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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. (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 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.”

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.

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.”

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