By James Lomuscio
With Saugatuck on the move, Westport’s Board of Finance tonight unanimously approved $440,000 for a transit oriented development (TOD) study to be reimbursed 100 percent by the state.
Railroad Place opposite the Metro-North tracks would be among areas included in the study. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
First Selectman Jim Marpe made the request for funds, which he said would be 100 percent reimbursable via a state Responsible Growth and TOD grant “with no strings attached.”
“While we will be submitting our results of the planning to the state, they have no particular say or oversight on what we do and how we go about the plan,” said Marpe.
He said he was in the process of establishing a steering committee, “and it will be representative of the Saugatuck area.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced approval of the Westport grant application in June. (See WestportNow June 8, 2016)
In recent years, the Saugatuck section of Westport has been booming in terms of housing, new restaurants opening and myriad businesses putting down stakes, not to mention three times as many railroad commuters arriving there than departing from it, officials say.
Planning and Zoning Director Steve Palmer, who will co-chair the committee, said the plan aims for development that will respect the area’s history and provide greater access to the Saugatuck River.
Marpe said the impetus for the plan was the success with the downtown master plan. He said the town applied for the TOD grant last winter and was one of 20 Connecticut communities that received grants totaling $11 million.
“I consider ourselves to be very fortunate in that that we received the full amount that we requested,” Marpe said.
Palmer said that the process, which will include research, public outreach to business and residences and eventual implementation, is expected to take nine months.
A view of Riverside Avenue from the Metro-North Westport station in Saugatuck. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Prior to the vote, one of the concerns mentioned by some Board of Finance members was the ballpark figure of how much infrastructure changes, including sidewalks, would cost—$6 million.
“I really appreciate the value of what this report can do for Saugatuck,” said finance board member Michael Rea. “What I want to hear from you, Jim (Marpe), is that you will control the process. When you pick the committee, make sure people don’t have a vested interest in the project.”
Rea, like finance board member Lee Caney, also raised his eyebrows about the $6 million figure.
“We can let it collect dust if we can’t afford it,” Rea said.
Marpe responded the $6 million amount was “put in to give some sense of the order of magnitude this project” would cost.
“There’s no indication that we will put in $1 if it doesn’t make sense,” Marpe said, adding that of the people he has asked to be on the committee “no one is a developer.”
Later, Palmer reiterated that the state reimbursed plan did not obligate the town to make expensive infrastructure improvements.
“It provides a roadmap for the town,” Palmer said. “There’s no obligation to make infrastructure improvements.”
Prior to the vote, Board of Finance Chairman Brian Stern gave full support to the request.
“Saugatuck has needed a plan for a long time,” he said, adding that with its resurgence in recent years it might even be considered as the location for a movie theater, even a hockey rink.
“I’d like to see bold thinking to encourage developers to do different things,” he said.