Historic District panel holds off vote on downtown master plan
Updated 8:23 am, Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The Westport Historic District Commission has postponed for a month a vote on whether to support the work of the Downtown 2020 Committee to craft a master plan for the town center.
Tabling the request to vote Tuesday night in support of the downtown group's plans came after Lou Gagliano, the committee chairman, presented an update on its progress followed by lengthy discussion and questions from HDC members and the public. While two members seemed prepared to offer their support the other two said they wanted more information.
The Downtown 2020 is seeking to build support from town boards in advance of its formal request for up to $175,000 in town money to fund the master plan. Any additional costs for the plan would be raised from private sources.
HDC member Grayson Braun on Tuesday expressed concerns she would like to see addressed before taking a vote, among them the financing for the master plan; what the role of the Historic District Commission would be in the process; how the master plan would differ from the Village District plan, and who is involved in creating the master plan document.
"The master plan should be put together by people we elected," she said, wondering why the Planning and Zoning Commission does not have a primary role in the project.
Gagliano said the Downtown 2020 Committee, appointed last year by First Selectmen Gordon Joseloff, has met with the P&Z and, in effect, he believes serves as an advisory group to that body. He said the P&Z does not have the resources to conduct the comprehensive work that is necessary to create a downtown master plan.
"I think this committee has a separate and distinct responsibility," he said of Dowtown 2020.
The scope of the plan includes addressing flooding, traffic flow and public infrastructure. "We are solutions-based," he said.
In his presentation Gagliano said there are currently eight to 10 development projects proposed or in various stages of progress for the downtown area -- the public library, Bedford Square, National Hall and a movie theater, to name a few, all of which would substantially change the map of the downtown area if they all come to fruition
"Those development projects will cost the developers roughly $200 million. With that much money being spent isn't it appropriate to have a master plan done to harness public opinion?" Gagliano asked. He said a master plan would give the town a chance to coordinate development projects in a meaningful way, but would also ask developers to contribute to the improvement of existing public infrastructure and installation of new features such as street lighting, sidewalks, signs, tree planting, public restrooms and downtown maintenance. A developer could be asked to build a footbridge or a "necklace" path allowing for better pedestrian travel, he suggested.
"The flooding issue also needs to be looked at because it impacts and is a risk to the commercial tax base in our downtown community," he said, citing the recent closure of two retail stores that will not re-open because of severe flooding during Superstorm Sandy.
Braun was not the only one with questions. During the public comment period Westport resident Ellen van Dorsten raised some of the same issues Braun did. Van Dorsten feared the acceptance of private funding rather than public money for the master plan "would not maintain that Chinese wall." Maybe the $180,000 that the Downtown 2020 Committee hopes to raise should go to the P&Z to empower them to do some of the work, she said.
Van Dorsten also suggested that the HDC should be separate and apart from the 2020 Committee "or there is no one to take a critical view."
"Your support is important to us. I don't think it compromises your independence," Gagliano told the HDC, asking van Dorsten and others to reserve judgment.
Braun said she would like the HDC to meet again with the P&Z and other elected and appointed officials to discuss the master plan. She and HDC member Betsy Wacker also asked for transparency related to the $65,000 in private funding that the Downtown 2020 Committee has already raised.
HDC Chairman Francis Henkels, who already wrote a letter endorsing the Downtown 2020 Committee, but as a private citizen rather than in his official capacity, said he thinks the town needs a downtown master plan. "I think the efforts (of the 2020 Committee) are valid and timely. If there is not a formalized plan from the town it will happen piecemeal ... Times change and plans have to evolve. Plans need updating (from time to time)," he said.