RTM digs West Parish Meeting House

Allen Raymond, the 86-year-old municipal historian for Westport, got up to the podium in Town Hall at the Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday and reflected on the many years he spent in Westport. He's raised his kids already and done much, but there was another thing he wanted to see happen in his lifetime.

He urged the RTM to vote in favor of designating the former site of the West Parish Meeting House Historic Property on the northeastern corner of the Sherwood Island Connector and Greens Farm Road as a state archeological preserve.

The building is long gone -- burned to the ground by the British during the Revolutionary War -- but the 5.9 acre empty field contains artifacts dating back to when the site was the seat of government and religion in the time before Westport.

"I'm about ready to pack it in, but I'm not going to pack it in until this is passed," said Raymond.

The crowd couldn't resist applauding even though they were told earlier to refrain from doing so.

An hour after he spoke, Raymond got his wish.

The RTM approved the designation 34-2, with two abstentions. With approval by the Board of Selectman and the RTM, the Historic District Commission (HDC) will prepare a nomination for the State Historic Preservation Office. If approved, the property will be given another level of protection and the possibility of obtaining state and federal funding. The property was already designated as a local historic landmark by the HDC.

More than a dozen people, ranging from historians to neighbors of the property, spoke in support of designating the site as an archeological preserve.

To Art Schoeller, president of the Green's Farms Association neighborhood group, state recognition of the site has been a long time coming.

"This issue... is Westport's version of the movie Groundhog Day," said Schoeller. "We keep coming back to this property and this topic time and again and again and again."

Earlier that night, Historic District Commission chairman Maggie Feczko explained the history of the site and attempts at development, with a PowerPoint presentation.

In 1958, the state purchased the land, and the town bought it in 1971 for $60,000. The property was considered as a potential location for a trash transfer station, a town garage, a recycling plant and fire headquarters. The idea of leaving it as open space was also considered. This year, the space was considered for bus parking and a new firehouse.

Nearly everyone in support of the designation spoke of the rich history of the site, which includes prehistoric activity revealed in an archeological excavation and the untimely destruction of the meeting house in 1779.

One point of focus was just how important the site was to the residents of West Parish. Meetings were held there, as were church services, and the building was the center of the community. Dorothy Curran made parallels to the farming community in the past and the present.

"A lot of people who move to ... Westport kind of assume that ... there wasn't much history in 1835 before Westport was formed and that, we all know, is certainly not the case," she said.

Curran had been following the stories about the USS New York, and noted how the fact that it had been made from the steel of the World Trade Center got her thinking. To her, the devastation on 9/11 must have felt like what the people of West Parish felt when their meeting house was destroyed, and she'd like to have the destructive actions on the site never forgotten.

"It occurred to me that, really, the [West Parish] site, for people that lived [at the time], that was their World Trade Center," said Curran.

When the public was done with their comments, Stephen Rubin, District 7, was the first RTM member to speak.

"This issue should probably go down in our records as the leader of all slam dunks," said Rubin. "Clearly, on the merits alone, it should be passed unanimously."

The RTM approval initially proved to not be a "slam dunk."

Dick Lowenstein, District 6, motioned to postpone the vote so they could reconsider how much of the land they wanted to be designated as a state archeological preserve.

"I have no thoughts that this area should be developed," he said. "What I am concerned is that we are giving to the state certain rights that add nothing more than taking away our home rule. Now, in terms of protection to this property, right now you will have the ...six levels of protection [through various town boards]."

He added, "I am not saying no, but I am saying go slow."

His comments sparked a round of lively debate, and several members of the public who spoke in support of the designation got up to the podium to speak again. Lowenstein's motion eventually failed 20 votes to 14.

Still, much to the delight of those who spoke in support of the designation, the RTM gave its approval in the end.

Morley Boyd, founder of the Westport Preservation Alliance, said such an approval bodes well for the future.

"As Westport approaches its 300th anniversary, I would like to suggest that it's not just time to turn the page," he said. "It's time to write a new chapter and choose to be the careful stewards our forebears were -- and that we know we can be."