Category Archives: Real estate

WSJ Trains Its Lens On Stacy Bass

It’s been a busy month for Stacy Bass.

First, Gardens at First Light — her book on 12 exceptional gardens — was published.

Now the Wall Street Journal has turned its lens on the talented photographer’s home.

Stacy and Howard Bass' home. (Photo/Stacy Bass for Wall Street Journal)

Stacy and Howard Bass’ home. (Photo/Stacy Bass for Wall Street Journal)

A real estate section “Inside Story” describes the waterside home’s initial attractions to Stacy and her husband Howard in 1996: the constantly changing landscape, and the fact that from the property they could see the home where her parents lived when her father died a year earlier.

It was a “nondescript,” 4,500-square-foot, 5-bedroom spec home. They offered $925,000, just below the asking price.

Since then they’ve done 4 renovations — including a gut one with Peter Cadoux Architects.

A 3rd-floor office is light, airy, and offers wonderful water views. (Photo/Julie Bidwell for Wall Street Journal)

A 3rd-floor office is light, airy, and offers wonderful water views. (Photo/Julie Bidwell for Wall Street Journal)

The WSJ piece offers details about every aspect — including, of course, Stacy’s 3 pocket gardens. Each features a unique sculpture, framed by boxwood hedges.

(To read the full story, click here. Hat tip: Jane Sherman)

Stacy Bass, in one of 3 pocket gardens. (Photo/Julie Bidwell for Wall Street Journal)

Stacy Bass, in one of 3 pocket gardens. (Photo/Julie Bidwell for Wall Street Journal)

 

Geiger’s: Going, Going, Gone…

The deconstruction of Geiger’s barn was going well — board by board, piece by piece.

But a couple of days ago, a bulldozer rumbled in, and finished the job.

Now the barn is gone. So is the main building.

Geigers Collage 2

Two acres of flat land sit on the corner of the Post Road and North Morningside. Soon to come: a commercial/residential complex with 12 residential rental units — 2 of them classified as “affordable” — plus a retail building.

And a bank.

This Old House #10

Tom Ryan and Dan Herman were the 1st readers to identify last week’s house as #5 Old Hill Road.

They’re right — sort of. The present structure at that site — opposite the old patriot “training ground” at the intersection of Kings Highway North and Old Hill — was built in 1944. The structure in the photo — part of a 1930s WPA project to document century-old homes — burned almost to the ground in 1943. It was rebuilt looking as much as possible like the original. Click here for the photo, then scroll down for comments.

Here is this week’s house. Like the others, this WPA image will be part of a Westport Historical Society exhibit on the changing face of Westport’s homes. But organizers need to find out where it is.

This Old House - May 6, 2015

The back of the photo gives no location. It says only: “Known as ‘William Lanier Washington House'; Squire  David Coley.”

Coley is a famous name in Westport. Washington is a famous name everywhere.

If you think you know where this house stands (or stood — it may have been torn down), click “Comments.” The more information you can provide, the better.

 

This Old House #9

Narrowing down the neighborhood for last week’s “This Old House” was easy — it said Canal Street, right on the back of the 1930s WPA photo.

But which house exactly? After extensive back-and-forth, both Morley Boyd and Peter Barlow nailed it: 4 Woods Grove Road. This also happened to be the 1st house on what is now a well-populated road (running behind Coffee An’ and Ace Hardware) — and also home to the renowned Westport School of Music. To see the photo and all the comments, click here.

The next house in the series — which asks “06880” readers to identify homes that may or may not still stand, in advance of a Westport Historical Society exhibit on the changing face of local residences — is this:

This Old House - April 29, 2015

The only identification on the back says: “On Training Green.”

Was that where the Revolutionary War militia gathered, near the Kings Highway North/Old Hill Road intersection? Or someplace else — say, Crawford Road off Partrick?

If you can identify this house — or have any information on Westport’s “training green” — click “Comments” below.

Baron’s South To Remain Open Space

In a vote that will resound for decades to come, the RTM affirmed the Planning & Zoning Commission’s designation of the Baron’s South property as open space.

The 22-acre, wooded and hilly property — bordered by South Compo Road, the Post Road and Imperial Avenue — is already home to the Senior Center, on its western edge. But further development — for instance, of a hotly debated senior housing complex — will not take place.

A majority of RTM members — 20 — actually voted to overturn last month’s P&Z decision (4-1, with 1 abstention) designating the entire area as open space.

But 14 members sided with the P&Z. Overruling the P&Z required 24 votes — 2/3 of all members.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

The roll was called after midnight. Debate was intense but civil throughout the long evening. Many issues were raised, ranging from the importance of open space and the inevitability of more development once construction began, to the speed and propriety of one commission deciding such a major issue for the town.

Some speakers declared that the vote should be about the “open space” decision alone — not the merits of one particular senior housing proposal. The need for senior housing, however, was noted by other speakers.

The baron’s property will now remain undeveloped — an “urban forest” just steps from downtown. Was today’s early morning vote comparable to previous decisions (for example, to purchase Longshore when a developer proposed building 180 houses there — or to allow construction of the Wright Street and Gorham Island office complexes), or a missed opportunity to build on town-owned land?

Check back in a decade or two.

There are already buildings on Baron's South. The baron's Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance.   A debate will begin soon on their fate.

There are some existing buildings on Baron’s South. The baron’s Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance. A debate will begin soon on their fate.

Missing Meeker Musket Ball

Yesterday’s commemoration of the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Compo Hill — with ceremonies honoring the Minute Men who battled the British on the way to and from their arsenal-burning in Danbury — got Mark Yurkiw thinking.

He lives in a very historic saltbox home on Cross Highway.* By the time the Redcoats marched past in 1777, the house — owned by Samuel Meeker — was already nearly half a century old.

The

The “Meeker house” in the 1930s, as photographed for a WPA project. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Meeker built the barn in back. It — and the house — still stand today.

As Samuel’s great-great-grandson Edward Franklin Meeker wrote in an application to the Sons of the American Revolution in 1895, the British expedition included a number of Tory guides.

They knew who along the way were Patriots. So en route to Danbury the Redcoats took Samuel Meeker’s son Benjamin and Daniel prisoner. They “sacked and gutted his house,” and butchered his cattle. The brothers were taken to New York, and held in the Sugar House Prison for 18 months.

The Meekers did not go easily. A musket ball was lodged in their front door.

There it stayed for nearly 2 centuries — silent witness to a historic past.

But sometime in the late 1940s or ’50s, the musket ball vanished. “Oral history tells us it disappeared after a local Boy Scout troop visited the house for a tour,” current owner Yurkiw says.

The door today. The hole left by the missing musket ball can be seen on the left side, underneath the knocker.

The door today. The hole left by the missing musket ball can be seen on the left side, near the bottom.

Yurkiw wants the musket ball back — or at least closure. If anyone knows where that small ball is, he’d like to know. He hopes to restore it for future tours, of what is the only known house in Westport still standing that the British passed on their way north.

Click “Comments” if you know. And don’t be shy. The statute of limitations is long gone.

Just like the Redcoats.

*BONUS FUN FACT:  Cross Highway gets its name from the fact that it “crossed” the “long lots” on what is now Bayberry Lane and Sturges Highway, near Long Lots Road.

Daniel Meeker died in 1784. His wife Abigail (Gorham) died 5 years later. They are buried in the cemetery bordered by Greens Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. Daniel's brother Benjamin outlived him by 33 years. He married another Abigail (Burr). This photo -- and information about the Meekers, and the house -- comes from current owner Wendy Van Wie, Mark Yurkiw's wife. She is a law professor and historian.

Daniel Meeker died in 1784. His wife Abigail (Gorham) died 5 years later. They are buried in the cemetery bordered by Greens Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector. Daniel’s brother Benjamin outlived him by 33 years. He married another Abigail (Burr). This photo — and information about the Meekers, and the house — comes from current owner Wendy Van Wie, Mark Yurkiw’s wife. She is a law professor and historian.

Take The Baron’s South Walking Tour — Right Now!

If you couldn’t make last week’s RTM-sponsored walking tour of Baron’s South — or you have no idea how to access the town-owned property, which is (very quietly) open to the public from dawn to dusk* — then this video is for you.

Westport realtor Judy James has created a 2-minute walking tour. Click here to access it, via RealPlayer.

NOTE: There’s no sound. Which is exactly what you experience if you walk Baron’s South yourself.

Except for the birds.

*There are entrances on Imperial Avenue and South Compo Road.

Deep in the Baron's South property. This image was taken from Judy James' video.

Deep in the Baron’s South property. This image was taken from Judy James’ video.

“Conflict Of Interest” Charge Roils Baron’s South Debate

As the RTM prepares to vote this Tuesday (April 28, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) on whether to overturn the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to designate the Baron’s South property as protected open space, legislators have another issue to contend with.

Westport resident Valerie Seiling Jacobs sent this “open letter” to all RTM members:

As many of you know, I have been opposed to the proposed senior housing project on Baron’s South for many years. My view has long been that the deal proposed by The Jonathan Rose Companies was unfair to taxpayers since the town will get too little in return for donating such a valuable asset. And it has always puzzled me that Ken Bernhard, who co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee and is one of the project’s prime cheerleaders, seemed so determined to push ahead with the project—even in the face of growing evidence that the project was seriously flawed and could not meet the town’s needs.

I learned today [Friday] that Mr. Bernhard has multiple conflicts of interest that were never disclosed. First, Cohen & Wolf, the law firm in which he is a principal, is counsel to the Jewish Home of Fairfield, which stands to gain a lucrative contract for services if the Rose project goes forward. In fact, in a bulletin last summer, the President of JHF touted how great the business would be for the JHF. Second, Martin F. Wolf, another senior attorney at Mr. Bernhard’s law firm, sits on the Board of Directors of the JHF.

Mr. Bernhard’s failure to disclose these connections and conflicts is especially egregious given the sensitivity of this issue and Mr. Bernhard’s past behavior. At a Board of Finance meeting in October 2012, a number of members of the public complained that the RFP process appeared to have been rigged in favor of The Rose Companies—a suggestion to which Mr. Bernhard took extreme umbrage, demanding an apology. Nevertheless, in response to concerns about conflicts of interest, the members of the Baron’s South Committee were specifically asked to stand and state whether they had any financial interest in the Rose Companies. Mr. Bernhard did not stand. His failure to reveal his firm’s interest in this project may have been technically correct — since the financial interest was in another entity — but it was still materially misleading. As an attorney and a former elected official, Mr. Bernhard should know better.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

For Mr. Bernhard to have served on the Baron’s South Committee without disclosing these connections, which fatally compromised his ability to objectively evaluate the responses to the town’s RFP, violate fundamental principles of justice and fairness. This is the equivalent of a judge owning stock in a corporation that appears in a contested matter in the judge’s court. And I note that this is not the first time that Mr. Bernhard’s ethics have been called into question. In 2010, he was forced to pay a $3,500 penalty after his improper campaign contributions were discovered.

All of these facts bolster the conclusion that the Rose Companies’ proposal is a bad deal for Westport and its taxpayers. The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to designate Baron’s South as open space was the right thing to do. I hope that you will decide NOT to overturn that decision.

Thank you.

——————————————————————–

I asked Ken Bernhard for his side of the issue. He said:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ms. Jacobs’ letter to the RTM. It distresses me that the discussion about a project designed to address the needs of hundreds of Westport seniors who require affordable housing options has devolved into the kind of ugly debate endemic in Washington — specifically, don’t discuss the issues; unleash a personal attack on your opponent.

Curiously, Ms. Jacobs appears to be guilty of the very offense that she charges me with, i.e. an undisclosed bias.  She does not divulge in her letter that she is the co-chair of a political party, Save Westport Now, whose agenda appears to oppose development in town regardless of its merits. Apparently, the unanimous consensus of the RTM sub-committee to overturn the vote of her party’s candidates has given rise to her invective.

I have lived in Westport for more than 40 years and for most of that time, I have been actively engaged in the community’s affairs. I have given of my time by holding positions on the ZBA and the Board of Selectmen. In addition to serving as town counsel for 3 administrations, I have represented Westport in Hartford. Throughout this time I did, and still do, provide free legal services to many of the non-profit organizations in town. I sit on multiple boards providing my time and energy helping our friends and neighbors. It’s all been a labor of love.

The risk, of course, in being so active is that occasionally there are instances where the roles may overlap. These instances are part of life in a small town and are not considered conflicts in the forums in which these things are adjudicated. A community cannot function without this reality of professional and personal overlap of its citizens’ talents and interests.

Early springtime at Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

Early springtime at Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

Five years ago, I was asked by First Selectman Joseloff to give more of my time to Westport by sitting on the Baron’s South Committee. The 8-person committee was made up of volunteers serving in a private capacity. None of us had, nor did we ever have, any decision-making authority.

Since that time, I have donated at least 300 hours serving on this committee, a large portion of which was spent long before there was a proposal to do anything. When a concept for providing affordable housing for seniors was ultimately advanced, the town sent out a request for a proposal. Our committee of volunteers reviewed the proposals and made a unanimous recommendation to accept the proposal submitted by Jonathan Rose. The decision to work with Jonathan Rose was made by elected officials.

The substance of Ms. Jacobs’ letter is that she claims I have a conflict of interest in serving on the Baron’s South Committee because she has learned that one of the 50 lawyers at my law firm does work on totally unrelated matters for Jewish Senior Services, an organization that has joined with Jonathan Rose to provide services if and when the project is approved and built at some time in the very distant future. (Ms. Jacobs is incorrect when she asserts that Attorney Martin F. Wolf is a senior attorney at Cohen and Wolf in that he is “of counsel,” retired from active practice years ago, and has no financial interest in it).

Ms. Jacobs would argue that I should have conducted a conflicts check with my law firm. This would have been appropriate had I been serving as legal counsel or in any other professional role — but I was not. I was acting as a private citizen in a private capacity doing volunteer work for my community. Ms. Jacobs can spin the facts and connect the dots any way she pleases, but there is no legitimate substance to her point.  Her criticism is inflammatory and its purpose is more about advancing the political agenda of Save Westport Now than anything else.

We have an important issue confronting our community, i.e. whether to preclude the use of Baron’s South for any municipal purpose, even the expansion of the senior center, or to leave open the discussion on how best to use this valuable town asset for affordable housing or otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree, and Westport deserves a respectful exchange on this issue.

——————————————————————-

In a related development, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug will recuse herself from leading Tuesday’s discussion. She is of counsel to Cohen and Wolf. In a comment on a previous “06880” story, Flug wrote:

While Cohen and Wolf does not represent Jonathan Rose Companies, it has come to my attention that Cohen and Wolf represents the nonprofit Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc. on certain matters, although not on the proposal for senior housing at Baron’s South. While I myself have no connection with the Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc., and while I believe the connection to be attenuated since the matter before us is a zoning issue and not directly related to the proposed senior housing project, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict and any concerns about the RTM’s process and deliberations, our deputy moderator Velma Heller will be running the meeting.

Baron's South, with the baron's Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Baron’s South, with the baron’s Golden Shadows house in the distance.

NY Times: “The Builders Are Back”

It’s hard to hide a 12,000-square foot house.

But for anyone living under a (very heavy) rock — with no idea that some very large homes are going up all around town — the secret is out.

Tomorrow’s New York Times real estate section splashed us all over Page 1.

The story is headlined: “In Fairfield, The Builders Are Back.”

“Fairfield,” of course, is Fairfield County. And — just as we’ve taken the lead with some big-ass houses — Westport leads the article too.

It begins:

On a recent Sunday afternoon here, anyone visiting open houses might have thought the recession never happened. At one new multimillion-dollar colonial after another, real estate agents were eagerly waiting to show visitors high-ceilinged kitchens anchored by immense white-marble islands; fireplaces hefty enough to offset mega-size flat-screen TVs; exercise rooms with saunas and steam showers; and marble bathrooms with freestanding tubs and heated floors.

En-suite bathrooms for every bedroom are “really big right now,” said Lisa Watkins, an agent with William Raveis, who was showing a $2.699 million house on the outskirts of the sought-after Compo Beach area.

The Times used this photo of a new house on Turkey Hill Road South to illustrate its story on Fairfield County real estate ... (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

The Times used this photo of a new house on Turkey Hill Road South to illustrate its story on Fairfield County real estate … (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

So are “fabulous outdoor spaces,” said Todd Gibbons, an agent with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, who was holding an open house at a $4.35 million home (since reduced to $4.199 million) with multiple stone terraces that incorporated a pool, a spa and a fire pit.

Builders’ expectations for the spring market here are clearly high. After a recession-induced lull, new construction catering to wealthy buyers is back in a big way in Westport and a few other select areas of Fairfield County, particularly New Canaan and the neighborhoods around the beach. And the voracious demand for teardown properties where that new construction can be built is raising the already-high bar for first-time buyers, pitting them against builders looking for older homes on decent-size lots.

The piece notes the pressure put on owners of older homes. “It’s not uncommon for builders in Westport to pay upward of $1 million for a teardown, and $2 million or more near the water,” the Times says.

... and this one, on Charcoal Hill Road. (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

… and this one, on Charcoal Hill Road. (Photo/Douglas Healey for the New York Times)

The story adds that while construction dropped nearly 60% during the recession, it’s zoomed since 2012. The driving force: “demand for new homes for well-to-do buyers — many of them from the city, agents say — who want the latest in design and technology, and aren’t willing to renovate existing homes.”

So it’s no surprise that there were 103 demolition permits issued during the fiscal year ending last June. The tough winter has driven the recent number down slightly, but more permits are expected this spring.

Life is good for new-home buyers — and realtors. The Times‘ look at Westport noted:

Earlier this month, a remarkable 93 new homes in various stages of completion were listed for sale in Westport, said Jillian Klaff, a broker specializing in new construction. About 40 of them were priced over $2.5 million, which, as she observed, is “a lot of houses.” Especially given that in 2014, only 25 sold in that price range.

The story briefly touches on other towns, including Fairfield and New Canaan. But I’ve summarized the most important points.

Now you don’t have to read it. Why waste time with the Times, when there are so many new homes to buy?

(Hat tip: John Karrel)

Bye Bye, Barn

Like many Westporters, alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther has been watching the departure of Geiger’s with sorrow.

Unlike most of us, she’s done more than just drive past the former garden center property. Yesterday she wrote:

What you see in the photo below represents about 3 days of work, done in fits and starts.

(Photo/Wendy Crowther)

(Photo/Wendy Crowther)

This morning I saw some people on the roof of the main barn. They appeared to be removing roofing tiles. By noon today they were gone.

Several days ago, guys in hard hats removed a small portion of the roof from the smaller, east addition. Yesterday they removed the rest. Now you can see the supporting rafters.

They appear to be going at a turtle’s pace, which could be a good sign. Hopefully they’ll index/mark everything as they remove it (a good deconstruction process).

I’ve put out feelers to Coastal Development a few times (via P&Z hearings and your blog) in hopes of getting answers to 2 important questions.

1. Have they hired a barn expert to guide them through the deconstruction process? Ordinary builders make terrible mistakes if left to their own devices.

2. How is Coastal Development planning to store the deconstructed pieces until new uses are found? Hopefully it won’t end up  in a giant pile under a tarp somewhere.

The Geiger barn in 2013. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The Geiger barn in 2013. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

My heart sinks as I see this barn come down. It has sat in that exact spot for at least 150 years.

Only a few owners lived or worked on the site during all that time. Those owners ranged from the Coley/Burr family (who farmed in the area), to 2 pastors of Greens Farms Church, to the Winterton/Harris family, who lived on the property for 100 years (long enough that the corner was once known as the “Harris Switch” – a trolley stop). Then came the most recent proprietors: Parsell and Geiger.

Westport loses another part of its history as this barn comes down. For some it was an eyesore. For others it was a treasure – a reminder of Westport’s evolution from the days of early settlers and farmers, to those who left New York City in summer and on weekends to escape the heat and crowds, to budding entrepreneurs who, in quaint ways, brought flowers and shrubs into our own backyards.

Today, commercial developers are the “new entrepreneurs.” Some care nothing of the past and seek only to build their own profit margins. Coastal Development did at least try to save the barn, but zoning regulations made that hard to do.  I hope our zoning regs might change in the future to better encourage preservation.

The former Geiger's Garden Center, just south of the barn.

The former Geiger’s Garden Center, just south of the barn.

I hope that Coastal will treat this barn with care as they dismantle. For me, it is one of their biggest litmus tests. Will they walk the talk?

Whether they do or don’t, my heart will continue to break a little bit each time I drive by. The corner will look drastically different next year at this time.

Westport is losing another piece of its rural, agrarian past. Some will forget that soon enough as they pull in to do their banking.

Not me.

PS. When I pulled in to take this photo, I noticed that all of the glass was removed from the greenhouse. Does anyone know whether someone took advantage of the “free greenhouse” offer? Perhaps those who took the glass are coming back for the structure? If anyone knows, please let us know.