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Support for Baron's South senior project voiced at RTM session

Published 6:23 am, Tuesday, November 13, 2012
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In a boost for First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property, several key Representative Town Meeting members signaled Monday night that they favor moving ahead with the project.

While no vote was taken Monday by the RTM, the meeting served as a gauge of the legislative body's general view of the Baron's South Committee's recommendation to construct a senior living center with about 100 units at Baron's South, proposed by the Jonathan Rose Companies development firm.

A majority of RTM members who spoke during the meeting said they do not think the town needed to issue a new request for proposals for the senior residential campus.

"I don't think there's any point in going back and issuing a new RFP," said RTM Deputy Moderator Eileen Flug, who represents District 9, which includes Baron's South. "We might get a different proposal, but I'm not sure we'd get a better proposal. The big risk is the delay. It took almost a year to get where we are now from the last RFP."

RTM members' stance comes at a critical time for the proposed Baron's South residential project. The Baron's South Committee -- a nine-member panel appointed last year by Joseloff -- endorsed the Jonathan Rose development proposal in September.

But Board of Finance members reacted unenthusiastically last month to that recommendation, expressing disappointment with the projected revenue streams for the Jonathan Rose plan. At the end of their October meeting, Board of Finance Vice Chairwoman Helen Garten called for a "reset," indicating that she hoped that a new RFP would be released.

In apparent response to that criticism, Joseloff announced at the beginning of Monday's meeting that the Baron's South Committee recommended to him during the last week that the town issue a new RFP with a "significantly lower" threshold for "affordable" or below-market-rate units.

"I'm absolutely willing to do this to keep the vision of mixed-income rental housing for seniors alive," Joseloff said.

But that proposal gained little traction. In contrast to finance board members' view, a number of RTM members argued that the use of Baron's South should not be viewed solely through a fiscal prism.

"I completely reject the concept that that piece of land was bought for us to make a profit on," said RTM Planning and Zoning Committee Chairman Matthew Mandell. "A piece of town land is to be used as we feel. If that is to benefit the community by some affordable and senior housing then that's what we do, regardless of the financial impact."

Jack Klinge, District 7, expressed a similar viewpoint.

"This land was never about money," he said. "It's about the betterment of Westport, its citizens, and for public use. It was never about a return on an investment."

The 23-acre Baron's South property was acquired for $7 million in 1999 during the tenure of Joseloff's predecessor, then-First Selectwoman Diane Farrell. The Board of Finance, which included current Selectwoman Shelly Kassen, approved that purchase the year before.

John McCarthy, District 9, the RTM member who has been among the most critical of the review process of the developers' proposals, did not attend Monday's meeting. He was on a flight Monday night to San Francisco, according to a letter of his read during the meeting by Mandell. McCarthy's message reiterated concerns he has raised in recent weeks about the integrity and transparency of the Baron's South Committee's review procedures.

Despite his absence, McCarthy offered a scathing critique of the meeting on Twitter early Tuesday morning.

"Westport CT corrupt town government," he tweeted. "I am embarrassed to be a part of it. Really shameful stuff, it's as bad as you can imagine."

The proposals

Along with Jonathan Rose, the two other consortiums that submitted development plans for Baron's South each made presentations Monday to the RTM.

- The Baron's South Committee-endorsed Jonathan Rose plan would include 59 "below-market-rate units and 40 market-rate units. The firm would pay a $500,000 fee to lease Baron's South and contribute $250,000 annually to the town in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, also known as PILOT.

- The Westport-based Affirmative Hillspoint group proposed a more expansive development project, known as a continuing-care retirement community. It would include 220 residential units and a 48-bed skilled nursing center. Seventy of the residential units would be subsidized by a "scholarship" program funded by the $1.25 million annual ground rent that Affirmative Hillspoint proposed to pay to the town. Affirmative Hillspoint would also pay $1.018 annually in real estate taxes to the town, according to its proposal.

Baron's South Committee members have said repeatedly in recent weeks that they did not recommend Affirmative Hillspoint's plan because it did not meet the parameters of the town's RFP.

- Becker + Becker, a Fairfield-based firm, proposed an approximately 100-unit residential complex, which would connect to the Westport Center for Senior Activities, which opened in 2004 at Baron's South. During its first eight years, Becker + Becker's senior campus would generate between approximately $103,000 and $134,000 in real estate taxes to the town, according to Becker + Becker's proposal.

Baron's South Committee Co-Chairman Steve Daniels said Monday the committee did not recommend Becker + Becker's proposal because it generated the lowest return on investment for the town and relied significantly on outside funding.

Audience approval

More than 100 people came to Monday's RTM session, one of the largest crowds at a town government hearing in the last two years. About a dozen attendees spoke -- several of them senior citizens -- with all of them expressing support for senior residential housing at Baron's South.

Julie Belaga, a former Westport state representative, endorsed Jonathan Rose Companies' president, Jonathan Rose.

"This man is a man of integrity, intelligence and he brings to every project he builds a real concern and interest in the environment," she said.

Stan Witkow, who referred to himself as "Nimby Stan," indicated his support for the project provided that Joseloff proceeded with the Jonathan Rose proposal.

"I can live with the proposal," he said. "It's gone through the process. The time, I think, has come to go forward and build this project as recommended."

Newly re-elected state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the state General Assembly's Aging Committee, signaled his backing as well for senior housing at Baron's South. He added that he would not favor a "re-boot" of the project.

After the meeting, Joseloff told the Westport News that he would wait until the RTM met again Tuesday night to decide whether to move ahead with the Jonathan Rose proposal.

"I think we need to see what they're going to do," he added. "We'll see, tomorrow night, to be continued. I'm encouraged by what I heard tonight."

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