On April 21 or 28, the RTM will resolve the most controversial decision in recent town memory; specifically, the decision by four members of the Planning and Zoning Commission to limit the use of the 22 acres of Baron's South to passive recreation (open space). With their vote, they sabotaged the plans of both the Joseloff and Marpe administrations to use 3.3 acres of the parcel for a senior, affordable housing complex and for an assisted living facility. They also greatly complicated any future plans for expanding the overcrowded, existing senior center. Let me try to set the "stage" for the April meeting.

I believe I can comfortably conclude that the community will initially favor preserving open space for reasons that don't require a great deal of elaboration. First and foremost will be the arguments for restricting more development near the center of town and the concerns about traffic. For many that would be the end of the discussion, which would be unfortunate even as I, in most situations, would readily join their ranks. The well-thought-out plan for using the 3.3 acres for a housing complex and senior amenities deserves careful consideration. Not to be overlooked is the additional plan to keep the remaining 16 acres as open space.

What are the pluses for overturning the P&Z vote and allowing the proposed project to proceed through the town approval process? There are many.

1. It is an irrefutable fact that our community needs senior affordable housing.

2. Until our community provides more affordable housing to its citizens, state law will expose us to unplanned projects by unknown developers in areas that are much less suitable for them than Baron's South.

3. The assisted-living component of the plan will be a community asset for Westporters in need of such a facility who do not want to leave their hometown or Westporters who wish to have an aging parent close to home.

4. The developer has included in its plan an amenity center, including a pool, a state-of-the-art, expanded exercise room and equipment and meeting rooms that will be available to patrons of the Senior Center. The need and expense for the town to expand and enhance the Senior Center (projected to be $4 million +/-) will be addressed at no cost to taxpayers.

5. For scenic and coverage concerns, the plan includes underground parking.

6. Traffic will be limited to Imperial Avenue and a new access road will be built. (I am speculating that seniors and patients don't use their cars as often as most others among us.)

7. The selected developer of the project has a national reputation for building and running well-built, quality facilities. The design for the buildings will be colonial, and to most observers, it is very attractive.

8. The developer will pay an upfront sum of $1,000,000 for a 98-year ground lease from the town and will thereafter pay property taxes in the approximate sum of $525,000 annually.

9. The developer, at its expense, will clean up and improve the remaining 16 contiguous acres of Baron's South for passive recreation and will maintain it thereafter.

10. The development will have 50 affordable independent-living apartments with projected rents ranging from $865 to $1,200/month and 25 moderate-rate independent-living apartments with projected rents of $2,500/month.

11. The developer has proposed to include a Westport priority in the leasing of the apartments, mitigating the concerns of some that a lease of town land should serve local community needs.

In closing, I make the observation that Baron's South is a greatly under-utilized town asset which generates no income. Because of poor maintenance, it actually represents a liability. If we were to ultimately approve the Baron's South project, the following would be true. For cost-conscience citizens, the proposal generates a great deal of money which can be used to lower taxes. For the people involved in and supporting the Downtown Steering Committee's efforts, the revenue stream could pay for municipal improvements including the downtown traffic flow enhancements, a better parking plan, a new Library Lane and more. For open space advocates, apart from preserving the 16 acres, the money could be used to purchase conservation easements or other open space parcels (e.g., Kowalsky property).

I will be urging RTM members to vote to overturn the P&Z. I hope you agree that the advantages and compromises of this project will make for a more vibrant community addressing a need that has for way too long gone unaddressed.

Ken Bernhard