By James Lomuscio
What’s at stake, to hear Carolanne Curry tell it, is the future of the last surviving neighborhood of old Saugatuck, the one not lost to 1-95 cutting a swath through this section of Westport in the 1950s.
A developer hopes to built a 155-unit housing complex on Saugatuck’s Hiawatha Lane Extension. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) File photo/Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
She describes the neighborhood of Hiawatha Lane Extension, where she lives, and the seven tucked away roads as “the most closely knit neighborhood in the Town of Westport.” They include Ferry Lane West, Indian Hill Road, Davenport Avenue, West End Avenue, Hiawatha Lane and Gillette Circle Drive.
“Everyone knows everyone like they have here for generations,” she says of the single-family home community once considered Westport’s unofficial Italian neighborhood. “We have picnics together. We look out for each other.”
And Thursday night, about two dozen members of Save Our Saugatuck (SOS), a neighborhood group, are expected look out for each other in force at a Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) meeting.
At issue is a proposed 1,500-foot sewer extension that is the needed first step for a local developer to construct 155 rental housing units on about 10.5 acres on both sides of Hiawatha Lane Extension. The P&Z will make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen acting as the Water Pollution Control Authority as to approve or deny the request.
Developer Felix Charney, who owns Summit Development in Norwalk, has been buying up houses on Hiawatha, right next to I-95’s Exit 17 and walking distance from the Saugatuck train station.
This is the fifth time since 2005 Charney has proposed a multi-family housing development in the neighborhood. His last bid in 2014, in which he sought to use the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g, was defeated in early 2015.
Carolanne Curry addresses a 2014 meeting of Save Our Saugatuck. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
At the time, the town’s Department of Public Works reported that the area’s sewage pump station located near the Black Duck restaurant on the Saugatuck River could not handle the effluent.
“Although multiple P&Z rejections have been issued, one as recently as January 2015, Five-Time Felix is back again before the P & Z with a proposal to build a sewer system, or buy a sewer system, or even make up a sewer system in order to build 155 apartments on Hiawatha Lane Extension,” said Curry, a P&Z alternate member who will not be sitting on this matter.
“The question is, what has changed,” she added.
Charney, a former Westport resident who years earlier served on the P&Z, would not comment, referring all questions to Tim Hollister, land use attorney in Hartford.
According to Hollister, a lot has changed since the last application, most notably that 8-30g is not part of this application, which is an 8-24 for sewers, nor will 8-30g be used in the future.
The 8-30g statute has been the bane of local officials because it allows a developer override local zoning laws if a town does not have 10 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable, which Westport does not.
“The ultimate application will not be submitted under 8-30g,” said Hollister. “I can’t control what the neighbors talk about.”
What has also changed is the fact that Summit has teamed up with the Westport Housing Authority (WHA) for the planned project.
Felix T. Charney: developer is 1972 Staples grad and former P&Z commissioner. File photo
“The ultimate proposal is an 85-unit market rate rental development and on an adjacent parcel, a 70-unit, 100 percent rental development that will be administered by the Westport Housing Authority,” said Hollister.
“We are giving them 70 units that will (help the town) comply with 8-30g moratorium points,” he added.
Hollister also stressed that this time Summit is not asking to hook up to the existing pump station.
“We got derailed on this the last time,” he said. “We’re asking if we can plan for a sewer station.”
SOS has stated that the neighborhood of single-family homes on septic systems was never intended to be on sewers.
“That’s not true,” said Hollister. “The property is within the town’s sewer district, and this is consistent with town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.”
In September 2015, Charney initiated talks with the WHA about purchasing land from him for $4 million, so the housing authority could construct 70 units there, WHA Executive Director Carol Martin said.
“That’s an amazing amount of money the Westport Housing Authority will have to pay,” said Curry. “I don’t think she (Martin) did her homework. He’s promising that they will get 70 of their own units, separate but not integrated, with this project.
“Affordable housing is not to be separate, but to be integrated,” she added. “That would have the poor folk on one side of the street and the rich folks on the other.”
Martin countered that the goal of the project is to have both the 3.5-story, market rate 85 units “fully integrated” with the 70 WHA, two-story affordable units.
“The goal from the development side is to make it all look market rate, and they will be fully integrated,” she said. “The site plans don’t have separate sides of the street.”
She said that in order for the WHA to finance the project, $4 million for the land and an estimated $20 million for construction, “the land has to be contiguous.”
“Once it’s built, I can assure you, you will drive through there, and you will have no idea what is affordable and what is market rate,” Martin said.
Regarding SOS concerns about increased traffic in the area, Martin said it would be premature to comment since a traffic study has not been issued. She did say, however, that most of the young, commuting professionals who would live there would most likely walk to the train station.
In response to residents’ concerns about losing their quality of life, Martin said such a development would only enhance the area, boosting property values, as it did to areas surrounding other WHA properties, including Hales Court, which was remodeled and expanded from 40 to 78 housing units, and Sacso Creek at 1655 Post Road East “where we built 54 new apartments.”
Curry and SOS have also taken issue with First Selectman Jim Marpe and Second Selectman Avi Kaner. Curry says both initiated talks with Charney after a planned senior housing complex had been shot down after seven years of planning on town-owned Baron’s South when the P&Z in March 2014 declared the property passive recreational open space.
Marpe declined to comment on Curry’s claim, saying that the 8-24 sewer line proposal has to come before his board acting as the Water Pollution Control Authority.
2 thoughts on “Old Saugatuck’s Last Neighborhood Fights for Future”
Location and context are critical here. How can you insert 155 units at the tail end of a single-family neighborhood with narrow roads (and significant pedestrian usage) and not increase internal traffic by a significant factor? If you have visited the neighborhood, you would see that the small and sometimes winding streets are not designed to bear a traffic increase of that factor. Consider some potential sources of added vehicular volume: How would the additional residents get to and from their children’s school events? To and from shopping? To and from cultural events; etc.?
This proposed project would have an intensely negative effect upon the existing single-family neighborhood, which is actually one of the few “affordable” neighborhoods left in Westport. Even visually it would dominate: over half the units would be 3.5 stories, far taller than the predominantly 2-story homes in the rest of the neighborhood. The people of Old Saugatuck don’t want vague promises of increased property values (which can be hard to predict); rather, they want to preserve the value of what they have and treasure. Such things can not be quantified with a price tag.
The role of town government is and should be to enhance the quality of life of the residents of the town. This proposal clearly does not. In every iteration, it has always been out of scale with the context of this single-family neighborhood, and continues to be so. Town bodies should recognize that, 8-30g or not, a project of this magnitude would be far more appropriate in a different setting.
We have a $440,000 state grant to study Saugatuck development. We should use those funds to facilitate a holistic approach rather than piecemeal development and should defer approvals until that study has been completed.