A rendering of the Hamlet at Saugatuck.
A rendering of the Hamlet at Saugatuck proposal. / ROAN Ventures

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Transit and Planning and Zoning committees of the Representative Town Meeting voted early Friday to recommend major changes to zoning in Saugatuck be kept in place.

The decision by the two committees came at the end of a seven-hour online meeting that began Thursday evening and continued into Friday. The panels’ recommendations are not binding on the full legislative body.

The full RTM will meet on the matter online at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The committees met in response to a petition from 31 citizens challenging a text amendment passed Dec. 12 by the Planning and Zoning Commission. If the full RTM were to approve the petition by a two-thirds vote, the rezoning amendment would be overturned.

The text amendment could enable developer ROAN Ventures to undertake sweeping redevelopment of the waterfront neighborhood with a project called “Hamlet at Saugatuck.”

More than 180 people were online Thursday. More than 200 attended an earlier meeting on the petition Tuesday.

The general public didn’t have a say during the deliberations until Thursday night. More than two dozen people spoke. Most expressed concerns or were against the changes. But many, including investors in the project, spoke in favor.

Alex Hyman, who urged the RTM to vote against rezoning Saugatuck, suggested it would further erode “the charm and the appeal” the town has lost over the years.

Alex Hyman, a fourth-generation Westporter, said he remembered the days when the town was home to an eclectic bunch of writers, artists and people from all income groups.

Old homes keep getting torn down and replaced with much larger ones, he noted.  

“The charm and the appeal that so many of us have loved and appreciated about this town, we’ve seen it gradually slip away,” Hyman said. “I ask that the RTM vote against it.”

Skip Lane, a commercial real estate broker, spoke in favor.

“I love Saugatuck, I don’t want to see an 8-30g,” he said of the prospect of an affordable housing project. “I’ve met these guys, they have really thought it through, and I think it’s going to make Saugatuck great.

“When it gets done, this will be a great little village,” he said. “Everybody will look back and say, ‘Wow, why did we not do that that?’ — but I get it, people don’t like change … I think everyone should just wrap their arms around it and let’s move on.”

Several people mentioned the possibility of 8-30g applications in the area should the rezoning fail. The town’s state-granted moratorium on affordable housing projects — which largely allow developers to skirt the usual zoning regulations — expires the first week in March.

The RTM’s Transit Committee voted 5-1 against overturning the text amendment. Sal Liccione, District 9, supported overturning it.

The Planning and Zoning Committee voted 6-0 to not overturn the measure, with one abstention.

P&Z Committee Chairman Matthew Mandell, District 1, abstained because, he said, a question was raised about his role as executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, which has worked with the Hamlet team.

Mandell didn’t say who had concerns, but Liccione earlier said he had raised the issue of a possible conflict with RTM Moderator Jeff Wieser, District 4, and Town Attorney Ira Bloom.

The RTM committee meetings were held this week because more than 30 verified voters in town signed a petition asking the RTM to review a text amendment that made substantial changes to zoning for the area roughly bounded by Charles Street, the Saugatuck River, Railroad Place and Franklin Street. Twenty signatures were needed to trigger the review.

The RTM, under the Town Charter, has the power to overrule the P&Z, but has to do so with a two-thirds vote — 24 of the 36 members, no matter how many are in attendance — within 30 days of the petition’s filing.

If the zoning changes pass the full RTM hurdle Tuesday, the Hamlet at Saugatuck would still need a separate site plan approval before the project could move forward.

Plans currently envision a mixed-use development, including a hotel, marina, restaurants, residential units (some affordable, on or off site), retail outlets and more.

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 editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.