WESTPORT — When Chip Stephens came home from college one summer in the late 1970s, he was shocked and appalled to see an enormous building close to the banks of the Saugatuck River.

“I came back to that Wright Street building and I was like, ‘Where in the hell did that come from?’” said Stephens, speaking about 8-10 Wright St., which towers over the abutting properties. “It doesn’t look like anything else in Westport.”

A Westport resident since he was 4, Stephens, who attended Bedford Elementary School, Bedford Junior High School and won a wrestling state championship at Staples High School, was inspired to do what he could to stop over- development of the town.

“It was just like ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ So I started following land use and everything else,” Stephens said.

Stephens was involved in saving Cockenoe Island from becoming the site of a nuclear power plant in the 1960s.

“The town luckily fought it and won,” Stephens said. “And they sold it back to the town — that’s why it’s town property now — but it came that close to being a nuclear power plant.”

The town zoning commission wasn’t proactive in deterring such development until the 1980s, according to Stephens.

“As I grew up, I saw the space fill in more and more,” he said. “There was a lot more open space back then.”

Stephens, 62, is a graduate of the University of Maine, with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in virology. Upon graduation, he worked at a private clinical lab in Bridgeport and then moved on to the state Department of Public Health for two years before going into sales at a medical diagnostic company. He has been in medical sales management since.

A father of four — Sal, Charlie, Bryn and Dean — Stephens became more entrenched in the community, helping out on various teams. “I did a lot of coaching with the kids and everything, a lot of interaction with the town,” he said.

Since 2011, Stephens, a Republican, has served on the Planning & Zoning Commission, including positions as chair and vice-chair. In his six years on the commission, he is most proud of preserving open space.

“Absolutely, positively, saving open space in the town,” Stephens said.

Specifically, he pointed to the arboretum by the nature center as a notable accomplishment and the Baron’s South property, which he called “the big battle.” If the area wasn’t designated as open space by the commission, a developer would have built a 165-unit affordable housing complex on the property, aimed at providing senior housing.

Anybody who’s witnessed a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, has seen and heard Stephens thunderous presence when confronting developers and applicants with, what he deems, less than stellar proposals. But that passion stems from Stephens’ deep affinity for preserving the town he loves.

“I do care a lot and what I like most about the commission is it’s a place where you can make a difference,” Stephens said. “There’s still a lot of Westport in Westport and you have to fight to try to keep somewhat of the character in town.”

@chrismmarquette; cmarquette@bcnnew.com