Senior housing in limbo after demise of Baron's South plan
The RTM, in a six-hour meeting that ended early Wednesday, failed to overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission's designation of the town-owned Baron's South property as several citizen petitioners had asked the legislative body to do.
"Well, obviously, I'm disappointed that five years of work is going down the drain due to what the P&Z did," said Daniels, referring to the action that upholds P&Z's decision March 19 to designate the 22-acre property as open space.
About three acres of the Baron's South property is where a developer, Jonathan Rose Cos., had proposed to build a 165-unit housing complex for senior citizens, two-thirds of which would comply with affordable-housing criteria. Several versions of that project have been promoted by town officials over more than five years.
Daniels said his committee was "defeated by innuendo" and false statements made by those who supported the P&Z decision.
And, he added, he was upset that the latest version of the proposal "never had its day in court." The Baron's South Committee, he said, didn't have a chance to go before the P&Z to say: "Give us a chance to sit and tell you the benefits and things that need to be addressed."
"We didn't have that," he added.
Daniels said he hasn't contacted the developer in the aftermath of the RTM action, and didn't plan to. "Our job is to make a recommendation to the first selectman and I'm waiting to see what he decides," Daniels said.
"Right now our committee still exists, but I wouldn't be surprised if the first selectman makes changes and maybe appoints others to it or changes the committee completely," Daniels said.
He was right.
While First Selectman Jim Marpe said later Wednesday he was "grateful to the members of the Baron's South Committee who spent countless hours on a vision for affordable senior housing," he added, "It is appropriate at this time, however, that the committee be dissolved."
A final meeting of the committee will be scheduled in the next few weeks, "at which time I will acknowledge the dedicated, hardworking volunteers," Marpe said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
"The Baron's South Committee has worked diligently the last five years to find a solution which would address our seniors' demonstrated needs," he added. "While the original concept of providing senior housing on Baron's South was not achieved, the work was certainly not in vain."
He said the committee "has garnered immeasurable information concerning senior housing and, more importantly, senior living in Westport." That information, he added, "will be critical as we pursue alternative senior living strategies."
Marpe, who introduced the developer's pre-application at the zoning commission's March 12 meeting, said that "while disappointed by this morning's RTM vote, I am confident that the demonstration of Westport's unique democratic process provided a blueprint as we move forward,."
"Westport is a resilient community and my hope is that the issues that seemed to divide us recently will be a catalyst for us to work together and develop a solution that will provide the most benefit for as many as possible," he added.
"It was clear from the presentations last evening that there is strong support for the expansion of the Center for Senior Activities currently on the Baron's South property," he said. "The senior center is one of Westport's crown jewels. We are committed to enhancing it, as reflected in our town's capital plan, and will move forward with those plans."
He said he's asked Selectman Avi Kaner "to coordinate and continue to lead this administration's efforts, in cooperation with the Human Services Department, to address both senior housing in Westport and the senior center expansion. "
He said Kaner will also be chairman of a committee "for the purpose of creating a vision and action plan for the unique Baron's South property."
Marpe said "an organized committee will provide a much-needed public forum to plan for the optimal use" of the property.
"I believe that we can work toward a consensus in a public, transparent manner when it comes to the possibilities that await us regarding the Baron's South property, the Center for Senior Activities and senior housing in our community," he added. "All the citizens of Westport deserve the opportunity to express their opinions concerning town-wide initiatives. I am wholeheartedly committed to providing a forum in which all members of this vibrant, active and passionate community are heard."
Kaner also expressed disappointment over the RTM's vote.
"While we couldn't reach a compromise, I wholeheartedly respect the democratic process and the hard work of those on both sides of the issue," said Kaner.
"I'm particularly grateful to members of the Baron's South Committee who spent countless hours on a vision for affordable senior housing," Kaner said.
He added that now that Baron's South "has officially been designated as open space, we will work actively to make the dream of a beautiful accessible park a reality."
Jonathan Rose Cos. issued a brief statement on the matter.
"While we are disappointed that the proposed Baron's South development cannot proceed, we appreciate the dedication of the selectmen and Baron's South Committee to the concept of a mixed-income senior housing in the town of Westport," the statement said. "Over the three years in which we have worked with the town of Westport, its elected and appointed officials have demonstrated thoughtful leadership, studious due diligence, and commitment to a democratic process."
The developer didn't indicate if it still might be interested in pursuing a senior housing facility elsewhere in town.