The challenges of attracting commercial projects and developing downtown Westport while maintaining the town's distinctive character and preserving its historic structures was the subject of the Historic District Commission meeting Monday, which focused on the proposed creation of a "Village District" encompassing the town's center.

Two representatives of the Pawtucket, R.I.-based Public Archaeology Laboratory Inc. (PAL) presented an audience of 37 people with a historic resources inventory update and planning recommendations for the Village District zoning project, the second component of the multi-faceted process. The Village District would be overseen by the Planning and Zoning Commission in conjunction with an advisory committee.

Jenny F. Scofield, a preservation planner and architectural historian for PAL, said the idea of Village District zoning is to "retain what is valuable downtown without impeding development."

The process is designed to create an opportunity for multiple interests to collaborate and decide together, rather than as competing parties, what the downtown should look like going forward.

"There's always a need for cohesive planning," said Virginia H. Adams, senior architectural historian with PAL. Adams talked about the benefits of having a Village District, saying it promotes distinctive visual and historic structures and cultural experiences, while providing a framework to balance community and commercial development. It can also streamline the town's approval review process, which several people admitted would be helpful.

Lawrence Bradley, the town's planning and zoning director, said his staff has long said that applicants have to go through many hurdles, often appearing before five or six boards to get something accomplished. Bradley said further that the Village District concept would fit the zoning process that's in place now in Westport center. "The current zoning doesn't fit the structures that are there," he said, adding that a majority of the applicants have to get a variance from existing rules for projects downtown.

Bradley said the zoning regulations could be re-written to solve that issue, but the Village District concept is a suitable approach.

In 2007, the Westport Plan of Conservation and Development identified the center of town as an area of historic and cultural significance worthy of preservation. The inventory update and planning recommendations were the second step in the process. The next step includes raising awareness and public support, and Monday's meeting was the kick off of that effort, Adams said.

After the PAL presentation several members of the audience asked questions.

Robert Jacobs, a member of the new Downtown 2020 Committee, which is charged with enlivening Westport's business district and making it more pedestrian friendly, wondered if there were potential conflicts between agencies such as the Historic District Commission, which is initiating the effort to establish the Village District zoning, and those town leaders working on a new master plan.

One resident asked how Village District rules might affect existing buildings and another asked about positive examples of Village District zoning in other Connecticut communities. Scofield said such zoning exists in eight municipalities, including New Canaan, Ridgefield, Wilton and Norwalk, but added that those regulations cannot serve as a model for Westport because the intent for each may be different.

During the meeting, Bradley used the term "new urbanism" to describe the concept, which caused one resident to bristle. "We are suburban, Larry, not urban." But Bradley said the term does not relate to a bigger or more dense downtown. "Urbanism is a new trend where you can have a walkable downtown, vibrancy and activities. If you're not going to have activity here, where is it going to be?" he asked.

"Let's explore it and see where it takes us. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but let's at least look at it," Bradley said of the Village District concept.

One downtown resident shared her concerns about having her home included in the district and asked whether property owners could opt out.

HDC Commissioner Bob Weingarten said there are preliminary boundaries set only for the purpose of holding discussions on the district. Nothing is set in stone. Scofield said the boundaries as they currently appear were proposed as a starting point.

"These boundaries would have to be refined as part of the process," Adams said.

The next steps for review of the proposal include seeking grant funding, hiring a consultant to help draft the zoning regulations and design guidelines with a considerable amount of input from the community, and create a design advisory committee, she said.