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Westport Debate Puts Spotlight on Theater Proposal

WESTPORT, Conn. – Although there was no drama to watch on any movie screen in Westport – there aren't any in town – there was plenty of entertainment at a packed Town Hall auditorium on Thursday night.

More than 125 people turned out to a Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing, where supporters and opponents clashed over a sweeping zone change proposal that could pave the way for 60-foot-tall theater buildings.

Chairman Ron Corwin presented the commission's controversial proposal to create a "theater overlay zone" to bring the movies back to Westport, which hasn't had a movie theater since the last one shut down in 1999.

"I can't speak for everyone on this commission, but I believe by creating a broadly worded zoning amendment we can best ensure not only the opening of movie theaters, but that they will be successful," said Corwin.

Supporters of the proposal, including Sandy Lefkowitz, director of the not-for-profit Westport Cinema Initiative, say the amendment to create a "theater overlay zone" would help new theaters succeed.

But opponents, led by former Planning and Zoning Commissioner Lisa Wexler, said they strongly disagree with the proposed regulation as "far too ambitious and unnecessary." Wexler said she supports the return of a movie theater but says the proposal would "ruin the quaint charm and character" of the town.

"I represent a voice for those in town who believe a movie theater will build community and bring back a resource that Westport is missing," Lefkowitz told the commission. "A subcommittee of the Planning and Zoning Commission has put forth the Theater Overlay Zone to try to help the town make it possible to bring a movie theater back into Westport.

"What we do not want is the polarization of our community over what is intended to strengthen Westport," Lefkowitz added.

But Wexler, who presented a petition with nearly 250 signatures against the proposal, said that's exactly what's happening. She urged the commission to withdraw its proposal.

"The commission has gone too far and overstepped its bounds in putting forth this application," Wexler said. "You should withdraw your application and allow one to be submitted by an appropriate applicant."

But 16-year-old Staples High School junior Doug Russ told the commission that teens in town just want their own local theater.

"Why is it that at 9 p.m., restaurants are closing and Westport looks like a ghost town?" Doug asked. "One big reason is because we don't have a movie theater. When our last cinema closed 12 years ago, the vitality of our town, part of what made it such a great place to live, was lost."

The public hearng will continue next Thursday at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

Do you support the Planning and Zoning Commission proposal for a "theater overlay zone," or prefer a different path to a new movie theater in Westport? Leave a comment below.

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