Despite last-minute concerns raised by several residents, the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday morning approved the 98-year lease that paves the way for moving the historic Kemper-Gunn House from Church Lane to a town-owned parking lot on Elm Street.
"I am excited by the possibility we have here in retaining a significant structure," First Selectman Jim Marpe said prior to a unanimous vote by the board.
After the lease is signed, the project can move forward after nearly two years of debate and public meetings.
Plans are for developer David Waldman, who is part of the team developing the multi-use Bedford Square complex, to move the 19th-century Queen Anne-style structure to a 0.13-acre site in the Baldwin parking lot, where it will be restored and re-purposed for commercial and retail use.
Waldman's plan also includes incorporating the house's current property into Bedford Square, which will be developed on the current site of the Westport Weston Family Y.
"This is really the last legal and important step in the process," said Town Attorney Ira Bloom, who gave a brief history of the plan which, over the past 20 months, was reviewed before six different town boards for a variety of approvals.
A Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group was also established by Marpe and chaired by Selectman Helen Garten to oversee the project this year. Garten said the project "creates a blueprint for future public/private ventures" in the town.
She said the group began its review with the idea of saving a historic structure -- the building's planned demolition had been blocked by the Representative Town Meeting -- and "the lease accomplishes this." Garten went over some of the points in the lease saying all capital and operating costs will be borne by the tenants while the town will receive rent payments and tax revenue. "Could the town get more? Yes," said Garten. But if the town had funded the project it would have cost taxpayers "to move, restore and staff the building," she added.
Garten added that, per the lease, the town will be paid taxes on the historic property as well as $15,000 base rent from the tenant in the first six years.
Selectman Avi Kaner, calling in by phone from vacation in Peru, said selectmen received numerous letters and emails in support of the relocation/restoration project. Marpe said there were 35 supportive emails.
While several residents at the meeting voiced support for the lease approval, a few were opposed.
Among those speaking in opposition of the project was resident David Press, who expressed concern about taking away 22 parking spaces at the town parking lot. "Is this a precedent/" he asked. "What happens with the next house?" Press suggested developing a "heritage park" for the relocation of older buildings.
Planning and Zoning Commission member Cathy Walsh said that taking away those many spaces at the Baldwin lot and, with an anticipated need for 30 parking spaces when the enterprises leasing space in the renovated Kemper-Gunn House open, means a real loss of 52 spaces there.
Resident Ellie Lowenstein said other areas downtown should have been considered for the house's relocation. "I don't object to saving a historic house," she said, "but my feeling all along is that this house could have gone across the street."
One resident asked if Garten's chairmanship of the advisory group wasn't a conflict of interest and suggested she should recuse herself from Wednesday's vote. But Bloom said there was nothing in the town charter that restricted her from voting.
The meeting lasted nearly three hours and Marpe, at several points during residents' comments, said that the concerns being raised should have been addressed at one of the many earlier meetings on the project.