After months reviewing three developers' rival plans for a seniors' residential project on the town-owned Baron's South property, the Baron's South Committee on Friday recommended a proposal by the Stamford-based development firm Jonathan Rose Companies to build an approximately 100-unit complex.
"This was a tough decision, but we think we've done it fairly," said Steve Daniels, a co-chairman of the committee. "We're very comfortable with our conclusion."
Since April, the Baron's South Committee has studied the development proposals on a near- weekly basis in closed-door executive sessions. The evaluation of the plans followed the request for proposals to develop seniors' housing issued by the town last December 2011, which was written by the Baron's South Committee.
The nine-person committee was appointed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff in March 2011. Two months later, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a text amendment to facilitate development of a senior campus at Baron's South. Its decision was soon appealed by a group of residents to the Representative Town Meeting. But in June 2011, the RTM upheld the P&Z's vote on the text amendment.
In recent weeks, some RTM members have criticized the committee and Joseloff for what they considered to be a lack of transparency during the review of the developers' proposals.
Daniels responded to that charge during Friday's meeting. "There was a lot of proprietary information in the bids that we had," he said. "We couldn't have a public session where somebody would walk out and be able to disclose all kinds of information. We had to control that."
Details of senior housing complex
Two adjacent buildings would house a total of approximately 100 one- and two-bedroom units on three floors, according to the Jonathan Rose plan. About 60 percent of the units would be "affordable," or rented below the market rate, at about $1,100 per month. The other 40 units would be rented at market rates -- $2,200 monthly for one-bedroom homes and $2,800 for two bedrooms.
The proposed complex would cover four to seven acres of the Baron's South property's 23 acres, but most of the site would be maintained as open space, according to Daniels.
Development of a senior residential complex is among the most ambitious initiatives of Joseloff's administration, since he took office in 2005. The proposal has sparked controversy in earlier public discussions. Many town residents, including a number of senior citizens, have lauded Joseloff's plans as a way for seniors to continue to live affordably in Westport. But others have lambasted the project as a potential misuse of town land and expressed concern that a residential campus at Baron's South may be unable to guarantee places for current town residents.
At the meeting Friday, Joseloff reiterated his commitment to the project.
"This will add vibrancy and add to the economic well-being of our community," Joseloff said. "Don't forget it was purchased for municipal purposes. It was not purchased for open space, it was not purchased for other things. It was really for what the town deemed was its best use. Demonstrably, there is a need for this kind of housing."
Projected costs, financing
A senior residential campus at Baron's South would cost $29.65 million, according to the Jonathan Rose proposal, which identifies five prospective funding sources. A permanent lender would provide a $11.4 million loan; the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority would allocate $12 million in low-income housing tax credits and a $500,000 housing tax credit; the state Department of Economic and Community Development would offer a $2 million loan, and a developer loan would fund another $2 million.
Jonathan Rose's proposal calls for the firm to pay a $500,000 "acquisition" fee to build the senior residential complex and then make yearly $250,000 payments in lieu of taxes, also known as PILOT. Disbursement of the payments in lieu of taxes would be expected to start in 2016, according to the development plan. Jonathan Rose is a for-profit firm.
Marty Hauhuth, the other co-chairman of the Baron's South Committee, said she envisioned the complex would be "very closely affiliated" with the Center for Senior Activities, which also stands on the Baron's South property.
The Jonathan Rose proposal also allows for the possible sale of a portion of the Baron's South property, Joseloff said.
The senior campus plan also does not appear to preclude a separate plan being considered by town officials to use a tract of Baron's South adjacent to Post Road East to house the Westport school district's bus fleet.
Nursing home not part of plan
The concept of a senior residential campus at Baron's South could eventually include a skilled-nursing center, although plans for a health-care facility were not required by the town's RFP. The residential center would not feature assisted-living services, but the complex could include a coordinator who would help residents to identify and obtain services, such as home care and housekeeping, Daniels added.
Jonathan Rose's earlier projects include development of several affordable-housing projects, such as the 50-unit Metro Green Apartments in Stamford, a 121-unit complex in Albuquerque, N.M., and a 27-unit site in Aspen, Colo. Its current work includes assisting the Meriden Housing Authority with the redevelopment Chamberlain Heights, an existing 124-unit public-housing complex.
The Jonathan Rose development proposal for Baron's South will next face reviews by the RTM and the Board of Finance. A senior residential complex at Baron's South would also require site plan approval by the P&Z. If the project secured all its needed approvals from town boards, a residential center at Baron's South could be ready for occupancy by 2016, Daniels said.
In an interview with the Westport News after the meeting, Joseloff declined to comment on whether he hopes to still be first selectman when the Baron's South project is scheduled for completion. If the project were completed in 2016, that would take place during a hypothetical third term for Joseloff, who is in the third year of his second term. The next election for first selectman will be held in November 2013.
Several dozen people attended the Friday morning meeting. Public comment mostly consisted of attendees' questions about the project. Stanley Nayer, chairman of the town's Commission for Senior Services, expressed support for the Baron's South Committee's decision.
"I'm thrilled with the proposal," Nayer said. "I'm thrilled with the work that the committee has done. It really is a very, very exciting concept."
But the senior-housing project still has a number of skeptics. John McCarthy, an RTM member from District 9, which includes Baron's South, reiterated his opposition to the Baron's South Committee reviewing the developers' proposals in closed-door meetings.
"It is apparent that this outcome was pre-ordained from the start," he said in an email Sunday. "For this recommendation to achieve legitimacy, there should be an immediate public release of the three received responses and a detailed outline of the steps and actions taken by this unelected committee in secret sessions. Until that is done, any steps needed to implement this recommendation should not be voted on by any elected official."
Bart Shuldman, the lead petitioner in the appeal filed last year against the senior-housing text amendment approved by the P&Z, also critized the Baron's South Committee's executive sessions.
"The decision to close the meetings only leaves doubt in the minds of Westport residents," he said in an email Monday. "This is a program that has the town divided, as it only benefits a few. The lack of transparency leaves us all with too many questions and leaves residents to believe this is not the open and honest process we were promised. It is too late to try and convince me, and I am sure other Westport residents, that the decision came without a pre-determined outcome."
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