By Paul Schott

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff's proposal to build a senior residential center and skilled-nursing facility at the town-owned Baron's South property faced another round of public debate Monday night, as members of the Baron's South Committee and the public gathered at the Westport Center for Senior Activities to discuss the future of the project.

Formed this year by Joseloff to draft plans to solicit bids from prospective developers of the complex, the nine-member committee hosted the meeting as the first in a series of community forums intended to rally public support for the project and to show how the senior campus correlates to trends in senior care.

"It's going to be a compendium of what we think are the best practices, the best developments and the best of what we think is good for Westport," committee Co-Chairman Steve Daniels said of the senior complex. "If you bear with us through this process, I think you'll be proud of what happens in terms of having something that will address aging in Westport."

The forum took place nearly a month after the senior complex survived its most serious challenge when the Representative Town Meeting rejected a petition filed by resident Bart Shuldman and approximately 60 others that sought to overturn a zoning amendment approved in May by the Planning and Zoning Commission that allowed the project to advance. While debate over the petition was punctuated by criticism of Joseloff's proposal, Selectman Shelly Kassen, an ex-officio member of the Baron's South Committee, said the review of the appeal had benefited the project.

"I think, in the end, that was a very fine experience," she said. "We were able to gather more community input, answer more questions and get more people involved."

Committee members have said they intend to finish the "request for proposals" from developers and put the senior complex out to bid by early October. A preliminary plan for the project envisions 66 units at the senior residential center, which would also be supported by assisted-living services. At least 60 percent of the residential units would be leased below the market rate or as "affordable" housing, in accordance with the amendment approved by the P&Z. Kassen indicated, however, that the proportion of market-rate to "affordable" units could change.

"It may be that when we go out to bid, we will not discourage bidders from coming back with proposals that have a larger affordability percentage or a smaller affordability percentage," she said. "If to get this built we have to have fewer affordable units, and we can satisfy the requirements and desires of a variety of boards and commissions in town, we're not going to... say, `No that's not good enough.'"

Julie Robison, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut's Center on Aging, headlined the forum with a presentation on a range of issues facing senior care in Connecticut. Paralleling nationwide demographic trends, Robison said Connecticut's 65-and-over population is projected to increase by more than 60 percent between 2006 and 2030.

Coinciding with that rise, Robison said that a nationwide push is under way to shift or "rebalance" senior care from an institutional-dominated paradigm to a focus on home- and community-based services. Institutional care comprised 65 percent or approximately $1.6 billion of Medicaid spending on long-term care in Connecticut during the 2009 fiscal year, Robison added.

The housing and health-care facilities at Baron's South would respectively be grouped into the home and community-based services and institutional care categories, Robison noted.

"Rebalancing doesn't mean getting rid altogether of the institutional care," she said. "It means providing a range of services that meet people's needs, and preferably they're high quality, and people will choose the one that fits."

More than 100 people attended the forum, with audience comments mostly limited to questions for Robison and members of the committee.

The next community forum on the Baron's South project will be held Sept. 26 at a yet-to-be confirmed location. Discussion at that meeting will focus on skilled nursing, Kassen said. The Baron's South Committee will also meet with RTM members Aug. 9 for another discussion of the senior complex.