Marpe guest column: Senior-housing zone would open door to benefits

After more than six years of study, debate and difficult negotiations, the proposal to build senior housing on the Baron's South property has reached a crucial point. The Planning and Zoning Commission must approve an important "text amendment" in the coming weeks in order for the project to proceed.

The purpose of this op-ed is to update Westport taxpayers on the project's background, the current status of the proposal and the important need to move it forward.

Since last year's election, my administration has continued to negotiate with the selected developer on behalf of the town's seniors and taxpayers to implement the best possible senior-housing solution for all Westporters.

Specifically, the plan would primarily serve Westport seniors, provide a host of valuable amenities, maintain quality open space and provide a favorable financial return to the taxpayers.

The P&Z received public comment at several recent hearings. We made modifications to the text amendment based on the concerns and questions posed by the P&Z at those meetings. The P&Z will now begin to discuss the proposed text amendment in its work sessions beginning Thursday, Sept. 18, and may vote that night or at a future session. Without passage of this text amendment as written, this well-thought-out and exciting proposal will not proceed. Senior housing and the other planned senior amenities would not be built on Baron's South in the foreseeable future.

Westport's Board of Selectmen on June 9 voted unanimously to approve a memorandum of understanding with the developer. This agreement was the result of many years of study, deliberation and diligent work by the bipartisan Baron's South Committee, two different Boards of Selectmen, and the Board of Finance. I believe the plan as proposed achieves the optimal arrangement for the town that is a win for residents of the property, a win for all Westport seniors, and a win for the taxpayers

Key characteristics of the current proposed project are:

1) Twenty percent of the units are classified as affordable, 20 percent moderate-income, and 60 percent market rate. These ratios correspond more closely to Westport's demographics than a predominantly low-income project. With these ratios, the developer will not need uncertain government funding, which would be required with higher "affordable" ratios. Private funding will ensure that Westporters can receive first priority as residents of the new senior housing.

2) The units would be 100 percent rental, with no expensive buy-in requirement. Services such as dining and housekeeping would be available a-la-carte instead of bundled. Affordable and moderate units would be available in both one- and two-bedroom variations.

3) Approximately eight to 10 acres of the 22-acre Baron's South property would be utilized for the senior housing. The remainder of the property would be maintained by the developer for the benefit of all Westporters as open space in an accessible, park-like setting.

4) An amenity center would be constructed next to the town's senior center, providing services such as a therapeutic pool, salon, exercise facilities and a cafe for the use of all Westport seniors. It would also negate the need to spend $4 million of taxpayer funds to expand the senior center.

5) Every Westport taxpayer would benefit in this public-private partnership. While the town would retain full ownership of the land, the developer would commit to investing $60 million in our town and pay fully transparent property taxes estimated to approach $1 million a year, making the facility one of Westport's largest property taxpayers.

In addition to benefitting our seniors, the project would reflect well on all of Westport. This is an innovative approach to creating a senior-retirement community. It would establish housing and open-space assets of which we can be proud. The Baron's South project would ultimately improve our property values by making Westport an even more desirable place to live by providing housing options for current and future Westport seniors.

Senior housing on Baron's South is a unique opportunity for Westport that will pay dividends for many generations. The future of senior housing in Westport now rests in the hands of the Planning and Zoning Commission. It is my hope that the text amendment is passed as submitted, and that the thoughtfully considered plan for this senior facility can become a reality with the Baron's South project becoming yet another of Westport's "crown jewels."

Jim Marpe is the Westport First Selectman.