Baron's South senior project questioned during P&Z review

Photo of Paul Schott

New zoning regulations proposed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to facilitate construction of a new senior living and care center got mixed reviews at a Westport Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last Thursday as the legal and financial viability of the project were questioned.

"It's housing for seniors and it's a health care facility," Joseloff said. "Your mother-in-law falls down, or someone visiting, and they need to recuperate. Imagine having a facility in the center of Westport for them to do that."

The zoning changes, as proposed in Text Amendment 625, would pave the way for a new senior residential community and a health care facility at the town-owned Baron's South property, a 23-acre site located between Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue.

In a preliminary plan submitted to the P&Z last October, Joseloff proposed three levels of care at the senior complex: independent and assisted living facilities within the senior residential community and 24-hour professional care for seniors to be provided at the health-care facility.

Stamford-based land use consultant Rick Redniss, who helped draft the amendment, led the presentation of the proposal at the P&Z meeting.

"The purpose is to take advantage of Baron's South with all of its curses and blessings and optimize the use for town purposes," he said.

Commissioners had a guarded response to the proposal, quizzing Redniss on several key points, notably on whether a new senior complex would comply with the Fair Housing Act, federal legislation passed in 1968 that outlaws housing discrimination.

While that act forbids discrimination based on an individual's race, gender or disability, it does not specify whether a town could enact geographical discrimination to give housing preferences to its own residents. Text Amendment 625, as currently written, does not include a priority system that would guarantee housing for Westport residents at the project.

In a subsequent e-mail to the Westport News, Redniss said the Baron's senior center likely would have a priority system, provided that it complies with the Fair Housing Act.

"While you can't guarantee 100 percent Westport [residents], the likelihood is it will be predominately Westport," he said in the message.

Early in the hearing, commissioners debated whether the P&Z would have to seek independent legal counsel to assess the legal ramifications of the Baron's South plan.

Commissioner Michael Krawiec argued that the P&Z's solicitation of input from Town Attorney Ira Bloom could constitute a conflict of interest as Bloom also provides counsel to Joseloff.

P&Z Chairman Ron Corwin disagreed.

"It strikes me that to make the judgment that we need independent counsel before we understand what the nature of the questions are is premature," he said.

Krawiec later made a motion for the P&Z to seek outside legal opinion, but his proposal failed by a 3-4 vote.

Several commissioners also requested an appraisal of the Baron's South property, as well as input on the project from the Board of Finance.

Public reaction to the proposal was split. Several speakers argued that the first selectman's plan to lease the Baron's South property was not economically viable and that the process for approving the project is flawed.

"It's the perfect Catch-22 situation where we don't know if we like the economics of this public/private venture until we change the zoning regulations that would permit bids," said former Board of Finance member John Laurino.

"But we may then find that if we reject those terms once known, we can't attract private capital to fulfill the same senior need either," he added.

Joseloff's plan currently calls for the town to issue a request for proposals to developers following approval of the zoning amendment.

Supporters of the seniors' complex argued, however, the project would offer an affordable alternative to escalating homeownership costs for many older adults. In his preliminary plan, Joseloff proposed that 60 percent of the senior living center's residential units be allocated for affordable housing.

"I live in an old place, and I really can't afford to stay there anymore," said Pat Dorbandt. "I'd hate to leave Westport. I just hope that I'm still around when this facility is built."

The town acquired Baron's South in 1999 for $7 million. The Center for Senior Activities opened there in 2004, but most of the property remains undeveloped.

If Text Amendment 625 is approved, Joseloff's plan would require P&Z approval of the property's lease as well as backing for site plans.

The P&Z's review of Joseloff's senior living center proposal will resume at another public hearing set for March 10 in Town Hall.