Norman Sasseville was interviewed by Mary Giles in 1976. He spoke about the Conservation Commission.
(Norman Sasseville, Chairman of Westport Conservation Commission)
Mr. Sasseville, can you tell me briefly what you consider the chief aims of the Conservation Commission to be, it is a Commission appointed by the town government. How and why did you become interested in the preservation of Westport’s resources?
I had lived in Westport a few years before I became associated with the Commission, was naturally interested in it, and one of my colleagues, who had been a member of the Commission, became ill and asked me to finish his term. I’m a professor of Biology at Southeastern Massachusetts University, for this reason it is obvious that I would be interested in environment and environment affairs.
How does the Commission operate?
Well, you know, for a number of years at the beginning, the Commission didn’t do much of anything. We played an educational role, educating ourselves about what could be done. Of course, back in those days, the statutes did not exist that the Commission could use as a way of backing its action. It was very much an advisory board at that time.
Whom did you advise?
The Selectmen, the Commission, the Board of Health and this is still a function to this day. It is the only board in town that has a primary concern with the environment. But the big change came in 1972 when the State Legislature passed the law, the so-called ‘Wetlands Act,’ Chapter 131, Section 40, and that made a big difference, because prior to that time, we could take very little action. If we discovered, for instance, that someone was doing some horrendous thing to our environment, we would have to call Boston. Of course, they were overworked, and it wasn’t convenient for them to run down here every time we had a problem, and that obviously was not satisfactory. Some parts of the state were in worse straits then, we were so far as distances, so in 1972, the state changed the Act and gave really a tremendous amount of authority to the local commissions. Now the local people have the major say, and the Boston people are acting largely as an appeal, if some should disagree with our recommendations, they can appeal to Boston, so the bulk of the work is now being done locally, and I think it’s worked quite well. I think the Selectmen have to be commended for their good appointments.
Do you think the people of Westport could be more cooperative?
Yes, but one can always say that. It would be Utopia if we could answer ‘no’ to that. As much as we’ve tried to educate people about our efforts, they say they don’t know very much. I suspect that they do know and claim they don’t as a way of covering up.
But, most people don’t know too much about it until they have to deal with it. What means of really communicating with the people do you have?
We’ve had newspaper features, we’ve printed brochures of various sorts, at one time, and we mailed one to every box holder in town.
That’s the one with the cute little owl on the green tree?
Yes, and of course, we see that the library is well supplied. It’s a difficult thing and the last few years we really don’t have an awful lot of time to devote to this. We’ve been so busy with other things, you know, we’ve taken on the Soil Board functions in town, completely responsible for soil, gravel removal operations, and you know, we’re meeting twice a month and sometimes meeting in between, just to keep our heads above water. It’s a big job, and it’s going to get bigger.
If you look ahead, it’s obvious that the legislature is going to increase the power of the local commissions; I’m sure you’ll find that the membership will be an elected one, not an appointed one. There’s a movement afoot now so that the commissioners will stand election like the Board of Health and the Planning Board, and that’s both good and bad.
Tell me what’s good and what’s bad.
It’s bad when the Commission is appointed if the Selectmen play politics with it, appoint their friends, people partial to developers and so on. The good part of it is that if the Selectmen are judicious in their appointments, this can probably result in a better-qualified commission than the elected route. The one elected, and, of course, anyone can run, may not be elected on the basis of their qualifications, but may be the one who spends the most money on the campaign or whatever, and not really be conscientious. The Selectmen can study the people, look into their background and have some good goods.
In Westport, for the most part, I think it’s been better to be appointed than elected, but you know throughout the state, and of course, you have to look at the whole state, in so many town it’s a political football. I suspect this is where the thrust is coming toward the elected part, because in so many places the Selectmen don’t take this function seriously.
I want to get into another thing, a little different, but all related. Has Westport become so large, that a town meeting form of government is not necessarily the best form of government? We often have so few people come out to (Town) Meeting in proportion to our population.
At one time I talked to people about coming out for a representative form of meeting, but I’ve changed my mind on that. With all its faults, I would like to see the Town Meeting go on for as long as possible. It’s awkward this way, but I think there are some terrific advantages to the Town Meeting, and it doesn’t really disturb me a whole lot, that only 600 people come, for example, only 53 per cent of the people voted in this last presidential election,
Maybe it’s a rationalization, but I think that those who come to Town Meeting are those who care, and, if you forced those who don’t care to come, I don’t think their actions would benefit the town.
The basic question is, how can more people be helped to care?
I don’t know. I wonder whether more education, more work with children in the schools, people growing up who are going to be future citizens.
It’s an attitudinal thing. It’s a question of attitudes and maybe it’s right, that it is with children that we should start. With adults, we’re starting too late. They’re in the mold.
It’s awfully difficult to move in on the schools, how to relate the schools to the selectmen and the town government.
What other services have you performed in the town?
Of course, the Commission is allowed to purchase property or acquire by gift conservation easements on property, and the town owns property such as the Cherry and Webb property, which was donated to the town with the provision that the Commission would manage it, and we’ve added to that by buying the Helen Tripp property, which is now being used as sort of a town beach, and the town forest area, and we have an area up in the north end of town and we are involved in that area of management. We’ve done work in the town forest. Every year we do work at Horseneck. We plant things, and do things and try to stop and control erosion. These are things that we do over and above the Wetlands’ Act.
It’s a big job, isn’t it?
I wish people could realize what you do. I wish we could get to the paper so that more specific articles could really tell more. Westport is growing and changing. If it were in your power, which directions would you like to see Westport go in?
If it were in my power? That’s giving me an awful lot of power. Uh! I’d like to turn the clock back a little bit, if I could, and of course, that’s impossible. And if that weren’t possible, to stop the clock where it is, and of course that’s not possible either. I think that despite my own wishes, the town is going to change. I’m not as worried about it as I was years ago, say ten years ago, when it seemed to me that people were not as aware as they are today, and the laws did not exist to prevent people from really despoiling.
We’ve got zoning, we’ve got the Wetlands Act, and I think things will improve in that direction. Westport will continue to grow, but I hope not in a detrimental way. I’m still not completely assured that everything is going to do well, but I think there is a better chance that it will.
This younger generation. I think they have learned a good attitude younger than we did, than I did. I’ll speak for myself; it took me years to develop a positive attitude toward the environment than many of the younger people have today.
Actually in many cases, it may mean giving up something.
Oh, surely. Oh yes! The alternatives are not happy to think about.