Hiawatha Lane Project Approved

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.

Summit Saugatuck’s site plan. I-95 is at the top; train tracks are at bottom.

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.

Artist’s rendering of one of the buildings at the Hiawatha Lane development.

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.”

Hiawatha Lane extension is shown by an arrow, on this Google Map image. It’s below I-95. The entrance is via West Ferry Lane, which is off Saugatuck Avenue (diagonal road on the right side of the image).

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.

Homes on Hiawatha Lane.

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.)

29 responses to “Hiawatha Lane Project Approved

  1. What a slap in the face. Not just to the neighborhood but to everyone who didn’t want this, the majority. Deontology was thrown out along with everyone’s complete disgust for this giant eyesore and future clusterf—-

    The small town charm that everyone moved here for, with its mom and pop fine family establishments is being destroyed by laws that do nothing but overdevelop and environmentally destroy green space and effect run off, for 30% affordability and points to satisfy the states requirement.

    Westport has expanded preexisting affordable housing places, but does not count and should count. This should’ve been fought and discussed at Hartford for as long as this project was around.

    8-30g needs to be appealed and thrown out with the people who voted for this erroneously law used to threaten towns, flood courts, and toss around the word racist and discriminative.

    I’ve lived in this town for over 50 years, and the great experience the majority of us enjoyed of small town charm, family owned and family supported businesses, and affordable single family homes is gone because of greed

    They have something called cities, where you can live in apartments that you’ll never own stacked on one another.

    This is a sad day for this town.

  2. A sickening display of municipal cowardice.

  3. Just like the charm fairfield once had which has been ruined, Westport is now looking just like fairfield. Affordable housing should have been reformed long ago. It was a gift to developers and it’s focus really wasn’t on true affordable housing. Saugatuck was once a charming neighborhood, I loved the area near Hiawatha. Now it will be an eyesore, plagued with traffic.

  4. Letter to Jake Grossman

    Dear Mr. Grossman,
    I was surprised to see you on the zoom call last night. You stayed until the end and heard first hand what has been going on . It was a tough night for all of us. It’s been a tough 18 years for all of us. Felix Charney and Tim Hollister have been the face of this project but I know you are the Managing Partner(as of 2 years ago?) and control this project. I am asking you to do the right thing by the people of this town. Please do a much smaller project, work out a deal with the housing authority or another non profit to provide the town with another Hales Court type of development

    Distance yourself from your partner and his attorney and do something great.

    Thank you

  5. Werner Liepolt

    A disgraceful and shameful betrayal of our neighbors. A thoughtless overblown drain on the town’s resources.

  6. Alex Wennberg

    P&Z and Ira Bloom should all resign over this. They have betrayed the public’s trust. Shameful.

  7. Cheryl McKenna Kritzer

    Ira Bloom should resign as he has no backbone and did not try to protect the town of Westport. It was a fight to not give up on and I again say let’s pull our resources and go to court as the townspeople of Westport and fight it in Hartford now. We can not let this stand ! A sad day for us all to know our own town attorneys won’t fight for us !!!

  8. Michael Isaacs

    Asking Ira Bloom to resign is hilarious. Doesn’t everyone know who he is and what he is about? He is for sure also the town attorney for New Canaan, and some other towns as I understand it. He couldn’t care less who gets what as long as he can bill every town he ‘represents’ as much as possible. He has no interest in fighting for clients. He simply goes to all the P&Z meetings, bills and bills and bills, then surrenders with verbiage saying it’s not worth the effort, and moves on to another town or case.

    • Bill Strittmatter

      To be fair, Ira Bloom could presumably bill a whole lot more hours if he had advised fighting this in court for a few years.

  9. John D. McCarthy

    I am looking out at 5 homes that were built on Gorham Avenue under an 8-30g court-mandated settlement over 10 years ago. Average selling price around $1.5 million. Not a single “affordable” unit built. Little wonder that 8-30g is called the “Developer’s Law.”

  10. Tracy MacMath

    It’s ironic, isn’t it? People who own 6 or 7 homes being the arbiters of “affordability”. Meanwhile, at age 53, I’m still trying to buy my first home but finding it impossible because I don’t have 50K for a down payment (plus closing costs).

  11. I’m still reeling from last night. In all my years on the commission I have never been so impacted by the neighbors. I’m so sorry for all of you who live in that neighborhood. No longer being on the commission allows me to engage freely . I have not deserted the neighbors and will continue to fight for you.

    When we did Sasco Creek and Hales Court rebuilds, the Housing Authority was responsible for relocating the displaced residents. Aren’t we morally responsible to do this on Hiawatha too? There are renters raising families there who deserve to continue living in Westport and give their kids a Westport education. Was this ever considered? What are you doing for these people?

    Last night I asked the commission a question about a rumored deal being cut with the Housing Authority. Knowledge of such a deal being discussed was denied. WRONG ANSWER.

    Felix Charney owns 6 or 7 of the homes in play. He has options to buy the rest. Did we ever consider just buying him out?

    The question was asked last night about the number of units in comparison with other projects. For a visual – look at 1141 or 1177 PRE- those are about 95 units each. This project is 157 units. The pretty picture showed to us intentionally distorts the size of this project. It’s too big for this location.

    This is and always been a bad project for the town.

  12. Larry Weisman

    What occurred last night was shocking. Even if settling were a good idea, the terms which were negotiated are shameful. The developer got almost everything he wanted and the town got very little in return. The negotiations were an opportunity to address some of the issues that could not be raised I. the context of the application or the appeal, including access to and egress from the site. The town caved in and the developer has cause to celebrate.
    BTW: Was this the optimum time to consider a settlement when the Commission is short-handed with only 5 members? What’s the rush?

  13. It seems everyone agrees that 8-30g needs to be reformed (legacy affordable units not counted etc.). How do our elected politicians represent Westport in the state?

  14. It isn’t clear to me…Are these going to be condo’s? If so, any word on pricing, square footage, etc.

  15. This is a terrible decision. In accepting the Hiawatha “compromise,” Westport’s P and Z and its Town Attorney seem to be more concerned about using it to prevent future 8-30g projects rather than fighting for the area’s residents. Disturbing and disheartening.

  16. Francis Fiolek

    People need to start thinking about who the send to Hartford…that’s where this started.

  17. Nice comments all…but the real problem is Hartford and who is running Hartford…pay attention to Sara Bronin, Will Haskell (YES That Will Haskell!) There is so much the much more the far Left of Hartford and some of our own, want to do to ruin our local zoning laws…..Don’t blame Ira Bloom or our P and Z they worked their butts off for years on this project.

    Change must come when you go to the polls…pay attention to local pay attention to who has your back, and who has worked the political room for your back.

    How could we have not been given credit by state of CT for Hales Court and the former Trailer Park as 8-30g credits?

    Just pay attention….do your homework…ask the hard questions…Our local leadership, attorneys, and Planning and Zoning members didn’t let us down…the State of CT and manipulation allowed by legislators on 8-30g are the ones who need to be brought to the carpet.

  18. David J. Loffredo

    Better start building that wing onto the back of Kings Highway School….

  19. James Waldron

    Westport’s future seems to disagree, love the Chip SHS ’73 quote: https://www.inklingsnews.com/opinions/2021/03/18/westport-needs-to-do-more-than-minimum-with-affordable-housing/

  20. In fairness chips comment couldn’t have been more correct.
    The honest truth is we don’t have space for any more affordable housing.
    Every single suggested location will cause horiffic traffic issues to an already horiffic situation.
    I live on riverside and the traffic is unbearable.
    I do not think the p&Z had much choice last night and were between a rock and a hard place.
    We might have been in a far worse position down the road.
    I don’t think there are any commissioners who like this project.
    As far as I am
    Concerned we do not have any room for affordable housing .
    It’s being squeezed into an already full westport. What’s more our schools are already over capacity.
    My children to to GFA.
    Imagine if every westport kid at gfa and all other private schools decided to opt for our town public schools.
    Any more affordable housing should be created for our elderly and aging population and not burden our already burdened school system..
    like I will repeat count how many westport kids go to all the private schools around here.. surely this must count as a number to prove short of building a whole new 3 schools this housing should be for adults only.
    I also think nothing should change with traffic lights there..
    ferry lane should not be given any kind of traffic light preferential treatment.
    Instead of putting the traffic burden on longtime westporters who have been
    Living here and paying taxes should not be expected to suffer this projects additional traffic.
    Let’s see how long this lasts when people take 45 minutes to exit there.
    Too bad is what I say
    Next spots to watch the building on the corner of Wright street and post road west, let go to absolute sh$& by its owner and the gorgeous red barn.
    It was bought by the YMCA along with a bunch of lies about it being preserved..
    they have let it become derelict.
    An unreal disgrace.

  21. Sarah Kennedy

    What is Westport’s overall plan for aesthetics? Do we have one? I see Westport losing its small-town feel and becoming a rising city with a sprawl of commercial, unattractive housing and businesses.The daybreak development down from me was supposed to be affordable housing but I don’t think that one million two hundred thousand is affordable housing for most people. Last night’s passing of the Hiawatha Lane Project is a final goodbye to Westport and hello congested city. I see that not enough people get involved in these decisions because the same faces are always fighting in the town hall. If we want to save or change anything in Westport more people need to become involved. The residents of Westport do have power.We do not have to reelect the same officials again. Elect people that fight for and listen to us. If they don’t find some that will. 

  22. Does anyone know if any of the involved parties (either side or even attorneys) are connected to one another? It would be great to have some reassurance that there was not something back-room going on.. It has happened in the past in other municipalities and courts have been able to get involved to null and void agreements but must act quick.

  23. Can this happen in your neighborhood?
    Ask a person who lives on Hiawatha Lane in Westport because the unthinkable just happened to them.

    Overdevelopment with a developer that has no affiliation with Westport has been going on for years, this is not a new problem. It is very concerning that they are building four apartment buildings with 157 apartments total (some of them 3 bedrooms) on Hiawatha Lane. Hiawatha Lane is a residential neighborhood that currently has 70 homes. It is very concerning that the builder did not inform the public after 18 years of litigation and have finally pushed it through during a pandemic (when Westport resident’s could not attend the meetings).

    Westport will gain 47 affordable apartments for the 8-30g Moratorium when these buildings are completed and the builders receive a CO which could take five years.
    Please go to the town website and click on notifications for
    P & Z meetings to be emailed to you before they happen to stay informed.
    This is available to every resident in Westport.

    When Danielle Dobin, Chair of the P&Z commission, was asked at the Zoom meeting what is the total occupancy of
    8-30g apartments in Westport she did not know the answer. How do you know what Westport needs when you don’t know what we have?

    Ira Bloom our town attorney started the meeting with “the town did a good job and this is good for Westport and 75% of these cases will lose in court”. I asked what happened to the other 25%? He didn’t have an answer.

    Remember, the town has another building that is in the final stages of being approved for development. It’s located on Lincoln/Cross Street in a residential neighborhood surrounded by homes. This new apartment building will be
    six stories tall with 81 rental units.

    While I was on the RTM between 2015-2017, I sat on the committee for Planning & Zoning and listened to the Fire Marshall at town wide meetings speak about the concerns he had for Hiawatha Lane and how difficult it would be to get two fire trucks side my side, coming and going because the street was so narrow.
    What has changed since I sat in those meetings as an elected RTM member?
    Has the street been made wider?
    When I asked Danielle Dobin these questions on 5/12/21 at the Zoom meeting she replied nothing has changed.
    Then why is this problem being overlooked?

    Cathy Walsh, Al Gratrix and Chip Stephens from P&Z recently resigned from P&Z within 24 hours of each other with a life time of knowledge of Westports Panning & Zoning.
    We heard from Cathy Walsh & Chip Stephens at the zoom meeting on 5/12/21 and they both spoke out against this project.

    Cathy Walsh said, “The settlement of this suit involves multiple issues that have not been revealed by the this commission to the public. Those issues must be disclosed to the public. Again I feel the fear of the unknown is causing you to cave into this developer.

    Chip Stephens who resigned recently from P&Z advised the residents of Westport to follow the money.

    As a concerned resident of Westport what are our elected
    Planning & Zoning representatives not sharing with us?

    Dee Chapman
    lovecompobeach@gmail.com

  24. ** an edit to my above piece:

    **It is very concerning that the Town of Westport did not inform the public after 18 years of litigation and have finally pushed it through during a pandemic (when Westport resident’s could not attend the meetings).

  25. Ciara Webster

    Again ! We have no room in our schools !

    This is not a p &z issue.. it’s our selectmen who sign off on this… the buck lies there 10000000%

  26. For those of you that are frustrated by our local Planning & Zoning
    you can sign a petition on CT169strong.org they will send a letter to Hartford politicians and bureaucrats that are actively pursing a takeover of local land use and zoning rights. Take a look I thought it was very informative.
    CT169strong.org

    Dee Chapman

  27. Ciara Webster

    This has nothing to do with our local
    Planning and zoning !!!!!
    Their hands are tied.
    Please let’s remember our selectmen signed off on this.
    Let’s at the very least not hold the wrong people accountable

  28. Ciara Webster

    There are many suggestions which could be made to ensure life for this developer is hell.. first off a fine every time his trailers cause traffic..
    clearly they cannot get in there so let’s make him park on 95 and transfer his building mats into a smaller truck that can make the turn..
    again nobody is going to want to give these trucks right of way or be willing to sit in our car while we wait for a huge truck to negotiate this impossible turn…

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