One of Westport’s thorniest — and its longest-running — zoning battles ended last night.
Despite the strong objections of a number of speakers, the Planning & Zoning Commission affirmed a settlement reached after arduous negotiations. The vote was 5-0.
The development on Hiawatha Lane (adjacent to I-95 Exit 17) will now move forward — with modifications.
The agreement is contingent upon the state of Connecticut agreeing to continue Westport’s moratorium on 8-30g applications.
The size of the project has been altered. Safety concerns — including Fire Department access — have also been addressed.
For nearly 2 decades, Summit Saugatuck tried to build on land it owns off Saugatuck Avenue.
Last night’s decision includes several key points:
- The project was reduced from 187 to 157 units. 30% of the units would be deemed “affordable.”
- “Building E” is eliminated entirely. Set off from the rest of the development, it would have been located across the street from several small single-family homes. The remaining buildings were consolidated.
- Land intended for “Building E” will be used only for as-of-right development permitted by Westport’s zoning regulations. The developer agreed to never seek 8-30g approval for an apartment building on that site. This is binding on all successors.
- Summit Saugatuck agreed to a number of improvements urged by the fire marshal, to compensate for the lack of a secondary access route.
- Summit Saugatuck will provide evergreens, which they will maintain for several years, to screen homes now located adjacent to the development’s east side.
- The developer will provide continuing public access — with posted signs — to the Norden conservation area for Hiawatha neighborhood residents. This is binding on all successors.
- Summit Saugatuck will rebuilt the Hiawatha Lane culvert, repave part of the road and repair other areas
- In addition, the developer will withdraw or settle all litigation relating to the project “without qualification or exception,” including the challenge to Westport’s 2019 moratorium of 8-30g (“affordable housing”) construction.
To a Zoom audience of over 70 people, town attorney Ira Bloom addressed the question of “why settle now?”
He offered 2 reasons. One is the “changing nature of the legal landscape, particularly with regard to 8-30g” (the statewide affordable housing mandate, which allows developments to override local zoning regulations, so long as 30% of housing is “affordable”). What was originally difficult for municipalities has become even more so.
“After 2 recent Westport cases, and others, it is now even harder to prevail. We believe our case has merits, but the trends are against us.”
Bloom added, “The P&Z decided to be proactive, to control our own destiny.”
A second challenge, Bloom said, was to Westport’s 4-year moratorium on 8-30g issues. Developers have brought legal action to stop the moratorium. “We want to maintain it,” Bloom noted.
The “not easy” negotiations with Summit ensure that the town will have 2 more years of the moratorium — time to help plan for more affordable housing — while also increasing our affordable housing stock, with this project.
P&Z chair Danielle Dobin cited the difficulty of balancing competing interests. “We believe the proposed settlement is in the best interests of all parties. It will result in a better outcome for Hiawatha neighbors, and the town, than would otherwise be achieved.”
Later in the night, she expanded on that idea. She said that if Westport lost in court, the ramifications would be “almost immediate.” Many more developments would come in — and, for example, the Summit Saugatuck project would revert to its larger size, with fewer safety restrictions — and other developments would be built all over town.
First Selectman Jim Marpe reiterated that the settlement “makes sense for Saugatuck and the entire community.”
A parade of speakers addressed the commission, before the final vote. They spoke passionately about concerns including added traffic, the impact of 4-5 years of construction, limitations of one entrance and exit road, the destruction of some of already affordable homes, and the loss of a long-standing neighborhood.
Among the speakers was former P&Z chair Cathy Walsh, who angrily said the current P&Z “caved” to the developer. She said that settlement “goes against the core of good business sense, and is based on fear of the unknown. It is based on fear of future 8-30g applications.”
Another former chair, Chip Stephens, called the issue one of “fairness and compassion” for the people who built the town’s railroads and I-95, then became police officers, firefighters and restaurant owners.
“They were given small parcels, with deed restrictions,” he said. Earlier, land use consultant Gloria Gouveia had raised the question of deed restrictions placed on the Hiawatha houses when those parcels were given to workers decades ago.
Carolanne Curry — a neighborhood resident, and leader of the Save Our Saugatuck group — said she was frustrated by the suddenness of the decision. She said the commission was “intimidated by lawsuits,” and felt “abandoned by the pursuit of [8-30g] points.” She also criticized town attorney Bloom, and Westport’s state legislators.
Michael Calise said he was “shocked at what’s been presented, and [the assertion that] it will be good for Westport….We need to tell our story, and bring it to Washington.”
Dobin addressed traffic concerns. “This commission cares about traffic. The state 8-30g does not, however, allow traffic to be a consideration in these decisions.”
John Suggs called the settlement “the ultimate betrayal of our community, and who we say we are.” He urged town officials to heed words of Winston Churchill: “Never, ever give in.”
P&Z commissioner Jon Olefson acknowledged that the Hiawatha location was “sub-optimal. We agree with everything that’s been said. This sucks.
“But none of us wrote this law. If I was in your shoes, I’d be saying exactly what you’re saying. But we are where we are. I hope the energy I heard tonight is directed at those in the state who can make broader changes. The P&Z will do that too.”
It had been expected that the P&Z would also announce a settlement of a proposed Cross Street project. However, negotiations have not been finalized.
(Click here for documents from last night’s Planning & Zoning session, including the full settlement agreement, and Hiawatha Lane site plan.)