Finance panel hears support for relocating the Gunn house

Several residents, town finance officials, and Representative Town Meeting members voiced strong support at the Board of Finance meeting Monday night for moving the historic Church Lane property known as the Kemper-Gunn house, which developer David Waldman is proposing to move to the nearby town-owned Baldwin Parking Lot as an offshoot of the larger Bedford Square multi-use downtown project.

Waldman has a demolition permit set to expire in October on the historic house, which has stood since 1885 on Church Lane adjacent to the Westport Weston Family Y, slated for redevelopment into the massive Bedford Square plan. Rather than demolish the Kemper-Gunn house, Waldman has agreed to move it so that it can be renovated and adapted for commercial use, perhaps as a home to small mom-and-pop type stores.

The town would retain ownership of the land and enter into a lease with the developer, who would take ownership of the structure at no cost.

"If the net result is that we save this house, then that's a win-win for the town," Waldman said at the finance meeting.

RTM District 1 representative Matthew Mandell agreed.

"Financially what it will do is create retail diversity that doesn't exactly exist in the Main Street area right now. It expands the Grand List (of taxable properties) because it takes a house that would otherwise become sawdust and keeps it there to be able to make money off it," Mandell said.

Helen Martin Block, a Partrick Road resident and former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said relocating the house would help retain some of the charm that has been evaporating from the downtown area in the wake of development.

"By supporting this project, I think the town of Westport would benefit greatly, and give us back a little bit of character that the town has been missing," Block said. "I think it would be a very healthy thing. Plus I think it would be beautiful."

Finance board member Janis Collins said testimony at the meeting had swayed her opinion about the project.

"I have to tell you I was really against this project before, but after tonight I'm not so much against it," Collins said.

The Board of Finance, which would have to sign off on any lease of town-owned property, took no action during Monday's meeting. Collins and other several other finance board members said they'd like to hear from land use officials about the effect of moving the property, which would occupy 17 parking spaces in the Baldwin Parking Lot and could affect traffic in that area.

In the spring the town sent out a request for proposals for the Gunn house relocation. In addition to Waldman's group, the town also received a proposal from Fischel Properties, which has offices in Westport.

The finance board had not seen the responses to the request for proposals before the meeting and several members said they'd like to see more information on potential lease details.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff said he had reservations about the town exposing itself to financial commitments by entering into a lease agreement under the Waldman proposal.

"There's some concern that the town, even if we lock in all the ifs, ands, and buts in the lease, there is some potential exposure to the town for taking care of this house down the line," Joseloff said.

Joseloff must now decide if he will present a plan for the relocation of the Kemper-Gunn house to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

On June 20, the P&Z decided to continue its hearing on the Bedford Square application to July 18. As proposed, retail use could be allowed on the second and third floors of the Westport Weston Family Y, and that was a sticking point for zoning officials. The zoning commission hopes to rule on several variation requests for the project, including relocation of some floor area; extension of the floor in the mezzanine area, and a variance on the allowed rooftop height owing to skylights, elevators and rooftop condensers.

The Bedford Square developers had drawn up their plans based on an understanding of a 2005 ruling by then-Planning and Zoning Director Cathy Barnard, who wrote, in essence, that sections of the Family Y's second and third stories qualify for use as retail space.

In 2008, however, the P&Z ruled otherwise.

The P&Z represents the last major hurdle to approval of the Bedford Square proposal, which has already been approved, with some modifications, by a series of other town boards and commissions.