By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker on Sunday afternoon delivered a State of the Town address, along with Board of Education Chairwoman Lee Goldstein, who gave an education-side address.
While the town and school’s anticipated projects are likely to supercharge the town’s long-term debt, the tone of the discussion at the library was upbeat and optimistic.
Goldsein began with a list of awards the district and its students have won, and a scroll of noteworthy colleges local students are heading off to.
She also mentioned the Long Lots Elementary School rebuilding project, likely to be the most costly in the town’s history.
“This is a huge and complex undertaking, and the next step, over the next few weeks, is for the Board of Finance and the RTM to approve funding for the design process,” Goldstein said.
Tooker addressed town issues.
“My guiding principle, and that of my administration, is to ensure that Westport continues to be the best place to live, work, play and learn in the region,” Tooker said. “A place where everyone is welcome and feels like they belong.
“I think it’s incredibly important to start there today. As first selectwoman, it’s my North Star, and the driving force behind everything my administration does.”
She said the community came together after the Hamas Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, and Westporters continue to raise money for needed equipment in Lyman, Ukraine.
She mentioned her visit to Westport’s sister city last year with Police Chief Foti Koskinas. “Foti and I continue to be in regular contact with our counterparts as they continue to endure a long and devastating war,” Tooker said.
She mentioned the schools now have four full-time police officers assigned for extra security, and that a Town Hall meeting was held after a shocking carjacking took place.
Tooker noted the installation of a rainbow crosswalk at one corner of Jesup Green to honor the LGBTQ community.
“As your town leaders, we’re here to serve you. We’re listening and doing everything possible to ensure that every member of our community feels safe, heard and valued,” Tooker said. “That is priority number one.”
Tooker shared progress on some ongoing projects, including traffic.
“We’ve accomplished quite a bit, from installing new stop signs, to building new sidewalks, and everything in between,” she said. “We are tackling one of the most difficult corridors — Cross Highway between Bayberry and North Avenue, and at a public meeting this Thursday … we will share redesigned plans for both intersections and for the corridor in between, which will include both short-term and long-term plans.”
She said work is underway to create a Safe Streets for All action plan, using federal grant money.
“Beginning this month and likely running for the next six months we will be seeking public feedback through multiple platforms, so please make sure your voice is heard,” Tooker said.
A long-term capital improvement plan for Longshore Club Park is underway, she said.
“After engaging the public and receiving feedback from residents during months of public meetings and information sessions, and numerous online surveys, a 10-year capital improvement plan was finalized,” Tooker said, “and includes everything from installing pickleball courts to upgrading the pool area.”
There also will be a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the Inn at Longshore, under the new lease agreement with Longshore Hospitality, which will fund the renovations. She said plans are being finalized and will be presented soon to various town bodies.
She then mentioned the plans for downtown, which she said is near full occupancy.
“And after engaging the public and receiving feedback from residents and business owners, during months of public meetings, information sessions and surveys, the plan to improve Parker Harding Plaza will be back in front of the Planning and Zoning Commission shortly,” Tooker said.
The new three-hour parking limits for downtown will be enforced, she said, and electric vehicle charging stations will no longer be free.
“The spaces that were previously one and two hours will become three hours, and the remainder of the spaces will be all-day parking downtown,” she said.
The design process for the Taylor Lot, Jesup Green and Imperial Avenue Lot is beginning, she said.
“We welcome and want public feedback through the process,” Tooker said. “And we will go through a similar process to ensure that residents and business owners have ample opportunity to share their thoughts.”
She also discussed a long-standing and increasing problem, flooding along the town’s inland waterways and coastal areas.
“This continues to be a high priority,” Tooker said. “As you know the Saugatuck River runs through our community, along with seven streams, and of course we have changing and more intense weather patterns.”
She said the Flood and Erosion Control Board has studied these waterways and prioritized Muddy Brook and Pussywillow Brook.
Tooker then brought up the Long Lots Elementary School reconstruction.
“We have a positive 8-24 report on the schematic plan for the Long Lots campus which represents a compromise,” Tooker said.
“Currently what we have agreed to on the property is a new school, a multipurpose field and a community garden,” she said.
Various appropriation requests have been submitted.
“Our goal is to start construction before the end of 2024, and I think if I keep saying it out loud it’s gonna have to happen,” Tooker said with a laugh and a smile.
Tooker also about diverse housing, and the upcoming upgrade of the Gillespie Center, which houses homeless men and women and has a food pantry and meal service. The only such facility, she said, in Fairfield County.
Tooker mentioned affordable housing, which has vexed the town in recent years since a state-granted moratorium from its 8-30g legislation expired. That state statute gives developers leeway around usual local zoning laws if a town’s local housing stock is below what the state deems affordable.
“We are actively looking at other town-owned land and physical assets that we can add to our diverse housing stock by converting to affordable housing,” Tooker said. “So more on that as the year goes on.”
Tooker recognized William Vornkahl, who for many decades planned veteran events and Memorial Day parades. He recently passed.
Tooker called him “an engaged, caring resident, who for over 50 years he was Mr. Parade, planning our beloved Memorial Day parade and our Veterans Day service. He will be deeply missed, but his legacy lives on in both of those events, and his love of country and our democracy lives on here in Westport.”
Tooker then talked about democracy, in the wake of some “robust debates.”
“A strong functioning democracy requires all of us to be part of the solution,” she said, requiring compromise.
“Is it messy sometimes, yes,” she said. “Yep. And frustrating at times, oh yeah. But, at the end of the day, time and again our democratic processes, as stipulated by our charter here in Westport, yields the best decisions for our community.”
She thanked all the elected and appointed board and commission members and asked them to rise for a round of applause.