Woog’s World / Westport’s quiet corner
The northeast corner of Westport is usually quiet. Sure, there’s Wakeman Town Farm, Christie’s Country Store, the Rolnick Observatory, Westport-Weston Health District, and the brush dump. There’s steady traffic on Cross Highway, Bayberry Lane and Sturges Highway. But ever since residents prevented construction of a Merritt Parkway Exit 43, way back in the 1930s, it’s been one of Westport’s less hectic neighborhoods.
There are even a couple of working farms on Bayberry Lane. One is the former Pabst estate, near Long Lots Road. The other is larger, and closer to Cross Highway. It’s been around for a century or so. Since 1946, it’s been owned and operated by the Belta family.
Besides supplying Stew Leonard’s, there’s both a farm stand and a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Dozens of families pay for the right to pick up a variety of produce each week. The crate varies, depending on the season. But whether it’s eggplant, cantaloupes, peppers, carrots, kale, lettuce, radishes, onions, beets, arugula, mint, basil, flowers or eggs, it’s good.
Belta’s Farm is one of the hidden treasures of Westport. (Literally. The entrance is narrow, but the 22 acres open up dramatically behind the driveway.)
But in the more than 70 years the family has worked the farm, the town has changed. So have they.
Patriarch Jimmy Belta died in 2012, at 88. He farmed to the end. But his descendants are not all farmers. And 22 acres of largely undeveloped property — one of the last such pieces of real estate in Westport — has long made developers salivate.
Over the years, many have approached the Beltas. Each time, they said no. The proposals were not in keeping with the family’s concept for the future of their farm, and the two homes they’ve occupied since just after World War II.
Now, however, they may have a plan. It would keep the farm, enhance the area — and provide them with enough money to settle the estate.
On July 26, the Beltas will present a proposal for a text amendment to Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission. They hope to create an Agricultural Heritage Overlay District. That would permit the construction of nine single-family homes, on one-acre lots — in addition to the two that already exist — while retaining eight acres for use as a working farm.
The Beltas would stay on the land. They could grow the same amount of produce as they currently sell at their stand. The new homes would be buffered by the natural beauty of the farm.
Some neighbors are pleased. They see it as a wise use of the land, and a way to maintain the farming tradition that defined this town for so many years.
Others are not. Because current zoning regulations permit two-acre lot subdivisions, they want less density. They’re OK with losing farmland, if that means there would be more space between homes.
Some Westporters oppose the text amendment as “spot zoning.” They say the only people who will benefit from it are the Beltas.
Others say that’s exactly the way text amendments are supposed to work. They address specific issues, with clear guidelines.
The P&Z is no stranger to contentious issues. They’re charged with maintaining the character of the town, while balancing the need for growth and change.
The Beltas’ farm is not the first place where a long-time, 20th-century pre-existing use clashes with new, 21st-century housing trends.
A couple of miles away, near a Merritt Parkway exit that area residents did not prevent, a developer bought 500 Main St. For decades that was the site of Daybreak Nurseries. Cars pulled in and out of the parking lot all day long. Trucks rumbled behind.
When the business was no longer viable, the property became an eyesore. Able Construction bought it, and proposed constructing a dozen homes. Some would be attached, some not. Some would be “affordable,” under state 8-30g regulations.
Many — though not all - neighbors howled. They warned of increased traffic at an already clogged and confused intersection. They worried that new residents with young children would add costs to the school system. They wanted — well, they never said exactly what they did want.
Because clearly, something would go on the site. The P&Z worked with Able to scale down the site. Now, nine homes will be built there. They’re age-restricted, so it’s doubtful there will be many (if any) young kids. There will be a few more cars in the area, but nothing like what it was in the Daybreak days.
Similarly, something will happen to the Belta property on Bayberry Lane. It won’t remain a 23-acre farm forever. The question is: Do we work with a family that’s worked the land for 70 years, or do we say, “Thanks, see ya?”
That too is an important question — and decision — about the character of Westport.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.