P&Z turns downs re-zoning proposal for Church Lane
In a blow to the plans of a prominent Westport-based development group, the Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday night rejected a proposal to re-zone a prime downtown property at 35 Church Lane.
The owners of the site, Bedford Square Associates, had sought a map amendment to zoning regulations to change the zone designation for 35 Church Lane from Restricted Office-Retail District 2 to Business Center District to facilitate its redevelopment as part of a new mixed-use complex that would include the adjacent site of the Westport Weston Family Y.
But P&Z commissioners, in denying the proposal by a 5-2 vote, argued that Bedford Square had not provided sufficient evidence that the re-zoning would produce development consistent with the goals of the town's 2007 Plan of Conservation and Development.
"I felt that the presentation in support of the map amendment didn't give me any real rationale for saying, `OK, now's the time to change the map,'" said commissioner David Press. "I didn't get a connection that if you do `X,' you get `Y.' "
The re-zoning proposal also faced opposition because it apparently does not conform with town zoning regulations. Those rules stipulate that a BCD site must be located on one of the town's arterial thoroughfares, which are listed in the town plan. Church Lane and Elm Street, which also borders the Bedford Square property, do not have the arterial designation.
"I'm not fond of changing this to BCD," said P&Z Vice Chairman Ellie Lowenstein. "I'm not sure if you really can legally."
Re-zoning the property to the BCD would have allowed approximately 10,000 square feet of additional building coverage and almost 20,000 square feet of floor area at the half-acre property, increases that were intended to pave the way for residential development on the site, according to Bedford Square's partners. The property's two existing buildings, which house offices, have a combined floor area that totals about 10,000 square feet.
Many residents have leveled criticism at Bedford Square's proposal in recent weeks, contending that re-zoning could lead to overdevelopment of the town center. Others have maligned the development consortium's plan to remove the property's two existing buildings, one of which is an 1890 Queen Anne Victorian house listed on the town's Historic Resources Inventory. The teardown of those buildings, however, could be approved without re-zoning the site.
The demise of Bedford Square's proposed map amendment follows another divisive public debate that surfaced in September when the P&Z proposed a text amendment that would have created a "theater overlay zone" to facilitate development of a downtown cinema. But P&Z members quickly moved to withdraw the amendment after some of its provisions -- allowing a structure up to 60 feet tall, for instance -- attracted vehement opposition from some residents.
The P&Z may be reluctant to pursue similar downtown development initiatives in the near future. In the Nov. 8 town election, Republicans won a new majority on the commission. The four winning GOP candidates were also endorsed by the minority political party, Save Westport Now, a group that opposed both Bedford Square's map amendment and the proposed theater overlay zone.
The public could not comment Thursday on the map amendment because the P&Z conducted the final stage of its review of the plan in a work session.
Despite the P&Z's rejection of Bedford Square's re-zoning proposal, the town's zoning regulations still allow the concept of a mixed-use complex on Church Lane. Bedford Square's planned redevelopment of the current site of the Y anchors that project. The development group has a contract with the Y to assume ownership of the community center's current location when the Y relocates to a new center at Camp Mahackeno.
Lathrop asserted that the map amendment would have benefited Church Lane by creating more zoning uniformity on the street.
"I'm certainly not for larger buildings, but I am for more consistency," he said. "Without it, this whole street won't be anything."