Westport bridge project gets final OK from zoning commission

WESTPORT — The Kings Highway North Bridge replacement project got its final approval Thursday from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

In January, the Representative Town Meeting approved $2.47 million to replace the bridge. The project is eligible for funding under the state local bridge program, which allows a 50 percent reimbursement.

“Back in 2016 the Connecticut DOT decided to go out for the first time in about 20 years and do a screening for all the bridges in the state that are under 20 feet,” Director of Public Works Pete Ratkiewich said. “When they came to this bridge they found the bridge was in very poor condition.”

Since then a 4-ton weight limit has been imposed on the bridge due to deterioration. The current limit prohibits school buses, fire trucks and plow trucks from crossing.

Ratkiewich noted after conversations with the Historic District Commission, the original proposed 42-inch parapets would be lowered.

“Mainly the bridge would be 36 inches on either side, which also cut costs,” he said. “We view that as a minimal change.”

The project is estimated to start in June and the road over the bridge will be temporarily closed during construction. Residents will be notified of the closure and additional detour routes in news releases.

In other business, the commission gave cautious approval to review of a text amendment that would allow retail use on the second floor of buildings on Main Street.

“We, as a landlord, want to have as much flexibility, obviously within certain parameters, to allow success,” Ryan McClay, of Forstone Capital, said at Thursday’s meeting. “To have a restriction on the second floor to prohibit uses that tenants want is difficult to deal with.”

Traditional retail is currently the only commercial use not allowed on the second floor. Similar proposals have come before the commission in past years but failed.

He surmised there were four main reasons for previous denials — parking, traffic, narrow benefits and a fear of prohibiting mixed-use development. However, McClay said most retail users now would have low parking requirements.

Commissioner Cathy Walsh said she was partially open to the proposal, but wanted more information.

“My concerns really revolve around what the overall effect is going to be in the area,” she said, adding she wants to see from the town’s assessor how the grand list could be impacted.

Commissioner Chip Stephens said he was hesitant to push for more retail downtown.

“I would like to see some new ideas and fresh ideas,” Stephens said, suggesting opportunities like housing or even a movie theater.

Commissioners were generally supportive of the proposal, but pushed for ADA compliance in any building that falls under a potential text amendment.

McClay noted tenants have been priced out in recent years and the second floor provides an opportunity to attract retail businesses. While there are not many two-story buildings downtown, other businesses could benefit from the change.

“What we’ve seen, speaking for this property specifically, is users are out there,” McClay said. “They just want a smaller place and they don’t want to pay the premium.”