Old Mill Restaurant Battles: The Back Story

Friday’s “06880” post on the benefits and drawbacks of a restaurant in the residential Old Mill neighborhood noted that 4 years ago, area residents opposed Positano’s owners plan to add 4 tables of outdoor dining at the site.

Several commenters pointed out that before Positano, Cafe de la Plage enjoyed a long and storied run as a beachside dining spot. Sally Kellogg Deegan remembered a restaurant called Leo Williams in the 1940s.

She’s exactly right. But there’s a lot more to the tale than that. And it involves the same issue that Positano faced decades later: neighbors.

The Bridgeport Post of August 21, 1954 ran this headline: “‘Fed Up With Town,’ Says Restaurateur Leo Williams in Quitting Westport.”

The story begins:

Leo Williams’ restaurant, a landmark at Old Mill Beach since 1945, will change owners on or about October 1 as the result of a zoning feud between the proprietor and the town.

Ired by what he termed the ‘petty complaints of jealous neighbors,’ Williams and his partner, Fred Wittenberger, moved to Essex, where they purchased a colonial mansion.

In 1945, Williams had taken over the Old Mill restaurant. Officials granted permission to build a screened-in porch, on land that partly encroached on town property.

Leo Williams' Old Mill Restaurant, in 1954. The screened-in porch can be seen on the right. (Photo/Bridgeport Post)

Leo Williams’ Old Mill Restaurant, in 1954. The screened-in porch can be seen on the right. (Photo/Bridgeport Post)

In 1954, he added a wooden fence in front of his adjacent Hillspoint Road home. Neighbors complained it was on Old Mill Beach property. Williams said the land was his.

After a survey, Westport’s selectmen ordered the fence removed. Williams refused. The case went to the Court of Common Pleas.

Leo Williams' Hillspoint Road home, with its fence.

Leo Williams’ Hillspoint Road home, with its fence. (Photo/Bridgeport Post)

Williams then placed large boulders in front of his fence. He said he needed protection against tidal storms. The selectmen had the rocks removed, and billed Williams.

After Williams announced he was moving to Essex, neighbors told him to remove the porch. They said it belonged to him, not the restaurant. Williams countered that without the porch, no one would sublet the restaurant.

Comparing himself to Vivien Kellems — a longtime Westporter who left for Stonington following zoning battles over her cable grip manufacturing company — Williams said, “I’m getting out of Westport and the sooner the better. If the porch must be removed, I’ll take it with me to Essex. I’m fed up with the town and my nosy neighbors.”

30 responses to “Old Mill Restaurant Battles: The Back Story

  1. Ernest Lorimer

    Hah! “The Court of Common Please”!

  2. NIMBY! NIMBY! NIMBY!

  3. Jerry MacDaid

    I’m curious where all the preservationist folks were back when Allen’s was ripped down and are now when “the restaurant that was Positano’s” is being threatened. C’mon White Barn people, where is the love? A restaurant at Old Mill obviously pre-dated the theater and has long been a feature of the neighborhood. Gotta figure out how to make this work…whatever it takes.

    Interesting that there is precedent for the “outdoor dining” and town allowing porch to be built on the site. And, of course, for the neighbors being pills.

    • Fascinating back story indeed re what happened back in the 1950s.

      Jerry, re your question: one interesting wrinkle in the current battle is that the person suing the Cohens is on the Board of Directors of Save Westport Now, whose mission includes: “…preserving the small town, New
      England charm of Westport.”

      I wonder where Save Westport Now stands on preserving the Positano’s building and continuing to have a longstanding waterfront restaurant establishment (that I imagine predates the arrival of virtually all of its neighbors).

      • By that, I mean virtually all of the current people living nearby. I assume they bought their homes knowing the existence of the restaurant.

        • Jerry MacDaid

          Excellent question re: where Save Westport Now stands. I’m sure many of the members read Dan’s blog. Or maybe Dan could reach out to them. But you would think “saving” a long time waterfront restaurant would be high on their list.

          • Jerry, it turns out there are a couple of other interesting wrinkles here, one of which affects so many residents around town (but more on that in a moment).

            First, I was curious to see where the people suing the Positano’s location live–and it turns out that they are up the road on Hillspoint (past Elvira’s) going toward 95, so they don’t directly abut the Positano’s building. This makes me even more curious as to what the precise basis of the lawsuit is.

            But, perhaps more interesting: their home is currently up for sale! So why do they care what happens to the restaurant location–to the point of suing–unless, I suppose, they feel it might deter possible buyers. Yet, according to town records, they apparently bought their home in 1990, when the Positano’s location was a restaurant (so I assume it wasn’t a deterrent for them)

            But possibly the most incredible twist in this story–and one that affects many Westporters–is the tremendous disparity between the asking price of their home and the recent updated tax assessment. Veteran broker Jillian Klaff is advertising this property on her website at $3,550,000–more than twice the recent fair market appraisal of $1,751,000!

            I assume Jillian Klaff, by virtue of her experience, knows what she is doing in setting this price and believes the home will go somewhere in that ballpark; otherwise, why would she waste her time?

            This seems to be an example of how some of the higher-priced homes in Westport are under-appraised with respect to tax valuations.

            The bottom line is: those of us in smaller, lower-priced homes ultimately pay the price for certain more upscale homes not paying their fair share of property taxes based on market assessment (and perhaps this is truly the biggest back story here).

            • FYI Mr. Cantor, the folks suing the Cohens, have not had their house on the market since September of 2014 but had been actively marketing it since 2011. I do agree, you (the collective) really have to stretch (literally and figuratively) to even see the restaurant from the property. People having drinks outside would be drowned out by the open piped motorcycles and other vehicular traffic. There’s more noise from people eating outside of Grubs/Elviras. They have ample parking on their property (one complaint was diners would park at Old Mill).

              • Thanks for the clarification. A Google search took me to Klaff’s site with that listing as active (as well as s couple of other brokers). It’s bizarre but, if that’s the case, I’m glad you posted.

                • Please, please don’t think you can do a google search or a zillow search and ascertain anything about value of real estate. They don’t have all of the information by a long shot, they keep old information up for years, and have mostly incorrect information. Zillow is like 1800Dentist or Angies list. Agents have to pay them (get ripped off) and use proprietary information and photos without permission. Awful.

                  • Mary, I’m with you 100% on Zillow. But, I would have assumed that a Google search taking me directly to a broker’s website would have taken me to a current page. Obviously that wasn’t the case.

                • Dear Mr. Cantor,
                  As already noted, and as I tell my clients, Zillow/Trulia (they merged last year) should be used for “entertainment purposes.” On the web site they even note the error rate at around 29%. One of their failings is that they leave old listings on the site (it increases the total numbers). We get many calls to our office where the person says they saw it on Zillow/Trulia and we have to tell them the home is no longer available. It makes Realtors® and Z/T look bad to boot. Anyone of your local Realtors® can look up a property and provide information with a much higher degree of accuracy (disclosure: I am a Realtor® 🙂 ).

                  • Jerry MacDaid

                    Accuracy (or lack thereof) of Zillow aside, and way off topic from initial post, Fred raises an interesting question re: accuracy of appraisals and fairness of property taxes.

                    I’m quite sympathetic – we once bought a house shortly before a town reassessment. Post reassessment, we noticed that a number of houses that were clearly larger, nicer and/or better located than ours were assessed at well below ours. Unfortunately, our house was appraised below what we paid so our appeal was rejected but clearly a bunch of folks were getting a bargain.

                    That a property could be listed for twice what it is apprised suggests significant issues with appraisal accuracy. On the other hand, the property obviously did not sell at that price so may just have been another delusional seller that a realtor was just humoring.

                    Having said that, it would be interesting to see an analysis of actual sale prices versus appraised values over the past 12 months broken down by price range. Say high, low and average % difference from appraised value for different price ranges to see if Fred is right about higher priced houses being systemically under appraised.

                    Last time I bought a house, my realtor was able to provide a comp analysis with average price vs appraised value being one of the factors so presumably the data is accessible by realtors in MLS. Any chance you or one of the other realtors that read Dan’s blog could run such an analysis?

            • Hi Fred – I am curious about your statement that “higher-priced homes in Westport are under-appraised with respect to tax valuations” and “smaller, lower-priced homes ultimately pay the price for certain more upscale homes not paying their fair share of property taxes based on market assessment.”

              The town farmed out the recent reassessment to Vision Government Solutions Inc. Are there any publicly available guidelines as to how they derive the separate house and land valuations in Westport?

              Our street appears to be at the high end of land valuations for both private and town streets, and three of the six owners took the time recently to appeal in January and March. All were denied both times.

              Obviously land near any body of water is immediately worth more. But I keep asking why our private cul de sac with no town services (which we pay for ourselves), no water views and no particularly charming mountain views has land valuations that are 50% higher than other private roads in our immediate area and 5 to 10% higher than the town streets that get all the services (plowing, tree work, drainage repairs, paving and patching).

              Does Vision Government Solutions or the town have guidelines that we could use to review the basis of their decisions?

              • Bobbie Herman

                Steve — I am on the Board of Assessment Appeals in Fairfield, which was also assessed by Vision. We have been going over the appeals, and I can’t count the number of errors we found in Vision’s assessments. The Deputy Assessor has had to remeasure several houses; they listed pools where none existed; on my own house they valued an enclosed porch as heated living area, as well as many other inaccuracies.. I think Vision hires people who don’t know what they’re doing! Incidentally, when I lived in Westport, I also served on the Board of Assessment Appeals. It was much easier — Fairfield has more than twice as many dwellings.

              • I didn’t say all of the higher-priced homes but “some”–and part of the issue, as I understand it, is that the assessment company typically allots a larger percentage of the assessment to the land and a lesser percentage to the house when it’s clear that, in many cases, it is a new home for example that can triple the value of a property (or certainly increase it significantly). Or an expanded, renovated house can also significantly increase the total value of the property.

                But the town system doesn’t truly capture that in a variety of instances. A small case in point is a house just down the street from me that is bigger than mine on a similar-size property and was completely renovated several years ago. It sold roughly a year ago for 780K but its market value according to the recent tax assessment is 653K! How does that make sense?

                So, from my perspective, there perhaps needs to be a revised valuation system with respect to certain updated or new homes, which are frequently on the higher end in the market.

      • Jill Nash von Schmidt

        “…preserving the small town, New England charm of Wetport.” Are you kidding me? Is that why so many beautiful older homes have been torn down & McMansions built? Is that why Main Street is nothing but chain stores these days? Sorry, Save Westpost Now – you’re too late.

  4. Maybe we should suggest to the Cohens that they erect a cable grip factory on the site to restore a little more of the town’s historic charm.

  5. Oh ghost of Peter DeVries – where are you?

  6. DeVries would have loved all aspects of this story — ESPECIALLY the “Court of Common Please!”

    The legendary punster had a character in one story named Judge Coffee, known for his quick decisions, so residents nicknamed him “Instant Coffee.”

    In some ways, NIMBYism has declined since the 50’s Westport of Peter DeVries. In “The Mackerel Plaza,” he mentioned neighbors complaining to P&Z when a church put up a sign saying “Jesus Saves.”

    Today, United Methodist on Weston Road flies a regularly updated banner bearing a religious slogan with nary an objection from the neighbors.

    • Bobbie Herman

      Actually, Peter DeVries’s house is still standing, It’s on Cross Highway, between Bayberry Lane and Sturges Highway and is a modest-sized Split Level surrounded by McMansions. In fact, some are super-sized McMansions, or in the words of Donald Trump — YUUUGE!

  7. Dick Lowenstein

    Vivien Kellems was much more than someone who might have had a zoning dispute. She also ran for Governor of Connecticut in 1954. There’s not enough space here to tell her story, but go to this site for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivien_Kellems

  8. Jill Turner Odice

    I agree with Jill Nash von Schmidt…

  9. Gregg Maddock

    It is shame that Westport has changed so much. I grew up in Westport but left long ago and moved west. We can trace our roots on my grandmothers side to the 1700’s. I come back every few years to visit my family. I notice all the changes probably more than those who live there day to day. Allen’s Clam House and the Cafe provided a vibrant atmosphere during the summer in that part of town. When I turned 16 in the late 70’s my parent told me to talk to Wayne and Ronnie at Allen’s and “get a job”. From my high school years through college and just after graduating I worked there from when they opened in April and closed in the fall. Almost everyone who worked there was from the neighborhood. It was an important part of the neighborhood. It was a fun place and taught you the value of working hard, and I mean hard. Where do kids work now, if they do at all? This is just a small part of how Westport has dramatically changed over the last 40 years. Dan, you know this, you lived for a while just above Old Mill Beach at that time. When I visit now I see entitlement. I came back once when I was in my late 20’s and visited Wayne in the Allen’s back kitchen. Nobody who worked there was even from Westport. Wayne said the local kids don’t work anymore. This is a perfect example of the entitlement of Westport now. Old Mill is a beautiful beach, having Allen’s and the Cafe added a romance to the area and everyone felt part of that neighborhood. But not now, not in “their” backyard. I now live in a small town in Idaho where I own a small business. It is a step back to the 50’s. Everyone knows everyone. We say hello, watch out for each other. There is a live and let live attitude. I feel lucky that I found a small town that has a sense of community.

  10. The property is worth quite a lot of money as a residential piece. If the towns people want a restaurant, why doesn’t the town buy it and concession it out like they do the Beach and Longshore… only as a sit down restaurant?

    • Gregg Maddock

      Great idea Mary, but I don’t believe local government i set up or should be landlords. How about the local government makes it easier for potential small business owners to actually open small business’s? Who can actually afford to open a restaurant or small business in Westport unless they have some huge backing from someone or a group of investors who think it would be cool to own a restaurant. A little over a year ago I had dinner at one of our oldest restaurants that closed recently. Their family had been serving the community food since the ’30’s. All they wanted and needed to stay open was a bar that had 12 seats. It took years, and why? why? As a result another family owned business of over 85 years closed. Wayne and Ronnie left Westport and opened another restaurant in Bridgeport after being forced out. I’m sure zoning and over regulations had an influence of the family deciding to close Mario’s. Local government should make it easier for business’s to open and thrive. They employ people, they create tax revenue. The revenue created from the chain store on main street leaves Westport and goes to a large corporation somewhere else. Westport is not Westport anymore and never will be. It is a bedroom community now and that is sad. I do not know any of you people and you don’t know me probably. I’m looking in from the outside. Take a few steps back and have a look also. From the comments above I can only deduce that most of you are concerned about property values and taxes. Westport was once a town where families knew each other over generations. It had a sense of community. Lawsuits? No one sued. Now everyone feels entitled. Step back and look at what has been created. Westport is no different then Beverly Hills or Malibu now. Only the super rich can afford to live in Westport. I’ve seen the property tax bills, they are insane compared to the rest of the country outside of Fairfield and Westchester county. But again I don’t live here anymore and most people I grew up with don’t either. So it is now your Westport, but don’t think for a moment that it is the charming NE town it use to be.

  11. My prevailing dream and inner voice is once again shouting at me “B & B”!! Westport won’t allow one …period. Too bad, it’s a great spot for one, I’d be on it in a heart beat :/