District One (Saugatuck) in the Gun Sight

RTM District One can easily be called Westport's playground and commutation center. Running from Saugatuck Shores north to Treadwell avenue and east to Compo Beach it encompasses; the Beach, Longshore Club Park, the railroad station and an interchange for I95. It is possibly the one district that every Westporter utilizes, especially during the summer.

It is home to a cross section of residents living in varied housing stocks from; mansions on the water, beach community small lots, inland larger lots, affordable workforce homes and multifamily situations that include apartments.

Central to the District is Saugatuck a mixed residential and business area. Originally based on the river, it now supports much of the hustle and bustle that comes with the transient aspect of having RT 136 and associated commutation. It has the smell of fresh air from the sea, exhaust from traffic and ozone from the trains. It is diversity, and certainly has its own character.

But not all is so rosy in this older section of town. Once a single community, cut in two by I95 in the 1950s, it is once again bearing the impending burden of development.

There is a lack of new properties in Westport to build upon. At the same time there is a perceived desire to accept more and diverse housing. Developers with their need to keep building are seizing upon this and the Saugatuck area is seeing unprecedented interest. This sudden attention is bringing, at this time, what could total 174 or more units of multifamily housing; 54 already approved, 39 in the pipe line and another 75-83 or more in the hearing process.

Such increases in density will immediately be felt by the local residents and neighborhoods as well as elsewhere in District One and beyond. There will be more traffic, less seats on the train and in the end use of the beach and Longshore will increase as will other amenities including schools. At what point will we feel crowded?

While "Smart Growth" principles would bring such changes to an area such as this with its proximity to transportation and lower priced properties, the question is: Is this too fast and more importantly is it too much?

In our just desire to create more affordable housing, should we be displacing what is already affordable in a single family setting for essentially an equal number in multi-family condos? Should we have to digest increased density with far more market rate units to accomplish this? And should we allow the extension of sewers solely to allow for such developments over the objections of residents?

What's at issue here is that our well meaning and hard working volunteer Planning and Zoning Commissioners are out gunned by highly paid lawyers and planners who are utilizing state statutes or manipulating our regulations with known intentions, that are often not disclosed, to then leverage benefits at Westport's expense.

When plans to reinvigorate a section of Saugatuck came forward and turn an oil tank and other adjacent properties into a mix of 54 condos and commercial space it seemed like the epitome of smart growth. But a loop hole in the zoning regulation created by the developer's consultants decreased the number of affordable units and allowed already owned office space to fulfil part of the commercial requirement. The opportunity to create the essential services needed for the incoming residents was lost. The P&Z in the new town plan calls for such services to be created, but we can't go back now.

On Indian Hill and Sunrise the residents are faced with a no win situation. Accept 20 condo units on 3 acres in their half acre zone with one plan or pass on it and get 28 units under a state mandated affordable housing application known as 8-30g. Our P&Z could deny both, but the odds of prevailing in court are not in our favor. To think that these residents will be the only ones in town to feel this unfair pinch is unrealistic as the profit margin from these overly dense state developments is lucrative. More of these leveraged situations will come to Saugatuck and the rest of town.

On Hiawatha lane in a section called, Old Saugatuck, between I95 and the railroad tracks, a developer has been buying up single family houses with the idea of turning those properties into condos. So far 8 small houses are to become 55 condos, 11 would be affordable. In order to do this, the developer has requested a sewer extension. Without the sewer such density could not occur. The developer claimed there was an existing need for the sewers. The residents and Health District did not agree, the septic systems are fine. The land needed for these fully functional septic systems physically constrains the over development of these medium sized lots and maintains a lower density in what is a natural workforce housing community.

If approved, this project would be the thin edge of the wedge and surely condos would cascade through this neighborhood of small and affordable homes. The character and very essence of Old Saugatuck would be lost and the impact would be felt throughout the District on our roads and in our schools.(Thankfully P&Z voted 7-0 to deny the sewer extension, but the developer will be back as all his options have not nearly been exhausted, namely an 8-30g)

It is time to take stock of what has been approved and digest these developments before we approve more or make changes to our regulations that may hamper our ability to decide our own future. Saugatuck and for that matter all of Westport is at a critical juncture in deciding how we want our town to look and feel. We need to plan for ourselves and not allow others with their own agendas to decide for us. Let's stop, absorb what's on the books, see the results on the ground and find out if Saugatuck can tolerate this change in density before we look to do more.

(Matthew Mandell represents District One in the RTM and is running for re-election in November. He is also Director of the Partrick Wetlands Preservation Fund and an Executive Trustee of Earthplace: The Nature Discovery Center.)