A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.
But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.
It started when a developer known for building large luxury homes envisioned something different back in 2014 for the 2.2 acre property: a mix of single- and multifamily housing that would accommodate up to 12 families. A higher density project is more cost efficient, he said, and would allow him to sell the units for less than the typical Westport home.
But the site was zoned to hold no more than four single-family houses, so he needed approval from a reluctant Westport Planning and Zoning Commission, which denied his plan. Residents erupted in fury each time he made a scaled-back proposal, and it took the developer four years after purchasing the property to win approval to build two duplexes and five single-family homes.
“You are selling out Westport,” one resident yelled out as the final plan came up for a commission vote last spring. Other residents picketed commission meetings with signs reading “Zoning is a Promise.”
The commission’s discussion was couched in what some would regard as code words and never directly addressed race or income. Chip Stephens, a Republican planning and zoning commissioner, voted against the plan, declaring, “To me, it’s too much density. It’s putting too much in a little area. To me, this is ghettoizing Westport.”
Now under construction, these two-bedroom duplexes and single-family homes have a price tag of $1.2 million, the going rate for a home in this swanky village just outside Bridgeport and Norwalk.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this through. Would I do this all over again? No. Probably not,” said the developer, Johnny Schwartz, of Able Construction.
Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.
This separation is by design.
This article was produced through a partnership between ProPublica and the Connecticut Mirror, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.