Chat with ... Mark Kirby, Saugatuck Neighbors group founder
WESTPORT — Like many young families, Mark Kirby and his wife and children moved to town from New York.
A former GQ Magazine writer and editor, Kirby got an opportunity to work as a writer and editor for Bridgewater Associates in Westport a few years ago. At first, Kirby and his wife, Erin Owens, were reluctant to leave the city, where Owens ran her own business, so the couple rented an apartment in Stamford and kept their Brooklyn apartment.
The pair grew up in the same town, York, Pa., — home to the York Peppermint Patty, but didn’t begin dating until they reconnected as adults in New York City. Kirby, seeking a nontypical college experience, spent the first part of his undergraduate career at Deep Springs College, a rural college in California with less than 30 students that only accepted men up until about a year ago. Then he transferred to Harvard University and after, launched into a career in magazine journalism, first at National Geographic Adventure and then GQ.
Three years after moving to Stamford — and one kid later with another on the way — Kirby and Owens decided they liked Connecticut and bought a house in the Saugatuck neighborhood of Westport because they loved the town’s beaches and kid-friendly activities.
Owens and Kirby, 38, liked Saugatuck because they could still walk to restaurants and shops — Saugatuck Sweets is a favorite — as they had in their Brooklyn days. The last several years, Saugatuck, formerly an industrial center developed by Italian immigrants, has evolved into one of the hippest and most walkable neighborhoods in town, outfitted with a co-working space.
Owens walks to work remotely as a film distributor for PBS and documentaries such as “Dolores,” “Cartel Land” and “The Black Panthers.”
However, in 2017, Tesla submitted an application with the town’s planning commission to put a dealership in the middle of the neighborhood, right on the edge of the couple’s property.
“The idea of a car dealership in the middle of a very walkable, pedestrian-friendly, historic neighborhood felt like it was really going to change the character of the area in a bad way,” Kirby said.
Greens Farms has a strong neighborhood group — the Greens Farms Association — and so do some parts of Saugatuck, particularly Save Old Saugatuck on Hiawatha Lane and Davenport Avenue, but at the time of Tesla’s application no neighborhood group existed in Kirby’s neighborhood that was capable of fighting off a powerful company.
An asymmetry existed between neighbors who woke up one day with a slip saying a car dealership was coming into the neighborhood and the developers, who have money and practice in getting developments approved through planning and zoning commissions, Kirby said. Determined to fend off Tesla and preserve the residential and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood he came to love, Kirby organized the Saugatuck Neighbors group to rally residents in opposition to the Tesla dealership.
“It was sort of figure-it-out-as-you-go-along,” Kirby said of starting Saugatuck Neighbors. The group called on Westport’s other neighborhood associations for advice, studied the town’s planning and zoning rules, showed up to planning meetings, and pressured the commission to vote against the Tesla proposal, which it did last June.
Post-Tesla, Kirby and Saugatuck Neighbors have continued to engage with other town planning projects, including the Saugatuck Transit Oriented Design study and a proposal for an 81-unit, six-story affordable housing development on Lincoln Street near the intersection of Post Road West and Cross Street.
“Six stories at the worst intersection in Westport, “ Kirby said, doesn’t make sense for Westport. So far, Saugatuck Neighbors has provided petitioning support to Westport Neighbors United, the neighborhood group that recently formed against the development.
Despite his activism, Kirby said he is not a historic preservationist in a rigid sense.
“I’m not opposed to a little development, but it’s just about doing it at a scale and character that’s consistent with the historic nature of Saugatuck,” Kirby said. He thinks Saugatuck’s Gault development is an example of positive construction, because the development brought more services and vitality to the area, while maintaining its character.
“You’re not going to fight every fight, and there’ll be some things that you can get involved in, but you don’t,” Kirby said, noting he has certain criteria for what type of battles Saugatuck Neighbors partakes in.
Although Kirby is strategic when he starts a campaign, he said he wants to remain neighborly because peaceful neighborhoods are, in the end, the goal of his group.
“We don’t want to be the neighborhood that’s always screaming ‘no’ to everything, because there are a lot of interests in this town and people have the things they want to do. I think part of being a reasonable neighbor is to realize you can’t always get your way on everything, and that’s fine,” Kirby said.