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Out of the Woods / New Year's wish: affordable senior housing

Published 3:23 pm, Friday, January 4, 2013
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If there is one pressing need in our town above all others, it is for the town to make it possible for longtime residents to remain here in their golden years.

(Full disclosure: This writer is one of those seniors.)

I was profoundly disappointed by the Board of Finance's rejection of a 2011 proposal -- strongly backed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff -- to make 60 percent of residential units "affordable" in a proposed 99-unit housing development on the 23-acre Baron's South property. Those units have been slashed to a few as 20 percent of the total number.

The proposed independent-living center previously has been endorsed by the town's Baron's South Committee. The plan called for mixed rental housing for senior citizens, plus a health care facility.

The Board of Finance was short-sighted in changing its requirements. The new provision asks a developer to disregard a text amendment of the town's zoning regulations approved in 2011 by the Planning and Zoning Commission, according to a story by Paul Schott in this newspaper last Friday.

Much to his credit, Joseloff has been the leading proponent of the senior housing proposal -- an innovative concept which could well be seen as a singular accomplishment and, perhaps, his legacy.

Joseloff and the Baron's South Committee are now faced with a new request for proposal after the finance board changed its mind. The original plan was submitted by the firm of Jonathan Rose Company in September.

It all boils down to the profit motive. We have reached a sorry point in Westport's history where we can no longer plan to develop anything in the public interest at an "affordable" cost because real estate developers are far more interested in making money than they are in serving the public.

I hope that Joseloff and other town officials will reverse the new requirement permitting as few as 20 percent of the units built to be "affordable." Such a plan does little, if anything, to lessen the burden of long-time seniors who can no longer afford to remain in Westport.

Isn't it about time that we come to our senses and provide an opportunity for those families who have contributed so much to our town to remain here-- a place where they have paid taxes and given so much during their lifetimes?

I hate to admit it, but I think our town has gone off the tracks when it comes to decent, fundamental values. We have become so accustomed to bowing to the profit motive that it seems only that which , turns a sizeable profit can be built here.

As one who has written our town's history, I know this has not always been the case. There was a time when the citizens of Westport had far more control over their own destiny. There was a time when our values put the interest of our residents above the interests of greedy developers and financial profiteers who want nothing more than to use our town as a piggy bank.

In many ways, we have become a microcosm of a social malady that has all but corrupted values throughout the nation: money and the accumulation of wealth is all that seems to matter anymore. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened to the point where we can no longer consider ourselves a nation that puts the public interest of the many before the private cravings of the few.

Westport has become a feeding trough for developers who want nothing more than to make a killing off the high-priced land in our beautiful 22.1-acre tract.

That is the sad but stark truth.

It is my wish that in this new year, we all search our souls and begin to object to what I would call the radical changing of a town in which we once took pride as a genuine New England village, with straight-talking people of solid values and good intentions. We kept the promise of a carefully controlled and beneficial development of our town well into the 20th century.

Now in the 21st century we are going astray. I suggest we take a good, hard look at the plans on the drawing board to make certain they are what we want for the future. If they are not, scrap them.

Stand up for what has become a generations-old tradition of maintaining the spirit and heritage of Westport.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" column normally appears every other Wednesday but appears on Friday this week because there was no Wednesday edition.