The Violet Lane Historic District encompasses four houses. Constructed in 1928 by well-known developer Alfred G. Violet, the houses are also significant for their legacy as homes to prominent artists, according to the town’s Historic District maps. / Photo by Gary Webster
The former Town Hall building, 90 Post Road East, is listed within the Jesup Road Historic District. The unique cobblestone structure is now occupied by the restaurant, Don Memo. / Photo by Gary Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — An eight-month project to help preserve the history and character of Westport kicked off Wednesday when the Board of Selectwomen approved a contract to create a townwide preservation plan.

Using a $20,000 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office, the town has hired a national firm to come to Westport to meet with property owners, developers, Historic District Commission members and others to craft a preservation plan.

The cost of the consulting agreement is $19,845, according to Donna Douglass, the Historic District Commission coordinator, who told the selectwomen there would be “no cost to the town” for the plan because of the grant funding.

Project to prioritize historic preservation efforts

The townwide preservation plan “is really intended to be a planning document to help prioritize which historic districts and properties are the top priorities for preservation,” Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug told the meeting.

The town needs the preservation document to apply for certain grants, Douglass said. 

Westport was previously denied a grant “when we didn’t have a plan on what should be preserved and what shouldn’t,” she said.

 The John Osborn House, 187 Long Lots Road, was built around 1683 and is possibly the oldest existing dwelling in Westport, according to the Historic District Commission. / Photo by Gary Webster

The survey will begin soon, with a draft plan expected to be completed by January, and a final version scheduled for presentation to the Representative Town Meeting in March of next year, according to Ben Dibiase, from the New York Office of PaleoWest, LLC, the firm hired to conduct the project.

His firm is a cultural resources management firm, he said, consulting with municipalities all over the country. The company’s team in Westport will include a preservation planner leading the project, with architects and historians also doing field work in Westport.

Plans needed to apply for grants

“Preservation plans are unique documents,” Dibiase said, and are often created when municipalities come to the conclusion that such plans are needed to apply for grants. “We write the plan then hand it over to the city,” he said.

The PaleoWest team will hold local gatherings to collect comments from the public, meet with residential and business property owners, developers and private citizens to discuss the future of Westport’s historic properties, he said.

Three buildings in the Jesup Road Historic District once were owned by one family including, above, the Jesup-Godillot house, 60 Jesup Road. Below left is the Jesup-Godillot carriage house, 61 Jesup Road, and at right is the servants’ quarters at 65 Jesup Road. Both now are used for offices. / Photos by Gary Webster

“We pull together all the pieces,” he said, such as existing historic preservation documents including Westport’s Historic Resources Inventory which is a list of properties of historical value, maps of the town’s historic districts, zoning laws and regulations pertaining to historic preservation, and other materials.

“We’re not writing any laws,” Dibiase added, but may make suggestions to improve existing regulations. Decisions are up to the town’s leaders and stakeholders, he said.

Dibiase said sometimes his firm encounters “a little bit of panic … what does that mean for my house and my property?” is a reaction the company may get from property owners when starting a new preservation project. “We are a business … we understand the balance between development and historic preservation,” he said.

 The first step in the process will be setting up a steering committee including members of Westport’s Historic District Commission, developers, planning and zoning officials and other municipal staffers, he said, and is scheduled to begin in August.

Stone wall encroachment issue settled

At Wednesday’s meeting, the Board of Selectwomen also approved a waiver of the town’s encroachment policy for a homeowner at 11 Little Fox Lane. 

The waiver was approved two weeks after the selectwomen asked property owner Rabia Hayden to meet with town staff to iron out some differences and questions about town policy.

The Haydens wanted to repair a stone wall that encroached into the public right-of-way, but were surprised that certain stipulations — including a required hold harmless agreement with the town and liability insurance — had to be met before the town would grant a waiver.

After meeting with town engineering officials and the assistant town attorney, “It became clear to me that everyone wants to preserve that wall,” Hayden said Wednesday, which she added was not clear when she first appeared before the selectwomen to request the waiver.

Hayden also suggested town officials take a gentler stance in the future to avoid “kind of a horrific” situation she said she experienced at the earlier meeting.

After Keith Wilberg, a town engineer, said the Haydens had addressed all the town’s concerns cited at the last meeting, the selectwomen unanimously approved the encroachment waiver.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.