Plans for Baron's South senior care complex face new questions
Updated 5:09 pm, Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The zoning amendment proposed by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to facilitate construction of a new senior living and care center on the town-owned Baron's South property again faced criticism last Thursday, as the Planning and Zoning Commission continued its review of the project.
Joseloff's plan for the senior complex has come under increased scrutiny from town officials and residents in recent weeks, as he tries to advance one of the cornerstone projects of his tenure. Following lengthy review last week by the Board of Finance, he agreed to that panel's request for a new appraisal of the 23-acre Baron's South property, which borders Compo Road South and Imperial Avenue.
On Thursday, Catherine Walsh emerged as the P&Z's most vocal critic of Joseloff's proposed Text Amendment 625, as she questioned the review process for the senior complex.
"There are so many questions yet to be asked," she said. "The more I hear, I think that there are too many people in Westport who are aging who will not be served by the project as proposed."
Joseloff responded, though, that his plan for a new senior campus had been thoroughly vetted.
"We've been assessing this for about five years," he said. "We've discussed it with about everybody we can think of."
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 at a health-care facility.
The preliminary plan also proposed that 60 percent of the senior living center's residential units be allocated for affordable housing. To achieve this goal, the living center would likely be run by a nonprofit organization, which would lease the land from the town.
Determining eligibility requirements for the senior campus' affordable housing units emerged as another point of inquiry for commissioners on Thursday. Ellie Lowenstein and David Press called for a financial asset test for prospective affordable housing residents to be considered for inclusion in Text Amendment 625.
"I think there have to be certain things along this line addressed," Press said. "Many things are addressed here --maybe not to the level of specificity that might come out later -- but really need to be discussed because we're discussing using town property."
Current town zoning regulations do not mandate asset tests for town housing, and 625 also does not include guidelines for determining applicants' financial eligibility. Land-use consultant Richard Redniss, one of the authors of 625, argued that such a stipulation did not belong in zoning regulations, as it would be dictated instead by state and federal laws.
"I think we're trying to take a concept and force it in where it's not needed, and it may actually cause problems," he said.
The senior living center would also have to comply with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlaws housing discrimination.
The act forbids discrimination based on an individual's race, gender or disability, but it does not specify whether a town could enact geographical discrimination to give housing preferences to its own residents.
Town Attorney Ira Bloom said on Thursday, however, that the living center could legally give admission preferences to Westport residents.
Public opinion of the senior complex was also divided. Mirroring Walsh's viewpoint, several residents criticized the review process of the senior complex.
"This has not been a process that reflects the will of the people," said Helen Martin Block, a former P&Z commissioner.
In contrast, Joseloff's plan has garnered strong support from many Westport seniors, including several who spoke on Thursday.
"Many of my friends are getting more feeble and looking for alternative ways to live," said Jorgen Jensen, 81. "The alternative right now is to move out of town, so I really want you to endorse this proposal."
If Text Amendment 625 is approved, Joseloff's plan would also require P&Z approval of the property's lease as well as backing for site plans.
The P&Z has now concluded its public hearings for Text Amendment 625. It has 65 days from Thursday to take a vote on the amendment.