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RTM panel backs relocation plan to save Gunn House

Updated 6:52 am, Thursday, October 17, 2013

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  • Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell, chairman of the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee, at Wednesday's meeting where the panel supported the recommendation that the full RTM overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission's denial of plans to move the Gunn House to the town's Elm Street parking lot. Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed
    Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell, chairman of the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee, at Wednesday's meeting where the panel supported the recommendation that the full RTM overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission's denial of plans to move the Gunn House to the town's Elm Street parking lot. Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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The Representative Town Meeting's Planning and Zoning Committee has unanimously recommended that the full legislative body approve moving the historic Gunn House to a site in the Baldwin parking lot.

The RTM is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on the proposal, a petition that asks the 36-member body to approve -- by a two-thirds margin -- to overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission's denial of the plan last month.

Moving the 1885 Queen Anne-style house would save it from demolition. The 35 Church Lane site is part of the parcel where the multi-use Bedford Square complex is scheduled to be built starting next year.

Several P&Z commissioners got the chance to share their thinking on their vote at Wednesday night's committee meeting, at the behest of Matthew Mandell, the committee chairman from District 1. The P&Z voted down the relocation request by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff by a 4-2 vote, with one abstention, on Sept. 19.

Mandell has been a vocal proponent of the relocation plan proposed by David Waldman, a principal Bedford Square Associates, the development team that has offered to pay for the building's relocation to the Elm Street lot to make way for its project.

"I ran on the platform to preserve Westport," said P&Z Commissioner Chip Stephens, who voted in favor of the relocation plan, citing the demolition of Victorian houses on Gorham Island and in back of Playhouse Square decades ago.

"You don't know what we have till it's gone," he said. "We've got to preserve these structures."

Commissioner Howard Lathrop defended his vote against the project. "My main objection was that really there were not enough alternatives presented," he said of the relocation plan to the town-owned parking lot.

He said, however, he had been certain that, even if the P&Z voted down the plan, it was likely to be challenged before the RTM -- as it has been. "I didn't think it was sacrificing the house, honestly," Lathrop said of his vote.

"Planning and Zoning Commission is also elected, so I kind of resent this being thrown on the RTM," countered Grayson Braun, a member of the Historic District Commission, who spoke in favor of the move. "It's kind of a shame that Planning and Zoning couldn't plan and zone."

Waldman repeated that earlier statements that he did not understand the P&Z's negative decision, as approval would have only begun the process of planning for this potential project. "It only allows us to intelligently come back to you (the P&Z) with a full plan to show you how it can work, and you can always say no at that time," he said.

"Time, unfortunately, is tight on this," he said, with the development consortium hoping to begin construction staging for its project at the Gunn property by early spring. But, he added, "my partners and I in Bedford Square are willing to wait until the last possible minute."

Jennifer Johnson was one of several members of the public who raised questions about the project. While she stressed that she favors relocating the building, she said a long-range plan is also necessary, including trying to address planning mistakes made in the past.

"This is a really, really important time for us," she said. "I encourage the town to think about the bigger picture, not just preserving the house right away and putting it here."

Land-use consultant Gloria Gouveia also expressed misgivings, citing Zoning Director Laurence Bradley's initial report on why it was not in the town's best interest to move the house.

"I feel obliged to remind everyone here that the Planning and Zoning Commission did not deal with this issue in isolation," she said.