A recent rendering of the Hamlet at Saugatuck, showing reduced heights of buildings using a terraced effect, and with buildings farther from the shore of the Saugatuck River.
A recent rendering of the Hamlet at Saugatuck, showing reduced heights of buildings using a terraced effect, and with buildings farther from the shore of the Saugatuck River. / ROAN Ventures

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — A sweeping rezoning of Saugatuck was approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission late Monday.

The momentous decision came at the tail end of a five-hour meeting, and after four months of public hearings and work sessions.

The approval of a text amendment paves the way for ROAN Ventures to apply for a special site plan approval for its “Hamlet at Saugatuck” project.

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

The Hamlet plan would be a multi-use development of retail, hotel and residential buildings between the Saugatuck River, Charles Street, Franklin Street and Railroad Place.

Many structures would replace the Saugatuck long familiar to many — Minuteman Cleaners, the building housing Tutti’s Ristorante, the town’s last boat yard and Morton’s Parking shelters, which date back many decades. Also included would be a facelift of what must be the town’s least-appreciated office building, 23 Charles St.

The commission during its hearings whittled down the original text amendment in terms of height, setbacks and floor area coverage, and added language about location of affordable housing and employee parking. The public hearings on the amendment ended in November.

The commission spent its last several meetings hammering out how conceptual plans should translate to actual zoning language.

“In this case, there’s a lot of sausage being made here,” member Jon Olefson said Monday, referring to an age-old political adage.

Some of the hammering led to sparks.

Member Amie Tesler took issue with members mentioning the economics of the applicant.

“I didn’t like hearing, and I’ve heard it a few times, that this best suits the economics of said applicant,” she said.

“I thought this was just a text amendment for this district,” she said. “And if it’s applicable to them, that’s great … I’m on this commission to better suit the needs of the constituents of Westport, Connecticut, not of a developer that’s based in Delaware, Connecticut, Michigan, wherever.”

Commission Chairwoman Danielle Dobin said that when she referenced “economically feasible,” it was because “I care deeply about this town and this neighborhood.”

She said that when the commission previously denied applications for reasons of life and safety, and where emergency access threatened lives, “The courts literally overturned our decisions.

“So, when I talk about incentivizing economically somebody to develop something positive in this area,” she said, “it’s because I understand, and through lived experience, what the alternative could be.”

Dobin said she’s trying to avoid a scenario where someone brings an 8-30g affordable housing application with 600 apartments, in a blocky design and insufficient parking.

“I don’t take a lot of what you say personally, but I’m offended by that comment,” Dobin said to Tesler.

She then called for a break so she could cool down.

Member Patrizia Zucaro broke in and said she saw both sides, but …

“I understand, but it feels the same way, it feels like we can’t make any changes, it feels like we’re being held to some standard instead of doing what we thought we were supposed to do, which was plan,” she said. “Make a plan for Saugatuck.”

The amendment was approved with the support of Dobin, Olefson, Neil Cohn, Michael Cammeyer and Paul Lebowitz.

Tesler voted against, and tried — unsuccessfully — to cast a no vote on behalf of Zucaro as well, who left the meeting early.

Thane Grauel, the Westport Journal executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Learn more about us here.