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P&Z hears strong support for moving Gunn house

Published 6:50 am, Friday, September 13, 2013

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  • Morley Boyd, right, a Violet Lane resident, was one of many people speaking at Thursday's Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in favor of moving the Gunn House to the Baldwin parking lot.  WESTPORT NEWS, CT 9/12/13 Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed

    Morley Boyd, right, a Violet Lane resident, was one of many people speaking at Thursday's Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in favor of moving the Gunn House to the Baldwin parking lot. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 9/12/13

    Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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It looks like the Gunn House, sitting on a Church Lane lot where part of the Bedford Square will rise within the next few years, may find a new home across the street in the town's Baldwin parking lot.

The Planning and Zoning Commission, for nearly two hours Thursday, discussed the proposal by Bedford Square Associates to move the historic Queen Anne-style home from its current location at 35 Church Lane adjacent to a site in the Elm Street lot.

Over an hour of public comments was strongly in favor of the preservation project, with dissent expressed by only one member of the public, as well as P&Z Commissioner Ron Corwin.

The commission, however, took no vote on the proposal. It has until the end of the month to decide.

The Bedford Square development team has said the circa-1885 structure -- most recently used as offices -- did not fit into their plans for creation of a mixed-use complex of retail, office, restaurant and residential spaces on the site of Westport Weston Family Y and abutting properties. The project won final approval from the P&Z last month.

And even though the developers had initiated the process to demolish the structure, they have said they would work with the town to move it to another site in order to preserve it.

Thursday's hearing, however, was briefly interrupted by a heated exchange between P&Z Chairwoman Catherine Walsh and Commissioner Chip Stephens. Stephens had objected to Walsh trying to bring a member of the public's lengthy comments to a close, and the two yelled over each for one tense moment.

The hearing also paused momentarily when, as a thunderstorm erupted, a bolt of lightning apparently struck Town Hall with a bang, causing a surge of blue light in the room.

"We'd better change the subject," Corwin quipped.

Both candidates for first selectman took the podium to express support for moving the Gunn House to the parking lot.

"The relocated house will provide a great transition to the downtown area," said Republican candidate Jim Marpe, fostering the opportunity for more "mom-and-pop shops" to locate there.

"We all agree that more should be done to encourage pedestrian traffic downtown," said Democratic candidate Helen Garten. "At the moment, walking by a series of parking areas is not exactly inviting."

Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell, of District 1, presented a petition signed by 500 Westport residents supporting the move.

"This is an important concept and moment in Westport," Mandell said. "Do we want the people 100 years from now saying we had vision?"

"Don't have sawdust on your hands," he said, referring to possible demolition of the house. "Approve this."

Though Commissioner Jack Whittle said he has strong reservations about the lack of downtown parking, he added that he favors relocating the building. "I also happen to think that Elm Street is currently the ugliest street downtown."

Roger Liefer, a downtown property owner, spoke against the move.

"Parking is crucial and it's going to choke this town, without any further development," he said. "If you approve this project, in my opinion you'll be exacerbating a terrible problem that already needs a solution, and you'll be cutting off future alternatives for parking there."

Stephens, however, expressed support for the project.

"Maybe it's not an issue of parking," he said, referencing how a recent downtown festival made good use of the Imperial Avenue parking lot. "Maybe it's an issue of using what we have, preserving what we have?"