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Friday, April 27 News

Dome drama: Questions about Kemper-Gunn height delay P&Z vote

A lengthy debate over whether a feature of the historic Kemper-Gunn House is a "dome" or just a decorative element consistent with Queen Anne-style homes prompted the Planning and Zoning Commission to delay a vote on the house's relocation Thursday night.

That vote was for the approval of a special permit and site plan to allow relocation of the structure from its current location on Church Lane to a spot in the town-owned Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street.

But a question was raised over whether the "dome" feature would increase the height of the structure in its new location to render it non-compliant with zoning regulations. Plans call for the house to be moved from a flat lot to a sloping site, which apparently increases the overall height.

The town's zoning regulations restrict the height of a "principal building or other structure to no more than three stories or 40 feet."

At one point in the debate, Dewey Loselle, a member of the recently established Kemper-Gunn House Advisory Group and chairman of the Downtown Steering Committee, said that "tonight we are at a point" in the relocation process "where common sense needs to prevail."

But Chip Stephens, the P&Z chairman, said, "We all like the idea" of relocating the house, "but it's more than common sense."

"There are regulations and laws," Stephens added. "We have to go by what we are allowed to do."

Laurence Bradley, the P&Z director, first raised a question about the height, according to Karen Johnson, who represents the Kemper-Gunn developers -- comprising prinicipals from Bedford Square Associates, the group developing the Church Lane property as part of its multi-use complex on the Westport Weston Family Y property.

As a result, supplemental exhibits were prepared depicting the "highest mid-points of the peaks" on the house.

That information was given to Bradley shortly before Thursday's meeting. "We are in compliance with the highest mid-point," Johnson said.

Bradley said that if the house were being moved to a flat lot "it would comply," but the town-owned Baldwin parking lot "is a sloping lot," which means the mid-point is higher. "Now we have to see if it complies," he said.

If not, the issue might have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a waiver of the height regulation, he added.

Bradley said domes usually sit on top of a roof structure, but the one on the Kemper-Gunn House is "independent" and "unique."

"I imagine you will need time to review this," Jack Whittle, the P&Z vice chairman, said to Bradley.

But Morley Boyd, chairman of the Westport Historic District Commission and a specialist in historic preservation and architectural history, said the feature in question is not a dome.

"It's just a decorative element consistent with the Queen Anne style.," he told P&Z members.

Bradley said the commission can determine if the element is "an incidental architectural feature or exempt it as a dome." He added: "You can rewrite a regulation or send it to the ZBA."

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"I'm not comfortable," said Stephens. "Some of this information was just supplied to us today. I would like to see (P&Z) staff review it."

He said is "concerned with setting some precedent."

At that point, he suggested delaying any decision on the request for one week. But David Waldman, one of the Bedford Square partners, took to the podium to attempt to get Stephens to reconsider. "I don't want you to think we are pressuring you," Waldman said.

But Stephens asked for a vote and commission members unanimously agreed to delay action for a week.

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

The next P&Z hearing is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 1, in Tonw Hall.