RTM panel backs reversing P&Z vote on Baron's South
Published 6:54 am, Tuesday, April 21, 2015
A Representative Town Meeting committee, in a unanimous vote Monday night, recommended the designation of the Baron's South property by the Planning and Zoning Commission last month be reversed by the full RTM.
The vote by the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee came after two lengthy meetings -- including Monday's five-hour session -- after it received several citizens' petitions asking that the P&Z action on Baron's South be overturned. The full legislative body can reverse the decision by a two-thirds vote.
"I received 104 emails and 91 wanted it overturned," said committee member Carla Rea of District 8. Other committee members said the majority of their emails also favored reversing the P&Z's decision.
"You must remember that the property was bought for municipal purposes," Rea said. "I vote to overturn."
In the end, after hours discussing the issue, including that the vote could be perceived as a "no-confidence vote" in the P&Z, committee members approved the recommendation. Committee members indicated while the procedure the commission used was legal, it was the process that prompted their concerns.
The 22-acre, town-owned Baron's South property is also the site is where other officials have been planning construction of a housing/care complex for senior citizens. That project would take a slice of the property just over three acres in size, according to the latest version of the plan.
The P&Z's decision in March came a week after Jonathan Rose Cos., the project developer, filed a pre-application for the seniors' project with the P&Z.
The open-space designation, in turn, prompted proponents of the seniors' project to begin circulating petitions calling on the RTM to overturn the P&Z vote.
Monday's meeting included comments from several dozen of the 100 people in attendance, followed by questions from the committee to P&Z members, triggering sometimes-heated debate between committee Chairman Matt Mandell, District 1, and Chip Stephens, the P&Z chairman. Particularly testy exchanges occurred when Mandell pushed Stephens for answers about why the decision to designate the property as open space was rushed.
But Stephens, as he did at the last meeting, defended the commission's decision, saying the decision was not rushed and the open space issue had been under consideration for a while.
Stephens also cited the town's Plan of Conservation and Development which, he said, says the town should endeavor to preserve the natural beauty of Baron's South and encourage public access to the property.
At one point, their exchange prompted Rea to say, "Let's try to do this without interrupting each other and being disrespectful."
Stephens also several times said that "no door has been closed" on the seniors project despite the open space designation. "I can't make it clearer," he said. "They (the developers) can come back with answers."
P&Z member Jack Whittle agreed. "That's always true -- someone can always come back."
"We all want housing," Stephens said. "But where it's put and how it's done" are important issues his commission needs to address.
Prior to Monday's vote, Mandell said of Stephens' replies: "I was asking questions and not getting answers. That's where my frustration came from."
Members of the audience also weighed in.
But Stanley Coyle, a neighbor of the Baron's South property, called the seniors project "a Trojan horse," saying it is more of a large-scale assisted living development than senior and affordable housing.
Petitioners had a chance for their final summation on the matter. "I am speaking to sum up for the Coalition for Westport," said Jo Ann Davidson, whose group circulated petitions in support of overturning the vote.
"We want to focus on the flawed process that led to this poor decision," she said. "Map amendments affecting town-owned land are sponsored by the town. It is unprecedented for the P&Z, without consulting any other town body, to impose its will on town-owned property."
She said "instead of considering the plan, they re-zoned the property."
Ken Bernhard -- a member of the Baron's South Committee, which has been working with the developer on the housing project -- said the collective number of petitioners was 482 people even though only 20 were needed to request the RTM consider reversing the decision. "We could clearly have filled the auditorium," he said, adding what the P&Z did was "impractical" and that "in the real world" having a developer have to deal with the open space designation, "Well, it won't happen."
Bernhard listed the pros and cons, saying with the open space designation that "we get 20 acres of land that we let fall into disrepair and is not accessible."
That's in one column, he said. "In the other, we have 16 acres of open space which, with the developer, we get $1 million up front, $585,000 of income and $4.5 million in amenities in the senior center and needed affordable housing."
In his summation, Stephens said there is "less than 4 percent of municipally owned open space in town and there are other spaces for senior and assisted living." He noted there is "no second chance" once something is built. "There is no re-boot if the development comes in," he said. "We don't think the bar is too high. There is room for negotiation for things that are presented right."
He said the developer didn't have a proposal, only a pre-ap. "There were multiple holes there and they keep getting bigger," he said. "We made the right decision. We are battling for our beliefs."