P&Z ends marathon hearings on Baron's South plan, prepares for vote
The Planning and Zoning Commission, after five sessions spanning several months, on Thursday finally ended the public hearing on a revised text amendment change that would allow the Baron's South senior housing complex to move forward.
And, after a brief late-evening discussion, the commission agreed to table the matter for a possible decision to its Sept. 18 meeting.
"I think we've had so many inputs over the past two and a half months ... I really implore everybody ... to start sitting down and distilling your notes to a readable fashion, so we can have an intelligent discussion," said P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens.
First Selectman Jim Marpe has asked the commission to make six changes to a previously approved zoning regulation that, among other things, requires a larger percentage of "affordable" housing units in any senior housing project on town-owned land, such as the Baron's South project. The revised amendment would change the language from a requirement that 60 percent of the 135 rental units proposed at Baron's South be reduced to 20 percent, with another 20 percent rented at "below the market rate" in Westport. The rest of the units would be leased at market rates.
Marpe revised the proposal from nine changes in the regulation to six following questions raised at a hearing in July. "We hope to convince you that the remaining amendments are necessary to permit the town to move forward with a senior residential community on town-owned land," he told the commission in a letter dated Aug. 27.
Among the changes, Marpe gave specifics regarding the "amenities" that would be acceptable on the property, including cafes, salons, meeting rooms and pools.
Also, in response to questions about why there were two-bedroom market-rate units, but no two-bedroom affordable units allowed under the regulation, Marpe said it was "an excellent point raised by the commission," and consequently deleted the change request.
"My administration, as the applicant, wants to satisfy all your concerns," he told the P&Z Thursday.
However, concerns lingered over whether the developer of the seniors complex was getting too good a deal; whether other parcels of town-owned land could potentially be affected by the change in the regulation; if the project would increase congestion, and more.
"It's clearly not a simple decision," said Michael Winser, who was among dozens of residents who spoke on the proposal.
"I don't love this version of the proposal, (but) I've learned the value of compromise," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136, who spoke in favor of the project and the zoning change.
"We could spend many, many more years trying to please everyone and make this thing perfect, and we would still not have affordable housing in Westport," he said, noting there is an "urgent need."
"I would love to noodle this and improve it and deal with all the contingencies ...," Steinberg added. "It can definitely be made better ... (but) I'm not sure that if we don't do this project as well as we can ... whether this project will be done ... and that will be our loss."
"The deal is great -- great for the developer and not for the town," said Ellen van Dorsten, who opposed the revised amendment.
"I'm very much for senior housing," she said. "I just don't think this was well-conceived ... Renegotiations could result in a better outcome for all town residents."
"No one is asking for the project to die, (but) there are unintended consequences in passing any text amendment, as we have seen," she said.
Selectman Avi Kaner, who has spearheaded negotiations on the project, outlined several reasons why he believes it's impractical -- or not in the town's best interest -- to go forward with a 60 percent affordable housing requirement.
"The Board of Finance rejected the original proposal ... unanimously," said Kaner, who was serving as the finance chairman at that time, for "three primary reasons." These included "negligible financial return," a limit to group amenities and a need for government funding.
"As soon as you use government money to develop a project such as this, you can no longer get to control who gets to live in a project," he said, which means the town could no longer prioritize residents for housing.
Before Thursday's meeting adjourned, Town Attorney Ira Bloom weighed in with some suggestions for the P&Z's Sept. 18 work session.
"It often pays to try to structure this, because this is a complicated amendment," he said, noting there were actually six separate amendments.
"How you structure your discussions can help lead to a better result," he said. "You may need one session just to find out where people stand on this ... And then you go from there."