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RTM hearing a big challenge for Baron's South seniors' plan

Published 12:32 pm, Thursday, October 25, 2012

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  • A view of the town-owned Baron's South property. Photo: Paul Schott
    A view of the town-owned Baron's South property. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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After a committee recommended last month that a proposal to build a senior residential complex by the Jonathan Rose Companies at the town's Baron's South property move forward, the plan faces a crucial test at a Representative Town Meeting hearing on Monday night.

The meeting will comprise the first time the full RTM has reviewed the Jonathan Rose proposal to build a 99-unit senior living center at the 23-acre Baron's South site. Jonathan Rose, which was recommended by the Baron's South Committee, and the two other development groups that submitted proposals for a senior residential complex, will be invited to present their plans. No action by the RTM is expected to be taken Monday; the meeting starts at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

"He's given us a good proposal and we feel very comfortable with his ability to provide us with a good outcome," Baron's South Committee Co-Chairwoman Marty Hauhuth said of the Jonathan Rose plan.

The Jonathan Rose proposal has gotten a rocky public reception since it was unveiled last month. Board of Finance members gave it a lukewarm assessment during an Oct. 3 meeting; three weeks later, their doubts persist.

"There's a unanimity in a desire to support the seniors," Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner said Tuesday. "But there's also unanimity in not wanting to negate the value of a valuable piece of property by essentially developing a highly subsidized housing project."

Like Kaner, Board of Finance Vice Chairwoman Helen Garten backs the development of senior housing at Baron's South, but has not endorsed the Jonathan Rose plan.

"We want to do it in a way that benefits the most Westporters and provides the best return to the town," she said. "I haven't seen yet that this is the best way to achieve those goals."

Finance board members' apparent lack of support so far for the Jonathan Rose plan underscores the challenges that the Baron's South Committee and First Selectman Gordon Joseloff face as they seek to gain town boards' support for a development plan for a senior residential campus at Baron's South. Joseloff and committee members view the project as crucial to expanding the town's affordable housing stock for older adults. But that argument, by itself, may not be enough to persuade finance board members, RTM members and Planning and Zoning Commission members to support the venture.

Opposing viewpoints

Board of Finance members have questioned, in particular, the residential-unit composition and proposed financial terms of the Jonathan Rose proposal. The developer's plan calls for 59 "affordable" or below-market-rate units and 40 market-rate units. That housing mix adheres to Text Amendment 625, a package of zoning regulations passed last year by the P&Z, which established the zoning framework. The amendment mandates, for instance, that at least 60 percent of the residential units at Baron's South be rented at below-market rates.

Kaner describes the prospective allocation of 60 percent of the homes at Baron's South as affordable units as a "non-starter." He advocates instead for a higher proportion of market-rate housing.

Finance board members have also reacted with little enthusiasm to Jonathan Rose's proposed revenue stream for a Baron's South senior residential complex. It offers to pay a $500,000 upfront fee to the town in exchange for a 99-year ground lease and then make an annual payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, totaling $250,000. The PILOT would increase according to annual changes in the town's property tax rate.

In comparison, Affirmative Hillspoint, one of the two other groups that submitted a development proposal, offered in its plan to pay $1.019 million in annual property taxes, as well as a $1.25 million ground lease to the town. The lease revenue, Affirmative Hillspoint recommended, could be used to finance a fund to subsidize the cost of living for residents in 70 units.

"Given that there was a [Hillspoint] proposal that had so much more of a return to the town, I don't think we can ignore that if we consider this," Garten said. "That doesn't mean necessarily that that's the answer, but I would like to see more of a financial return."

The Affirmative Hillspoint proposal, however, does not conform with the zoning regulations established by Text Amendment 625. It proposes a continuing-care retirement community, which would include 220 independent-living units and a 48-bed skilled-nursing facility. Affirmative Hillspoint's plan to map out use of the entire Baron's South property has generated disagreement between principals of the Westport-based development firm and members of the Baron's South Committee.

"We thought our proposal -- although it would have required a text amendment, which we always understood -- was the better way to go," said Affirmative Hillspoint President Marshall Breines. "It provided the best aging in place, coordinated residency and health services, and allowed for the best physical planning because you'd know what would go on the property in its entirety. It's a bad way to look at a piece of property and bifurcate it into separate phases that are not coordinated in any fashion."

Conversely, Baron's South Committee members maintain that Baron's South should be developed in phases. The request for proposals it issued last year also noted that "the town anticipates the development of the FCLF [full-care living facility] as a second phase."

"Clearly they were beyond what all of our parameters were," said Steve Daniels, the Baron's South Committee's other co-chairman. "We never ever considered utilizing the entire piece of land. That was not part of what we thought we were asking for. We said let's be fair, let's look at each proposal, not matter what our concerns might be and let's thoroughly think through it."

Baron's South Committee members do not appear -- at the moment, at least -- interested in pursuing the development of a CCRC at Baron's South. Hauhuth said she believes a CCRC would require the issuing of a new request for proposals. Both Kaner and Garten said they would like to see a new RFP issued, one with broader parameters than the original version written last year by the Baron's South Committee.

"I'd love to see a new RFP drafted that's market rate-driven that provides reasonably priced senior housing at a market rate basis," Kaner said.

Other issues

The Baron's South Committee's recommendation of the Jonathan Rose proposal has also been dogged in recent weeks by criticism of its review process for the three submitted proposals.

John McCarthy, an RTM member from District 9, which includes the Baron's South property, has emerged as one of the most vocal critics. He has questioned, for instance, the committee's consideration of the role of planning consultant Rick Redniss in the Baron's South project. Redniss is a consultant for Jonathan Rose. He also helped to write Text Amendment 625 and is a consultant to the Westport Housing Authority.

"They thought it was perfectly OK that he was on both sides of the deal," McCarthy said. "That's my concern -- that the Baron's South Committee didn't see a problem with this. I think any observer from the public or anyone with a casual knowledge of this situation would have known or should have known that this is a potential problem."

Daniels rejects McCarthy's claim that Redniss' role as a Jonathan Rose consultant calls into question the integrity of the Baron's South Committee recommendation of the Jonathan Rose proposal.

"They all got the same information and had the chance to bid on exactly the same project," Daniels said. "Rick Redniss' presence -- how does that give Jonathan Rose an advantage? If not Rick Redniss, which one of the other two or three land-use experts in Westport would have been used, because there's only a few. No matter who you hired, people would have known that person."

Like Kaner and Garten, McCarthy also supports the issuing of a new RFP for Baron's South. He advocates for a new committee -- composed of RTM, P&Z and Board of Finance members -- to write that document.

The public debate of the future of Baron's South likely will not abate soon. Daniels added that he "wouldn't be surprised" if town boards' approval of a development plan for a senior residential complex took another year. Hauhuth also said she anticipates a lengthy vetting process.

"This is only the beginning of the process with Jonathan Rose," she added. "It'll be an ongoing process."

Joseloff, meanwhile, has been more taciturn in recent weeks about the future of the Jonathan Rose proposal.

In an interview Wednesday with the Westport News, he said he is "looking forward to hearing the input" of the RTM on Monday. He declined, however, to comment on whether he planned to move ahead and seek town boards' approval of the Jonathan Rose proposal.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott