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RTM members debate criteria for choosing Baron's South developer

Updated 10:37 am, Friday, March 15, 2013
  • Steve Daniels, the co-chairman of the Baron's South Committee, addresses the Thursday meeting of the Representative Town Meeting's Long Range Planning Committee.  WESTPORT NEWS, CT 3/14/13 Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Steve Daniels, the co-chairman of the Baron's South Committee, addresses the Thursday meeting of the Representative Town Meeting's Long Range Planning Committee. WESTPORT NEWS, CT 3/14/13 Photo: Paul Schott

 

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As the Baron's South Committee reviews new proposals to develop a senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property, Representative Town Meeting members have proposed criteria that should guide selection of the project's developer.

Among the major criteria discussed Thursday by RTM Long Range Planning Committee members are the building density for the project, the percentage of below-market-rate units and the admission standards for prospective residents. The meeting was the first major forum on the Baron's South project since new bids were submitted March 1 to a "request for proposals" issued by the Baron's South Committee.

Matthew Mandell, District 1, chairman of the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee, cautioned against the town letting revenue-driven goals catalyze intense development at Baron's South.

"The upfront money [from a developer] gets spent very quickly when you have a greater density of people and a greater density of the use of the town in terms of more police, more fire, more EMS, more Department of Public Works necessary and more traffic on the streets," Mandell said. "While there may be a drive in the short-term for money, ultimately it might cost our town more financially and spiritually, as we change the character of it and become more dense."

Mandell, Long Range Planning Committee Chairman Jonathan Cunitz and Board of Finance members John Pincavage and Brian Stern joined the Baron's South Committee last month as non-voting members.

At Thursday's meeting, a number of RTM members indicated that many of their recommended standards for the Baron's South Committee's evaluation the new development proposals would differ from the financially oriented conditions suggested by finance board members. The Board of Finance was instrumental last December in persuading First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and the Baron's South Committee to solicit new bids for the Baron's South project. Several RTM members, however, appear wary of the finance board dictating the Baron's South Committee's evaluation process for the new proposals.

"Will the Board of Finance's tail wag this dog?" asked Jack Klinge, District 7. "I think that really is the guts of the issue financially. You either do what we think is right or what we think the Board of Finance thought was right. And I would personally rather be right and challenge the Board of Finance than just do something they said to do."

The town received five bids in response to the December request for proposals. Baron's South Committee members have already jettisoned one proposal, which was submitted by the Westport-based development firm Affirmative Hillspoint. They have ruled out that plan because they say it is the same continuing-care retirement community proposal that Affirmative Hillspoint submitted during the first Baron's South bidding round. Continuing-care retirement community plans are not within the scope of the latest RFP.

The Baron's South Committee is now considering bids from four firms: TransCon Builders, Senior Care Development, Atria Senior Living and Jonathan Rose Companies. During the first bidding round, Jonathan Rose submitted a 99-unit plan, which was endorsed in September 2012 by the Baron's South Committee. That proposal was later abandoned after Board of Finance members criticized its projected financial return to the town.

"To say that the submissions differed in many instances substantially would be an understatement," Baron's South Committee Co-Chairman Steve Daniels told RTM members. "However, they all addressed the things that we suggested that they address."

The proportion of below-market-rate "affordable" homes at the proposed senior campus stands as one of the principal sources of debate in town officials' debate of the project. Carla Rea, District 8, expressed concern that a preponderance of below-market-rate units at Baron's South would attract a large number of out-of-town residents. A text amendment approved in May 2011 by the Planning and Zoning Commission established a 60 percent minimum for the number of units at Baron's South that must be rented at below-market rates.

"What I'm afraid is that if we have 60 percent affordability, we're going to see a rush of non-Westporters going there," she said. "And I'd really like to see this project be for Westporters. I don't want to see what has happened at [affordable-housing developments at] Canal Park or on the Post Road where a lot of the people, they're not Westporters and they also bring their grandchildren and their grandchildren are in the school system."

Carla Rea is the wife of Board of Finance member Michael Rea.

Cunitz, who represents District 4 as well as serving as Long Range Planning Committee chairman, signaled that he would be more receptive to non-Westport residents moving to Baron's South.

"If they happen to be living right now in Weston or Wilton, it doesn't bother me," he said. "They'll become part of our community and they'll contribute to the vitality."

Other than town officials, only a handful of people attended Thursday's meeting. State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who is considering a run for first selectman in this year's town election, suggested that Baron's South be considered for uses other than senior housing.

"If we agree that we want to spend six to eight acres for this project, there's still plenty of very developable acreage, which could be a revenue-generating component, rather than asking what was intended to be affordable senior housing do the fund generation on behalf of the town," Steinberg said.

The RTM Long Range Planning Committee did not take any votes Thursday on the Baron's South senior-residential project.

Baron's South Committee will continue their review of the new senior-campus bids during a series of meetings scheduled during the next month. Committee members last month set an April 9 target date to recommend a new proposal to Joseloff. After Thursday's meeting, Daniels told the Westport News that meeting that deadline is an "ambitious" goal for the committee.

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