Verdict: New house denied in Greens Farms

WESTPORT — Just over 15 minutes, that’s how long the Historic District Commission took to unanimously approve a verdict of denial for construction of a new house on a historic property in Greens Farms.

“I think this is a precedent-setting decision,” Historic District Commission Chairman Randy Henkels said after the special meeting of the HDC on Jan. 25 that, although short, followed over three months of debate that pitted the HDC, neighbors of the property and town historic preservation advocates against a group of developers hoping to build a house on a parcel of land across from Greens Farms School.

Residents often express angst over the construction of new, McMansion-style homes on the town’s last remaining open parcels of land, but often, there’s nothing residents can do to stop the development. In the case of 26 Morningside Drive, there was — for now.

The HDC needs to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness for new construction on historic properties in town. The two adjacent lots at 20 and 26 Morningside Drive S. are together designated a Local Historic District,” and thus require HDC approval for any building changes to the property.

In addition to serving in a regulatory capacity, the HDC serves an “advisory responsibility to other town agencies,” as its website states, and often defers to larger and seemingly more powerful elected commissions, such as the Planning and Zoning Commission, to stand up to developers on construction projects.

The HDC usually opines on the historic appropriateness of new window shutters and not the fate of developers’ whole projects, which is why the HDC’s battle to deny approval for construction of a new house on 26 Morningside Drive resembled that of David and Goliath.

Despite developer pressure to approve the project, and the developer’s likely legal challenge to the HDC’s decision, the HDC was motivated to deny the project, which struck a chord with the commission.

For 45 years, the two adjoining lots were owned by Walter and Naiad Einsel, prominent artists and what town historic preservation advocate Morley Boyd called, “the face of the Westport artist colony.”

In 2007, Naiad Einsel, a historic preservation advocate, had her mid-19th-century Italianate farmhouse on 20 Morningside Drive and the adjoining property at 26 Morningside Drive, which contained the then late Walter’s artist studio, designated a Local Historic District.

Naiad Einsel died in 2016, and the developer Emil Fish bought the two adjoining lots, together one property, for $1.5 million, hoping to build a home on the 26 Morningside lot.

The case for a Certificate of Appropriateness for a new house on the property first came before the commission in November, and Wednesday night, the Henkels read aloud the HDC’s denial to a room of projects managers and lawyers.

“The HDC finds that the basic nature of the district is that of a rural environment. The district remains as a remnant of the historically agrarian character of the Greens Farms area of Westport,” Henkels said, reading from the commission’s decision, which was written by Henkels and Carol Leahy, HDC coordinator and staff administrator, with input from Westport’s town attorneys.

“The proposed new house is so large and located so close to the studio, that it overwhelms the studio and eliminates the pastoral meadow to such an extent that it would contradict the original purpose of the district and its integrity as a historic district would be lost,” Henkels continued.

Historic preservation advocate Boyd attended the special meeting and said he was pleased with the commission’s decision.

“Its analysis is on solid footing and its opinion took into account the totality of the site,” Boyd said.

The developer’s project managers and lawyers declined to provide comment on the decision. However, at the beginning of the meeting, Frederic Ury, one of the project’s attorneys, hinted at legal action to come saying, “This is just the beginning. Make no mistake about it.”

svaughan@; @SophieCVaughan1