Baron's South planners vow to fight P&Z over seniors' project
Updated 4:56 pm, Friday, March 27, 2015
Baron's South Committee members decided Thursday to stand their ground and fight to have the recent Planning and Zoning Commission decision to designate the Baron's South property as open space overturned by the Representative Town Meeting.
The commission, at its March 19 meeting, approved an amendment that classifies the 22-acre, town-owned property -- a site where the committee has been working for years to get a senior housing/care complex built -- as open space. That decision came a week after Jonathan Rose Cos., the project developer, filed a pre-application for the proposal with the P&Z.
"It's important not to give up the fight and to do an assessment" of the situation, said Steve Daniels, the Baron's South Committee co-chairman. "I'm not at the point of giving up."
`I'm frustrated," added the Rev. Ed Horne, committee member. "It's pretty clear they had their minds made up and were locked into open space at all costs."
He added, what's worse, is that the P&Z made the decision "under the guise of open space," when actually, he said, "it was kind of an anti-development step."
"I'm energized by what happened," said Ken Bernhard, committee member, adding "this is an opportunity to let the community speak."
Bernhard also advocated for petitions that ask the RTM to place a resolution on its agenda that would reverse the zoning commission's decision. The legislative body could overrule the P&Z decision by a two-thirds vote.
He said circulating the petitions would give committee members a chance to educate the public on the seniors' proposal.
"If we believe in this project, then let's get it to the RTM and let them know it's not just this committee, but hundreds" of residents that support it, Bernhard said. "I want to see (Town Clerk) Patty Strauss inundated with petitions. This is a real opportunity to galvanize."
Earlier this week, the Coalition for Westport, a minority party that previously has run candidates for the P&Z, announced it was urging the RTM to reverse the open-space designation. Coalition leaders also said they began circulating a petition to bring the issue to an RTM vote.
"We believe the decision is troubling for a host of reasons, and its action says more about the commission's disregard for both procedural niceties and for the best interests of the Town than it does about the issues surrounding the property itself," Denise Torve, the coalition chairwoman, said in a statement.
RTM member Matt Mandell, District 4, said he's had discussions with the RTM moderator on the matter and has come up with dates in April when the issue could be heard by the body, as well as the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee. The committee has 30 days to file the appeal, he said.
"It's amazing that we have stuck this out," said Marty Hauhuth, the committee co-chairwoman. "Let's give the RTM a chance to debate this," she said. "I'm in."
The pre-application earlier this month was the third submitted and calls for 165 housing units, two-thirds that comply with the state's affordable housing criteria.
"But this most recent plan was the most balanced," he said. "I'm disappointed but I respect our other elected bodies."
Then, he added, going to the RTM for an appeal should "not come from our administration," but from the people. "It should be grass-roots driven," he told the committee.
Kaner also noted that, behind the scenes, "there's been extensive dialogue" concerning putting a senior housing complex on private property. But private development could lower the number of affordable housing units from 60 percent to 20 percent.
"We can't have two agendas," said Bernhard, about looking for an alternative. "It's a fight and it's just starting," he added. "You can't have a plan B." Bernhard said he thought it "might send the wrong message looking at other developers."
"I know this is terribly frustrating after putting in years of effort," said First Selectman Jim Marpe, who is also a supporter of the project. "The P&Z needs to hear from a broad base of the community and not just Avi and me."
"If there is no override, we are still committed to the fight," Kaner added.
Committee member Jo Fuchs said she's advocated for years for the town's children and now it was time to take up the cause for seniors.
"I would like to move forward on the idea of senior affordable housing," she said. "But whatever we do, I want it to be good, not just to have housing."