The senior housing complex proposed for the town-owned Baron's South property was at the center of emotional back and forth at Thursday's well-attended Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.
The commission has been asked by First Selectman Jim Marpe to make a text amendment change to its regulations that would, among other things, reduce the number of required "affordable" housing units in the $60 million complex from 60 percent down to 20 percent. Twenty percent of the units would also be rented at moderate-income rates, which would still be considered below the market rate in Westport.
"We're not talking about any specific property in theory," said Chairman Chip Stephens, who tried to restrict comments on the Baron's South plan to the text amendment itself since it would apply to any similar project were it proposed. "It's extremely important that we look at this text amendment, not this property."
He assured the public there would be ample opportunity to address the specifics of the Baron's South project later, and encouraged people to voice their opinions at that time. The P&Z made no decision and continued its review to the July 10 meeting.
Yet, as the discussion wore on, even P&Z commissioners conceded the impossibility of the public addressing the proposed amendment change in isolation, especially following Marpe's presentation, which specified the need for revisions to move the Baron's South project forward.
"Because the Board of Finance has asked for a greater financial return, we've had to modify our original request for the number of affordable units," Marpe said, calling it positive for the community in the long run.
"One of the things I think everyone should understand is that our job at the Board of Finance ... is to maximize the use of return that we get for the town assets," said John Pincavage, the finance board's chairman.
"The Board of Finance turned down the first proposal that came before it ... It had an inadequate return for the town," he said.
Pincavage also noted that residents expressed concerns that too many affordable units would potentially allow many of the units to be occupied by out-of-towners.
"It was modified and changed by reducing the number of affordable units ... That effectively increased the net return to the town," he said.
Yet several P&Z commissioners raised the question of whether this was proper procedure in relation to the town's Plan of Conservation & Development.
"We have something that seems to contradict a very significant part of the PoCD, which is to encourage affordable housing," P&Z Commissioner Alan Hodge told Pincavage. "What seems to be coming out of your mouth is the opposite.
"What strikes me about what you just said is (that) the economics ... is the driver of this amendment," Hodge said.
While asked to discuss only the amendment itself, several residents commented on the project, including Beth Bass.
"This enormous development is for profit," she said, noting "a huge marketing campaign" by elected officials aimed at "steamrolling" it through.
Judy Guthman, however, said, "It is not a project that is generating money, it is generating taxes."
"I think this kind of negativity surrounds every new thing that happens in Westport," she said. "Times are changing and Westport is changing, and there's no stopping it."
Barbara Butler, the town's director of human services, noted that large investments are made in schools when the child population rises in Westport. "Now we face a significant growth at the other end of the age spectrum," she said.
"As a town, I hope we will consider that population with the same quality and care that we give our younger residents," Butler added.
P&Z Commissioner Catherine Walsh, the only current commission member on the panel when it approved the original text amendment with the 60 percent affordable set-aside, took umbrage with some of the comments.
"I'd like to correct the spin that I've been hearing, that we were overly excited about this," she said. "What was said was this was not the highest and best use of the land at Baron's South. I want that to be known to everyone here, because it was discussed."
Walsh added that the 60 percent threshold "was our way to at least control the fact that the developer couldn't turn around at some point," and not have any affordable units in the project.
Ellie Lowenstein, who also served on the commission at that time, said she found the reduction in affordable units "astounding."
"We have a number of people living in Westport that (would) be available to take advantage of this," she said.
"The claim now, that the property will be the third highest taxpayer in Westport," Lowenstein said, "I don't think this is anything to be proud of."
"I've lived in this town for 42 years and I'd like to stay here if I can," said Mildred Bunche, who spoke in favor of the text change and project. "Those people who are opposed, I hope you'll have lots of longevity and you can stay in your home for a very long time."