Category Archives: Real estate

[OPINION] Historic Importance Of South Morningside Is Huge

Between the ospreys and education issues, Westporters’ attention has recently been diverted from the long-running saga of Morningside Drive South. But the Historic District Commission meets Tuesday (Town Hall, 7 p.m.) to discuss a planned development there. “06880” reader Aurea de Souza writes:

Before Walter and Naiad Einsel bought their home and studio, 26 Morningside Drive South was the home of  Charles B. Sherwood. Yes, that’s the same Sherwood family remembered today through Sherwood Island State Park, the Sherwood Island Connector, even Sherwood Diner!

Charles B. Sherwood was given 7 acres of land by his father Walter in 1853.  That same year, he built his house. It was sold in 1864 to John B. Elwood, who owned it until 1920. The Einsels bought it in 1965, after vacationing in Westport for 4 years.

In 2005 the Einsels received a Preservation Award for their home. In 2007 their home and property were designated a Local Historic District.

The Einsels’ house on South Morningside Drive.

Anne Hamonet and her husband Alberto bought what used to be the barn of the Sherwood property in 2002. They have since restored it, respecting its historic value. Today their home is a Greens Farms sanctuary, cherished by the neighborhood.

The Hamonets raise chickens that run freely through the property. Anne brings fresh cage-free organic eggs to everyone at our neighborhood meetings. They also keep horses on the property. It’s almost like a movie set.

Because of the Hamonets, we all enjoy rooster and chicken noises, horses that can be seen from the street, and the beautifully restored barn.

This is what their bucolic backyard looks like today, right next to the proposed development.

This is an approximation of what it will be when the southwest block of the 16 3-bedroom, 32.5-foot high condos is built, just 15 feet from their fence.

The historic importance of 20-26 Morningside Drive south is huge for Westport.  It is about to be destroyed by a developer who purchased property in a historic district. He was well aware of the limitations, but is taking advantage of the 8-30g “affordable housing” statute which can take precedence over historic districts and flooding issues.

The homes will be built on top of wetland setbacks on already flood-prone Muddy Brook – which this week caused the collapse of Hillandale Road bridge.

There is also a safety issue. Westport requires a 400-foot distance from a school driveway for any driveway cutout. Plans for this development shows their driveway directly across from Greens Farms Elementary School.

The developer has presented drawings of the individual groups of homes, but at the Architecture Review Board hearing on March 26, failed to present any documentation on how it will look as a whole.

A Greens Farms United member who is an architect put all of their documentation together in a rough section of what it will actually look like (These do not account for any land modifications; it is simply an illustration of what has been made public).

The house in yellow is the current home, which the developer plans to transport to a new location much closer to the road.

Westport currently enjoys a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g developments, having met the state requirements. This proposal was submitted before the moratorium took effect.

When $30,000 Property Taxes Hit A Little Harder

That’s the headline on a CNN story posted yesterday to its website.

The piece — about the effect of the new tax law on high property tax states like Connecticut — was illustrated by a stock photo that seems to show Westport.

Whether that’s our town or not, there’s no denying that residents here have been hit hard — along with our counterparts in places like New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

The CNN story concludes with this assessment from a local realtor:

While many towns in Connecticut also have relatively high property taxes, some towns further up the Long Island Sound — like Westport or Fairfield — have lower bills than Westchester and are still a commutable distance from Manhattan.

“In Westchester County — towns like Larchmont, Rye, Mamaroneck — the taxes are crazy high,” says Mary Ellen Gallagher, a real estate agent and partner of Compass Westport Team KMS Partners in Connecticut.

“Younger people can’t afford those taxes and are looking [in Connecticut] where you get more house and pay less taxes, but you’re further from New York.”

She says for many luxury buyers, taxes don’t always play into their decision to buy a new home, but can be a deterrent for those looking to move up to a larger and pricier home.

“I think it is hurting the luxury market,” says Gallagher. “Because people aren’t trading up.”

(Click here for the full CNN story. Hat tip: Seth Van Beever.)

BREAKING NEWS: Westport Gets Moratorium For 8-30g Housing

For years, Westport has grappled with the intent and consequences of Connecticut’s Affordable Housing Law.

Known as 8-30g, the regulation mandates that 10% of a town’s housing stock be “affordable.” It compels local planning and zoning boards to justify any denial of an “affordable housing” application.

The intent of 8-30g is for every community in the state to provide diverse housing stock.

However, for the purpose of calculating 8-30g, only units constructed after 1990, and those that are deed-restricted for 40 years, are considered. Most Westport units serving lower-income groups do not fall into either category.

Canal Park offers affordable housing for seniors, near downtown. However, because it was built before 1990, it does not count toward 8-30g compliance.

Developers began using 8-30g as a weapon. They proposed large developments all around town — Hiawatha Lane, Lincoln Street, Weston Road, Post Road East — with some units designated as 8-30g.

Opponents cited concerns like traffic, fire safety, and environmental encroachment. But because the regulation is written so definitively, fighting an 8-30g proposal is time-consuming, expensive and hard.

And because proposals often included only a few 8-30g units, each development meant that it could be harder — not easier — for Westport to reach the 10% threshold.

One of the most controversial housing proposals with an 8-30g component — 187 units on Hiawatha Lane, off Saugatuck Avenue by I-95 Exit 17 — will be heard tomorrow by the Planning & Zoning Commission (Thursday, 7 p.m., Town Hall). Because it was filed before today, it is unaffected by the moratorium.

However, an end — if only temporary — is at hand.

This afternoon, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced that Westport has received a “Certificate of Affordable Housing Completion” from the state Department of Housing. The result is a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g.

The moratorium was granted “based upon the significant progress Westport has made in supplying affordable housing,” Marpe said.

He praised members of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Planning and Zoning Department staffers, and attorney Nicholas Bamonte for helping create affordable housing opportunities, and seeing the moratorium application through to completion.

Planning and Zoning director Mary Young said that Westport joins Brookfield, Darien, Farmington, New Canaan, Ridgefield and Wilton as towns that have been granted moratoriums. Milford has an application pending.

P&Z chair Paul Lebowitz said that the moratorium “will allow the Commission to continue their efforts to create affordable housing opportunities that are in scale with and can be integrated with the community. The 4-year moratorium will not stifle our efforts to provide affordable housing in Westport.”

Ed Vebell, Austin Briggs, And A Wonderful Studio With Northern Light

In 1953, Ed Vebell was starting to make a name as an artist. He’d spent World War II as an illustrator/reporter for Stars and Stripes. He stayed in Europe a while, covering the Nuremberg trials and drawing 18-year-old Grace Kelly.

Now he, his wife Elsa Cerra and their 3-year-old daughter Vicki lived in New York. He hung out at the Society of Illustrators, eating and schmoozing with well-known artists.

One day, he spotted a bulletin board notice of a house for sale. He knew nothing about the town — Westport, Connecticut — but it had an artist’s studio with a large north light window.

That was huge: No shadows or highlights on the canvas or drawing board.

The artist’s studio.

The seller was Austin Briggs. A renowned illustrator — he drew “Flash Gordon,” worked for Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post, and was later elected to the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame — that was enough to assure Ed that he was making the right move for himself and his family.

He bought the house, for $29,000 — sight unseen.

When Ed arrived for the first time, he looked down the end of Roosevelt Road. Something blue caught his eye. What was it?

“That’s Long Island Sound, sir,” the broker replied.

Okay, he thought. That’s nice.

Ed Vebell wrote his memoirs — and illustrated the cover.

The house served Ed and his growing family well. Working in that wonderful studio — enjoying the large north light window — he contributed to Time, Reader’s Digest and other publications. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. He worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam.

Ed designed US stamps too — some with military themes. The studio was strewn with uniforms, helmets and boots. There was not even enough space for Wild Bill Hickok’s hat. So Ed stashed it in the bathtub.

Last February — less than 2 weeks after appearing at a Westport Historical Society show honoring his long career — Ed Vebell died peacefully, at home. He was 96.

It’s taken his daughters a year to clear out the house, and auction his collections.

But now the home — 9 Quentin Road — is on the market.

Ed Vebell’s home, 9 Quentin Road,

Audra Vebell says she and her sisters hope to find someone with “an appreciation of the history and special nature of this house.”

It really is special. For nearly a century, not one but two of America’s most famed illustrators lived and worked there.

In fact, just before he sold it to Ed, Austin signed his name in the garage concrete. It’s still there.

So history — and the spirit of 2 of Westport’s most prominent citizens — still remain.

When it comes to Ed Vebell and Austin Briggs, there must be something in the water.

(Click here for the real estate listing.)

Progress Report: The Old Bertucci’s Site

Last August 1, I reported that work was proceeding s-l-o-w-l-y  — yes, that was the technical term I used — at the former Bertucci’s property, on the Post Road near the Sherwood Island connector.

Now it’s exactly 6 months later. It’s still not finished. But the end is in sight.

Ignazio’s Pizza will — as noted previously — occupy part of the former Bertucci’s floor. This will be the 2nd location for the thin-crust restaurant. The original is in DUMBO — it is literally down underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

An art and design firm will take up another part of that floor. That leaves about 2,100 square feet still available — which is why the “Building For Lease/Space Available” signs has Westporters wondering if Ignazio’s was just pie in the sky.

The view from the parking lot.

Not to worry. Steve Straus — of Fred Straus Inc., the Yonkers-based family real investment company — says that exterior work is done. When Ignazio’s finishes their interior work, they’ll open.

And, Straus says, there are “very good prospects” for the remaining first floor space.

Upstairs, there’s another 2,840 square feet of office space to rent.

Straus is proud of his company’s new landscaping, sidewalk, rain garden, facade, parking lot and lighting on the spot that many Westporters will long remember as Bertucci’s. (Older generations recall Tanglewoods. Real old-timers know it as the Clam Box.)

Straus says that the redevelopment of the property coincides with the construction of the office/retail/residential complex across the street, at the Post Road/Long Lots junction. He believes it will create a “village” environment in that part of town.

As for what’s going on clear across town, in the old Blu Parrot/Jasmine/Arrow property by the train station parking lot: Mystic Market announced they were moving in — back in November 2017.

When they’ll actually open is anyone’s guess.

8-30g Affordable Housing: More Proposals On The Way

For Westport, this has been a winter without much snow.

But a blizzard of 8-30g proposals continues to swirl all over town.

8-30g is the official name of Connecticut’s affordable housing statute. It mandates that municipalities make 10 percent of their housing stock “affordable” (according to a state formula). Though Westport has a variety of such units, many were built before 1990 — the date upon which the standards are based.

Which means that developers now eye all kinds of property. Incorporating 8-30g housing helps ease the legal path toward approval.

This week, a plan was submitted for 5 residential buildings on the Roger’s Septic Tank site at 1480 Post Road East. It includes 18 1-bedroom apartments, 14 more with 2 bedrooms — and would be 30% affordable housing, as defined by 8-30g. (Click here for the complete application.)

Roger’s Septic Tanks, Post Road East

The property — between the Rio Bravo/Julian’s Pizza strip mall, and a gas station — is a throwback to the days before the Post Road was greened and cleaned. Roger’s was there for decades; before that, it was Bob’s Welding.

Several years ago, a private agreement was reached between the owner of the commercial site and homeowners on Cottage Lane — which runs behind — stipulating that no housing could be built on the property. The agreement did not involve the town. A legal battle is sure to ensue.

Meanwhile, a couple of hundred yards east, there’s talk that several properties are being gathered together for at least one 8-30g proposal. These includes Redi-Cut Carpet, Innovation Luggage and Pane e Bene restaurant; houses behind it on George Street; the now-shuttered Sono Baking Company and adjacent A&J’s Farm Market, and the Westport Tennis Club behind it.

Those properties are not all contiguous, so there could be more than one proposal. No applications have yet been filed.

The former A&J Farm Market.

Next month, another proposal — much more concrete, in the works for far longer, and at the opposite end of Westport — comes (again) before the Planning & Zoning Commission.

Felix Charney will be back with yet another plan to construct 187 units on Hiawatha Lane. The narrow road is accessible by West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, between I-95 exit 17 and the railroad station parking lot. The developer hopes to create a “medium density housing opportunity zone” there.

The P&Z is up to its eyeballs in 8-30g issues. Still on the docket: 20-26 South Morningside Drive (where discussions continue about the historic Walter and Naiad Einsel property), and on-again, off-again 81-unit Lincoln Street/Cross Street/Post Road West development (it’s back on).

The fate of 20-26 Morningside Drive South — on Walter and Naiad Einsel’s former property — remains in doubt. (Photo/Anna DeVito)

But wait! There’s more!

This week, a legal challenge was filed after the commission turned down an application for 122 Wilton Road. That’s the 1.16-acre parcel at 122 Wilton Road — at the Kings Highway North intersection, adjacent to the Taylortown Salt Marsh and wetlands. A developer wants to build a 19-unit, 3-story, 20,078-square foot rental complex there.

“Complex” is the right word, for all these proposals.

Though it’s easy to see why developers look at the 8-30g statute, and see a cash register.

And why they’re filing a blizzard of applications and lawsuits now. As of April — thanks to recent construction like 1177 Post Road East, opposite Greens Farms Elementary School — Westport may qualify for a 4-year moratorium on affordable housing proposals.

Like shoppers stocking up on bread and milk before a snowstorm, developers race to beat the clock.

Pietro Scotti’s Next Culinary Chapter

For 3 decades, Da Pietro’s has been one of Westport’s hidden culinary jewels.

The tiny spot on Riverside Avenue draws raves — and repeat visits — from everyone who knows it. They love the charming, intimate atmosphere; the feeling of being someplace special, and — especially — the consistently flavorful southern French and northern Italian dishes cooked by talented and welcoming chef/owner Pietro Scotti. (There’s a fantastic wine list too.)

Pietro Scotti

But a change is on the horizon. Pietro has put his building up for sale. When it’s bought, he’ll pack up his knives and turn off his stove.

Thankfully though, Pietro will keep cooking. He’ll be a private chef.

Pietro has loved serving the community. But it’s time, he says, to put all the other parts of running a restaurant — hiring and supervising a staff, paying bills, even sweeping the floor — behind.

Now, he’ll focus solely on cooking.

“Being a chef has always been my calling and my passion,” Pietro says. “My dream for this next chapter is to spoil a wonderful couple or family in the area.” He’s still looking for that position.

He’ll also be available for cooking classes, and pop-up dinners for favorite organizations.

Da Pietro’s (Photo/Katherine Bruan)

Pietro’s legacy extends throughout the community. For 30 years he’s cooked for the Girl Scouts, Wakeman Town Farm and the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival. He’s organized tastings at the Playhouse and A Taste of Westport, and raised funds for the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County.

Pietro’s humble beginnings on the island of Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples, laid the foundation for his love of food, gardening and animals. He’s embraced Westport with his warm hospitality. His generous spirit, humble nature and constant energy will serve his private clients well.

It will take a while for his building to sell. Which means there is still time for Westporters to enjoy their 100th — or 1st — great meal at Da Pietro’s.

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

Invasive Vines: If You See Something, Do Something

Darcy Sledge has lived in Westport for 30 years. She is active in several organizations — most importantly for this story, the Westport Garden Club and University of Connecticut invasive plant working group. Darcy writes:

This is the perfect time of year to check the health of your trees and shrubs.

Many trees are being smothered by invasive vines — often right under our noses.

I took a few photos in Greens Farms right before New Year’s, to show a few examples.

This is the entrance of a beautiful estate, with stone wall gates. In the foreground you see gorgeous pines. In the background, you see the same type of trees completely smothered in vines.

Vines weaken trees and shrubs. When weakened, they are the first to fall in a storm. The result is power outages, property damage and injuries.

When leaves are out, vines are hard to see. It’s easier to see them now.

I’ve gotten rid of my vines by cutting them at ground level, then cutting them again at head level. The dead ones hang in the branches, but eventually fall off.

Here’s what they look like:

(Photos/Darcy Sledge)

You  have to watch for new growth, and cut it every time. Eventually though, you get rid of the vines.

Even thick ones (called Asiatic bittersweet) can be cut with a lopper. I did it often in Winslow Park, and earned the nickname Cyndi Lopper.

Invasive vines are a rampant problem throughout the US — especially in Connecticut.

We will lose our beautiful trees and shrubs if we don’t work on getting rid of invasives. The town and state can do only so much. People need to walk their own properties on nice winter days. You may get an unhappy surprise. Landscapers may not even notice or identify owners about vines.

We talk about Westport’s changing streetscape, properties being torn down, and lovely trees being cut for new construction.

Yet our own trees may be slowly dying.

(For more information on invasive vines, click here. For more on the UConn invasive plant working group, click here.)

Giant Typewriter Eraser: The Sequel

This morning, “06880” reported that the 19-foot, 10,000-pound typewriter eraser sculpture that’s entertained Beachside Avenue drivers and joggers for more than 20 years has relocated to Florida.

The story quickly made its way south. This afternoon, a spokesman for Norton Museum of Art — its new West Palm Beach home — emailed a photo of the installation.

(Photo/Rachel Richardson)

And hey! I learned something else:

It’s sitting in Heyman Plaza.

Artists’ rendering by foster + partners.

The area outside the museum honors Sam and Ronnie Heyman. She’s a Norton trustee.

And — this is no coincidence — they’re the Beachside Avenue couple who donated the massive, quirky Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen sculpture to the museum.

I guess like many Westporters, “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” is a snowbird at heart.