Most Westport preservation battles follow the same pattern.
A historic house is sold. The new owner wants to tear it down. Outraged residents object. Others point out that preservationists could have bought the home, but did not — and the people who did, can now do whatever they want.
Further down Cross Highway though, something bizarre is happening.
Near the Fairfield border sits 188 Cross Highway. The gorgeous 2.9-acre property includes a saltbox built in 1728, a barn circa 1790-1810, and 2 legal pre-1959 cottage apartments.
When the British marched past in 1777 en route to Danbury — taking brothers Benjamin and Daniel Meeker prisoner, and sacking the house — it was already half a century old.
The “Meeker house” in the 1930s, as photographed for a WPA project. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Meeker built the barn in back. They still stand.
The Schilthuis-Meeker house — Sally Schilthuis was influential in preventing construction of Merritt Parkway Exit 43 in the area, resulting in the current “No Man’s Land” between Exits 42 and 44 — is one of 5 remaining nationwide of original medieval structure Colonial revival construction.
In 2003, Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie purchased the property. It was in foreclosure. The houses were in distress, ready to be plowed under. But the couple saved the historic homes.
For 2 decades, they have poured time and energy into their renovation project. The result is gorgeous.
The exterior of 188 Cross Highway.
But it’s been costly.
And one couple can’t live in 2 houses. They live in the barn, and rented out the saltbox. The tenants wanted to buy. Mark and Wendy would love to sell to them — as a practical matter, and to make sure the historic structure is loved, cared for and maintained as it deserves.
They’re even willing to add covenants to keep — in perpetuity — the historic house as a single-family dwelling; forever maintain the facade, and do whatever else is necessary to maintain the house where it is. In other words, no future owner could move — or demolish — the structure.
Right now though, they can’t sell. Planning and Zoning regulations don’t permit 2 homes to exist on 1 piece of property.
Sounds like a win-win: for Mark and Wendy, and the neighborhood.
But a small cadre of Cross Highway neighbors object.
At a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on Thursday, they (and their lawyer) cited traffic, safety, density, the fact that the house is currently unoccupied, and the sight of dandelions on the lawn as reasons to reject the application.
A recent, sun-dappled fall day.
After 2 hours of heated testimony — during which Wendy and her supporters countered most of the objections, then offered even more covenants and encumbrances to save the historic building and properties — the real issue came through.
Robert Yules and a few other neighbors opposed the subdivision because it would save the historic houses.
He said essentially that the state of the property did not reflect his McMansion, and others nearby. The grounds — period gardens and stone walls, with cobblestone walkways — did not match his extremely well-kept lawn.
One more view of 188 Cross Highway.
“Trash” and “eyesore” are usually not associated with painstaking historic rehab projects. But they were Thursday night.
It’s astonishing. Yet in this through-the-looking-glass tale, there’s something even more eye-popping.
In 2006, Robert and Susan Yules wrote to the P&Z supporting the efforts of their “friends and neighbors,” Wendy and Mark, on the “renovating and improving of the main house and free standing cottage/barn.”
The Yuleses added, “Their efforts have transformed the buildings significantly. Please permit them to continue to remodel the buildings as they will enhance the beauty of the neighborhood.”
An interior view of the bright, high-ceilinged renovated barn.
They were not the only neighbors to appreciate Mark and Wendy’s work.
Others described how Mark and Wendy had “lovingly restore(d) these irreplaceable architectural treasures” to their “deserved place” in Westport and American history.
Now the Yuleses and a few neighbors have changed their tune. They believe a new, large construction better fits the neighborhood than a plan that would save 2 structures — lovingly restored, and paying homage to the days when history quite literally marched past the front door.
“Houses are only kept alive by their owners,” Mark says.
“This is very discouraging. We’re not trying to ‘win.’ We’re trying to give the town something.
This could be one of the most topsy-turvy tales I’ve ever told.
But don’t take my word for it. Drive by 188 Cross Highway. (That’s the official number. The mailboxes have always said 178 and 180). See for yourself. Then — if you want to contact the Planning & Zoning Commission — click here.
In the 1st stop along what may be a long legal journey, the Planning and Zoning Commission last night unanimously denied an application to build a 6-story, 48-unit apartment complex on one of the busiest, most environmentally sensitive corners of Westport.
Concerns about safety and damage to wetlands adjacent to the 1.16-acre parcel at the corner of Wilton Road and Kings Highway North dominated last night’s proceedings in Town Hall.
P&Z commissioners questioned the developer — Garden Homes Management — about many aspects of the plan. They also appeared miffed that a consultant and lawyer for Garden Homes did not attend (due to illness and a conflict), and that Garden Homes submitted a raft of supporting materials at the meeting, but refused to request an extension so the P&Z could study that information.
P&Z members also refuted Garden Homes’ contentions that the commissioners’ minds were already made up — and that they were opposed to the plan because a portion of the apartments would be deemed “affordable” under state 8-30g regulations.
“We never said we’d fight 8-30g,” P&Z chair Chip Stephens said. “We said we would fight inappropriate locations for 8-30g. Period.”
Garden Homes president Richard Freedman promised to appeal the decision.
122 Wilton Road — site of the proposed 6-story, 48-unit apartment building — sits at the corner of Kings Highway North. The property abuts the Taylortown Salt Marsh.
The Planning and Zoning Commission has spoken. By a 4-1 vote (1 abstention) last week, they approved an amendment to rezone all of the 22-acre Baron’s South property as open space.
Now there’s at least 1 petition circulating — probably more — asking the RTM to overturn that decision. Petitioners want to reopen the decades-long discussion of using the town-owned property for senior housing.
The official P&Z notice of the decision will be published Friday. Petitions must be submitted within 7 days of that notice.
The RTM would then have 30 days to act. The decision can be overturned by a 2/3 affirmative vote. That means 24 of the 36 members — no matter how many attend, it’s still 24.
This is one of the biggest RTM decisions in years. A vote to uphold the P&Z decision means that 22 acres of land — hilly and heavily forested — just steps from downtown will remain open forever (perhaps enhanced by an arboretum).
A vote to overturn the P&Z keeps the door open for other uses. The most recent 165-unit senior housing proposal involved 3.3 acres.
If you’d like your voice heard in this debate, contact your RTM members. Click here to find their emails. (Don’t know your district? Click here!)
Many Westporters have heard of it. Not many know what it really says, means or does.
8-30g is the formal designation of a Connecticut statute — the Affordable Housing Law — mandating 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. It’s pretty powerful.
And — with Westport’s “affordable” housing stock right now designated as 2.75% — it’s the engine behind a couple of big development proposals. One — for 186 units — is on Hiawatha Lane. The other is on Post Road East, where 200 units are planned for the site of the Westport Inn.
A drawing of the proposed 200-unit apartment complex, planned for the current site of the Westport Inn on Post Road East near the Southport line.
If you want to know more about 8-30g — and you should — then get yourself to tomorrow’s RTM Planning and Zoning committee public informational meeting (Tuesday, January 20, 7:30 p.m., Town Hall auditorium).
Town attorney Ira Bloom, P&Z Department director Larry Bradley and State Representative Jonathan Steinberg will be there to answer questions.
Whether they’ll be able to allay concerns is another matter entirely.
Yesterday — as noted on WestportNow — the town’s School Bus Task Force toured Baron’s South. The town is exploring ways to save the $250,000 we spend each year leasing space from Dattco, on Post Road East across from Playhouse Square.
Meanwhile, tomorrow (Thursday, December 18, 2 p.m., Town Hall Room 201), the Planning and Zoning Commission’s open space subcommittee meets. They’ll discuss rezoning certain areas of town as — you guessed it — open space.
One example: Baron’s South. Right now, Winslow Park — across the Post Road, on Compo North — is zoned as open space. But Baron’s South is considered residential.
That means the town could sell it. A housing project could be built there.
Or it could be used for bus parking.
The P&Z open space meeting is open to the public. No word on whether School Bus Task Force members will also attend.
Alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman has followed the Baron’s South senior housing issue closely. He writes:
Dear Friends and Neighbors in Westport:
I want to make you aware of a very important issue regarding the proposed new senior living facility in Westport that needs your immediate attention.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is debating a new text amendment that must get passed. If it does not, there is little chance the facility gets built. If somehow it does get built, there is a very real possibility that no Westport senior citizens will have the opportunity to live in the facility. The current text amendment leaves almost every senior citizen in town ineligible to live in the facility, as it requires 60% affordable housing. The asset test will cause most, if not all, Westport residents to be ineligible.
Many in town know I argued this point a few years back. Now it is here, and Westport senior citizens will lose. Westport residents will have too much money, or should I say assets, to be eligible. The units will go to people who have not lived in Westport, and Westport will have wasted Baron’s South.
Proposed housing at Baron’s South.
This is not a judgment. It is the truth. Even 1st Selectman Jim Marpe wrote about this in Friday’s Westport News. If the text amendment is not changed it truly “screws” Westport. We give away valuable land with no benefit to Westport. Very few Westport senior citizens will live in this facility, which will be built as a Class B type building. This is not anything we would be proud to have in Westport.
To add insult to injury, there is no tax revenue for Westport. It is a disaster.
The new text amendment that needs to be passed by P&Z addresses these issues. If the new text amendment gets passed, the town will have the opportunity to get a quality senior living center that will house Westport residents. It will be a Class A building and add to our town.
Since the developer will make money, once completed the facility is projected to be the 3rd largest taxpayer in Westport. Our schools will benefit. Our residents will benefit. But, more importantly our senior citizens will benefit. It is a win-win solution.
The current circumstances have created a terrible situation for town-owned land. Every selectman is in favor of approving the new text amendment — so should the P&Z. Every resident needs to support this. If not addressed now, Westport could give away Baron’s South and get nothing for it.
The entrance to the Baron’s South property.
Many residents and town leaders have worked hard on this project. We must thank them for their efforts. The mistake that P & Z needs to correct is the amount of affordable housing. It is a mistake I and others tried to highlight a few years back.
The existing text amendment that was passed locked the town into an asset test that will now truly eliminate the people they wanted to help: Westport senior citizens. Those who disagreed with me back then, now understand the issue. Westport has an opportunity to change the situation and make this facility a real benefit to the town and our senior citizens. Our selectmen took the time to analyze the project, and they all understand what is needed. Westport’s board of selectmen unanimously voted on this subject.
Westport needs the text amendment changed. I hope you will help. Westport could face the loss of Baron’s South forever for the correct intent, but the wrong reasons. However, Westport now has the opportunity to build a Class A facility that will allow Westport senior citizens a place to retire, while also giving something to Westport.
Fred Cantor is an alert “06880” reader — and a talented researcher with an eye for intriguing stories about Westport’s past.
The other day, he sent 4 clippings from the New York Times. All were from 50 years ago. Westport was in the midst of a historic transformation, Fred said, as the town’s population rocketed skyward.
On February 2, 1964, 1st Selectman Herb Baldwin announced the formation of a Development Commission. The aim was to attract light industry, thus broadening the tax base.
“The move grew out of a recent fiscal seminar where concern was voiced over the town’s high bonded indebtedness, principally due to school construction,” the Times reported. The debt was approximately $12 million.
On June 26, the Planning and Zoning Commission tightened restrictions against new apartment buildings — despite acknowledging the need for apartments serving “older people and young married couples.” The previous day, the Zoning Board of Appeals denied an application for construction of a 48-unit apartment on the site of the Tennex factory on Riverside Avenue.
Many of today’s familiar Riverside Avenue buildings were once factories.
On October 4, 1964, the Times said that a group of Greens Farms property owners were “aroused by a proposal to build a department store, a supermarket and a parking lot for 617 cars in their midst, two miles east of the town’s center.” The centerpiece would be an Arnold Constable store.
Opponents cited a traffic hazard for students at nearby Green’s Farms Elementary School, and destruction of the “rustic charm” of the area. One person said, “We don’t want to turn Westport into another Rye or New Rochelle.”
Proponents countered it would add “sorely needed town revenue. They say the chief reason the town has sunk into debt over the last 20 years is that it has resisted business growth.”
The 7 1/2-acre property — bounded by South Morningside Drive and Church Street — would add between $40,000 and $52,430 a year in taxes.
Years after it was proposed, a shopping center was built near Greens Farms Elementary School.
Two months later, the P&Z proposed action to reverse the “hodgepodge” and “visual mayhem” — town officials’ words — of the Post Road. Fifteen properties along busy Route 1 would need special permits for development. New zones would be limited by “natural boundaries, such as topography, existing streets or similar barriers.”
Included was the Greens Farms tract. It took a number of years, but the shopping center — anchored today by Barnes & Noble — eventually was built.
Half a century later, some things haven’t changed. Westporters still debate property taxes and affordable housing.
But we no longer argue about shopping centers. They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere.
Next Thursday (February 27, 7 p.m., Town Hall) the Planning & Zoning Commission will review Text Amendment 672. It would limit the size of commercial tenant spaces in the Business Center District and Business Center District/Historic to no more than 10,000 square feet. The amendment would also preclude the merger of commercial properties or tenant spaces across property lines within these 2 zones.
At least 1 downtown landlord opposes the change. Writing to fellow property owners, the landlord says that passage “could have long-term negative effects on our downtown,” and on future property values.
The landlord continues:
In its simplest form, this amendment would prohibit a single building/landlord, who has a property with more than 10,000 square feet of leasable retail space (either on one level or multiple levels), from combining spaces to allow for a new 10,000 s/f or greater tenant. This applies to reconfiguring existing spaces as well as new projects within the 2 zones — essentially all of downtown Westport. This would apply if a single landlord or multiple landlords with adjoining properties wanted to do the same.
The 3-story Gap replaced a failed vertical mall — which was built on the site of a furniture store that burned down in the mid-1970s.
The landlord says the following examples would have happened if this amendment was already on the books:
Banana Republic could not occupy its current location.
Acadia would have been prohibited from combining 3 floors of retail at 125 Main Street to allow the Gap to move in.
Restoration Hardware would not have been allowed to occupy its current space.
In the future:
If Tiffany wants to expand to the 2nd floor retail space above it, it could not.
If Nike wants to expand into the adjacent Allen Edmonds/Theory/Lulu space, it could not.
If Brooks Brothers wants to expand into the adjacent William-Sonoma space, it could not.
If a single tenant wants all of the first floor of 180 Post Road East (the Michele’s Pies building), it could not happen.
One tenant could not take over the 1st floor of 180 Post Road East, according to proposed regulations. (Photo/Cushman & Wakefield)
In addition to those individual landlord examples, the downtown property owner says that “multiple landlords crossing lot lines and combining spaces” could also be affected. For example:
When Barney’s was in Westport, it expanded its men’s department by breaking through a 2nd floor party wall/lot line, creating a 15,000 s/f store (2 landlords, 2 properties).
Talbots expanded its brand by breaking through a party wall/lot line, taking over the old Remarkable Book Store and creating a single 12,500 s/f store.
The landlord writes, “Our P&Z thinks this will create an environment that is more friendly to ‘mom and pop’ businesses. This is not the case. It will only discourage all commercial activity in downtown Westport. Would you lease a space that is 8,000 square feet with an interest in expanding, when you know you cannot go over 10,000?”
The landlord concludes, “There are many ways to encourage economic diversity within our downtown area. However, a regulation change at this point is premature, especially without consideration of any alternatives. This proposal is a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem that does not exist.”
“06880” readers — property owners, shoppers, whomever — do you agree or disagree? Hit “comments” to weigh in. NOTE: Because the landlord has asked not to be identified by name, anonymous comments will be allowed for this post only. However, please keep all remarks civil and on target!
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