Recreational use of Baron’s South triggers new debate
WESTPORT — What kind of activities are permitted on the town-owned Baron’s South property — the topic of debate for debate and failed proposals since the town acquired the 22-acre site in 1999 — triggered new arguments Thursday as the Planning and Zoning Commission considered an amendment that would tweak its open space rules.
The amendment would modify wording of the rules for a Dedicated Open Space and Recreation District (DOSRD) in order to allow limited growth and expansion of existing uses and structures on the property. Moreover, it would add definitions for structure heights and define "municipal use” allowed within the district.
After the P&Z voted in March 2015 to designate Baron’s South a DOSRD, officials have been considering what ways the tract might used, other than passive recreation. The property, for more than five years before that, had been under consideration as the site for a housing/care complex for senior citizens, the last version of which would have had 165 units. That project would have been built on a slice of the property slightly larger than three acres near the Westport Center for Senior Activities.
Since then, a committee led by Selectman Helen Garten has been exploring possible repurposing of buildings on the property. Golden Shadows, the mansion built by the late perfume magnate Baron Walter von Langendorff at 68 Compo Road South when he owned the property, is the largest structure on the site.
Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Charles Haberstroh discussed with the P&Z questions by Parks and Recreation Director Jen Fava over whether facilities for activities, such as bocce or pickleball, would be allowed on the site.
"Throughout the entire evolution of everything here the people were loud and clear that they wanted to have this as a passive use park," P&Z Commissioner Catherine Walsh said in response to possible development of courts on the site. "We’re just really sticking with what we heard over the past couple of years."
Haberstroh explained that he, along with Fava, were "just raising issues of recreational facilities that we think would be interesting for seniors to keep them active in the immediate area surrounding the senior center."
P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens said the commission may favor some ideas that parks and recreation officials have suggested, such as nature trails. However, Stephens added, "We are not amenable to equipment or fields or courts being constructed.”
Referencing an email from Fava about possible uses, Commissioner Jack Whittle said, "Her second paragraph, when she’s talking about pickleball courts, that’s different. That’s an organized disturbance of the site creating a pickleball court, which we have down in Compo."
"We are fully in favor of utilizing this property as we fought to get it and keep it. The hiking is great, the birding is great, the enjoying nature is great, but when we start intruding in with fixed courts, nets or anything else … that’s not what we intended," Stephens said.
Garten, who has been a driving force behind orchestrating a "gentle" repurposing Baron’s South, explained to the commission that because the text "municipal use" is not clearly defined, it is difficult to establish uses permitted for the property with architect Bill Achilles, who has been hired to explore repurposing of Golden Shadows and other buildings on the propery. Garten said that since any new uses may require a lease, she sought clarification of the amendment’s text.
"I’m trying to understand a little better what your intention is with respect to these words,” Garten said. “Municipal use is not really defined anywhere in your regulations. In the special permit regulations you talk about government buildings etc. ... but I think it’s very possible that whatever we do with these five buildings is going to involve a lease.”
After lengthy discussion Whittle said that if a lease is consistent with DOSRD-2, it shouldn’t be an issue. Garten was content with the answer.
Don Bergmann asked the commission to wait before closing public discussion until hearing more input on possible uses for the property. He went on to say, however, that the P&Z’s message to him and the senior center members is that "you’re not going to approve a bocce ball court." Walsh, who said she had met numerous times with senior center patrons, took exception to Bergmann’s statement, triggering a heated back and forth.
Later, Commissioner Paul Lebowitz advocated for more time to discuss the issue, which Whittle opposed. The two continued trading points before Stephens called for order.
The issue was closed and will be addressed in work session at the P&Z’s next meeting.
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