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Westporters Split on Church Lane Zone Change

WESTPORT, Conn. – When everyone before him said no to a proposed zoning change to a downtown property, Westport resident Howard Bass stepped up to the podium at the Town Hall auditorium Thursday night and urged the Planning and Zoning Commission to approve it.

The proposal, submitted by the developmental group Bedford Square Associates, seeks to have the property rezoned at 35 Church Lane, which the group owns. If the change were approved, it would allow developers to build a larger building on the site.

"This has turned into a public exaggeration," Bass, a 15-year resident, said in response to those who spoke before him. Bass is reportedly the brother-in-law of Westport developer David Waldman, one of the Bedford Square partners. "You heard this will make us lose everything — you've got to be kidding. This would enable the town to have a vision for what that property can be. I urge that you vote yes to this on behalf of Westport and the future."

Currently, the property at 35 Church Lane falls under the Restricted Office-Retail District 2 zone. The proposal seeks to have the property rezoned to the Business Center District. This change would increase the maximum allowable building coverage from 4,964 square feet to 14,894 square feet.

Although the proposal is strictly for a zone change and not a specific project, attorney Tom Cody said the rezoning would allow Bedford Square Associates to move forward with plans for a mixed-use development, likely retail and restaurant, on the site. These plans, however, threaten the 1890 Queen Anne-style home, one of two structures that currently sits on the property.

"There are significant problems with the existing buildings," Cody said. "They're functionally obsolete and are not suitable for adaptive reuse."

Mark Herter of Centerbrook Architects backed up Cody's claim. Not only is the house not "practical" for restaurant or retail use, it would require extensive work to bring the home up to current fire and handicap accessibility codes, he said.

Gloria Ginter, a 26-year Westport resident, told the commission that the proposed zone change would hurt the town's character.

"Not only are most Westporters against this, so are out-of-towners who shop in our stores and add to our tax revenue," said Ginter, who recently surveyed and had people on Main Street sign a petition. "Do you want to lose this? One of our best, most precious qualities is that we're a small, quaint town. If lose this, we lose everything."

Like Ginter, resident Fran Southworth urged the commission to ax the proposal because, if approved, it would serve as an invitation to other developers.

"It's not a matter of just this half-acre lot. It's a matter of a zone change another developer, and another will ask for," she said. "If we do it this once, the next guy will be waiting in line."

The commission will continue its hearing on this proposal during its Nov. 3 meeting.

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