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HDC worried by Terrain's revised plan to 'seal off' historic house

Updated 2:14 pm, Wednesday, July 10, 2013

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  • Terrain garden center is proposing to "seal off" this historic house and not demolish it to make room for needed parking. Photo: Cameron Martin / Westport News
    Terrain garden center is proposing to "seal off" this historic house and not demolish it to make room for needed parking. Photo: Cameron Martin

 

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Terrain, the garden center and outdoor furniture store, which reversed plans to demolish a historic house on its property after a public outcry last month, should not be allowed to let the structure stand idle, according to a recommendation by the town's Historic District Commission.

The HDC voted Tuesday night to recommend that the Planning and Zoning Commission, when it reviews the revised Terrain plan later this month, tell, Terrain that it should find a use for the house that does not generate a need for more parking.

The P&Z is scheduled on July 18 to consider Terrain's revised parking plan that would preserve the 19th-century wood-frame structure at 535 Post Road East. Terrain officials' most recent proposal is to "seal off" the house rather than use it for office or commercial purposes, according to the revised application that drops the earlier plan to demolish the structure. The demolition plan sparked controversy because Terrain officials had promised not to raze the house when initial plans to open the store were approved in 2011.

Terrain's 2011 proposal to the P&Z also included a provision for so-called "reserve parking" -- spaces that can be activated if needed by demand.

Terrain also houses a restaurant, which further exacerbates the parking crunch.

The revised plans now call for the release of 29 reserve parking spaces on the eastern side of the 1.61-acre property.

Much of that reserve parking is now covered by greenhouses, plants and garden equipment. Terrain uses on-site valet parking and zoning officials have asked them to activate the reserve parking to accommodate the needs of patrons. But Terrain officials seemed loathe to remove part of the merchandise area to accommodate the need for more parking spaces, and initially wanted to demolish the house to provide extra parking.

However, under P&Z regulations, any use of the historic building would likely generate the need for parking spaces.

Urban Outfitters, the Terrain parent company, will ask the P&Z to waive the requirement for three parking spaces at the historic building -- spaces that won't be needed if the building is not in use under its new proposal.

The HDC's letter to the P&Z will state that it hopes a use can be found for the house that would not generate a need for more parking. "The use of the building may encourage preservation," said HDC Chairman Francis Henkels.

But Terrain's attempts to abandon a promise to preserve the house on site and threats to tear it down may have lost the company at least one customer. Grayson Braun, who said she was speaking as a local resident and not in her role as a member of the HDC, expressed displeasure with the actions of Terrain officials.

"This is a game that they're playing and I resent it," Braun said, adding that she feels that Terrain is holding the HDC hostage. She said she won't shop there as a result of this issue.

No representatives from Terrain attended the Historic District Commission meeting and no one from the business returned calls to the Westport store.

There was only one member of the public on hand at the end of the meeting when this issue was addressed. "If we have to sacrifice that house for three parking spaces that would be disgusting," said Adrian Little.

HDC member Edward Gerber said, that in a document filed with the Planning and Zoning Commission, the house is to remain structurally sound. Reading from the document, Gerber said, "We (Terrain) agree to maintain the building pursuant with industry standards and ensure that it remains structurally sound."

In her capacity as an HDC member, Braun said she wants Terrain to perform regular maintenance to the interior of the historic house "so it doesn't rot from the inside out." But there is nothing on the town books to protect the house if it were to deteriorate because of neglect. The house is not a designated local historic landmark and it does not fall under the town's 3218 preservation easement, which allows the town to step in to make repairs at the owners' expense on neglected historic properties.

Braun said the RTM is working on a blight ordinance, which could protect the house from neglect, but that proposal is on hold.

Braun called the Terrain issue "muddy" because of its many complications including the ownership of the house and the property on which Terrain operates. Although tearing down the house no longer seems on the table, Braun asked, "Can they actually request demolishing a building that they do not own? They are tenants. The Curran family owns the building."

The Terrain property was the site of Curran Cadillac for four decades, and property co-owner Tom Curran said his family had assurances from Terrain that the home would be spared when the lease was signed in 2011.

Gerber said the HDC was planning to give an award to the house a year ago, but Terrain officials never returned calls about the citation.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to take up the Terrain parking application when it meets at 7 p.m. July 18 in Town Hall.