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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

RTM Fails to Overturn P&Z Decision on Baron’s South

By James Lomuscio

UPDATE By an early morning 20 to 14 vote, Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) came up short of the two thirds majority needed to overturn last month’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) decision designating the 22-acre, town-owned Baron’s South property open space. Image
The RTM vote at 1:15 a.m. came after more than six hours of debate. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for

Citing a flawed and rushed process by the P&Z, the RTM P&Z Committee had voted unanimously last week to recommend the full legislative body overturn P&Z, thus allowing new plans for a proposed affordable senior housing complex on 3.3 acres of Baron’s South to be heard.

But after a more than six hour meeting, the resolution to reverse the P&Z decision fell short by four votes.

The 14 who voted not to overturn the P&Z were: District 2: Catherine Calise and Louis Mall; District 3: Jimmy Izzo and Sylina Levy;  District 4: David Floyd, Kristin Hamlin, and Clarissa Moore; District 5: Seth Brunstein, Peter Gold, and John Suggs; District 6: Brandi Briggs and Catherine Talmadge; District 7: Arthur Ashman, and District 9: Kate Boyle Kirby.

RTM members who supported the reversal were quick to point out it was not a vote against open space or for the senior complex, but a vote for municipal government fairness by letting the dialogue continue with the proposed developer.

They said future conversations had been circumvented by a rushed P&Z map amendment designed to a halt in its tracks the housing complex that had been in the planning stages for seven years.

“They decided to pull the rug out from under them,” said RTM member Allen Bomes about the P&Z, noting that the Baron’s South Committee and the proposed developer were preparing a new application to meet the P&Z’s demands made in September when it denied the committee’s previous application.

“I just don’t think its fair,” he added. ” ...The process is going to take time, but let the process splay out.”

Matthew Mandell, chairman of the RTM’s P&Z Committee, said the P&Z’s open space designation “cut short” any further dialogue with the proposed developer Jonathan Rose Companies.

He said with the new proposal’s 60 percent rental units being affordable, the town would garner needed moratorium points “to stave off greater development” due the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g.

Under 8-30g, a developer can skirt local zoning regulations if a town does not have 10 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable, which Westport does not.

RTM member Carla Rea, a former P&Z commissioner, assailed the P&Z for not upholding the democratic process.

“Democracy should be respected, and democracy was not respected,” she said.

“The ones who made the Westport we have today are asking you to continue the process,” she said referring to a large number of seniors in the auditorium at Town Hall.

But enough members, 14, spoke in support of the P&Z to let the open space amendment stand.

One was Kirstan Hamlin, who objected to taking “from our community prime real estate and giving it to a wealthy developer.”

Under the proposal, Jonathan Rose Companies would lease the land for 99 years, making an up front a payment of $1 million and adding $1 million annually to the tax rolls.

Hamlin called the developer using town land “a perverse contortion of socialism.”

RTM member Lou Mall offered a more toned down version of the same idea.

“I struggle with a private developer getting public property,” he said.

Clarissa Moore also voted not to overturn.

“Why don’t we look for a decent space for senior housing,” she said.

She also said that Westport seniors could not be guaranteed units, and anyone living in subsidized housing be it in Norwalk, Bridgeport or Detroit would qualify.


Posted 04/29/15 at 01:17 AM


Comment Policy

Thank you RTMers!  What a win for the future of the town and what a thoughtful process led to your decision.

Posted by Daniel Katz on April 29, 2015 at 05:28 AM | #

The Town of Westport was well served by the outcome of the RTM meeting. I salute the leadership shown by the P&Z Commission in taking on a controversial issue and doing the right thing.

The whole plan was flawed from the get go, because it could not guarantee availability for only Westport seniors.The land was purchased by the taxpayers and should be available for use by all taxpayers.

Why would any sane entity sign a 98 year lease with a development company that probably will not be viable for any where near this amount of time.

Posted by Tom Bloch on April 29, 2015 at 08:33 AM | #

Watching the RTM meeting last night was for me seeing a demonstration of the democratic process at its best.  A well reasons and well supported report by the RTM’s P&Z Committee set the stage for clear and important comments by many from the Public.  The discussion was informative, educational and persuasive.  The meeting was conducted well by the Deputy Moderator,  Velma Heller.  One may disagree with the outcome but not by the process through which the RTM acted last night.

Posted by Eugene E. Cederbaum on April 29, 2015 at 10:17 AM | #

It is important to note that the above alleged quote from me is as inaccurate as the misreported spelling of my name.  Since I read from prepared notes, I include them below to ensure they are reported accurately:
Kristan Hamlin, District #4.
I understand the concerns about due process with respect to the P&Z vote.  The expressed concerns are legitimate concerns.  But I have heard from many Westporters a similar concern regarding the lack of due process exhibited by two successive administrations with respect to this senior living facility proposal at Baron South (BS).  At the time our Town bought Baron South, we were promised a charette.  That democracy (a charette), that due process, has never happened. 
Instead, Westporters feel that the process has been hijacked for many years and this senior living facility proposal at Baron South has been the only option, forced upon them.  It’s like a one-trick pony, the only idea allowed.  In short, the Baron South senior living facility proposal is not a proposal that has benefitted from due process either.  Therefore, in light of the fact that there is plenty of blame to go around on the due process front on both sides, and short of this Administration promising to have a charette, I believe this decision must be made on the merits, not on this procedural ground proposed by the RTM subcommittee.
I am quite torn on this issue, although I agree with the thousands of other Westporters who truly believe that Baron South is the wrong place for a large development like the proposed senior living facility (“SLF”).

Here are the legitimate concerns my constituents have voiced about the senior living facility:
•  First, Many Westporters think the SLF will be an eye-sore in an area where aesthetics matter greatly—Imperial Avenue, right along the Saugatuck river. Trees will be torn down, and parking lots for 150-200 workers will necessarily have to be constructed (beyond the 3-1/2 acres being discussed) and that will take up even more acreage than that presently being proposed.

•  Second Westporters are also concerned about the 150-200 caregivers/workers arriving each morning to the SLF, creating traffic jams along Imperial Avenue in the mornings.  Given that Imperial Ave is a main feeder artery to Bridge Street and the train station in the morning, creating further traffic on that particular road will create more nightmares for our commuters.  On balance, that fact alone will decrease significantly the quality of life in Westport for a much greater number of Westporters than the number of Westporters who will benefit from this SLF proposal.
•  Third, Westporters are concerned the project does not contribute sufficiently to our objectives of having seniors age in place. (Our special Westport tax benefits to seniors more effectively accomplishes that, as does the reverse mortgage law).  This is particularly so given that the Federal Fair Housing laws ensure that there will be no preference given to Westport seniors who want to apply to live in this SLF.  Moreover, given the low-income housing designation of a portion of this facility, people from nearby populous towns with more low-income residents like Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford, are far more likely to qualify for the low-income housing than the typical Westport senior—in both a proportional and absolute sense.  In essence, we will be taking land paid for by Westport taxpayers and giving it to people from other towns who have contributed neither taxes to our town nor their time to the community.
•  Fourth, Many Westporters are also against public handouts to wealthy developers of pristine prime real estate.  Westporters believe Mr. Rose should compete on the open market for the purchase of land along Post One, or some other place that needs commercial-repurposing, instead of requesting some perverse contortion of socialism in which we take from the community and give to a developer for his own personal profit.
o   You know, every iteration of Rose’s proposal has the same fatal flaw. I, and many other Westporters, are just having a devil of a time putting this proposal in the context of any accepted economic model.  Because, you see, capitalism—at least the model that most of us are familiar with—is when the entrepreneur takes his own money and buys some land and takes his own risk and then makes a profit. Socialism involves taking from the wealthy and giving to the community.  Here, we have some perverse form of socialism, where the proposal is to take from our community prime real estate that it owns and give it to a wealthy developer. But it gets worse.  Then the proposal seeks to take even more money from the community, to have the Town bond the senior living facility, all so that the developer can make a fatter profit than if he were required to buy his own land elsewhere in Westport to develop senior housing.
•  Fifth, this proposal of building senior housing for hundreds of people at Baron South breaks the compact the Town made with Westporters when the Town’s taxpayers were originally talked into buying this land 15 yrs ago.  It is true that there were many municipal purposes considered 15-17 years ago. But there was one over-arching objective in buying this land—to save it from being carved up by a developer into a dozen residences.  So instead, what have we been doing?  We have been following a twisted path where two successive administrations have proposed something even worse than what we were originally trying to avoid.  Now, turning our original purpose on its head, we have been considering giving away what we taxpayers bought, to a developer, so that he does not have to buy the land, so he can develop a multi-unit, partially low-income housing unit for hundreds of people.  This is even far worse than the nightmare development scenario that Westporters tried to prevent by buying the land 15 yrs ago. Let’s understand the absurdity of this proposed senior housing proposal in its historical context: We bought BS to prevent a developer from buying the land to develop a dozen residences, and yet we are seriously considering giving the land away to a developer to develop hundreds of residences?
As a result of all the aforementioned concerns and many others, many Westporters think that there should be senior housing, but elsewhere in Westport in a commercially zoned area (but not near our aesthetically important waterscape—by the Sagautuck river) and that the housing should be on land the developer pays for himself.

Regarding this location, the relatively minor consideration of the proximity of the SLF to a senior center cannot offset, in the balance, all the aforementioned negatives; particularly when most SLFs have transportation vehicles that can easily transport a senior the few minutes from an SLF (located elsewhere in Westport) to the Senior Center at Baron South.

Thus, voting to uphold the P&Z decision would not put an end to senior housing in Westport.  We can have senior housing elsewhere in Westport. Mr. Rose can still pursue that, on his own nickel, by buying his own land—just like he has done many times before, and without asking for more taxpayer hand-outs in the form of bonding. 

What voting to uphold the P&Z decision will put an end to is more taxpayer money being wasted on endless studies over another seven years of the serially disadvantageous proposals Rose makes that continuously are voted down. It is time for some First Selectman’s administration to take notice of the staunch opposition from Westporters to building the senior housing at Baron South, and to get moving building it elsewhere instead of spinning our wheels and wasting more precious time and money on this locale.  This locale should be modestly improved and used for the recreational benefit of every Westporter—not just one segment.

Posted by Kristan Hamlin on April 29, 2015 at 11:10 AM | #

Thank you for posting your prepared notes, Kristan.  They greatly add to dialog that had to be distilled in the article.

Posted by Elizabeth Thibault on April 29, 2015 at 11:32 AM | #

I thought Kristan Hamlin’s points were well made, too.  If I may add, there was never a mechanism forthcoming for how the proponents or developer would provide preferences to Westport seniors.  They gave vague reassurances, but nothing real.  Thinking further, even if the Federal Housing Act were somehow not involved, how quickly would 160 (or even, say, 100) seniors, placing their houses on the market at more or less the same time, sell those homes?  In other words, how many units could the owner hold open for how long?  Not many, if any, and if any, none for long.  The owner would simply have to advertise over a wider geographic area.  We’ve seen those kinds of ads in the Sunday papers.  The premise of the project—that it would be to meet the needs of Westport’s seniors—was a promise that could never have been met. 

Nor did the near doubling of the original number of residential units,66 in the 8-24 proposal (2010), and then adding on more, instill confidence in the soundness of the basis of the purported demand.  Waiting lists, anecdotes and focus groups do not constitute an objective, third-party market study by a reputable outside source. If this kind of “need” were presented in a private company, it would surely get a stony response.

But now, as to the crux of the objections last night—i.e. the process and the timing—in all fairness, that should be looked at as cutting both ways.  As far back as September 2014, when the amendment to reduce the affordable component from 60% to 20% was denied, Rose knew another application would be needed. Subsequently, the Rose Group did not respond to the P&Z until mid or late February 2015, and then, with a pre-application (not a full application).  I’ve been told that an applicant who wants to build a project usually returns within 30 days to 90 days.  At any rate, with Rose being an established firm (26 years according to its website), experienced in similar types of projects, why would it need nearly six months to revise an application for an already familiar project?  Why would they need so much time if they were eager to get started? 

And given the factor of timing:  why did Rose respond right before the FOURTH of four meetings—all publicly noticed—regarding the rezoning to open space at Baron’s South?  Was this to embarrass or pressure the P&Z?  To put the P&Z in a position where it could face another long wait?  I won’t pretend to know, but it’s difficult not to wonder.

Furthermore, speaking of the process, why was Rose allegedly meeting with the First Selectman and other town officers?  In other words, why was a potential applicant discussing land use with a non-land use group—at one time allegedly even behind closed doors?  Such contact should most properly have been with the P&Z.  What kind of channels were being followed?  Where was the transparency?

It should be understood that if the P&Z does not contact applicants to tell them to “hurry up” and return, they can not do so for a “special” one.  Any applicant who had been previously been denied could find reason to complain about such contact.

The issue of the process and the timing can be seen to cut both ways.

But let’s take it one step further and look at the timing.  Supposing the P&Z had decided to postpone the March open space hearing of the full P&Z.  What, then, about protection of the land, all 22.7 acres?  Had the Open Space designation been overturned last night, those acres would have reverted to be mostly residential, with some commercial, zoning.  As a worst case but not impossible scenario, supposing, with awareness that the town did not consider the entirety of Baron’s South off-limits to construction, a developer came forth with a proposal—perhaps mixed use with multifamily units (think full-credit 8-30g’s, not the half-credit granted for senior units)? This or any other P&Z could be hard pressed to deny.

The P&Z acted to protect the open space of Baron’s South. It acted within its powers to meet its responsibilities.  It acted with due process in due course.  It acted in keeping with the Town Plan. This being a land use issue—emotions about senior housing placed properly aside—the decision of the RTM was in keeping with the wishes and best interests of the town as a whole, for all the people in it, for always.  We are fortunate for the foresight of the P&Z Commissioners, and fortunate as well for the thoughtful action of the RTM in support of Open Space at Baron’s South.

Posted by Judy Starr on April 29, 2015 at 05:10 PM | #

Judy’s last paragraph is ALL that is relevant to this issue.  The rest of the verbiage is simply palaver.

Posted by Daniel Katz on April 29, 2015 at 05:29 PM | #

Gee, thanks, Dan.  I think all points are relevant, but since the issue has been settled, I’m glad you agree with my conclusion.

Posted by Judy Starr on April 29, 2015 at 05:59 PM | #

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