Westport RTM Overwhelmingly Denies Efforts to Overturn Zoning Flexibility in Saugatuck

Town officials look at plans for a proposed development in Saugatuck on Jan. 6 (CT Examiner)


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WESTPORT – Representative Town Meeting members on Tuesday overwhelmingly denied an attempt by a group of local residents to overturn an approved increase in height and density along the Saugatuck River and near the Westport train station, citing a need for development and dismissing resulting traffic increases as inevitable.

Last month, the 11-member local group, the Sensible Saugatuck Zoning Committee, requested a review of the text amendment approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission following negotiations with Roan Development Ventures LLC to develop “Hamlet at Saugatuck,” an upscale mixed-used development.

After nearly 18 hours of meetings by the RTM over the past week on the issue, the RTM  voted 33 to 1 to uphold the changes without further review.

The group argued that the zoning text amendment allowed for excessive height, density, coverage and floor area within the 4.82 acres of the new zoning district in an effort to attract Roan Ventures, a Westport-based real estate firm.

The group expressed the concern that because Roan Ventures requested the text amendments without a site plan in place, the developers would not actually build the restaurants, shops, hotel, residences and parking featured in the renderings of the Hamlet at Saugatuck. Members of the group said they feared that the developers would either back out of the project, making way for others to take advantage of the generous zoning increases, or stray from current renderings and turn the marina area into “Co-op City.” 

Members of the RTM, said they were confident to move forward with the change in zoning, given the commission’s discretion over design, setbacks, additional height and parking plans outlined in the amendment, and with Roan Venture’s commitment to the project thus far.

“I think we are trusting in the text amendment, and the verification will come when the application comes in,” said RTM member Richard Lowenstein. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m hoping that everything plays out the way we want it to play out.”

RTM Finance Committee Chair Seth Braunstein said at the Jan. 10 meeting that approving the text amendment would be a leap of faith, but that there would still be significant oversight over development in the area.

“I want to kind of go back to the comments I made. It’s a leap of faith, but we’re not closing our eyes and hoping for the best,” Braunstein said. “There are measures in place because the way the Planning and Zoning Commission tried to sort of intelligently and creatively maintain control of this process… There’s going to be a lot of oversight here.”

A number of RTM Planning and Zoning Committee members had sought answers to questions from Danielle Dobin, the commission chair, and Roan Ventures over the last week.

RTM Transit Committee members also expressed concerns about increased traffic to the congested Saugatuck area and possible effects on parking for the commuter rail. Westport Metro-North station and its parking dominate a large portion of the marina district, but were not included in the 11 rezoned properties on Railroad Place, Riverside Ave., Franklin St. and Charles St.

Residents had raised concerns that traffic to the new development would reduce available parking for commuters. 

Police Chief Foti Koskinas said at a Jan. 12 meeting the parking served a variety of purposes not limited to the railroad.

“There’s multiple uses… We are very commuter oriented, but it’s not limited,” Koskinas said. “We also understand that people commute into Westport and use our parking lots – they’re not just lots that are used to commute out of Westport.”

Koskinas said that those who work in Westport often take buses or rental cars to their workplaces, leaving their vehicles in the railroad lots for a parking fee. He said that so long as someone had valid registration and insurance, they could apply for a railroad parking permit, but Roan Ventures was not guaranteed parking spaces.

“I suppose if a corporation was prepared to present 100 registered vehicles with proper insurance, we would have an argument that would probably go to our legal department to see how that would be handled,” Koskinas said. “But that is not likely.”

In addition to height and density requirements, the commission set on-site parking requirements for apartments – 1.5 spaces per one bedroom unit and 2 spaces for units with two or more bedrooms – and for non-residential units – 1 space per 1,000 square feet of gross floor area – in the text amendment. Following a site plan application, Roan Ventures must also submit a traffic and parking study to access impacts.

Prior to the full RTM vote, the Planning and Zoning and Transit Committees both voted on their recommendations, and ultimately upheld the commission-approved amendment. RTM Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jessica Bram said that while she appreciated the citizen group for “holding their feet to the fire,” the committee’s recommendations strongly influenced her decision.

“I placed my trust in our RTM committees – the RTM P&Z Committee and Transit Committees – who I truly believe, in a responsible and unbiased way, considered this petition carefully and knowledgeably.”

Bram said that while she hated overdevelopment and wanted Westport to stay as it was when her family moved there 25 years ago, the Saugatuck area in her opinion was “dreary and underused.”

During the public comment portion of the Tuesday meeting, still many residents opposed the changes.

Mark Galley, a longtime resident who grew up in Saugatuck, acknowledged the alternative presented by Dobin – a developer could bypass local zoning laws using the state’s affordable housing workaround under 8-30g – but said he feared the unavoidable increase in traffic, especially given recent population growth from New York transplants.

“I’ve seen everything firsthand and I know how this traffic is,” Galley said. “And I know that you haven’t done any studies yet and you have to get to a certain point, but… unless this is under some kind of control, you’re just not going to get around it.”

Resident Jennifer Johnson also argued that because Roan Ventures was only under contract to purchase six of the 11 rezoned properties in the zoning district, the text amendment could result in increased development beyond the proposed Hamlet at Saugatuck project.

“We’re going to have this large-scale development and 8-30g right at the access point to our train station,” Johnson predicted.

But many residents voiced support for the text amendment and Roan Ventures, citing a growing need for development in Saugatuck. Resident Larry Weisman said the area was in need of a makeover, and said Westport was fortunate to have developers who showed interest in Saugatuck.

“I think that we are extremely fortunate to have a single entity which controls most of the site and is able to think in terms of an integrated plan, which takes into account the need for a variety of uses, a mix of architectural styles, green spaces and access to the river,” Weisman said. “By contrast, if each individual property owner were to follow his own interests and present his own plan for development, you would likely have a hodgepodge of design and random uses with no public spaces.”

Following the full RTM vote, Moderator Jeff Wieser congratulated Roan Ventures and thanked the petitioners, commission, RTM members and public for their commitment to the lengthy review process.

“People [jokingly] complained about the RTM, but this is democracy in action,” Wieser said. “And it’s a terrific way to get the town involved, and I think the town’s learned a lot about this and we’re going to be watching it very carefully.”