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Tuesday, September 19 News

Woog’s World / The art of grandfathered zoning in Westport

Should a Tesla service center be permitted to move into the vacant Saugatuck Avenue space once occupied by a convenience store, fitness center, AAA office and post office branch?

That was a question posed to the Planning and Zoning Commission. This is not a Tesla dealership — those are outlawed in Connecticut, for regulatory reasons I can’t quite figure out — but rather a place where Teslas are serviced. I assume cars without an internal combustion engine would not require as much service as those that do, but as shown by the legal example above, I am not that swift when it comes to motor vehicles.

Fun fact: With 116 Teslas registered here, Westport has the highest per capita ownership in the state.

Opinion was divided on the merits of Tesla’s request — and not along NIMBY lines. Some neighbors opposed the service center idea, citing traffic concerns (though a service center would generate far fewer trips than, say, a convenience store, fitness center, AAA office or post office branch).

Others cited zoning. The shopping plaza on narrow, heavily trafficked Saugatuck Avenue is not zoned for a “car dealership” (it’s not clear under what rules a service center falls). Under this line of reasoning, a zoning change could set an unwanted precedent for further changes.

Some neighbors welcome Tesla. They cite the low number of vehicles that would be serviced, and (a key point) the fact that Teslas are silent. These folks also note that the owners of the recently renovated shopping center will ultimately fill their building with something, and there are plenty of permitted uses that generate tons of traffic.

The controversy highlights an important fact: Zoning affects every aspect of Westport life. Right now, car dealerships — which once thrived on Riverside Avenue, and next to the train station — are limited to a narrow stretch of Post Road East.

Why can’t Tesla build its service center there, some wondered. After all, the newest Post Road dealer — Maserati — has brought a bit of cachet to the area. Of course, residents of Greens Farms, who watch test drivers race through their neighborhood every day, might wish to see a Mini Cooper dealer there instead.

Zoning is also the reason the major fast food restaurant in town — McDonald’s — is located where it is. It took over another fast food joint, Roy Rogers, which itself replaced the very local and much-loved Big Top. But that’s a story for a different day.

We once had Arby’s, which closed after owners noticed not one human being had eaten there since it opened (previous tenants at that site: Burger King and Carrols). When Arby’s closed — taking its never-used cooking equipment and furniture — Starbucks moved in. They coveted that space because in their previous location 10 yards away, there was virtually no parking and no drive-through.

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Now they’ve got their drive-through, and virtually no parking. Because Starbucks is apparently a struggling, strapped-for-cash operation, they invested in only one espresso machine. As a result, the drive-through line never moves, causing backups all the way to the Post Road. Sharp Westporters have figured out it’s quicker to wait inside. So they park wherever they can — often in the grassy median separating Starburcks from (surprise!) the Maserati dealer.

Zoning — fast food or otherwise — has not always been so restrictive. That’s the reason why, all around town, we enjoy relics like Christie’s on Cross Highway and the Country Store on Wilton Road. They’re popular. They’re convenient. And next to both, there are … service stations.

Go figure.

Grandfathered zoning is also why, for the past 20 years, Elvira’s has thrived as a combination deli/community center. Old Mill residents — and countless beachgoers, bikers, joggers and nearby construction workers — love it, particularly when they recall the filthy, dark grocery store it replaced.

But Elvira’s has been on the market for a while. The owners are retiring. Rumors abound that new owners might tear it down, and built a residence. If that happens, there would never be another deli in the heart of that neighborhood.

Just like there will never be another restaurant across the street. Positano’s — and, before it the Beach House, Café de la Plage, Leo Williams’ Old Mill Restaurant and Joe’s — sometimes struggled, sometimes flourished.

Several years ago, Positano’s asked the town to permit outdoor seating. A couple of neighbors complained. The request was denied. Owners cited that as one reason they closed on Hillspoint Road, and reopened next to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Now the restaurant is for sale. Its grandfather clause has lapsed. The new owner will presumably demolish it, and build a home there.

Perhaps he or she will own the town’s 117th Tesla.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com

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