A Planning and Zoning Commission proposal that would restrict the size of retail establishments downtown drew the ire of a local developer last week.
The regulation -- limiting the size of retailers to 10,000 square feet -- is under consideration as a way to maintain Westport's small-town character, according to zoning officials.
But developer David Waldman, a partner in the Bedford Square consortium that plans to convert the Westport Weston Family Y property into a multi-use commercial complex, said at the Feb. 27 meeting he didn't "get the concept" of the proposed size restriction. "It doesn't promote a vibrant downtown," he said. "It's counterproductive."
In particular, he was concerned about how the regulation would impact the 30,000-square-foot Bedford Square development. "You gave me an approval and now I can't put a 30,000-square-foot tenant in there," he told commission members.
"I don't feel that size should be dictated," Waldman said. "We're not in Russia."
In reaction, P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens slammed down the gavel and chastised Waldman.
"You have to respect this commission," Stephens said. "Don't let this happen again." Waldman then apologized.
P&Z member Jack Whittle said the commission has "a keen interest in maintaining the integrity of the town, especially in the downtown area."
To help achieve that goal, the proposed zoning amendment would place a 10,000-square-foot limit on downtown retail space.
"We want to preserve smaller retail spaces," Whittle said. The idea is to retain the boutique stores, also known as "mom-and-pop" stores. "We are not legislating larger spaces out of existence," he said.
Others in the audience also questioned the intention of the amendment. "What are you trying to accomplish and will it be successful?" asked Don Bergmann, a member of the Representative Town Meeting and the Downtown Steering Committee. "Are there other ways of accomplishing this goal?"
Dewey Loselle, chairman of the steering committee reviewing issues that relate to the future of the downtown area, said the group has a retail economist that's looking into the type and size of buildings best suited for downtown. "I believe the downtown steering committee study will give you more insight," he said.'
Karen Johnson, speaking on behalf of the Bedford Square partnership, suggested the commission doesn't understand the full impact of the proposed regulation.
"It may create unusable space," she said. As for how it would affect Bedford Square, where there is 30,000 square feet of space, "It would stop everything we spent five years on," she said. "It's very troubling."
Only resident Connie Greenfield, who is opposed to large buildings and big-box stores downtown, expressed approval of the proposal. "Big buildings don't belong on our little Main Street."
The commission decided to continue the hearing.
Following that decision, Waldman, outside the auditorium where the meeting was held, said he couldn't believe what the commission is considering.
"After five years of struggling and investment to get the approvals for Bedford Square, now they want to limit what they gave me," he said.