Tag Archives: Planning & Zoning Commission

Baron’s South To Remain Open Space

In a vote that will resound for decades to come, the RTM affirmed the Planning & Zoning Commission’s designation of the Baron’s South property as open space.

The 22-acre, wooded and hilly property — bordered by South Compo Road, the Post Road and Imperial Avenue — is already home to the Senior Center, on its western edge. But further development — for instance, of a hotly debated senior housing complex — will not take place.

A majority of RTM members — 20 — actually voted to overturn last month’s P&Z decision (4-1, with 1 abstention) designating the entire area as open space.

But 14 members sided with the P&Z. Overruling the P&Z required 24 votes — 2/3 of all members.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

The roll was called after midnight. Debate was intense but civil throughout the long evening. Many issues were raised, ranging from the importance of open space and the inevitability of more development once construction began, to the speed and propriety of one commission deciding such a major issue for the town.

Some speakers declared that the vote should be about the “open space” decision alone — not the merits of one particular senior housing proposal. The need for senior housing, however, was noted by other speakers.

The baron’s property will now remain undeveloped — an “urban forest” just steps from downtown. Was today’s early morning vote comparable to previous decisions (for example, to purchase Longshore when a developer proposed building 180 houses there — or to allow construction of the Wright Street and Gorham Island office complexes), or a missed opportunity to build on town-owned land?

Check back in a decade or two.

There are already buildings on Baron's South. The baron's Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance.   A debate will begin soon on their fate.

There are some existing buildings on Baron’s South. The baron’s Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance. A debate will begin soon on their fate.

Bridgewater’s Glendinning Goes Green

Bridgewater Associates is the world’s biggest hedge fund. It’s also one of Westport’s leading taxpayers.

But the firm keeps a very low profile. If not for the big buses zipping employees between their Glendinning headquarters complex on Weston Road and a 2nd office at Nyala Farms near I-95 Exit 18, no one would know they’re here.

However, a small blurb in this week’s Wall Street Journal raised concerns with an “06880” reader. The paper said that — after its plan to move to Stamford fell through — Bridgewater wants to renovate its Glendinning offices, and create an underground parking garage.

The project “could require the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers,” the WSJ noted.

Bridgewater headquarters

An aerial view of Bridgewater’s Glendinning headquarters. Note the parking spaces on both sides of the river.

“Scope of project sounds mind-blowing,” said the email I received. “How come nothing online?”

It’s not as massive as it sounds. In fact, Bridgewater — whose corporate culture has been called “cultish,” “bizarre” and “not for everyone” — has for nearly 20 years been a careful steward of the wooded, riverfront Glendinning property (and an excellent tenant in the hidden-away Nyala Farms complex too).

“This is a unique setting: a beautiful, bio-diverse area,” a company representative told Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission at a pre-application hearing earlier this month.

Bridgewater hopes to increase the functionality of its “somewhat tired” buildings — though not increase their footprints — while maintaining the natural environment that may contribute, in some way, to the hedge fund’s successful management of $169 billion.

The buildings on the Glendinning site are half a century old.

The buildings on the Glendinning site are half a century old.

Glendinning (named for the marketing firm that originally developed the property) sits at the confluence of the Saugatuck and Aspetuck Rivers. It’s in a 100-year floodplain.

To mitigate flooding — a problem in the past — Bridgewater wants to move 170 asphalt parking spaces underground. The new parking garage will be planted over, with bio-filtering greenery.

There will also be a new central green. As adjacent buildings are renovated, coverage will be reduced by 30 percent. Coverage on the adjacent Ford Road parcel may increase slightly.

Natural plantings will restore 1000 feet near the Saugatuck River’s edge. Bridgewater will work with Trout Unlimited to add a new fish ladder too.

A realigned driveway and new bridge will connect the complex with Ford Road. Bridgewater promises to buffer it well.

The river (and dam) on the Ford Road side of the property (left in this photo) will be protected and enhanced, in Bridgewater's plan.

The river (and dam) on the Ford Road side of the property (left in this photo) will be protected and enhanced, in Bridgewater’s plan.

Bridgewater has already met with Westport’s planning, engineering and conservation departments, plus the fire marshal. They’ve talked with the Department of Environmental Protection.

They’ve also sat down with owners of nearby properties, on Weston and Ford Roads.

“This is the best stewardship of a unique natural resource,” a Bridgewater spokesman told the P&Z. Members had several questions, but seemed to appreciate the company’s commitment to green space.

The process is still in the early stages. Applications and reviews are needed by conservation, flood and erosion and architectural review boards, plus the DEP and FEMA. It could be 6 months to a year before the P&Z hears the application.

Bridgewater is a hedge fund, not an insurance company. But it sounds as if they’re borrowing a famous firm’s motto. You know: Like a good neighbor, they’re there.

(To see Glendinning’s full presentation at the P&Z meeting earlier this month, click here; then click “Agenda.”)

Baron’s South Open Space Proposal Heads To RTM

The clock is ticking on Baron’s South.

The RTM has received 4 petitions to review last month’s Planning & Zoning Commission decision that would rezone 22 acres of that prime downtown property as open space.

It has received a 5th petition too, from a completely opposite view. This one asks the RTM to uphold the P&Z’s open space vote.

The RTM has 30 days to render a decision.

This Monday (April 6, Town Hall auditorium, 7 p.m.), the RTM’s P&Z Committee will meet. Westporters are invited to speak publicly on the open space designation.

On April 20, the RTM P&Z Committee will vote on a recommendation to the full RTM. That body will make a final decision on April 28.

This is a crucial step on determining the fate of 22 acres of wooded land, just a few steps from downtown Westport. If you don’t make your voice heard — in person, or by email (click here to find their contact info; click here for your district) — you can’t say you weren’t warned.

The entrance to the Baron's South property.

The entrance to the Baron’s South property.

A “Town Forest” Downtown?

On Thursday night, the Planning & Zoning Commission resoundingly affirmed that the Baron’s South property should remain open space.

By a 4-1 vote (1 abstention), the P&Z approved an amendment that seems to end plans to build a 165-unit senior housing facility on 3.3 acres of the 22-acre property. 60 percent of the units were to be considered “affordable.”

Town officials have fought for years to add senior housing to Westport’s stock. Baron’s South — located between South Compo and Imperial Avenue, and which includes the Senior Center — seemed to many to be a perfect location.

Others were just as adamant that it be retained entirely as open space.

The entrance to the Baron's South property.

The entrance to the Baron’s South property.

One — who asked for anonymity, for personal (non-political) reasons — offers an argument that hasn’t been heard much in the debate.

She is “not a tree-hugger.” But after consulting with state officials (including the deputy director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) and scientists, she was told that “it would take 200 years to re-grow a true-practice urban forest like this.”

According to the Westporter, all those experts were “adamant that this parcel should be held as protected space in perpetuity as Westport’s town forest.” In fact, people familiar with the property “believe it can be enhanced to become a world-class arboretum.” Grant funding could help Westport “inspire other municipalities.”

The Westporter says, “we either act as responsible stewards of this municipal forest, or it will be lost forever to buildings, ancillary infrastructure, paved parking lots. Mature forests can never be replaced.”

She also fears unintended consequences from construction, such as soil erosion and rain runoff, along with the potential for more land being needed later for ancillary development.

Part of the Baron's South property.

Part of the woods on the Baron’s South property.

The RTM — by a 2/3 vote of its 36 members — can reverse the P&Z’s decision. There will be plenty of lobbying by town officials who have advocated for senior housing — as well as private citizens who believe that 3.3 acres downtown, adjacent to the Senior Center, is a perfect place to help keep older Westporters here.

What’s your opinion? Did the P&Z avoid a slippery slope that begins with construction on 3.3 acres out of the 22? Or is senior housing the right use for what is now open space downtown?

Click “Comments” to make your views known.

Save Westport Now: P&Z Denial Of Senior Housing Plan Was Correct

In response to recent “06880” posts — by 2 Planning & Zoning commissioners, and the Coalition for Westport — regarding the denial of senior housing on town owned property Save Westport Now adds its voice. Chairman Sidney Kramer says:

We would like provide clarity to the decision and offer high praise to all those who have, and will, continue to work diligently to address this complicated and challenging issue. In addition, we compliment the current P&Z Commissioners, who are duly elected representatives of both the Democrat and Republican parties, for their thoughtful deliberation of this matter.

We believe that the Commission’s near-unanimous decision to reject this text amendment was correct. It needed to be rejected—not because of political pressure or bias, but because the amendment itself was deeply and unacceptably flawed and would have created far more problems than it solved, all at the expense of Westport taxpayers.

Part of the Baron's South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.

Part of the Baron’s South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.

As the town moves toward an acceptable solution, we must keep in mind some of the problems with the denied amendment (see below), many of which have gotten lost in the heat of the discussion. These are things every Westport resident — and most especially our seniors — should know:

  1. The Amendment would have required developers to set aside ONLY 20% (or just 29 units) as “affordable”—whereas current state law requires that 30% be set aside and our P&Z has already determined that 60% is the appropriate number to justify utilizing town land for this purpose;
  2. If passed, the town would basically have been subsidizing housing for the well-to-do, since the income tests for the non-affordable units were very high;
  3. The amendment would have put the town further behind in terms of meeting the state minimum for affordable housing dictated by Connecticut State Statute 8-30G, since it would have increased the total number of units in town without a corresponding 30% increase of affordable units. That, in turn, would allow developers of other affordable housing projects to override existing zoning regulations anywhere in town, given that we would no longer have the benefits of a moratorium on the state-mandated minimum;
  4. The amendment would have allowed a private developer to acquire a valuable town asset (8+ acres of prime real estate with an estimated value of $10,000,000) for a mere $1,000,000 — less than the average cost of many residential building lots;
  5. The Amendment would have allowed for a 99-year lease that contained liberal assignment clauses that the town would not fully control;
  6. The additional amenities being offered by the developer were minimal (a therapy pool not the same as a full-sized town pool) and could not make up for the loss of this valuable asset or the increased problems this project would create in terms of the state mandate on affordable housing;
  7. The amendment would have exempted the entire project (as opposed to just the 29 affordable units) from the current 10% town-wide cap on multi-family dwellings. With 13 sites eligible for the same treatment, we could have easily ended up with significantly greater density, traffic and stresses on our town services (fire, police, emergency, and recreation); and
  8. Although the amendment purported to cover 13 sites, it was primarily targeted for Baron’s South (potentially making it illegal “spot zoning”), with insufficient thought given to its impact on the other eligible sites in town.

Finally, we note that portraying Westport as a place with no senior housing is inaccurate. One only needs to look at Whitney Glen, where the owners tried to get the town to lower the age requirement from 65 to 55 due to the fact that there are too many vacant units and not enough seniors applying.

The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.

The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.

We appreciate that this recent decision will delay things. But in the context of Westport’s more than 200-year history and with such valuable resources in play (for decades to come!), the 6 years spent on this matter is a drop in the bucket. We honor those who came before us, and those who will follow, by taking the long view and acting with great care in managing our town’s scarce and precious resources. Progress has already been made, and the investments of time and effort to date have not been for naught.  If we can solve the problems outlined above, we can find a solution that works for all of Westport.

David Lessing: Put The “P” Back In “Planning And Zoning”

David Lessing is a Planning & Zoning commissioner. He responds to chairman Chip Stephens’ recent comments on “06880,” regarding the P&Z’s vote against developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property:

Chip Stephens has attempted to defend his vote against text amendments that would have facilitated progress on developing senior housing on the Baron’s South property. While Westporters should appreciate his effort to help us make belated sense of the disappointing vote, unfortunately the defenses he offers are internally contradictory and fail to provide a road map for our other elected officials. In the future, the P&Z needs to fulfill its responsibility for “planning,” rather than — after an abbreviated deliberation — handing down “no” votes that sharply reverse progress made by the painstaking efforts of other elected officials from both parties over multiple years.

In his statement, Mr. Stephens cites as his reasons for voting against the text amendments: concerns about fairness regarding who would be eligible for the new senior units, and a desire to limit density of development and preserve open space. These are each valid concerns, but are mutually exclusive.

If Mr. Stephens opposes the text amendments because they would permit additional development and more density in Westport, then he should not also purport to be concerned about the quality and fairness of allocation of the senior housing that he would not allow in any case. Arguing about who gets housing you don’t support in the first place is a pointless exercise.

Debate over what to do with the Baron's South property has continued for years.

Debate over what to do with the Baron’s South property has continued for years.

I understand the rhetorical benefit of offering both rationales and not wanting to appear unsupportive of senior housing, but as elected officials we have a responsibility to the town to provide guidance that can actually be used in planning for the future. The P&Z vote and Mr. Stephens’ explanation of it leave it unclear whether any proposal for senior housing and recreational facilities on town-owned land would be approved, regardless of how much affordable housing is associated with it.

A different result could have been achieved if members of the P&Z participated earlier and more often in public consultation with other elected officials. Too frequently, our commission criticizes plans that are developed by others, rather than rolling up our sleeves and helping guide the development of plans that would either satisfy existing zoning regulations or present strong justifications for changing them. Rather than publishing statements defending our votes rejecting efforts as significant as Baron’s South, we should be embarrassed that we were forced to vote that way in the first place.

Certainly we had ample opportunity in the several months of public testimony and the more than 5-year saga leading to last week’s vote to contribute to the development of a proposal that would have satisfied our concerns. We cannot be viewed as setting ourselves above and apart from others working to keep Westport the wonderful community we all love. We need to form consensus through our public decision-making process that will give direction to others who rely on us to provide guidance on solutions that will work.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The P&Z must take a proactive role in downtown development, David Lessing says.

The need to improve how we operate will become even more critical in connection with the ongoing efforts of the Downtown Steering Committee, which has worked for months to gather input from a broad range of Westporters. The DSC hosted a successful and well-attended 2-day charrette that I attended last weekend. They have had effective leadership from a bipartisan group, including chair Melissa Kane and Westport operations director Dewey Loselle. As a community, we cannot afford to have this group devote significant effort on our behalf to improve our town, only to subject any eventual recommendations requiring P&Z approval to the same process we just experienced with Baron’s South.

To be clear, the P&Z cannot always give unified, clear, and actionable guidance for why it makes its decisions. However, by not even trying, we weaken our credibility and waste the time of the well-intentioned individuals and groups trying to improve Westport. It is our obligation to provide a positive road map for the development of our town. As a member of the commission and the sole vote in favor of the text amendments, I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to meet that obligation in the future.

Chip Stephens: Why I Voted No

In the wake of Thursday night’s 6-1 vote by the Planning & Zoning Commission defeating a text amendment that would have permitted development of senior housing on the Baron’s South property, Chip Stephens sent this statement to all Westporters:

As chair of the Planning & Zoning, I owe you my explanation of our decision on text amendment 677.

Let me address 3 points that drove me to my position. There were more, but these were the biggest issues in my decision: fairness, density and open space.

Chip Stephens

Chip Stephens

Fairness. 20% is the bare minimum affordability required of most projects, mandated by state statute. It is the minimum that also entails fairness of the affordable units, so they are not clustered by themselves, and match the same quality and size as other units.

This idea was dismissed in the original sub-text. It showed that affordable units would be limited to 1 bedroom, not necessarily the same size and type. It was later withdrawn due to concerns of the commissioners.

It was obvious from the start that the project planners were trying for the very minimum affordability offering they could get away with, in order to satisfy the developer’s “needs.”

Then we were told there would be a second tier of “moderate” affordable units (20%, with the possibility of being raised to 25%). This level may be moderate to some, but in reality was out of reach for many Westporters of that certain age. Believe it or not, not all have $1 million or more left in home equity or resources when they reach the qualifying age. Add to this the true price of market-driven units (the new 60 %).

Also, the affordability of the nursing or memory units was not addressed. Both of those units were guaranteed to be very profitable and very pricey, but merited very little discussion in the proposal (understandably so, to sell this project).

My  biggest problem regarding fairness was that we were told to “believe” that well-deserving Westporters would be the first and only to qualify for these subsidized units. What is a “deserving” Westporter ? Who decides this? On what basis?

Is it a lifelong resident? A resident of less than, say, 5 years? One who rented, or was on subsidized housing, or just summered in Westport and spent the balance of the time in Florida?

Is it a paid elected official? A non-paid elected official? A Little League coach, teacher, artistic contributor or longtime charitable volunteer ?

Chip Stephens wonders who would determine which "deserving" Westporters would be able to live at the Baron's South housing complex.

Chip Stephens wonders who would determine which “deserving” Westporters would be able to live at the Baron’s South housing complex.

Would there be a point system of lifelong taxes paid, of public and charitable activity, or would it just be whoever was the longest on the list of those wishing this type of housing?

Who would make that decision, and who makes the rules of what is right and fair? Would these decisions and rules be challenged by social advocates, using laws that “protect” the poor, religious rights, or race and nationality? This is a very slippery slope I believe we would face with such an exclusionary policy, whether state and federal funds were involved or not.  There is no certain promise or guarantee of such a “deserving Westport” — only entitlement.

Density. Regulations that set a cap on multifamily housing units to limit density were enacted by prior commissions. That cap is close to being reached. With hundreds of units being considered and on the drawing boards, we better be thinking about what kind of density we envision here in the next 3-5 years.

Do we accept the eventual morphing of Westport into a community like many Westchester County neighbors?  The recent downtown planning survey showed very strong agreement that residents appreciate the character and rural nature of the town today — not of the town of the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s. When we envision hundreds of new multifamily units, how will that impact our resources, taxes, schools and infrastructure?

Yes, the sub-text proposed said that raising this cap would apply to this one “issue” (though it did open the door to at least 13 qualifying locations). Nothing we face at P and Z is one-off. Just look at the issue of preservation of historic houses, or listen to developers use previous “one-offs” to justify their proposals.  This is a discussion which we all face now. It will intensify over the coming months.

Chip Stephens worries about other proposals for multifamily housing that are in the pipeline.

Chip Stephens worries about other proposals for multifamily housing that are in the pipeline.

Open space. Westport open space, both public and private, is a finite resource. Once developed, open space is unlikely to revert back. Robert Moses tried to run multi-lane highways through Central Park in the ’60s. If not for the efforts of those looking to maintain New York’s open space as a sacred cow, today’s city would be much different.

Our beaches, open spaces and parks are not out of the reach of development. Such use has been discussed beyond just this project. Some people want more athletic fields, new art venues, new community center space, more affordable housing. All are very well-intentioned, laudable goals.  But there is only so much free space left in this town. When it is gone, it is gone.

We need to balance our goals, expectations and well-intentioned wants with the realities of limited space, our fragile watershed, etc. Our predecessors on earlier P&Z Commissions, along with others, worked long hours and gave great thought to the regulations that make Westport what it is today.

As your  current commissioners, we are the guardians of those rules. Of course, we are open to all who look to alter those rules to fit their intentions, whether socially or financially driven. It is our mandate to fairly consider all that comes before us. But it is our responsibility to judge in the spirit of  yesterday’s lessons, today’s opinions, and tomorrow’s inheritance of the legacy we leave behind.

The Planning & Zoning Commission must consider many different  -- and often competing -- "town character" interests when interpreting existing regulations, and crafting  new ones. Chip

The Planning & Zoning Commission must consider many different — and often competing — “town character” interests when interpreting existing regulations, and crafting new ones.

In conclusion: Remember, there still stands a regulation allowing a project of the Baron South type. That has not changed.

To those who are passionate and committed to this: The door is not shut. To all who that came and spoke both for and against; to those who worked hard over the past years on this effort, and to those who agree or disagree with our decision:  We gave it our best. We gave it an abundance of our time and thought. We gave all their chance to speak and their voices heard. We did what we saw as right, affirming Westport’s regulations and character.

We stand on our decision. I hope this helps you understand it.

 

P&Z Shuts Door On Senior Housing Proposal

By a 6-1 vote, the Planning & Zoning Commission defeated text amendment 677 last night.

The controversial proposal would have permitted senior housing to be built on the Baron’s South property, between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue.

Much of the discussion centered on whether Westport residents would be guaranteed units in the complex; if those on fixed or lower incomes would benefit from it, and whether the text amendment would allow increased housing density on other town-owned properties.

Artist's rendering of housing at Baron's South. Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission defeated the

Artist’s rendering of housing at Baron’s South. Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission defeated the proposal.

Medical Marijuana Debate Begins Monday. Or Not.

Connecticut is not Colorado or Washington.

But the Land of Steady Habits is 1 of 20 that allows marijuana to be grown and sold for medical use. Our state is in the midst of choosing growers, and sites for dispensaries.

Westporter David Lipton’s Advanced Grow Labs is among 4 companies recently licensed to produce medical marijuana. The firm is based in West Haven. The other companies are in Portland, Simsbury and Watertown.

So does that leave Westport high and dry?

blog - medical marijuanaLast November, the Planning & Zoning Commission imposed a year-long moratorium on dispensaries in Westport. That would give members time to study and understand state rules and statutes.

This Monday (February 3, 6 p.m., Town Hall room 201), the P&Z’s medical marijuana sub-committee holds its 1st public meeting about the issue.

There was virtually no interest — or debate — when the P&Z voted for the moratorium. Local politicians have expressed surprise at the lack of feedback prior to the upcoming meeting too.

Does that mean no one cares if there is a medical marijuana dispensary in Westport? Is everyone delighted that sufferers of a variety of diseases can finally find relief? Or does everyone simply expect the P&Z to say “No way in this town!”

Does it mean this is a non-issue? Or that no one is paying attention?

There are many factors to consider, from possible dispensary locations and tax revenues to the types of businesses we encourage and discourage.

With or without public input, the P&Z subcommittee starts hashing out all those questions on Monday.

Chip Stephens: Passion Powers The P&Z Chair

When Chip Stephens was at Bedford Junior High School — the one on Riverside Avenue, just to carbon-date him — the comment under his yearbook photo read, “Doesn’t like people who don’t like Westport.”

Almost a native — he moved here in 1960 at age 5, when his father got a job in Stamford and found a home on Lone Pine Lane for $18,000 — he went all through the local schools: Bedford El. BJHS. Staples. (In the 1970s he wrote a letter to the editor urging Bedford El not be torn down, but refashioned into Town Hall. Done.)

After earning undergrad and masters degrees (microbiology) from the University of Maine, Stephens came back to Westport in 1979.

Why? “I love it!” he says, in a tone reserved for a question like, “Why do you breathe?”

His return coincided with the beginning of some important zoning changes in Westport. The Wright Street complex replaced woods above Wilton Road — and changed the face of downtown forever. Nearby, on Riverside Avenue, concrete offices replaced old brick buildings.

Stephens joined others in wondering, “How the hell did that happen?”

The corner of the Post Road and Wilton Road -- before the Wright Street office complex was built.

The corner of the Post Road and Wilton Road — before the Wright Street office complex was built. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

For the next few decades, his civic involvement consisted of coaching: baseball, football, wrestling. But in 2011 he got a call asking if he’d run for the Planning and Zoning Commission.

He did. And Stephens — along with 3 other Republicans — all won.

“I love this town,” he reiterates. “But every so often — Wright Street, the midnight demolition of the Victorian house on Gorham Island — something happens. We have to be vigilant or we’ll have another big issue, like the nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island or B. Altman at Winslow Park.”

Stephens and the Republicans ran on a “Preserve Westport” platform. They were cross-endorsed by Save Westport Now.

“Development is not bad,” Stephens says. “Change is good. But it has to be in small doses. We need to keep our historic landmarks, our old houses, as much as we can.”

Chip Stephens at home. Next to his front door is a poster from the 1978 Great Race -- a townwide event involving homemade boats, the Saugatuck River, and the cleanup of Cockenoe Island.

Chip Stephens at home. Next to his front door is a poster from the 1978 Great Race — a townwide event involving homemade boats, the Saugatuck River, and cleaning up Cockenoe Island.

This month, Stephens was elected chairman of the P&Z. So what is his #1 goal?

“Civility,” he says simply. “We’ve all got to play in the sandbox together.”

He is encouraged by the new commission. “Everyone has the same mission: to give back to the town,” Stephens says. “We won’t always sing ‘Kumbaya,’ but we will work together. We have to.”

The reason, he explains, is that “there’s so much about to happen. We all know some changes — Bedford Square and Save the Children — are in the works. Saugatuck is rapidly changing, and there’s more to come when the Mario’s block gets developed.”

But, he says, many Westporters don’t realize what else is in play. According to Stephens, “every property from Geiger’s to Exit 18 could look radically different in the next 10 years.”

A Maserati dealer is going into the old J. McLaughlin. The Townhouse for Dogs property will be redone. There are “rumblings” about Arby’s, Men’s Wearhouse and Boccanfuso.

Across the river, several dilapidated houses on the crest of Post Road West are set for demolition.

“The challenge is to keep the character and nature of town, with everything going on,” Stephens says.

From the air, downtown Westport does look like a "village."

From the air, downtown Westport does look like a “village.”

The Village District Initiative will go a long way to doing that, he hopes. State money will pay for a consulting group to help forge new zoning regulations that limit development in defined “village districts.” In Westport, that could mean the heart of downtown.

“I remember when there were Christmas lights there,” Stephens says. “Now there are no trees, just neon lights zigzagging from the Post Road to the old Bill’s Smoke Shop. And Harder Parking [the Parker Harding lot] is just an abomination.”

The new P&Z chair credits the Downtown 2020 committee with “bringing the ball downfield. They’ve got some phenomenal ideas.” Some, he notes, have been proposed before.

“They can’t just be put back on the shelf,” Stephens says. “Downtown 2020 can help us this time. We’d like to reclaim the riverfront, maybe put a pedestrian walkway over the river, extend things to the new Levitt Pavilion.”

We can't get this Victorian house back on Gorham Island. But Westport is on the cusp of determining a new vision for downtown Westport.

We can’t get this Victorian house back on Gorham Island. But Westport is on the cusp of determining a new vision for downtown Westport.

Stephens wants many stakeholders — including downtown merchants, and the police and fire chiefs — to weigh in on ideas for preservation and improvement.

Money is available, Stephens says. “Good minds” are too. “If we all work together, this will be really good for the town.”

I tell him that all these ideas don’t sound like the usual “business first” words of Republicans.

“I love it!” he says. “The last Democrats on the P&Z pushed the business overlay downtown. They supported demolition of the Gunn House.

“Republicans got elected on a preservation platform. We’re taking grief for being ‘anti-development.’ People say we’re preserving too much. It’s not totally true, but it is quite the opposite of what people think about Republicans.”

So what is Stephens’ biggest pet peeve?

“Hearing developers and presenters, when we ask about traffic and parking, say, ‘There is no problem with that in Westport, and this won’t make it worse.’ And their paid consultants back them up. You and I know that’s not true.

“We’re not looking to stop development. We just want to mitigate problems, and improve what we can.”