Alert “06880” reader Mark Kirby is an organizer of Saugatuck Neighbors. As outlined below, he is opposed to the plan for a Tesla service facility in his neighborhood.
Two months ago I got a letter from Mel Barr, former Westport Planning and Zoning director, now a zoning consultant. Tesla Motors wanted to change town zoning to allow a “service center” at one of two sites in Saugatuck, including one that abuts part of our backyard. Would I attend a meeting to learn about the proposal?
I had mixed feelings. I was excited to have Tesla in Westport. I support its vision for a less carbon-reliant future; I signed up for a Model 3 before it was officially announced.
But as a neighbor, I worried about noise from tools like compressors and pneumatic wrenches. A service center isn’t what I’d imagined in the neighborhood—in fact, it’s prohibited. But because it was Tesla, I wanted to keep an open mind.
20 Saugatuck Avenue — the proposed site for the Tesla facility.
The meeting was held on a Tuesday night. Mr. Barr was there, along with the building’s landlord, Bruce Becker (a Westport architect and Tesla enthusiast), 4 Tesla representatives, and Tesla’s realtor.
Mr. Barr handed out his proposed zoning amendment. Something jumped out immediately: the zoning change was for a dealership. I asked him and the Tesla representatives about it.
Me (reading their amendment): “Said establishments may also provide vehicle sales of new and used electric motor vehicles, subject to a State License.”
Them: Well, we can’t actually sell cars in Connecticut right now.
Me: But I’ve just signed a petition supporting legislation that would allow you to.
The conversation went on from there, but you get the idea: It was a challenge getting forthright answers from this group. At one point, I asked whether Tesla would be willing to go forward without the dealership. Their answer was no.
What’s so bad about a dealership? I’ve heard lots of reasons from neighbors but I’ll share only mine here.
My wife and I settled in Saugatuck because we liked the easy access to transit, and that it was a walkable neighborhood. Many families in Saugatuck have done so for similar reasons.
It’s not just the immediate neighbors who want to preserve this area. Creating a walkable Saugatuck is a priority for both the current Saugatuck Transit-Oriented Master Plan and the town’s draft 2017 Conservation Plan of Development.
I can’t think of a single example of a walkable neighborhood with a car dealership smack in the middle. Our kids are young, and we’re especially concerned about test drives in cars that are fast, silent and accelerate in ways that startle new drivers. While there may be virtues to having a pioneering company like Tesla in town, I wouldn’t count bringing car dealerships to residential areas as one of them.
I realize that some people will read this and cry NIMBYism! But the kind of zoning change proposed here isn’t just bad for Saugatuck; it’s bad for Westport.
Some Saugatuck residents fear this is what the Tesla facility will turn into.
Saugatuck is already a chokepoint for the town — and that’s predominantly from local trips. Tesla would mean additional cars from out-of-towners hopping off I-95 for gas, a rush-hour service appointment or a test drive.
The fact that Saugatuck has the village character it does today is the result of decades of zoning decisions aimed at keeping highway services out of the area. There’s also the question of why we’d want a car dealership (which even for green cars aren’t pollutant-free environments) either on the river or alongside a stream feeding directly into the river.
While learning about zoning rules and knocking on neighbors’ doors weren’t things I anticipated doing this spring, I’m glad for it. It’s been a great way to meet neighbors, get to know town officials, and learn about the many fights over neighborhood preservation that have made Westport what it is today. We’re pleased that Save Westport Now and the Greens Farms Association are supporting neighbors in protesting this zoning change. If you’d like to support us too, you can here.
Westport is investing a lot of time and effort into studying Saugatuck. Will it be a well-planned, cohesive community with local businesses and residents supporting each other, or will we pre-empt all that by dumping a dealership right in the middle of the village?
My hope is that the Planning and Zoning Commission will listen to the neighborhood at the hearing tomorrow (Thursday, June 15, 7 p.m. Town Hall), and make this decision wisely.