[OPINION] Keep Tesla Out Of Saugatuck!

Alert “06880” reader Mark Kirby is an organizer of Saugatuck Neighbors. As outlined below, he is opposed to the plan for a Tesla service facility in his neighborhood.

Two months ago I got a letter from Mel Barr, former Westport Planning and Zoning director, now a zoning consultant. Tesla Motors wanted to change town zoning to allow a “service center” at one of two sites in Saugatuck, including one that abuts part of our backyard. Would I attend a meeting to learn about the proposal?

I had mixed feelings. I was excited to have Tesla in Westport. I support its vision for a less carbon-reliant future; I signed up for a Model 3 before it was officially announced.

But as a neighbor, I worried about noise from tools like compressors and pneumatic wrenches. A service center isn’t what I’d imagined in the neighborhood—in fact, it’s prohibited. But because it was Tesla, I wanted to keep an open mind.

20 Saugatuck Avenue — the proposed site for the Tesla facility.

The meeting was held on a Tuesday night. Mr. Barr was there, along with the building’s landlord, Bruce Becker (a Westport architect and Tesla enthusiast), 4 Tesla representatives, and Tesla’s realtor.

Mr. Barr handed out his proposed zoning amendment. Something jumped out immediately: the zoning change was for a dealership. I asked him and the Tesla representatives about it.

Me (reading their amendment): “Said establishments may also provide vehicle sales of new and used electric motor vehicles, subject to a State License.

Them: Well, we can’t actually sell cars in Connecticut right now.

Me: But I’ve just signed a petition supporting legislation that would allow you to.

The conversation went on from there, but you get the idea: It was a challenge getting forthright answers from this group. At one point, I asked whether Tesla would be willing to go forward without the dealership. Their answer was no.

What’s so bad about a dealership? I’ve heard lots of reasons from neighbors but I’ll share only mine here.

My wife and I settled in Saugatuck because we liked the easy access to transit, and that it was a walkable neighborhood. Many families in Saugatuck have done so for similar reasons.

It’s not just the immediate neighbors who want to preserve this area. Creating a walkable Saugatuck is a priority for both the current Saugatuck Transit-Oriented Master Plan and the town’s draft 2017 Conservation Plan of Development.

I can’t think of a single example of a walkable neighborhood with a car dealership smack in the middle. Our kids are young, and we’re especially concerned about test drives in cars that are fast, silent and accelerate in ways that startle new drivers. While there may be virtues to having a pioneering company like Tesla in town, I wouldn’t count bringing car dealerships to residential areas as one of them.

I realize that some people will read this and cry NIMBYism! But the kind of zoning change proposed here isn’t just bad for Saugatuck; it’s bad for Westport.

Some Saugatuck residents fear this is what the Tesla facility will turn into.

Saugatuck is already a chokepoint for the town — and that’s predominantly from local trips. Tesla would mean additional cars from out-of-towners hopping off I-95 for gas, a rush-hour service appointment or a test drive.

The fact that Saugatuck has the village character it does today is the result of decades of zoning decisions aimed at keeping highway services out of the area. There’s also the question of why we’d want a car dealership (which even for green cars aren’t pollutant-free environments) either on the river or alongside a stream feeding directly into the river.

While learning about zoning rules and knocking on neighbors’ doors weren’t things I anticipated doing this spring, I’m glad for it. It’s been a great way to meet neighbors, get to know town officials, and learn about the many fights over neighborhood preservation that have made Westport what it is today. We’re pleased that Save Westport Now and the Greens Farms Association are supporting neighbors in protesting this zoning change. If you’d like to support us too, you can here.

Westport is investing a lot of time and effort into studying Saugatuck. Will it be a well-planned, cohesive community with local businesses and residents supporting each other, or will we pre-empt all that by dumping a dealership right in the middle of the village?

My hope is that the Planning and Zoning Commission will listen to the neighborhood at the hearing tomorrow (Thursday, June 15, 7 p.m. Town Hall), and make this decision wisely.

32 responses to “[OPINION] Keep Tesla Out Of Saugatuck!

  1. I support the Tesla dealership in Saugatuck.
    It is very close to the I95 exits so will have
    minimal impact on traffic. And by the way
    “Tesla would mean additional cars from out-of-towners hopping off I-95 for gas…..”
    Not very thoughtful. Brian

  2. Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

    Dear Mark,
    I support you
    Sincerely,
    Gerald F. Romano, Jr.

  3. Lawrence J Zlatkin

    I am all for preserving Saugatuck, but this location is on a busy part of Riverside and Saugatuck, and hosting a new tech company is good for Westport and Connecticut. Electric cars are big computers on wheels, not industrial waste machines. The problem with Connecticut is that protectionism, regulatory overkill and backward thinking are killing us. Why shouldn’t Tesla be able to sell directly to consumers and why should this business go– like everything else will be– to NY and MA?

    • Rozanne Gates

      Correct on every point.

    • Hi Lawrence, for what’s its worth, I agree with you about allowing direct sales in CT. I just think that this is a bad location–especially given Tesla’s ambitious plans, like selling 1 million cars/year by 2020 (which I hope they succeed at!)

  4. Wanted to include a few comments here to update this since I wrote it/answer some questions. The first is an update on Tesla’s direct sales bill:
    Tesla’s bid to sell direct in Connecticut was not called for a vote before the close of the legislative session this year, though Tesla is continuing to lobby Governor Malloy to include a license to open dealerships in the budget. Regardless of whether Tesla succeeds or not this year, Tesla’s proposed zoning language is currently written in such a way as to allow a dealership in Saugatuck at whatever future date an approval happens. Tesla has brought legislation to Hartford for three consecutive years and has pledged to continue doing so until their bill passes; over the ten-year term of a lease in Saugatuck, it’s virtually certain that Tesla will win the right to sell direct. It’s for that reason that we’re opposed to any zoning language allowing a dealership, whether now or in the future.

  5. I agree with Mark Kirby! Please don’t put a dealership in the Saugatuck area. Town planners and residents have done a tremendous amount of work getting Saugatuck to the very quaint and lovely area it is today. Don’t ruin that by throwing a dealership in its midst. I don’t live in the Saugatuck area–I live off of Rt. 33 near the Merritt. However, I and so many other town residents frequent the Saugatuck area and enjoy its village like quality with the mom and pop feel that has been lost on Main Street. It would be a HUGE mistake to allow a dealership into the Saugatuck area!!

  6. There are some FAQs on the http://www.savesaugatuck.org website that I wanted to include here as well. Also check the site for photos of Tesla’s other sites in the area.

    Wouldn’t this be less of an impact than other retail options?

    The zoning amendment allows Tesla three uses: service, sales, and destination charging. All three of those uses will primarily be attracting new cars to our roads—either current and future Tesla owners from throughout lower Connecticut or long-distance travelers heading up and down I-95. While it’s likely true that a busy grocery store at the 20 Saugatuck Avenue site would mean more cars in and out of that particular lot, those would primarily be local trips—in other words, cars already on our roads. And no one takes their groceries out for a test drive. Having more services in the neighborhood could in fact reduce traffic by allowing Saugatuck residents to walk to a store or pharmacy instead of having to drive to the Post Road.

    What does a Tesla dealer look like?

    They look like a car dealerships, not the fancy storefront galleries you see in malls or on Greenwich Avenue. You can look up their other locations on the Tesla Motors website. They mostly neighbor other car dealerships and box stores on busy commercial strips. There doesn’t appear to be a single example of another location similar to this Saugatuck proposal. (We’d invite Tesla to offer such an example if there is one.)

    Doesn’t Tesla sell less than 100,000 cars a year?

    Make no mistake, this will very quickly become a very busy location. The number of Teslas in CT will at least double this year into next as the more affordable Model 3 becomes available. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk says the company will be selling around one million cars in the U.S. within three years. Mr. Barr’s proposed zoning language does nothing to protect Saugatuck from Tesla doing whatever it takes to meet those targets—from, for example, filling that lot with Model 3s that are constantly looping around the neighborhood, or from delivering and selling hundreds of cars from Saugatuck Avenue every year.

    If Tesla is so bad, what would the neighbors want at this location instead?

    Anything allowed by the current zoning. When most of use bought our houses, we read the zoning regulations closely and determined that we’d be willing to live with the approved uses outlined in RORD #2, even though we ultimately wouldn’t get to choose the exact tenant. We welcome the landlord to find tenants consistent with the current regulations. Most of those uses—offices, grocery stores, restaurants, retail—would all be better and more useful for the immediate neighborhood than a Tesla dealership, even though they will all mean more noise and traffic than the currently vacant lot.

  7. Bart Shuldman

    Mark. I join you in your fight to stop the dealership. Please let me know how to sign the petition.

    Bart

  8. Rozanne Gates

    Tesla should be encouraged on every front. Westport would benefit from a high profile company – a company of the future. We cannot complain about loss of jobs and income on one hand and then close the door to solutions for that problem. Connecticut needs Tesla as does Westport.

    • I agree with you re: encouraging Tesla in CT and encouraging Tesla in Westport. But that’s not the same thing as re-writing zoning to allow this use in an area where it’s prohibited.

  9. Don L. Bergmann

    The fact that Save Westport Now and the Greens Farms Association oppose this change to Westport’s Zoning Regulations to permit an automobile dealership where not presently permitted caught my attention. Westport has pretty good zoning regulations, including as to what businesses can be located where. I am opposed to a change in our Zoning Regulations to permit a car dealership in a location not presently allowed.
    Don Bergmann

  10. Terry Anzalone

    The Tesla Dealership/Service Center would be in our backyard. When we moved here 48 years ago, it was an open lot and residential, which the rear of the property still is.
    Besides changing the whole atmosphere of the area, it would change our lives and the value of our property!
    Sitting out in our back yard and our neighbors’ yards will never be enjoyable–let alone the noise inside our homes.

    Imagine waking before 7AM to 5 garage doors opening, power tools, garbage and the list goes on–including runoff into the brook that flows into the Saugatuck River.

    Think about it in your backyard…….

    No one is saying to keep Tesla out of Westport—but maybe on the Post Rd with other businesses, where the zoning does not have to be changed.

  11. Lindsay Shurman

    Please support us at town hall tomorrow evening. The more bodies in the room the better… Let’s preserve our neighborhood and grow it into what we all really want for our families – a cohesive community with that village feel that’s walkable, safe!

  12. Michael Calise

    Its easy to rationalize a change in zoning regulations but the results are never what the proponents present and you can be absolutely sure that no matter how restrictive an approval may be the applicant will wear a path to the P & Z office for constant modifications to the approval. Take the time to read the zoning files of existing dealerships and you will see what I speak of.
    The P & Z needs to hold firm on this application.

  13. Valerie Seiling Jacobs

    As other have noted, Save Westport Now intends to oppose this text amendment. We would like to share our reasoning with you.
    Restricted Office-Retail Districts (RORD) zones are designed to provide transitional areas between commercial and residential zones. They serve to ensure and promote uses that benefit and are compatible with residential neighborhoods, and they prevent the degradation to the quality of life for those who live in and around them. Those zones are vital and must be protected.  
    The regulations are clear and specific regarding both permitted and prohibited uses in RORD zones. The uses that ARE permitted, including grocery stores, delis, restaurants, and a wide spectrum of other uses, reinforce the philosophy of a transitional zone: they are commercial uses that elegantly blend local residential living with relevant and appropriate commercial activities. They are uses that are compatible with walkability and neighborhoods. They are uses that attract and provide services to local residents. The uses that are not permitted, including car dealerships and service stations, are not consistent with that philosophy. For that reason, they are expressly prohibited in these important transitional zones.   
    And we note that this prohibition is not premised on the fact that cars have historically been powered by fossil fuels. There are myriad other reasons to prohibit automobile service stations and dealerships in these transitional zones, including avoiding noise, traffic, and test drives. In other words, to claim an exception based on the type of fuel proceeds from the false premise that the only thing that matters is the type of fuel. The reality is that motor vehicle service stations and dealerships have no place in these zones—regardless of fuel type.
    Save Westport Now is not opposed to the sale or servicing of electric vehicles in town, nor are we making a statement against the applicant. To the contrary, we support sustainable technologies and look forward to welcoming the commercial purveyors of those products in appropriate locations. But, based on the intent and language of the RORD regulations, we join the chorus of opposition to this Text Amendment.
    We believe that the Planning & Zoning Commission is duty-bound to vote to deny this text amendment to ensure the integrity of the RORD, protect neighbors from commercial encroachment, and preserve the quality of life for surrounding residents.  
    Respectfully,
    Valerie Seiling Jacobs and Ian Warburg, Co-Chairs

  14. As a commercial real estate broker and former commercial appraiser I am typically on the other side of an issue like this but I have to say anyone that would support this use at the subject property is, pardon the pun, not running on all cylinders. First, could it be more obvious that Tesla is absolutely banking on being able to sell cars here eventually? I guarantee they would never accept any limitation in that regard as a contingency to approval of the amendment. Second, has anyone that is in favor of this ever driven through the area at 4:00 in the afternoon on any day, much less a Friday or weekend? The bottom line is the subject’s highest and best use is no longer retail, if it ever was. That’s why it’s been vacant for so long and in receivership. Yes, any future retail use of the property will generate traffic however that is an as-of-right use in conformance with its zoning, so there is little anyone can do about that. But why add insult to injury and expand the potential obnoxious uses the property can be used as. What if Tesla never gets the right to sell cars? Do you realize that another not-so-“green” car dealership could then jump right in under just a renovation permit? Also realize that it is illegal to “spot-zone” so once the amendment is approved it opens the door to similar applications to claim precedent for automotive car sales and service use in the area as well, something courts give heavy consideration to when a Town denial is appealed. I thoroughly support Tesla as a company, their environmentally sensitive product (that I wish I could afford) and their right to sell direct to consumers. That said, they are a car dealership and service center and belong where other similar uses are, on Post Road. If we’re going to attract new car shoppers into Westport from long distances, shouldn’t they be traveling past and around our existing retail shops and downtown to help our local business survive? Shouldn’t that be part of the conversation? I intend on signing the petition against this proposal. Thanks.

  15. Isn’t the Saugatuck Fire Station looking for a new home? This property might be worth considering.

  16. I think there was a Volkswagon Dealership in the old Saugatuck Post Office location by the railroad station (and across from an independent automotive repair facility). Westport used to have a Ford, Chevy, Chrysler/Plymouth stores on Post Road. There was a Dodge dealer in the area of Riverside Avenue (about where MCA was). The current proposed location is a bit snug for a dealership, but there actually aren’t many other locations. Maybe Bertuccis/Clam Box old spot?

  17. Tesla, talk to Bertucci’s about leasing/buying their vacated location on the Post Road. Great access to I-95.

  18. I’ve lived on the other side of the bridge for 20 years. I’ve seen and applauded smart development in the Saugatuck area since — from the Saugatuck Rowing Club to the Gault development to participating in the planning meeting this past week at Town Hall. And I’ve had a beer or two at Dunville’s across the street. I support a Tesla dealership there for the jobs and tax revenue it would bring and for the idea that we embrace this sort of high-tech future. As is, the site is a white elephant of a retail space, and seems to me to be ideal for the sort of clientele Tesla would attract. Let’s welcome their business.

  19. Bart Shuldman

    WESTPORT-BE CAREFUL-THIS IS A TEXT AMENDMENT WHICH COULD EFFEXT EVERY NEIGHBORHOOD IN A ZONE LIKE THIS

    What is going before the P&Z, and shame on this developer, is a Text Amendment and not a ZBA variance. If this Text Amendment is approved, it could change any neighborhood next to a zone that allows the change from neighborhood to commercial. Any RORD area could find a car dealer next to your home-NOT JUST THE
    LOCATION IN QUESTION.

    All of Westport should be concerned as it could change our town forever. Again, it is not a Zoning Board of Appeals issue. This is an amendment that will change every area of Westport.

    This regulation can not be approved. It will change the laws and regulations of the whole town, not just in this one area that everyone if focused on.

    Westport is involved in a $500,000 review of Saugatuck to make the area more residential. This regulation will significant effect the outcome.

    Westport is battling a bad regulation change.

  20. The RORD regs protect residential quality of life. They need to be affirmed not vandalized.

  21. Mark, and the other Saugatuck residents who oppose the zoning change sought for this property –

    I share and support your position opposing this zoning change that would permit a car dealership in this location. Saugatuck deserves our vigilant attention to the maintenance of a wise zoning plan that supports its vibrant, village character – these areas of Town – call them villages, communities, neighborhoods, whatever – don’t happen by accident, and it’s also no accident when they maintain their character and feel – it takes wise zoning that supports the right kind of businesses for the area and prevents development that is not in keeping with it.

    Also noteworthy here is that this property is on the outer ring of the commercial zone as it transitions to a residential zone – not where prudent zoning would allow such a use.

    I also applaud your ability to look past what the proponents claim is their present intention for the site, and envision the possibilities if the zoning change they seek is granted. I would also point out that, once an electric car dealership / service facility is permitted, the next step – relaxation of the “electric” qualifier – is quite easy to predict 5 years down the road. That’s the steady chipping away at the character of our Town, and it takes vigilance. Pleased to see Valerie of Save Westport Now is on your side here, which makes sense. They are vigilant, as are my former colleagues on the P&Z.

    • ” I would also point out that, once an electric car dealership / service facility is permitted, the next step – relaxation of the “electric” qualifier – is quite easy to predict 5 years down the road. ”

      Are you saying that you believe that if/when Tesla moved out of that location, that a non-electric car company would move in, or do you believe that at some point in the future, Tesla would sell gas cars? If the former, that’s fine, I get that, but if it’s the latter, you are VERY mistaken about what Tesla is, does, and wants for the future.

  22. Valerie Seiling,
    Thank you for composing such a comprehensive and clear description of the RORD regulations. It was almost a virtual walk through a well-planned town— your use of the word elegant couldn’t have been more appropriate!
    Joyce

  23. Many may wonder why the Greens Farms Association is weighing in on this issue since it’s not “in our backyard” of Greens Farms. It’s pretty simple, and I would refer back to the extensive commentary already posted by the co-chairs of Save Westport Now. We object to the modification of RORD zones since they have been established as the buffers between commercial and residential use. These zones are under constant pressure and need the vigilance of the P&Z and concerned residents lest we allow for a “creeping commercialization” of our residential zones. We do NOT at all object to Tesla in Westport and in fact support them coming in to town. We object to the principal of modifying the RORD zone in this fashion.

    Art Schoeller
    President
    Greens Farms Association

  24. The good news is that we might be able to have our cake and eat it. We can have a Tesla service facility and bring tax revenues and smart green jobs that foster a cleaner environment and not have a “dealership” with the test drives and sea of car inventory that involves – if Tesla will agree not to sell cars and not allow test drives at the location. Let’s try to reach a compromise instead of taking extreme positions.

    • Excellent idea, Bruce. Here’s a suggested compromise: Tesla agrees to abide by the exact same regulations the rest of us do. And we agree to be completely cool with that.

  25. Elaine Marino

    Is it known whether Tesla considered but rejected a more commercialized location on Post Road? It seems to me that the former Bertucci’s property would be perfect given the large parking lot and easy access to I-95 for test drives. The location perhaps could serve as a charging station as well. Is it Saugatuck or nothing for Tesla and Westport? I hope not.

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