Chip Stephens: Passion Powers The P&Z Chair

When Chip Stephens was at Bedford Junior High School — the one on Riverside Avenue, just to carbon-date him — the comment under his yearbook photo read, “Doesn’t like people who don’t like Westport.”

Almost a native — he moved here in 1960 at age 5, when his father got a job in Stamford and found a home on Lone Pine Lane for $18,000 — he went all through the local schools: Bedford El. BJHS. Staples. (In the 1970s he wrote a letter to the editor urging Bedford El not be torn down, but refashioned into Town Hall. Done.)

After earning undergrad and masters degrees (microbiology) from the University of Maine, Stephens came back to Westport in 1979.

Why? “I love it!” he says, in a tone reserved for a question like, “Why do you breathe?”

His return coincided with the beginning of some important zoning changes in Westport. The Wright Street complex replaced woods above Wilton Road — and changed the face of downtown forever. Nearby, on Riverside Avenue, concrete offices replaced old brick buildings.

Stephens joined others in wondering, “How the hell did that happen?”

The corner of the Post Road and Wilton Road -- before the Wright Street office complex was built.

The corner of the Post Road and Wilton Road — before the Wright Street office complex was built. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

For the next few decades, his civic involvement consisted of coaching: baseball, football, wrestling. But in 2011 he got a call asking if he’d run for the Planning and Zoning Commission.

He did. And Stephens — along with 3 other Republicans — all won.

“I love this town,” he reiterates. “But every so often — Wright Street, the midnight demolition of the Victorian house on Gorham Island — something happens. We have to be vigilant or we’ll have another big issue, like the nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island or B. Altman at Winslow Park.”

Stephens and the Republicans ran on a “Preserve Westport” platform. They were cross-endorsed by Save Westport Now.

“Development is not bad,” Stephens says. “Change is good. But it has to be in small doses. We need to keep our historic landmarks, our old houses, as much as we can.”

Chip Stephens at home. Next to his front door is a poster from the 1978 Great Race -- a townwide event involving homemade boats, the Saugatuck River, and the cleanup of Cockenoe Island.

Chip Stephens at home. Next to his front door is a poster from the 1978 Great Race — a townwide event involving homemade boats, the Saugatuck River, and cleaning up Cockenoe Island.

This month, Stephens was elected chairman of the P&Z. So what is his #1 goal?

“Civility,” he says simply. “We’ve all got to play in the sandbox together.”

He is encouraged by the new commission. “Everyone has the same mission: to give back to the town,” Stephens says. “We won’t always sing ‘Kumbaya,’ but we will work together. We have to.”

The reason, he explains, is that “there’s so much about to happen. We all know some changes — Bedford Square and Save the Children — are in the works. Saugatuck is rapidly changing, and there’s more to come when the Mario’s block gets developed.”

But, he says, many Westporters don’t realize what else is in play. According to Stephens, “every property from Geiger’s to Exit 18 could look radically different in the next 10 years.”

A Maserati dealer is going into the old J. McLaughlin. The Townhouse for Dogs property will be redone. There are “rumblings” about Arby’s, Men’s Wearhouse and Boccanfuso.

Across the river, several dilapidated houses on the crest of Post Road West are set for demolition.

“The challenge is to keep the character and nature of town, with everything going on,” Stephens says.

From the air, downtown Westport does look like a "village."

From the air, downtown Westport does look like a “village.”

The Village District Initiative will go a long way to doing that, he hopes. State money will pay for a consulting group to help forge new zoning regulations that limit development in defined “village districts.” In Westport, that could mean the heart of downtown.

“I remember when there were Christmas lights there,” Stephens says. “Now there are no trees, just neon lights zigzagging from the Post Road to the old Bill’s Smoke Shop. And Harder Parking [the Parker Harding lot] is just an abomination.”

The new P&Z chair credits the Downtown 2020 committee with “bringing the ball downfield. They’ve got some phenomenal ideas.” Some, he notes, have been proposed before.

“They can’t just be put back on the shelf,” Stephens says. “Downtown 2020 can help us this time. We’d like to reclaim the riverfront, maybe put a pedestrian walkway over the river, extend things to the new Levitt Pavilion.”

We can't get this Victorian house back on Gorham Island. But Westport is on the cusp of determining a new vision for downtown Westport.

We can’t get this Victorian house back on Gorham Island. But Westport is on the cusp of determining a new vision for downtown Westport.

Stephens wants many stakeholders — including downtown merchants, and the police and fire chiefs — to weigh in on ideas for preservation and improvement.

Money is available, Stephens says. “Good minds” are too. “If we all work together, this will be really good for the town.”

I tell him that all these ideas don’t sound like the usual “business first” words of Republicans.

“I love it!” he says. “The last Democrats on the P&Z pushed the business overlay downtown. They supported demolition of the Gunn House.

“Republicans got elected on a preservation platform. We’re taking grief for being ‘anti-development.’ People say we’re preserving too much. It’s not totally true, but it is quite the opposite of what people think about Republicans.”

So what is Stephens’ biggest pet peeve?

“Hearing developers and presenters, when we ask about traffic and parking, say, ‘There is no problem with that in Westport, and this won’t make it worse.’ And their paid consultants back them up. You and I know that’s not true.

“We’re not looking to stop development. We just want to mitigate problems, and improve what we can.”

13 responses to “Chip Stephens: Passion Powers The P&Z Chair

  1. Dan – Great piece. As a former BoF member (albeit now a Westport ex-pat) I was always interested keeping the community’s past while recognizing that a growing Grand List is important to support town investments while managing the mill rate. Did Chip talk to those issues? Happy holiday to all.

  2. Matthew Mandell

    Congrats to Chip on becoming Chair. What he said was right on the mark. We can have growth, but within the confines of what Westport has been and how it will remain a unique and inviting community. This new P&Z, made up of 7 Save Westport Now endorsed commissioners, will play in the sand box together and bring our community along gracefully. They already approved positive changes for the Red Barn and Getty Station and will oversee the RBA downtown study.

    It is important to realize that any developer knows they have a great community to invest in, Westport, and must offer us the best they can in exchange for what they want to do. The Village District and hopefully as intended the 2020 will create those parameters. This P&Z will then ensure that outcome.

    As to Roy’s question. It was this specific issue which David Press so unbelievably addressed as a Coalition for Westport candidate. When he said there should be greater development to decrease taxes. This should not be the mandate of the P&Z, nor is that the basis for any form of preservation of the character of our community. Development will come naturally, Westport is 97% developed and there in no need of any wholesale redo of our town.

    People come to live in Westport because of what it is, not because they want it to be something else, and they will continue to. In the years to come when we are the unique community in the area, they will buy into it and create a cycle of prosperity without over development.

  3. Michael Calise

    congratulations and good luck Chip I believe this will be a great commission
    Important to remember here Matt is that Westport has a balance between residential and commercial development which contributes to a reasonable tax rate. Recent zone changes to increase housing density are going to have a dramatic effect on demand for services which can only be supported by either higher taxes or increased commercial development. As the saying goes there is no free lunch

  4. Matthew Mandell

    Mike and that’s one of the reasons we should be worried about more housing/density, especially 8-30g mandates (forced affordable housing in any zone). The changes to zoning to allow more housing, with affordable, was hopefully a hedge against such 8-30g applications. I hope it works. Increasing commercial though in response then sends us in a spiral to becoming Yonkers. I agree there needs to be a balance, but not at the expense of our underlying character and history.

  5. Congratulations Chip. I can already feel a more approachable and less arrogant commission!

  6. Michael Calise

    You just contradicted yourself Matt – as I said there is no free lunch -

    • Matthew Mandell

      Maybe a bit so, but we are stuck with a mandate for affordable housing, which we have fought and must continue to. Creating some of our own increases density, but not to the same extent. Thus the hedge. But in doing so, does not force us to commercialize. Which is my point. But your no free lunch is right too, there isn’t any, so we have to be creative and protective of what we have.

  7. Congratulations Chip! You da man.

  8. Land use restrictions tend to produce segregation and income inequality, in addition to economic dislocations. If you look at Westport’s demographics over the last 40 years, you can see just how well the land use restrictions have worked to restrict diversity.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632084/
    http://www.creators.com/opinion/thomas-sowell/sub-prime-politicians.html

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

      Michael do “Land use restrictions tend to produce segregation and income inequality, in addition to economic dislocations” or the inverse of that statement? There were quite a number of non-white and lower middle-class people in Westport (diversity) before WWII. Most anti-Semites preferred to live in Greenwich. When the town started to be a destination for commuters/executives fleeing NY was when a relative utopia began to unglue itself. I remember vaguely as a little kid when Bridgeport and NYC was where everyone went to shop which was also when you could graduate from Staples, get a job and afford to live in Westport to raise your family. Those days are gone.