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RTM to vote on overturning P&Z's denial of Gunn House relocation

Updated 6:30 am, Tuesday, October 1, 2013

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  • The Gunn House at 35 Church Lane Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed

    The Gunn House at 35 Church Lane

    Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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Petitioners seeking to have the Gunn House moved from Church Lane to a site on the nearby town-owned Baldwin parking lot will have their voices heard next month.

The developers of the Bedford Square project, who own the land where the circa-1885 Queen Anne-style house sits, had filed an application to demolish the structure to make way for their plans. But they say they will hold off on razing the house past the Oct. 1 deadline while efforts continue to relocate it.

An Oct. 22 special session of the Representative Town Meeting will consider petitioners' request to reverse the Planning and Zoning Commission's Sept. 19 vote against relocating the historic home across Elm Street to the parking lot.

"As you know, the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission issued a negative 8-24 report regarding" moving the Gunn House from 35 Church Lane to the parking lot, wrote Morley Boyd, the lead petitioner and former chairman of the Historic District Commission, to Eileen Lavigne Flug, RTM moderator, in a letter dated Sept. 27.

"After the proposal at issue received overwhelming public support at the P&Z hearing on Sept. 12th, I was quite surprised to read the subsequent decision," Boyd wrote. "As the commission's stated reasons for the negative report are plainly unburdened by the facts surrounding the matter, I feel that the residents of the Town of Westport have not been well served in this instance."

In a letter to Flug, Town Clerk Patricia Strauss said, "at least 20 electors' names have been verified for acceptance of this petitioned request."

Two-thirds of the entire RTM body, or 24 votes, will be required to overturn the P&Z's decision -- regardless of how many attend the meeting.

David Waldman, principal for the consortium that plans to develop a multi-use complex on the Westport Weston Family Y site and abutting property on Church Lane, said recently the developers do not plan to immediately move forward with the demolition plan for the Gunn House, even after the P&Z Commission's vote against relocating the structure.

Waldman said his company would back the effort to move the house by having the RTM override the P&Z's decision.

"We'll clearly be behind that," he added. "We're clearly going to run through this process to see if we can get the town behind saving it."

He said the developers' intention is to use that property as a staging area for construction of Bedford Square, which he said could get underway in early spring.

"The YMCA doesn't move out until November of 2014, (but) there's a lot we can do," Waldman said, in the way of prep work for the project.

"There's certainly time," he said of efforts to save the house. "If the town wants to get behind it, we are certainly engaged in wanting to do that."

Matthew Mandell, District 1 RTM member, in September presented a 500-signature petition to the P&Z requesting that the house be saved and relocated to the Baldwin lot.

Mandell was one of several people who spoke in favor of relocating the house at a P&Z hearing. Both candidates for first selectman also were among the supporters.

"There are a lot of people in town, through town government and town residents, who are very upset with what the P&Z has done," Mandell said.

He said he's received many calls and emails "saying they could not believe the P&Z would completely ignore what the residents requested. This land is the residents' land. They said to use it this way."

"I think the P&Z acted shamefully in pushing an agenda that doesn't understand the need for historic preservation," Mandell said, calling it "an insult to the community."

"They want a garage," he said to help accommodate the demand for more downtown parking. "They're arguing this would displace (that), but that's not on the table at the moment (and) the house doesn't thwart the opportunity for the garage."

Francis Henkels, current chairman of the Historic District Commission, said he was "surprised" to see four P&Z members vote against moving the house.

"I've been trying to figure out what the logic is behind the opposition," he said.

He speculated that some couldn't envision the house on what is currently the barren Baldwin parking lot.

"There's concern about lost parking, obviously, but I don't think that on balance," he said, that was the reason for denying the relocation plan. "They couldn't envision the house ... It may need to be said stronger, that it could be relocated and landscaped."

"I think that's what some people on the commission ... couldn't view," he said, noting how well the house could blend with the existing Seabury Center at the corner of Elm Street and Church Lane.