Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff faced the strongest challenge yet to his proposed senior living complex at the town-owned Baron's South property, as the Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday night launched its review of an appeal that seeks to overturn a recently passed zoning text amendment that allows the project to advance.
The review follows a petition submitted May 20 by resident Bart Shuldman and approximately 60 other town residents calling for the RTM to repeal Text Amendment 625, a package of changes to town zoning regulations approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission that permit development of a senior residential community, assisted-living services and a health care facility at the 23-acre Baron's South site. Prior to a June 14 vote on the appeal by the full RTM, the RTM Planning and Zoning Committee on Tuesday had the first of two meetings to review the appeal.
Shuldman criticized Joseloff for insufficiently assessing the impact of the proposed senior complex on the town's infrastructure and traffic. Citing rising town liabilities for municipal employees' pensions and benefits, he also cautioned that the project could exacerbate the town's financial constraints.
"Name a town, city or state in the country that's looking to implement a new benefit program without truly understanding the costs," said Shuldman, the chief executive officer of TransAct Technologies, headquartered in Hamden. "Why haven't we said, `If this is right for us, why don't we sit down and lay it all out?'" he added. "The answer I've heard is, `We've got to get this through P&Z first.' That's the cart before the horse."
Shuldman added that he was not advocating for a specific use of Baron's South. The property has a current appraised value of approximately $23 million, according to the Vision Appraisal website. Following Board of Finance approval in 1998, the town acquired Baron's South for $7 million.
Joseloff said that the project had been sufficiently planned, and also contended that it would not have a harmful financial impact on the town.
"How much has the town spent on this project so far? You know what the answer is -- zip, zilch, nothing," he said. "In fact, if this works out, this will be a tax benefit to the town. The owners of the property, or the leasers of the property, will pay (personal) property tax."
Responding to Shuldman's assertion that housing places at the senior complex could not be guaranteed for Westport residents, Town Attorney Ira Bloom responded that the town could grant preferences to Westport residents at the senior living center, provided that such a priority system complied with state and federal anti-housing discrimination laws.
Joseloff's plan for the senior campus envisions that the town would likely lease Baron's South to one or more nonprofit organizations to run the residential community and health care facility. In accordance with Text Amendment 625, at least 60 percent of the complex's residential units would be rented at below-market rates.
The first selectman also has formed a committee that includes several former town officials to draft a request for proposals from prospective developers of the senior campus. Selectwoman Shelly Kassen, an ex-officio member of the committee, was among the project's most vocal supporters Tuesday night.
"We want to do something that gives back to the seniors -- not just the schoolchildren -- that creates the kind of community that all of us should be proud to live in," she said. "It's not about the two million or three million we could get back (from selling Baron' South land) that we couldn't even use toward pensions or firemen or anything else."
Although they did not vote Tuesday to take a position on Shuldman's appeal, several RTM P&Z Committee members indicated support for Text Amendment 625.
"In reviewing all of the stuff on 625, I didn't really see anything that required reviewing 625 as a text amendment coming out of the P&Z (commission)," said Bob Galan, District 3. "I think everything was done within the normal parameters, all the questions were asked, and things were properly approved as far as the text amendment."
In addition to Shuldman, other residents also urged the RTM to play an active role in the approval process of the proposed senior complex.
"The first selectman is unwilling to commit to seeking a majority vote from the RTM on this project when finalized," Don Bergmann said. "Until he does ... I would vote to reverse because that's the only leverage you have to try to make sure this project is out in the form you'd all like to see it be in and that you think is good for the town."
Joseloff replied that the RTM could adopt a non-binding sense-of-the-meeting resolution to "express an opinion" on the senior campus. He declined to comment on how he would respond if the RTM did take such action.
The RTM's P&Z Committee will resume its review and make a recommendation on Shuldman's appeal of Text Amendment 625 at a meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall.