Senior housing plan supporters prepare for next step

A conceptual plan for senior housing at Baron's South. The project is in its early stages.
A conceptual plan for senior housing at Baron's South. The project is in its early stages.Contributed Graphic/Contributed Photo

A meeting of at least 50 people geared up Tuesday night for what could be a prolonged process to build senior housing on the town-owned Baron's South property.

"There's always that one group of people that will say, `This is terrible. It can't be done. It shouldn't be done,' " said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who is pushing for the project. "There are some people who believe the role of town government is not to provide for services to its citizens. Everybody has to fend for themselves. I'm not one [of them]."

Joseloff said in an e-mail that it's too early to tell how much taxpayer money would have to be used for the project since a request for proposals for partnership with a nonprofit company has yet to be filed.

"What I can say [is that] our goal is to minimize the impact on taxpayers," he said.

Joseloff and other town officials presented their plans to a joint meeting at the Westport Center for Senior Activities with the Long Range Planning Committee of the Representative Town Meeting and the Senior Services Commission.

Most in the audience were senior citizens, and feedback ranged from receptive to enthusiastic.

Lynda Tucker, who works for Mid-Fairfield Hospice, believes the proposed senior housing facility could provide a better life for older residents in the area.

"I don't think there are many people that aware of the fact that there are very fragile, very vulnerable people that are living isolated, by themselves, in homes in this area," Tucker said. "I don't think [a person's] end of life should be spent in a room with three young strangers."

The proposed senior housing could be a model for other communities, according to Stanley Nayer, chairman of the Senior Services Commission.

"We're in a perfect situation," he said. "We're at a time when interest rates are its lowest, where developers are looking for projects that will work."

The intended renters include Westport residents looking to remain in the area, parents of Westport residents who want to move to the area to be close to family and seniors who have been on an affordable housing waiting list for years. However, Joseloff said that in order to conform to state guidelines, the housing will also have to be open to people with no connection to Westport.

This concerned Gloria Silver, who thinks that the housing should restricted to Westport residents and that 66 units would not be enough.

"We have all paid taxes here for the lifetime we've been living here," she said. "I can't understand why other people will be allowed in just because they are related people, and then we can't get in."

The preliminary plan for the land between Imperial Avenue and Compo Road South calls for 66 units of one- and two-bedroom rentals. More than half of the units will be available to people earning approximately $50,000. The unoccupied Baron's mansion, presently used to store books for the library's book sale, would be converted into a skilled nursing facility with 84 beds, private bathrooms and a den/spa.

Assisted living services, such as prepared meals, hospice care and housekeeping would be available.

According Selectmen Shelley Kassen, studies have shown that "the economics of the deal would work" as long as a majority of the rental units are deemed affordable by state guidelines.

"Bottom line, we own this property as a town, as a community. It's a public property and we'd like to use it for a public good," Kassen said.

With a favorable response for the plan, members of the audience were wondering what they could do to move the project along. First, approval to use the town-owned land for housing would have to be granted and then a nonprofit partner would have to be found. Finally, the application process for the actual project would begin.

"Westporters are innovative," said Carol Waxman, a former Westport resident who moved to Fairfield. "They have fought battles to get what they know is right."