Several commercial spaces are vacant in downtown Westport, partly because of restrictive regulations, zoning officials say. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Planning and Zoning Commission members want a wide-ranging public discussion on zoning regulations that some say are stifling businesses downtown, as well as on proposed changes to those rules.

At the P&Z’s Thursday meeting, commission members didn’t all agree on whether businesses over 10,000 square feet should be permitted downtown, or if it’s acceptable to allow retail businesses above the first floor of downtown buildings. 

But what they did agree on is that they need to hear the public’s opinions on those proposed zoning amendments, as well as how to generally address zoning issues in the central business district.

“We need to find a way to put this before the public,” said commission member Patrizia Zucaro. “This is a conversation worth having with the public.”

Amie Tesler Bentley agreed. “I would love to hear what the public has to say … I want to hear the people,” she told fellow commission members.

“We have to bring this forward … just based on the number of people who are interested in this,” Michael Cammeyer told the others.

Does 10,000-square-foot size limit drive away businesses?

The first proposed amendment — to allow businesses to occupy a space larger than 10,000 square feet downtown, which is now prohibited — doesn’t mean that “big box” stores will move there, several members said. Those types of stores need better access and parking, and instead look for locations on the Post Road, they said.  

P&Z Chairwoman Danielle Dobin said that some retailers have had to split their businesses into several storefronts, or even become two business entities, to comply with existing regulations. Some go elsewhere.

Dobin favored requiring a special permit, however, for tenants over 10,000 square feet to protect the “charm” of the town.

The majority of fellow P&Z board members, however, did not agree.

Paul Lebowitz said that he was uncomfortable requiring a special permit for a big store because that would appear discriminatory. 

“To use a regulation to determine whether or not you like a retailer is not appropriate in my opinion,” Lebowitz said. “It’s a square footage regulation, not a who’s-going-in-there regulation.”

The square-footage regulation is stifling some downtown business, said Mary Young, the planning and zoning director, noting there currently are several vacant spaces in the district.

“Nowhere else in Westport do we have this requirement,” she said of the prohibition on stores larger than 10,000 square feet. 

The Pottery Barn plans to move out of downtown because the space doesn’t meet the needs of the business, she said. 

Retail outlets above the first floor could help fill vacancies

The second proposal amendment relating to downtown zoning discussed Thursday would permit retail businesses to operate above a building’s first floor.

Twenty years ago, restrictions were placed on use of upper floors in downtown buildings, but some of the restrictions were removed a decade ago to allow restaurants and medical facilities, but not retail use, Young said. 

However, restaurant owners now favor first-floor space for carry-out orders and street-side dining, and medical practices want parking close by for patients, resulting in vacancies on upper floors of many downtown buildings.

“The last [zoning] holdout is for retail above the first floor,” the planning director said.

Most P&Z members agreed it would be a boost to downtown and help smaller retailers to allow the option of occupying an upper floor where rent would likely be less.

Zucaro, however, said having retailers on both first and upper floors would make downtown Westport look and feel too urban. She was the only commission member to vote against bringing the proposed upper-floor retail amendment to a public hearing. 

Lebowitz had a warning for landlords, if the regulation allowing retail use above the first floor is approved. “To the landlords who are listening, we want to make sure that you will not gouge” tenants on an upper floor, he said.

Both proposed downtown regulation changes will be scheduled for a public hearing in the future where the P&Z can listen to the public’s opinions, Dobin said.