestCOG report “unfairly shows Saugatuck to be a polluted and desolate area with no economic benefit, and this is absolutely not the case.”

Without questioning whether there is contamination at the listed Saugatuck locations, Mandell said he wanted the record to show the area is “a vibrant community, with a restaurant scene that is probably unparalleled in the rest of the state.” He also mentioned the annual “Slice of Saugatuck” festival, sponsored by the chamber, which draws crowds to sample the neighborhood’s cuisine and retail shops.

Joining Mandell in defending Saugatuck’s reputation were two other RTM members, Andrew Colabella, District 4, and Wendy Batteau, District 8. Batteau also agreed the area needs brownfield remediation because of “significant pollution” from various sources over the years.

Tooker, commenting on the brownfield grant application, “whole-heartedly” agreed with RTM members’ upbeat description of Saugatuck.

She called it “a thriving area of Westport,” while also supporting the Hamlet developer’s application for state aid to clean up contaminated sites.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.