HDC, neighbors yank welcome mat for B&B plan
On his website, painter Jarvis Wilcox says in his artist's statement: "A picture cannot be comprehended in a glance; paintings like all the temporal arts and most good red wines take time (to enjoy)."
That could help explain the patience he and his wife Coke Anne Wilcox have demonstrated as they attempt to convert a rental property into a bed-and-breakfast venture in a residential neighborhood though they face of opposition from most neighbors and some town officials.
For more than a year, the Wilcoxes have been seeking a text amendment to the town's zoning regulations that would allow a guest house/tourist home use in a historic residential structure. If the amendment is adopted by the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Wilcoxes would apply to open a bed-and-breakfast establishment in a home they own at 25 Turkey Hill Road South. Two to four employees, including an on-site manager, would staff a three-room inn, the oldest parts of which date to 1813, but the Wilcoxes would not live on site.
The text amendment, however, recently failed to gain support from members of the Historic District Commission. They voted 4-0 on Jan. 8 to oppose the amendment as presented.
The amendment is now pending before the P&Z, which was scheduled to continue its public hearing on the issue at Thursday's meeting. The hearing began Jan. 3 and, according to the town's website, the application is expected to be continued to Feb. 7. No testimony on the proposal was to be taken at Thursday's meeting.
Even if the amendment were to pass, the proposed B&B would likely also require P&Z backing for a special permit, according to Planning and Zoning Director Laurence Bradley.
At the HDC meeting last week, Bradley said that an existing zoning regulation has a section that allows a homeowner to take in up to five unrelated boarders. The difference he sees with a B&B or guest house is the nature of the guest turnover. Boarders would be in a residence for a certain amount of time, perhaps six months to a year, whereas, B&B guests might only stay for a day or a weekend.
On the town website, Bradley said, "Currently, this type of lodging is not allowed under the Westport Zoning Regulations in residential zones. If the Planning & Zoning Commission approves the amendment, bed and breakfast establishments would be allowed by special permit in historic structures in residential zones."
But a host of neighbors are unhappy about the proposal and made their feelings known at the HDC meeting.
Art Schoeller, president of the Greens Farms Association, said the 100 members of the association are concerned about "creeping commercialization" in their neighborhood. "These are transition areas. In essence, residential zones that abut commercial zones are fair game ... This residential neighborhood is already under intense commercialization pressure," he said.
Turkey Hill South resident Susan Teicher said a home is supposed to be a safe haven and "the idea of having a bed and breakfast without the owner living there is a very scary notion."
Lori Tansley, a resident of Turkey Hill South, said she has three young children and would worry about their safety with a revolving door of strangers coming to stay at a nearby B&B.
Sharon Sullivan said her concern is about traffic conditions. She said Turkey Hill South has a sign warning of a dangerous curve and there is heavy traffic traveling from the Post Road to the Greens Farms train station. It's a dangerous place to pull out of driveways. "There's not a lot of lighting. There's no sidewalks. Add that to people unfamiliar with the neighborhood," she said.
Sullivan said the immediate neighbors are the ones directly affected, but if the proposed amendment is approved, all of Westport will feel the impact.
HDC Chairman Francis "Randy" Henkels agreed that the text amendment was conceived around this specific application, but it would have broader implications for the rest of town.
"I think it's an over-reach of 32-18," said HDC member Bob Weingarten. He said 32-18 was created for low-impact activities "and this is high impact." But 32-18 was also created to preserve the town's historic homes and Henkels said the loss of the house would be a loss to the neighborhood. If the existing house is razed a much larger house could be built in its place, he said.
HDC member Grayson Braun suggested that one of the purviews of the HDC is to preserve the integrity of neighborhoods as much as saving houses. "That is something we need to take into consideration ... It's not like we have this huge under-served market for inns."
Brian Stern of Westport said, "Historic homes in Westport should be persevered, and lived in by families with income to support their upkeep, and be part of the Westport community." But he is against the B&B and called the proposal a "flawed business model."
"What's been proposed sounds like a last resort to save this house from the wrecking ball," said Jeff Strauss of 21 Turkey Hill South. He said the B&B proposal should be the first resort, "not the last resort. Where are all the other resorts?"
John Suggs, a member of the RTM, said his constituents don't want a B&B in their neighborhood. "Nor do I," he said. "We want you to preserve our neighborhood."
The Wilcoxes did not return calls but one person did speak out in favor of their proposal at the HDC meeting. "I think it would bring great charm to our town and it's something that's lacking. It would bring charm and revenue and it's much needed," said Kate Davis of Westport.