RTM upholds open space designation for Baron's South
The controversial designation of the town-owned Baron's South property as open space was upheld during a Tuesday night special session of the Representative Town Meeting where debate continued into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
The full RTM decided after more than six hours of discussion not to overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission's vote in March to classify as open space the 22-acre property adjacent to downtown. Two-thirds of the legislative body -- or 24 votes -- would have been needed to reverse the P&Z decision. The vote was 20 yes to 14 no, four votes short of the number needed.
Four petitions had been filed by citizens asking that the P&Z decision be reversed and the RTM's Planning and Zoning Committee on April 20 had recommended the full body overturn the zoners.
"I was torn on this issue," said RTM member Kristan Hamlin, District 4. She said her constituents expressed concerns that trees at the property would be torn down and parking lots constructed" if a senior housing/care project proposed for a slice of the property were built.
Baron's South, for more than five years, has been under consideration as the site for a housing/care complex for senior citizens, the latest version of which would comprise 165 units. That project would be built on a slice of the property just over three acres near the Westport Center for Senior Activities, according to the latest plan by developer Jonathan Rose Cos.
The P&Z's open-space decision in March came a week after the developer filed a pre-application for the seniors' project with the P&Z, which prompted proponents of the project to begin circulating their petitions calling for reversal.
"We bought Baron's South to stop a developer from buying it, but now we are considering giving it away to a developer," Hamlin added.
RTM member Clarissa Moore, District 4, said keeping the property as open space "would benefit everybody and increase the beauty of the town. She said Baron's South was never "a good fit" for the senior housing development and suggested a developer "buys some land" for the project.
RTM member Lynn Hogan, District 3, was one of several members who questioned the P&Z's process in making its decision. "This matter needs to be fully discussed and debated," she said. "This is not about housing, but the process," she added. "Is it fair that four P&Z members made this decision?" she said. "If there is any indication of impropriety, we need to overturn."
"I got hundreds of emails," said RTM member Jeffrey Wieser, District 4. "This debate isn't about seniors," he said, adding the decision on future use of the property should be made by more than "four people on the P&Z."
"I know the P&Z's heart was in the right place, but they got this very wrong," said RTM member Rick Weber, District 9. "Let's be the moral conscious of our community. It was wrong for the P&Z to rezone Baron's South before seeing the developer's plan."
RTM member Jack Klinge, District 7, said that when the town agreed to purchase the Baron's estate in 1999 "it was simple and straight-forward that it be for municipal use." He said over the years the property was considered for many uses, including a police headquarters and affordable housing for town employees but none of those were approved. He said overturning the P&Z vote would leave room for more discussion.
RTM member Peter Gold, District 5, said he was "more than a little annoyed by the process that got us here tonight." He added he didn't want to see anything on the Baron's South property "that isn't already there."
"This has been a very unpleasant, very messy process, said RTM member John Suggs, District 5, who noted this was his "most important vote" in seven years.
"It hasn't been Westport at our finest," he said, referring to claims made concerning conflicts of interest by proponents on both sides of the issue. "I ask (First Selectman) Jim Marpe to have everyone file disclosure statements. We have to clean up our act."
He said the commission "didn't follow its own rules" and that's the reason the decision should be overturned.
Only four of the seven P&Z commission members voted for the open space designation. P&Z member David Lessing, who was not at that March meeting, spoke Tuesday night, agreeing with Mandell. "We know we can say the process wasn't rushed, but it was rushed," he said. "This is not about open space, but how we make decisions as a town."
Prior to the vote, the petitioners presented their case to the RTM. "I'm here on behalf of 482 petitioners who want the property available for municipal purposes," said Ken Bernhard, a member of the Baron's South Committee. "There are no personal agendas here only a community allegiance."
He said the property was bought for municipal use and not "just open space." If that was the case, he said, "we wouldn't have a senior center there." The center is located on the property and the housing proposal would have added amenities to it.
Wendy Crowther, the only person to present a petition supporting the P&Z decision, said, "The land and its location doesn't favor development."
P&Z Commission Chairman Chip Stephens, who voted for the open space designation, said the panel's decision was based on criteria in the town's Plan of Conservation and Development which states the zoning commission should "preserve, enhance and protect the natural environment." He said his commission's "primary responsibility for promoting the implementation of the POCD."
"I can't tell you how many pre-apps we see," said fellow P&Z member Cathy Walsh, who also voted for the designation. "We did not rush this. We spent a lot of time and we followed the process."
"This was discussed over a four-month period," added Jack Whittle, the P&Z vice chairman, about the vote. "We didn't do it to beat the developer to the punch," he said. "Should we have waited," he asked. "Waited for what?"
But P&Z member Andra Vebell, the only member to vote against the designation, urged the RTM to overturn the commission vote, saying, "The concept of development deserves further discussion."