Plans to move the historic Kemper Gunn House to a new downtown site to make way for the Bedford Square project almost hit the wall at a marathon Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Thursday night.
By narrow votes that almost did not take place, the P&Z approved town plan and zoning map changes, respectively, in order to accommodate the structure's move from Church Lane to the Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street.
At a sometimes-confusing session that lasted to midnight, the commission finally gave the OK to alter an area in the southern corner of the parking lot, although two members abstained in each 4-1-2 vote
P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens at one point proposed leaving open the panel's review of the application for another week until town officials could decide who specifically is managing the project.
"I have a concern with the Gunn House and the concern is there doesn't seem to be one person that is focusing on this project within the Westport town government," he said.
"We don't have one champion or one key person who is doing due diligence or putting focus on this," he said, having had a discussion about it earlier in the day with First Selectman Jim Marpe.
"We're going through this process, but there's really no one there to grab a hold of it, stand at that podium and say they've looked at this ... My thought process is I would like to see it left open for tonight," he said, describing it as an involved process with numerous components that include land use, economics and the future of downtown.
Karen Johnson, a representative of Kemper Gunn LLC, as well as Bedford Square Associates, however, implored the commission to approve the requests for changes on the Town Plan of Conservation and Development map and the zoning map, arguing that the delay would have a negative ripple effect on both projects.
"My only interest is trying to move this process forward," she said. "In the context of what your concerns are, maybe there's no harm in moving forward with this."
"You only change the zoning designation for land the town of Westport still owns and controls," Johnson added, noting that a delay in acting on the maps would push back the scheduled April 24 site plan hearing.
"It's a very serious thing to change the POCD," Stephens said, noting it "could open up the door to even different development there if this whole thing doesn't go forward."
In a 3-2-2 vote, however, the commission voted to close discussion on the application, with Stephens and Commissioner Alfred Gatrix opposed, and Commissioners Catherine Walsh and Jack Whittle abstaining.
During its work session, Stephens then chose to reorder agenda items, putting the votes on the maps at the end. When it didn't come up until 11:05, he suggested closing the meeting without addressing it.
Vice Chairman Jack Whittle accused him of using a "pocket veto" to delay the votes, which Stephens denied. The commission then voted to decide on the matter. Read Full Article
Then, nearly an hour of sometimes tense and confusing discussion followed. At one point it was noted that the map the P&Z was voting on didn't clearly delineate the proposed location for the house. When Johnson -- one of three remaining members of the public in the Town Hall auditorium -- tried to come forward with a copy, Stephens yelled at her to sit down.
During the earlier discussion Matthew Mandell, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1, stepped forward in response to Stephens' concerns to say he was the unofficial point person on the Kemper Gunn House project.
"You're right, there is no official town individual who is shepherding this," he said. "There is an unofficial town rep shepherding this. It is me."
"It's never been official, "Mandell said, but explained he continues to shares updates with Marpe and serves in that role.
"Mr. Mandell, I totally appreciate you taking possession of this, but as of this afternoon the first selectman himself said there's no single person," Stephens said.
"We're working with an agreement that was never signed or made official," Stephens said.
"I need the feeling that the town understands what they're getting into, what they're doing," he said.
Zoning Director Larry Bradley explained that two separate applications were necessary for this process. The first changed the POCD land-use map from Parking to General Business/Business Center. After that change was made, the commission was then able to re-zone the area from Residential A to Business Center District/Historic (BCD/H).
"You're only changing that portion of the lot," Bradley said, noting that it is approximately 6,900 square feet in size.
"I don't think we've taken a hard enough look at it," Commissioner Catherine Walsh said of the project. In the end, Walsh was the sole vote against the changes.
"I've never been crazy about it," she said, "and I would really hate to see Elm Street becoming a depository for old houses."
"I don't understand the need to ramrod this through so quick, with so many questions going on," Stephens said. "I'm a bit disappointed in the commission members ... I really don't get what the rush is on this."
"I don't think it's committing the town to accept the entirety of this project," Whittle said.
"We approved the idea to move the house," said Commissioner Andra Vebell. "How can we approve the move and not approve the zoning to make that happen? The lease and all that, that's down the road, but that's not our realm, and that shouldn't be influencing our decision right now."
Commissioner David Lessing agreed. Regarding Stephens' concern, he said, "Does anyone have any doubt that the first selectman will appoint someone?"