By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — Though public input appeared to favor overturning the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recent rezoning of Saugatuck, members of the Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday voted to keep the sweeping changes in place.
After a nearly five-hour meeting, RTM members voted 33-1, with one abstention, to uphold a text amendment passed last month by the P&Z.
The amendment could allow redevelopment of the waterfront neighborhood with the Hamlet at Saugatuck project, proposed by ROAN Ventures. It’s a mixed-use development that, as currently envisioned, would include restaurants, retail space, residential units, a marina, a hotel and more.
The plans still would need site plan approval from the P&Z to move forward.
The RTM had the power to overturn the zoning changes with a two-thirds vote. The recent hearings by committees and full RTM were spurred by a petition from the Saugatuck Sensible Zoning Committee, signed by more than 20 voters, asking the RTM to review the P&Z’s action.
But the ensuing public opposition expressed in letters and at public hearings ultimately did not translate into votes by RTM members.
“The majority of my District 3 constituents made it clear to me that they are against this proposal,” said Don O’Day, a District 3 member. “But my job is to do more than read and respond to emails. It’s to make the best decision I can make, with the facts as I know them.”
He asked if the P&Z would have made the same decision without the looming threat of a “new and overbearing 8-30g development” with affordable housing. He said no.
“Will there be an 8-30g in the absence of the Hamlet?” O’Day asked. “Yes. Without question.”
The state’s affordable housing law — which allows developers to bypass the usual approval process in towns not meeting its threshold of affordable housing stock — appears to be living rent-free in many minds.
Perhaps with good reason. The town’s state-granted moratorium on such developments expires the first week of March. A wave of 8-30g applications is expected once that wall is breached.
“If ROAN doesn’t do it, the parcels will be sold to somebody else,” said Ellen Lautenberg, District 7.
“This is not a stake in the heart of the vampire for 8-30g in Saugatuck,” Peter Gold, District 5, said of RTM’s impending signoff on the rezoning.
He noted that Felix Charney, the developer who for two decades has sought to build a large apartment complex at the end of the Hiawatha Lane Extension in Saugatuck, also owns the Mystic Market parcel (which decades ago was the second home to The Arrow restaurant).
The only remaining obstacle to Charney’s Hiawatha project is a lawsuit brought by Save Old Saugatuck, a group of neighbors in the modest, middle-class neighborhood. It challenges the project of 157 apartments, with affordable units, contending that many parcels in the development were deed-restricted decades ago as single-family.
“The last of the affordable neighborhoods are where they attack,” Louis Mall, District 2, said of developers using the legislation for leverage. “And if we as a town don’t address this problem with 8-30g, we’re going to continue the devastation of neighborhoods, and it’s incumbent on us to find a solution.”
Seth Braunstein, District 6, voted to uphold the changes, but acknowledged the attention the petitioners brought to the issues.
“There will be an opportunity for people to continue to hold feet to fire on this,” he said. “And the engagement here truly has been remarkable. Whether it’s the petitioners themselves, who have tried to coalesce interest, or the public.”
Sal Liccione, District 9, was the sole vote for overturning the changes.
Matthew Mandell District 1, again abstained because questions had been raised about his role as executive director of Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, which has worked with the Hamlet team, a possible appearance of conflict of interest.
The next step for the Hamlet at Saugatuck is to apply for site plan/special permit. A ROAN representative said the development team plans to start work on that Wednesday.
Thane Grauel, executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Reach him at email@example.com. Learn more about us here.