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Thursday, April 26 News

'Dome' debate settled, P&Z approves permit for Kemper-Gunn relocation

The Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday night approved a special permit and site plan to allow relocation of the historic Kemper-Gunn House from its Church Lane property to a spot in the town-owned Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street.

But that approval didn't come without much debate, over two meetings, whether a feature of the structure is a "dome" or just a decorative element consistent with Queen Anne-style homes. The move was approved by a 6-0 vote, with one abstention,

In the end, commission members agreed to grant the special permit, saying it was "an incidental architectural feature" that is compliant with zoning regulations.

"We are pleased `Domegate' is over," said developer David Waldman, a principal of Bedford Square Associates. The 19th-century house is being moved to make way for part of the Bedford Square multi-use project, which will be anchored on the site of the Westport Weston Family Y.

"The next step is to review and execute a lease with the town, get an 8-24 referral, and move the house," Waldman said following the P&Z's discussion of the permit. That should happen around August.

Prior to granting the permit debate among P&Z members continued over the structure's architectural features.

"As a commission, we have a very wide discretion on what is or is not an architectural feature," said commission member Alan Hodge.

"We have to be careful to make a decision that won't come back when we make future calls," cautioned P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens.

Larry Bradley, the town's planning and zoning administrator, was asked to define a dome, which he said is a structure that "sits on top of a roof." The structure on the Kemper-Gunn House is an element on the side of the main house.

Commission member David Lessing asked if the panel could approve the application without having to define what the structure is. "We can define it as undefinable," said commission member Andra Vebell.

Hodge said when he thinks of a dome he thinks of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. "That's a dome," he said.

Only two people -- both Representative Town Meeting members -- took to the podium to express their concern over the commission's delay in approving the permit for the house's relocation.

"Last week I was sympathetic to the decision not to make a decision," said RTM member Don Bergmann. "Nothing Bradley is saying is convincing or clear," he said of Bradley's attempts to define dome compared to an incidental architectural feature. Bergmann urged P&Z members to "make a decision" that night, adding that if he sounded annoyed, he was.

RTM member Matthew Mandell, a longtime supporter of relocating the Kemper-Gunn House and member of the recently formed Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group, went to the podium with a rendering of the historic home.

He said that if the permit were denied, "This house comes down and we get rid of this picture," which is hanging in the lobby of Town Hall.

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Before the P&Z's work session on the proposal, members were asked by Karen Johnson, who represents Kemper-Gunn LLC, comprising members of the Bedford Square development team, for a sense of the outcome of the anticipated vote. The members, at that point, seemed in agreement the special permit would be approved.

Some additional discussion on the matter took place during the work session, where P&Z members reached agreement that the structure is an "incidental architectural feature."

Last October, the RTM unanimously approved relocating the house which otherwise would have been demolished to make way for the Bedford Square complex.