WESTPORT – A citizens’ group has challenged a recently approved zoning change that would allow for greater density and height in the town’s congested transit hub – a move that will force an RTM vote next week that could overturn the approval.
On Dec. 22, the 11-member Sensible Saugatuck Zoning Committee used a provision in the town charter to petition a zoning text amendment approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission, setting in motion a 30-day review process by Representative Town Meeting members.
Roan Development Ventures LLC, a real estate firm based in Westport, proposed the text change that would add a new zoning district in order to develop Hamlet at Saugatuck, a mixed-use project featuring restaurants, retail, a hotel, residences and parking. The new district, to be known as General Business District/Saugatuck Marina, would allow greater height, density, coverage and floor area than the existing General Business District regulations and include 11 properties on Railroad Place, Riverside Ave., Franklin St. and Charles St., encompassing 4.82 acres.
After five public hearings, three work sessions, adjustments to the text and added requirements for outdoor public space and affordable housing, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the amendments on Dec. 12.
However, because the commission approved the zoning text before receiving a site plan, Roan Ventures is not required to build Hamlet at Saugatuck – a key concern for the citizen group.
At their Tuesday meeting, members of the RTM Planning and Zoning Committee and the RTM Transit Committee heard presentations from the Sensible Zoning group, Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Danielle Dobin and representatives from Roan Ventures.
Dobin acknowledged the Sensible Zoning group’s concerns of excess congestion by the Metro-North train station, but said the new zoning district would ensure local control in Saugatuck. She said that in an ideal world, the commission would have complete control over development, but in the real world, they did not.
“In the real world, state law specifically provides an off ramp for developers to completely bypass local zoning regulations to create mixed-income multifamily housing projects that are overly tall and provide little to no parking if they’re located near transit,” Dobin said.
Dobin was referring to state statute 8-30g, a law allowing developers to bypass local zoning restrictions if at least 30 percent of the apartments are designated affordable. She said that by incentivizing mixed-use development while also encouraging onsite parking, outdoor spaces and great design, Westport could avoid a “mammoth” 8-30g project in Saugatuck.
But members of the Sensible Zoning group said the choice was not as binary as the commission made it seem and that fear of 8-30g was not a reason to proceed.
“We believe that the fear of the 8-30g project has outweighed any consideration of a really proper and thorough zoning review process, negotiation with the developers or consideration for what Westporters have expressed time and again about what they want to see,” group member Ian Warburg said.
Joseph Vallone, a Sensible Zoning group member and a real estate developer, acknowledged that 8-30g allowed for circumvention of local zoning laws, but said there were exceptions – he said municipalities could control affordable housing projects through other avenues like safety and environmental reviews.
But in a phone call with CT Examiner prior to the Tuesday meeting, Dobin said it was difficult for most to grasp the degree to which the commission could not control zoning under state laws. At the RTM meeting, she provided examples of the state overruling commission decisions.
In 2018, Dobin said, the commission rejected an 81-unit affordable housing development on Lincoln Street as it was not fire safe, too tall and directly behind historic homes. But a few years later, the court overturned the commission’s denial and the project was able to proceed, she said.
Dobin said that under the text amendment, the commission would have discretion over various aspects of future Saugatuck development, including design, setbacks, additional height and parking plans.
But members of the Sensible Zoning group questioned the power of commission discretion, maintaining that developers could build over eight times the amount of density as before – allowing approximately 150,000 additional square feet of development, and 70-foot buildings reaching six stories without additional approval or special permits.
“There are three certainties of life – death, taxes and a developer’s willingness and ability to build every square foot of allowable density he possibly can,” said Vallone.
RTM member Wendy Batteau later asked for clarification on commission discretion and whether the commission could grant additional density through bonuses, but were not required to. Town attorney Ira Bloom said developments under the text amendment were “allowable use” projects, subject to special permit approval.
Bloom explained that while the commission had some discretion under the amendment, it was limited to certain items such as height and parking. The commission also had some discretion in the special permit process considering aspects like health, safety, traffic, wetlands and conservation, he said, but it was not unlimited.
The citizens group also questioned whether the development would leave commuters without parking. On the approved map, the new district excluded state-owned parking lots for the train station. Commuters can currently purchase parking passes, but weekdays from 3 p.m to 7 a.m. and on weekends, railroad parking is free.
“The parking capacities are critical. This is a commuter hub,” Warburg said. “Those parking lots serve not only Westport commuters, but communities from throughout the region who can get online and get a parking permit so that they have access to Metro-North.”
But Dobin said that in addition to access to railroad parking after hours, developers must provide on-site parking for apartments – 1.5 spaces per one bedroom unit and 2 spaces for units with two or more bedrooms – as well as 1 space per 1,000 square feet of gross floor area for non-residential units. At the discretion of the commission, she explained, developers could gain additional density if at least 75 percent of the required parking was underground. The commission also required a traffic and parking study for every proposed building.
During the Roan Ventures presentation, partner Daniel Suozzi told attendees that while they weren’t required to consider traffic at this point, the firm had hired traffic engineers Hardesty & Hanover and spent “a tremendous amount” of time and money to determine how they would move forward in the special permit process.
“We don’t want to build something that people can’t get to, that they can’t park at,” Suozzi said. “So it didn’t make sense to even go down the road without getting them on [board] early on.”
Rodrigo Real, another Roan Ventures partner, said the biggest concern they heard from residents was traffic. While little had been done to improve Saugatuck traffic in the past, he said, the firm was incentivized to make improvements.
“This project is not successful unless traffic is a success,” Real said.
Real highlighted specific solutions the firm would pursue, including addressing uncoordinated lights, building below-grade parking to limit drive-around traffic and working with the state to add lanes.
Prior to submitting the text amendment proposal, Roan Ventures was already under contract to purchase six of the 11 properties in the proposed district. Suozzi said the property owners had been approached by major developers in the past, but none had come up with a “thoughtful proposal considering Westport’s needs” like Roan Ventures.
Roan Ventures and Dobin both used sample renderings of Hamlet at Saugatuck with village-style buildings in their presentations. The images were also included in the text amendment to depict preferred design aesthetic.
But Vallone warned RTM members that since there were no site plans submitted, Roan Ventures was not obligated to build the depicted buildings.
“I want to caution you not to be excited by the pretty pictures, because at this point in time, all we have to go by is what’s in the text amendment,” Vallone said.
He added that the large increase in allowed density and height could set a “dangerous precedent” for any other potential developers.
RTM members cannot not modify the text amendment or postpone the discussion, and will need a two-thirds vote – 24 out of 35 total members – to deny the commission decision on Jan. 17, according to the town attorney.
Editor’s note: The rendering of Hamlet at Saugatuck has been updated to show the image that was included in the text amendment.