A few questions arise as land-use plan for Westport Library expansion awaits full P&Z vote
While the four Planning and Zoning Commission members present for Thursday night's work session expressed informal support of the land-use report for the Westport Library's proposed expansion onto Jesup Green, they decided to delay the vote until more commission members could be present to vote.
"I'm inclined to approve this, but I think it's such an important issue to the town, that giving that we have the luxury to sign off on this next Thursday, I suggest that we do that," said Commissioner Alan Hodge.
School vacation holidays left the commission with a limited quorum Thursday night. The next meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, in Town Hall.
The requested action, field as a land-use report by First Selectman Jim Marpe, would allow the library to move forward with planning its long-range project to expand its building 35 feet north onto town-owned Jesup Green.
Though final details of the actual building project have not been completed, it is expected to cost about $25 million.
Larry Weisman, the lawyer for the library, expressed a similar concern at the beginning of the meeting. "My concern is that with only four members on the board, we're not going to get a full review of this matter," he said.
P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens had wanted to see the matter voted at the Thursday meeting.
"We are so backed up, I want to get it off the docket," he said, noting the considerable support for the project heard by the commission at its previous meeting.
"I do have some concerns," Hodge said. "I'm not 100 percent convinced that we need to give away public open space."
While Hodge conceded that Jesup Green could benefit from "a bit of TLC," he said it was the P&Z's role to ask the hard question about using part of the green and gingerly raised the issue.
He quoted Weisman as saying at the last meeting that there were no alternatives to northward expansion of the building. "I think he said it would be impossible," Hodge said.
"Now, I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say this, but that is the only evidence that I've heard that that is correct."
"It may be that when you balance everything out that the value that the library has to the town actually does outweigh that the town's public open space, small as it is, will be further diminished," he added.
Hodge also expressed concerns about aesthetics of a new design, asking rhetorically whether it will be as pleasing as the initial designs indicate or, when seen from across the river, will it be "something that looks like a spaceship."
Commissioner Catherine Walsh commended Hodge for speaking out. "Too many times in the past this commission and its people have been unwilling to question sacred cows," she said, adding that some site plans have received P&Z approval without scrutiny.
"Your questions, they're really very core to me," she said, noting that they are relevant to the overall downtown planning process.
Walsh also raised the question of cost and the possibility that, down the line, the town might be asked to carry more of the financing burden than planned. The library board of trustees is independently raising money for the project apart from any town money that may be required.
"I'm willing to say, OK go ahead, and start doing the process," Walsh said. "It's not saying I agree with 35 feet. It's not saying I agree with what I saw today. It's just saying go ahead and be looked at."
"I think at some point we need to stop giving away our town land," she said.
"I'm happy that they did scale back the project," she said, but "I'm still not convinced that they can't do a great job inside without popping out a wall."