Photos of cottage cluster developments were shown to the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Monday.

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — Rules permitting communities of “affordable” cottages to be built on town-owned land were approved Monday by the Planning and Zoning Commission, but not before the relative of a woman who donated property considered a prime site made a passionate plea to keep that land “green” to honor her wishes.

The new text amendment to Westport’s zoning regulations allows up to five “cottage cluster” developments— groups of small, single-family units all rented in compliance with state affordability criteria — on designated properties owned by the town.

The plan, under review by the P&Z’s Affordable Housing Subcommittee since last November, is one measure the commission has considered to help meet the goal of expanding the local inventory of affordable housing as outlined in Westport’s state-mandated Affordable Housing Plan.

P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin, noting the subcommittee had discussed the cottage cluster idea “at length” over the last several months, called on Michelle Perillie, the deputy planning and zoning director, to detail highlights of the regulations. 

The amendment, Perillie said, was developed in response to the town Affordable Housing Plan’s directive to develop “pocket neighborhoods” of small dwellings, possibly built with prefab or modular elements, on town-owned property and rented to people whose income qualifies for affordable housing — in this case, not exceeding 80 percent of the state’s median income.

Cottage clusters, she said, could be constructed “quickly and efficiently.”

In addition to being built on town-owned land — with a limit of no more than five projects around town — the cottage cluster standards would include:

  • Each building would have a footprint of no more than 850 square feet, and building heights could not exceed 26 feet.
  • The cottages would have to be at least ten feet apart, and set back at least 15 feet from the boundary of neighboring properties.
  • The cluster site would have to be least three-quarters of an acre, with at least 50-foot frontage on an arterial road.
  • There would be on-site parking for residents, and also common green space for the development.
Jason Gutman asked the Planning and Zoning Commission not to allow development of property at 655 Post Road East, donated to the town by his relative, Joanna Linxweiler.

Taking into consideration various factors governing potential development of cottage clusters, Perillie said officials winnowed a list of appropriate town-owned properties from 46 to ten.

Most prominent among the likely development sites is the Linxweiler property at 655 Post Road. It was discussed at earlier subcommittee meetings as a location that meets many of the amendment’s criteria, and was cited by Perillie in an email notice of Monday’s meeting as the “targeted beneficiary” of the proposal.

The 1.3-acre property with a 1,400-square-foot house was bequeathed to the town in 1981 by Joanna Linxweiler. The dwelling currently is managed by Homes with Hope as an emergency shelter for a single family.

A plan previously proposed to build housing on the property triggered controversy. 

Neighbors, and several of Joanna Linxweiler’s relatives, had strongly opposed a 2010 plan to build 12 units of supportive housing for the homeless on the property. That plan was rejected.

On Monday, Jason Gutman, a relative of Joanna Linxweiller’s, voiced concern that housing construction on the property would be a betrayal of her wishes.

Gutman, a Weston resident and son of Karlene Linxweiler Crowley, said Joanna and three brothers grew up in the house built by their parents about 1900.

Joanna Linxweiler lived at the homestead all of her life, he said, and loved the property’s “flora and fauna.” She worked at the Westport Bank and Trust, and “it broke her heart” when she was forced to sell half of the property (now the Fresh Market shopping center next door) because she “couldn’t afford the taxes. It was simply too costly to hold onto,” he said.

She loved thoroughbred race horses and regularly watched races on TV, he said. She never traveled far from Westport, but regularly read “National Geographic.”

She only drove to work, the market and doctor appointments, Gutman said, and once when his parents took her to dinner in Southport, she was “so excited it was as though she was visiting another country.”

Westport, he said, was all Joanna Linxweiler “needed and all she had, and other than her extended family and the horses, all that she loved. But as she aged she saw how the town was changing and she wanted to do what she could to make a small contribution.

“Joanna didn’t account for progress, she accounted for preservation,” he said.

So “she decided to leave all that she had to the town of Westport and the people of Westport so that they could enjoy what once was hers for generations,” and according to Gutman, told her lawyer that she wanted to make sure her “home and property remain a green space.”

He posed these questions to the P&Z: “Why doesn’t a town like Westport simply respect the wishes of an individual who donated their land? Why, every few years, does this town try to develop or convert this land into apartments or cottages or anything other than what it was intended to be?

“What does a town become when it can’t preserve a small piece of history and honor the wishes of one of its citizens who bequeathed their land? Why can’t you simply leave the property … to remain a green space?”

Affordable housing is a “noble cause,” Gutman concluded, “but the Linxweiler property is not the location for it.” Her family, he said, has “no agenda other than to preserve her legacy and echo her wishes … please don’t destroy Joanna Linxweiler’s home and her land.”

An architectural drawing of what a cottage cluster might look like.

While no one directly addressed Gutman’s pleas, Dobin pointed out the P&Z was not considering a development proposed for any specific location.

The commission was acting on an amendment to enable the Board of Selectwomen, if it chooses, to initiate a cottage cluster plan for a designated site, which need not be the Linxweiler property, she said. Whatever plan the selectwomen may propose would still face review at public hearings by multiple town boards before construction could move forward, the chairwoman added.

During earlier discussions of using the Linxweiler property for a cottage cluster project, however, Dobin said she had been assured by the Town Attorney’s Office there is no deed restriction preventing development there.

Dobin also suggested the amendment be revised to allow cottage development on properties not serviced by sewer lines and within flood zones, which she said would expand the inventory of possible locations to about 50 town-owned sites.

The rest of Monday’s discussion was generally supportive of affordable cottage cluster developments, however, P&Z member Patrizia Zucaro raised several concerns, focusing primarily on project density. 

While the regulation would allow a cluster project to cover up to 70 percent of a lot, Zucaro felt that was too intense and favored coverage limits roughly half that size.

In the end, the density factor prompted Zucaro to cast the lone no vote against the amendment, with Dobin, Paul Lebowitz, Michael Cammeyer, Neil Cohn and Amie Tesler voting in favor.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.