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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Taking the Dread Out of Traveling with Kids

Taking the Dread 
Out of Traveling with Kids:
Author Allison Umbricht 
to share tips Feb. 3
(Posted to 1/28)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – She used to hear it all the time from parents with young children. They dreaded family traveling. She decided to develop a guide to help them through the experience and has been in demand to speak on the subject ever since.

Allison Umbricht, author of “The Mom’s Guide to Traveling with Kids” and a Fairfield mother of three, will make her latest appearance Thursday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. at Fairfield Public Library’s main branch in the children’s program room. The talk is targeted to parents with young children age 10 and under.

Umbricht’s talk will pull from her book, which she describes as a quick and easy reference guide offering “proven tips for fun family trips”, to provide advice about trip planning, being at the airport and travel resources.

“Besides being a mom of children 20 months, 5 and 7, I’ve been a travel agent for the past eight years,” Umbricht said. “When I talk to moms about traveling, I find they often say they dread it. So I created my book to inspire families to travel with their kids. I’ve planned a lot of family vacations and traveled a lot with my family. My knowledge is based on my own experience as well as input and stories from nearly 100 moms I interviewed for the book.”

The book covers everything from planning and packing to entertaining on the plane, enjoying a destination and returning home. It also recommends a number of family friendly destinations.

“One tip I like to share,” said Umbricht, “is going to the Dollar Store or Wal-Mart to buy up little toys, put them in a bag and have the kids draw from it on the plane. There’s an element of surprise and fun.”

Something else she suggests is, when reserving a hotel, to pick one that has rooms with balconies or verandas so mom and/or dad has someplace to go when the kids are napping and can enjoy their own space.

“I’ve gotten really positive feedback,” she says about her subject matter. “New moms say the tips have been helpful and they feel more confident taking trips.”

This is Umbricht’s second book. The first, “Romantic Weekends in Europe” (2004), was written before her children came along. She and her husband had lived in Switzerland and traveled the continent quite a bit.

“I’ve always loved to travel,” the author said. “My family was very encouraging of it. I said to my husband ‘I don’t want kids to prevent our traveling. It’s a different experience to be sure, that requires planning, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run in terms of what you can get out of traveling together.”

In addition to offering advice on keeping kids entertained, Umbricht makes travel equipment recommendations. “Several years ago, the FAA approved a CARES system which functions as a more space efficient alternative to a car seat. It attaches to a plane’s seat belt, folds up into a bag and is a huge saver in terms of packing.”

Umbricht also recommends parents buy triangular-shaped crayons that won’t roll off tray tables in flight and to ship ahead formula and diapers, that usually take up so much room and spur extra checked bag fees, through

The author hopes her presentation will be interactive and that parents of young children will be encouraged to share their own stories.

For more information about Allison Umbricht’s “The Mom’s Guide to Traveling with Kids”, visit

Dogs Delight Kids at K-9 Unit Demo

Dogs Delight Kids at K-9 Unit Demo:
Roger Sherman students 
thanked for their support
(Posted to 1/28)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Like a couple of new kids coming to class their first day, Ellie and Lola got a warm welcome from the entire student body and faculty at Roger Sherman Elementary. Now if they could just stop barking and sniffing the floor.

Ellie, in fact, is a bloodhound and Lola is a German shepherd, and the pair were front and center in the gym at the Fairfield Beach Area school mid-afternoon Friday as part of a special Police K-9 Unit presentation. The dogs were provided by Westport police and brought to the school as a show of thanks to students for their help in raising funds for Fairfield’s own K-9 Unit. Under the guidance of teacher Ted Ostrowski, the 5th graders have been busy collecting pocket change and other donations to contribute to the various expenses associated with the K-9 program.

“This is our way to say thank you to the faculty and students at Roger Sherman for their assistance in helping us raise funds for our future K-9 patrol unit,” said Officer Jay Valle of Fairfield Police’s Public Affairs department to the gathering.

Valle said that the department needs to raise enough money to purchase the canine, have it trained, outfit the police vehicle in which it will travel and buy special equipment like a bullet proof vest for the dog. He added, “It’s not going to cost Fairfield taxpayers a cent. Our K-9 Unit will exist solely because of public donations.”

The Westport officers, Marc Heinmiller and Ryan Paulson, that arrived with the dogs are also their handlers. Paulson’s charge is 5-year-old Ellie while Heinmiller tends to 10-year-old Lola.

“The dogs are trained in tracking but each has a specialty, too,” said Fairfield Police Officer George Buckner, Valle’s partner. Buckner is currently a D.A.R.E. officer but has expressed interest in joining the K-9 Unit.

As Paulson explained to the young crowd, “The bloodhound is usually search and rescue and the shepherd is used for narcotics or detecting explosives. Our K-9 unit does two things: Look for missing people and narcotics.”

Repeated barking announced the arrival of Lola, a black shepherd that continued to yip as the officer painted scenarios in which the dog might be used.

“Let’s say there was a small amount of narcotics in this gym,” Paulson suggested. “It would take officers fifteen minutes or more to find it. Lola can find it much more quickly.”

Paulson said the dogs are trained like it’s a game, with scented toys. Lola was particularly fond of the fabric item the officer had brought and tugged and tugged at it.

Teacher Molly Farrell moderated the presentation and next introduced Ellie and Officer Heinmiller to the students, who were beaming with excitement.

Heinmiller said that handlers like himself and their dogs are with each other around the clock. “It would be cool if you got to bring your pets to school, right?” Heinmiller asked the children. “Well, we get to bring our pets to work.”

Heinmiller said that Ellie is used just to look for people and that bloodhounds have certain features that make them good trackers. “Her nose is always working, cataloguing odors. Everyone has a unique odor. What Ellie’s trained to do is match an odor with a person. We take that skill and teach them to use a person’s odor to find where they went. She will follow a scent and trail.”

The officer mentioned Ellie’s other advantageous features. “Her ears are longer than her face, which brings the scent up to her nose as her head is low and she tracks a smell. She also has folds of skin that help protect her and slobber that helps capture an odor. That’s what makes them unique… and a bit goofy.”

Valle thanked the Westport team and couldn’t say enough about Roger Sherman Elementary’s support. “This is an awesome program and the school has been great in helping us with our past fundraisers.”  

Marine Biologist and Fairfield Native Greg Skomal

Marine Biologist and 
Fairfield Native Greg Skomal:
Shark tagger extraordinaire
(Appeared as a front page feature 
in Fairfield Sun 1/27)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Winter holidays in the Caribbean, an early interest in science and the popularity of undersea documentaries were among the influences that led a Fairfield native to pursue a career in marine biology. On February 2, he will return to the area to speak about his work tagging great white sharks off Cape Cod and sharing insights about these magnificent beasts of the deep.

The Sun connected by phone with Dr. Greg Skomal at his Massachusetts home on a recent mid-winter day to learn about his upbringing in Fairfield, career path and his tracking work.

Local Roots
While Skomal, 50, was born in Stamford, he considers himself a Fairfield native as the family moved there in 1969 when he was eight. Mom Eileen was a homemaker, busy with Skomal and his six siblings, who later volunteered as a room monitor at Fairfield Woods Middle School. Dad Bernard was an independent insurance agent at Insurance Analysis Inc. in the Post Road’s Brick Walk plaza.

Skomal became well rooted in Fairfield, attending Our Lady of Assumption School, achieving his scuba diving certification at the YMCA, serving as a lifeguard at both South Pine Creek and Southport beaches and graduating from Fairfield College Preparatory School, in 1979.

Of his time at Prep, Skomal said, “I took specialty classes like chemistry, physics and advanced biology and was also on the swim team – all great experiences. Fairfield was a wonderful town to grow up in and Prep gave me a solid foundation in science on which to build my career,” said Skomal. 

During this time and up through the late 80s, Skomal was also fortunate to spend winter holidays in St. Croix, where his father had purchased a condominium. It was a combination of those trips, his science studies and TV programs like “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” that led Skomal to want to pursue a career as a marine biologist.

Higher Education
At the University of Rhode Island, Skomal latched onto mentors that helped foster his interest and build the “superstructure” of his career. There were very few schools that offered degrees in marine biology, so he pursued marine-oriented courses in zoology and classes in the school’s world-recognized oceanography program.

“My strategy at URI was to get the requirements out of the way and move on to graduate-level courses to sharpen my skills as a scientist,” he said. “I also made strong connections with several professors who noted my advancement and that I was competing with graduate level students.”

As he neared completion of a B.S. in zoology, he was also volunteering his time to a shark research program at a nearby Federal lab of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “I was fascinated by what they did and thought sharks were really cool.”

As he planned to close out his undergrad career at a field station in the Caribbean, the lab offered him a paid position as a technician, which he decided to take after some deliberation. As it required that he maintain a student status, he quickly joined a Master’s program at URI. It was there, over the next 4 to 5 years, that his interest in shark biology and ecology blossomed.

In 1987, as he received his Master’s in zoology and his lab term concluded, the state of Massachusetts was seeking marine biologists for its local Marine Fisheries offices. Skomal landed a spot with a field station in Martha’s Vineyard, which asked him to continue with his shark-related research work. Specifically, he was asked to study sharks off the coast of New England and develop programs to manage shark populations.

“I had a very forward-thinking supervisor who said ‘the world is your oyster’ in terms of developing programming,” he said. “That and living in Martha’s Vineyard were really attractive.”

Diverse Experiences
Skomal thought he would give the position five years, but ended up spending 23 years with that branch. In fact, he still works for the state’s Marine Fisheries but has “moved up the ladder and off the island”, working out of New Bedford, MA as a Program Manager.

His work has been diverse and exciting. One aspect involves field work and studying local shark species, applying new technologies to study habitats and ecology, and tagging sharks. A second role involves sharing his skills and learning with other shark scientists in areas like the Central Pacific, Australia, Europe, the Red Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Ecuador. A third aspect is translating the science into meaningful conservation, working with state, Federal and international agencies to put fisheries management measures into place to protect sharks and maintain their population levels.

Skomal has also had his share of intense moments over the years, like his first up-close observations of great white sharks in Australia, where he did some cage diving. “It was mind-numbing to be in the water with such incredible beasts – some fifteen feet long and over 2,000 pounds,” he said. “We all have perceptions of sharks as kids, like in the film ‘Jaws’. All that imagery goes through your mind, but with me, logic prevails over emotion. You have to keep a cool head and trust the people you’re with. Still, sharks are unpredictable and can do a lot of damage. You have to be careful.”

Skomal also recalled some great experiences near a small atoll in the central Pacific in the late 90s. “I was doing research out there as part of my PhD and had the chance to swim with Gray Reef Sharks, without a cage, putting cameras on their backs, taking blood samples and tagging them.”

Ninety-five percent of the time, Skomal said, tagging is done from a vessel, as it’s easier in terms of accuracy and aim. The dorsal fin is tagged at its base, into the muscle. “When you’re in the water with them, it’s difficult to get into position and get the leverage you need,” he said.

With certain sharks, though, like the Basking Shark and Whale Shark, tagging must be done underwater as the creatures are so big. Skomal said tagging the Whale Sharks is actually enjoyable as its done in clear tropical waters and the animal is not dangerous. On the other hand, tagging the Basking Shark can be intimidating and spooky as it’s done in murky New England waters and because of their sheer mass.

Skomal said the most dangerous work he’s ever done was up in the Arctic Circle with a poorly understood species called the Greenland Shark. “My team and I were the first to travel to the area to catch some of these animals and study them. We worked in sub-freezing temperatures and under a six-foot thick crust of ice,” he said.

The scientist has detailed some of these experiences in a book he penned titled, “The Shark Handbook”. Published in 2008, it provides shark facts and information in simple language to which the average person can relate.

“People will probably always be afraid of sharks,” said Skomal, “but what they have to realize is that they are important parts of the ocean environment that help maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem.”


Dr. Greg Skomal to give shark talk at Maritime Aquarium
A marine biologist with Fairfield roots, Dr. Greg Skomal has spent the last two summers tagging great white sharks off of Cape Cod and will share what his research has revealed about the predators in a lecture on Wed. Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk. Following his talk, audiences will enjoy a special bonus screening of the IMAX movie, “Island of the Sharks.”

“Popular TV shows that run on networks like Discovery often depict great white sharks in clear tropical water,” said Skomal. “No one thinks of them being in the Atlantic. That’s because they haven’t congregated anywhere seasonally in this great body of water like they do in other areas like South Africa and South Australia where they predictably visit seal colonies.”

Skomal said that because of government policies implemented over the past 30 years regarding seal conservation which have resulted in rebounding colonies of Gray Seals in Atlantic waters, particularly off Cape Cod, great white sharks are returning.

“More and more people have had sightings, which we’ve monitored and confirmed,” said Skomal. “Things came to a head in 2009 when a fisherman eyed several great whites near a colony and we went and tagged them. Last year, we tagged more. Essentially, what we have is a new or redeveloped ‘hot spot’ for great whites that will help yield new data about their eating, mating and movements – the first real insights into how these animals live in this part of the world.”

At his lecture, Skomal will speak about the changing dynamic, share the latest tag data, show some of the only existing underwater video footage of great white sharks in the Atlantic and talk about the tracking process.

“The more we can learn about sharks, the better we can be as stewards of the environment,” hoped Skomal.

To reserve tickets, call The Maritime Aquarium at 203-852-0700, ext 2206.

New Rail Station Project Making Tracks

New Rail Station Project 
Making Tracks
(Appeared as Fairfield-Sun 
front page feature 1/20)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – It’s been a long process and often a challenging and controversial one with setbacks, but it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel and Fairfield will be enjoying its new train station by year’s end.

The Sun spoke with town officials and the developer to get background on how the project evolved, the latest progress update and their expectations about the site’s impact on Fairfield. Commuters joined in with their own comments.

The Project’s Inception

“I’ve been with the town for eight years,” said Fairfield’s Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart, “and the initial genesis dates back before my tenure to previous administrations. The state had originally proposed making improvements to the existing downtown station, including an expansion of structured parking there. That was not well received by the town as there were concerns about bringing additional traffic there and the station was already the second busiest station on the New Haven corridor.”

As a result, people started looking at alternatives. A 36-acre site in the eastern part of town, bounded by Ash Creek and the city of Bridgeport to the south and Grassmere neighborhood to the west, with access from Black Rock Turnpike, Kings Highway and I-95, was chosen. “It was the site of the former Bullard’s Foundry, which made iron castings among other things,” said Barnhart. “The existing BJs facility is part of the same factory complex.”

There were initial concerns about the site. “A challenge was that it was industrial and a so-called ‘brownfield,’” said Barnhart, “which meant that it had some environmental remediation issues. By-products included casting sand that was used as fill on the site and contains metal residue and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).”

The negatives aside, the site represented opportunity. “It had long been idle, underdeveloped and effectively not cleaned up,” explained Barnhart. “Any investment would revitalize and give it new purpose.”


The Town of Fairfield entered into a three-party agreement with the state of Connecticut, the Department of Transportation and the owner of the property, Black Rock Realty, back in 2003. The partnership followed a lot of effort to secure the various legislative approvals, from groups like the Board of Selectmen and Representative Town Meeting. Beyond that, there was fairly extensive permitting and regulatory approvals.

The site as envisioned and the three-party agreement is broken into thirds. The first part is the train station facility and commuter parking lot with platform to provide access to northbound and southbound trains, surface parking lot to accommodate 1,500 cars, vehicular bridge that spans the track, pedestrian “up and over” allowing people to access the platform and a commuter drop-off. The second part is the area running along Ash Creek, which is wetland restoration, public access and walking trails – a 10-acre easement. Part three is private development initially intended to be an office park with some retail and a hotel – encompassing one million square feet.

Everything north of the tracks – essentially the train station, platforms, etc. – was the state’s responsibility. The town was to build the parking lot and then convey it to the state, and build the required roadway and traffic improvements to mitigate impacts. The developer was to do the private area and access road connecting the site to the turnpike. This was going to be done with a state/town grant using tax increment financing.

“As we came out of the approval process in 2008, the economy soured and Black Rock Realty had to put plans on hold,” said Barnhart. A different financing mechanism had to be identified to construct the access road. In the meantime, the state had commenced work on its area – a $40 million project. The state, town and Black Rock Realty developed a new plan and some new funding and the town was chosen to oversee construction of the public improvements south of the tracks.

Current Work

This past July, Guerrera Construction of Oxford was awarded a $21 million contract to build the access road from the track overpass bridge to Black Rock Turnpike at the foot of the Brewster Street Bridge near Fairfield Cinemas. The company is also currently building the parking lot, doing remediation on the site, satisfying permit obligations to construct the wetland mitigation area and public access trails and installing utilities and storm drainage to support the station and future development of the site.

“The town’s work began in late July, and while the state’s project is substantially complete, the station will not be placed into service until the town has completed its work, particularly the parking lot,” said Barnhart. “We’re looking at the station going into service at the end of 2011.”

To that end, Barnhart says Guerrera has made a lot of progress. “They’ve largely completed the wetlands area including wetlands restoration, but also the installation of systems that filter, manage and distribute storm water runoff from the neighborhood north of the site and the site itself. They have also completed rock blasting operations in the mid-section of the site and installation of a new 36-inch diameter sanitary pipe. They have begun shoreline restoration work and made progress on the construction of a large retaining wall that will support the future access roadway and the “concourse” building. And they have finished one quarter of the initial development of the parking lot.”

First Selectman’s Perspective

“This is one of the most historic projects in the town over the last 100 years,” said First Selectman Ken Flatto. The three major objectives he envisioned are (1) the brownfield revitalization and transformation into the site plan, (2) solving the problems that have plagued commuters for decades and (3) more development of industrial property that can be turned into new revenues for the town budget. Flatto cites such benefits as the doubling of the amount of parking in Fairfield, the opportunity to oversell parking spaces, satisfying commuters on the waiting list and the anticipation of $6 million in annual tax revenue from the private development on the site.

Commuter Weigh-in

Fairfield commuters are mixed in their feelings about the new station. “I’m not sure traffic’s going to change a lot,” said Dave Rabideau, 41, who commutes to Greenwich and New York part of the week by train and part by car. “The biggest benefit is going to be people getting access to parking that currently don’t have it. I’ve been on the parking permit list for five years, and haven’t gotten a town spot yet.”

Roger Milici, 44, who takes the train five days a week, is more optimistic. “The more public transportation access, the better,” he says. “It seems like it would add value to Fairfield as a commuter destination for New York City. At the same time though, I think it will make the existing trains from Fairfield more crowded. Hopefully Metro North will add the requisite cars to accommodate passengers.”

Milici had another reservation. “I’m also afraid the express train I now take from downtown will originate from the new station, which will add commuting challenges for me.”


Promising Future for Private Development on New Station Site

Kurt Wittek, Managing Director of Black Rock Realty, is optimistic about the future of the private development portion of Fairfield’s new train station site, but is taking things step by step. Current plans call for a mix of office, retail and hotel space.

“It’s not easy to build on spec in today’s world and current financing climate,” said Wittek, “so we are just now ramping up our efforts to market the space, primarily the Concourse building adjacent to the station’s parking lot. We plan to file for our building permit the first week of February and, depending on the weather and speed of obtaining the permit, we will begin construction on our footings and foundations. The size of the building is 200,000 square feet with the first floor dedicated to retail and the station waiting area and the four upper floors to office space.”

Wittek said that his group is speaking with a few tenants about the office space and it is his hope that he can consummate deals over the next 12 to 15 months, which will allow them to move ahead with construction.

“We always conceived the project in a modular fashion,” said Wittek. “The financing environment for hotels is improving, so that might allow that piece to go forward. Experts agree that the Norwalk to Bridgeport corridor is underserved with hotel properties, so this is a promising location.”

Wittek added, “We compare favorably to anything else out there. I-95 is a nightmare morning and night and we clearly offer opportunities to that regard. We can largely take commuters out of the worst of the traffic.”