Baron's South again under microscope
First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposed senior residential complex at the town-owned Baron's South property will again face scrutiny Wednesday, when the Board of Finance reviews the town's request for proposals from prospective developers of the site.
Drafted by members of the Baron's South Committee, a panel formed earlier this year by Joseloff, the request for proposals would solicit plans for construction of a multi-unit housing development. Both nonprofit and for-profit developers would be eligible to make bids.
"We'd like to ensure from a financial perspective that this is the most valuable use of a town asset," said finance board member Avi Kaner. "And, in supporting these types of projects, we would need to understand what percentage of the Westport population would benefit from such a project."
The finance board's evaluation of the request -- commonly called an RFP -- culminates a year of close inspection by town officials of Joseloff's proposed senior complex. In May, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a text amendment that provided the zoning framework for development of a senior residential community at Baron's South. That decision was appealed by a group of residents to the Representative Town Meeting, which upheld the P&Z's verdict in June. Since then, the RTM's Planning and Zoning and Long Range Planning Committees have held two meetings to review the Baron's South Committee's RFP.
The finance board last reviewed Joseloff's plans for the complex in April, when it rejected his request for a $10,000 appropriation for a new appraisal of the property. Joseloff so far has not submitted another appraisal proposal to the finance panel, which next week will seat four members elected in last month's town election.
The senior campus could include up to 100 one-bedroom and two-bedroom rental units, according to a recent draft of the RFP. The text amendment approved by the P&Z mandates that at least 60 percent of those units be leased as "affordable," or below the market rate. The town would lease the 23-acre Baron's South property to any operator(s) of the senior campus' facilities.
The town would receive a revenue stream and/or an initial capital payment for the lease of Baron's South, according to the recent draft RFP. A nonprofit developer would likely make payments in lieu of taxes, while a for-profit firm would probably pay property taxes. The town would not make any "financial contribution" to the planning, design, construction, or operation of the senior complex, the draft RFP also states.
Kaner, however, recommends that the town also explore the financial viability of other uses of the site, such as a commercial development.
"You've got several large corporations based in Westport, and they generate a substantial amount of property taxes, which help keep our residential property taxes lower," he added. "Adding another such entity would further alleviate the residential property tax burden."
The town acquired the Baron's South property in 1999 for $7 million. In 2004, the Westport Center for Senior Activities opened at the site, which is located between Imperial Avenue and Compo Road South. Most of the land there, however, remains undeveloped. In addition to the P&Z, other town bodies such as the Parks and Recreation Commission have indicated support for new development at Baron's South.
"Unfortunately, we're not maximizing the utilization of Baron's South right now," said Janis Collins, a new finance board member and former chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Commission. "It's beautiful, and it has tremendous possibilities for trails and public access."
After it evaluates the RFP, the Board of Finance will likely continue to play an active role in subsequent stages of the review of the proposed senior complex. The town charter, for instance, calls for the board to make a recommendation on the prospective lease of any municipal property, such as Baron's South.
The Baron's South Committee aims to finish and send out the RFP by Dec. 15, Selectwoman Shelly Kassen told the RTM P&Z and Long Range Planning Committees at an Oct. 26 meeting. Any development proposal would also require site plan and special permit approval from the P&Z before construction could begin at Baron's South.