Woog's World: Mark Twain may have had P&Z's ear in open-space debate
Updated 4:54 pm, Friday, March 27, 2015
Last week, the Planning and Zoning Commission decisively proposed retaining Baron's South as open space.
The Representative Town Meeting can still bring a previously proposed use for the 22-acre property -- a senior housing facility -- back. Two-thirds of the legislative body's 36 members could vote to overturn the P&Z decision.
But four of the six commissioners have made their intentions clear: Even a scaled-down, 3.3-acre plan for 165 rental units -- 60 percent of them "affordable" -- was too much. They want the property -- located between South Compo Road and Imperial Avenue -- to remain undeveloped.
No one quoted Mark Twain, but his advice from over a century ago was clear: "Buy land. They're not making any more of it."
Especially in land-starved Westport.
Once upon a time, our town was filled with open land. The Bankside Farmers snagged some prime real estate in Green's Farms. (If they'd held on to it, their heirs would now own some of Westport's most coveted property.) Gradually, the rest of the town filled in: Saugatuck. Coleytown (or "Coleyville," as it was first called). The area we now call downtown.
As recently as the 1970s, though, vacant lots dotted the Post Road. Our shopping centers may look like they've been there forever, but the newest ones were built right around at the same time as the first personal computers.
If you don't count the few blight houses recently demolished at the crest of Post Road West -- and rumors swirl that they're next in line for proposed multi-family housing -- just about the only other open space on U.S. 1 is Winslow Park.
But it's big. Comprising 32 acres, Henry Richard Winslow -- a state representative and senator -- built his grand "Compo House" estate there in 1853. It included guest houses, servants' and gardeners' quarters, and gorgeous gardens. Until his death in 1861, it was the site of a glorious 4th of July fireworks display.
The mansion became a sanitarium -- first handsome, then shabby, finally abandoned. The Winslows -- who owned the land across the Post Road, too -- sold both properties in the 1950s to Baron Walter von Langendorff, an Austrian-born chemist who founded Evyan Perfumes. Westporters called the properties "the baron's property" and "baron's south," until the former was renamed Winslow Park.
It's astonishing that Westport has two very large pieces of town-owned land so close to downtown. It's also interesting that many Westporters don't really think of them as "downtown parks." Their proximity to Main Street becomes clear only through aerial photos.
The route from Compo House to Winslow Park tells a lot about Westport's relationship with open space. A proposal to build a shopping mall -- anchored by B. Altman -- on what is now Winslow Park was defeated in the 1960s. The property was zoned for business. Negotiations between the baron and town officials dragged on for over a decade.
In 1979, according to Woody Klein's history of Westport, the baron was angered by the town's offer of just $2.38 million for the land. Rumors circulated that he planned to build a perfume museum and chemical research lab for fragrances.
In 1983 -- four years after the baron died -- the RTM voted to condemn the (Winslow Park) land. A townwide referendum backed the plan. The purchase price by the town was $9.42 million. More than a decade later, it was considered as a new home for the Westport YMCA. But town officials -- including RTM members -- recommended that Winslow Park remain open space.
Perhaps they were mindful of what almost happened on South Compo Road. Like the land surrounding the old Compo House, Longshore by the late 1950s was a private country club that had fallen on hard times.
In early 1960, the 169-acre property -- including a golf course, tennis courts, pools, marina, inn/restaurant and play areas -- came up for sale.
The typical Westport response -- build houses! -- was strongly considered. But First Selectman Herb Baldwin and his kitchen cabinet acted quickly. In just 18 days they put together a $1.9 million package -- then earned approval from the Board of Finance and (unanimously) the RTM.
On May 28, 1960, Longshore Club Park opened to the public. Today it is a true town jewel. Few Westporters realize what would have taken its place, had town officials not responded speedily and decisively. Plans had already been drawn for a housing development, with nearly 200 homes.
There is not much open, undeveloped space left in town. Besides Winslow Park, Baron's South, Longshore, our beaches and schools, it's hard to think of any vast acres of open land. (Okay: the private Fairfield County Hunt Club. And Kowalsky's property, in Green's Farms.)
Occasionally, a tiny parcel -- like Allen's Clam House ----becomes available, and the town turns it into a small park.
But Mark Twain was right. And so was the baron, for keeping his land free of development for as long as he did.