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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Strong Support for Senior Housing Process at RTM

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By James Lomuscio

The planned Baron’s South senior housing facility—and its proposed developer—got overwhelming public and Representative Town Meeting (RTM) member support at a special RTM public hearing tonight.

WestportNow.com Image
Developer Jonathan Rose, the recommended bidder to erect senior housing on Baron’s South, addresses the RTM tonight. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

The more than four-hour meeting followed a Board of Finance directive a month ago that the Baron’s South Committee go back to the drawing board. It said they should seek a more lucrative deal for the town and submit a new RFP (request for proposal) instead of choosing Jonathan Rose Companies, which the committee had picked out of three bidders.

“The RTM should send a clear message to the committee to move forward with the recommended bidder,” said RTM member Velma Heller tonight in voicing opposition to the Board of Finance directive.

“Every day we wait on this is going to cost us more money,” RTM member Stephen Rubin stressed.

The RTM is scheduled to meet Wednesday at 8 p.m. Some members said the legislative body should propose a non-binding sense of meeting and vote on the matter at a future date.

The RTM could also take no action, said moderator Hadley Rose, which would allow the town administration to proceed with its plans for the 99-unit housing facility, 59 of the units deemed affordable.

The planned facility has been a key initiative of First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Second Selectwoman Shelly Kassen. Both have said it will allow the town’s seniors who have contributed much to Westport over the years to age in place.

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RTM member Jack Klinge supported the Rose proposal and lashed out at the Board of Finance: “I was actually almost appalled with the Board of Finance’s reaction to the first proposal a month ago,” he said. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

After the meeting, Joseloff said he was “encouraged” by the many comments supporting the Jonathan Rose proposal and opposing the submission of a new RFP.

“Let’s see what happens at tomorrow night’s (RTM) meeting,” he said, alluding to the likelihood some members might propose a non-binding sense of the meeting proposal.

Prior to comments, the RTM heard from Baron’s South Committee co-chairs Stephen Daniels and Martha Hauhuth who said that Rose was chosen over the other two bidders—Becker and Becker and Westport-based Affirmative Hillspoint LLC—because Rose was in keeping with the town approved RFP.

Daniels, for example, pointed out that Hillspoint had proposed 220 units with only 14 percent affordable.

Hauhuth stressed that Rose would be “a great partner for Westport” because the company does not just build buildings but “creates community.”

The RTM then heard proposals presented by principals of the three that bid.

Rose said that his plan calls for building on only between four and six acres of the town-owned 22-acre parcel.

“This parcel and this plan is set up to give the town a lot of options,” Rose said, adding that the town might choose to use the remaining acreage for municipal needs as they arise, or even sell off some of the land.

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Westporter Julie Belaga, a former chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said: “We never conceived of it (Baron’s South) as a means for a private enterprise to make a buck.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

“We recognize that the process is still open, and we’re eager to work with you,” Rose said to a round of applause.

Under the committee-favored Rose proposal, the developer would pay the town $500,000 up front and lease the property for $250,000 a year with a 75-year lease.

Among the public who spoke in favor of the project was 40-year town resident Julie Belaga, a former state legislator, 1986 unsuccessful GOP candididate for governor, and past member of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z).

“We bought this property to build something explicitly for the use of the community,” she said about the land purchased 15 years ago. ” ..We never conceived of it as a means for a private enterprise to make a buck.”

Her comments were in response to the finance board’s decision that the property could net greater financial return from private development. Belaga also stressed that the project be built to “scale with the community,” and lauded Rose as “a man of integrity, a man of intelligence.”

“If we are so lucky to have that man build this project, we should thank our lucky stars,” she said.

RTM member John McCarthy, the project’s biggest critic, was not present but had a letter read into the record by RTM member Matthew Mandell.

In it, McCarthy excoriated the Baron’s South Committee for a conflict of interest by working with a consultant who was a member of the Rose group. He suggested that the committee be disbanded, and that a new one made up of town boards and commission members instead.

WestportNow.com Image
Former Westport First Selectman Martha Hauhuth, co-chair of the Baron’s South Committee, addresses tonight’s RTM meeting. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

RTM member Dewey Loselle agreed that the town should “compose a super committee” of RTM and the P&Z representatives. He added that “rebidding is a good idea.”.

McCarthy’s charges were countered by others who said the committee worked tirelessly and with the highest ethical standards over the past year.”

Kassen countered that Loselle’s suggestion of a committee comprising board and commission members would constitute a conflict of interest since those individuals would eventually vote on the project.

RTM member Catherine Calise questioned whether the federally subsidized affordable housing component, which would open up residences to out-of-towners, might allow “someone from Bridgeport or California,”  to t exclude longtime Westport residents.

“In my experience, the waiting list will be filled by Westporters,” said Rose. “And I have never seen a case where someone from out of state applies.”

RTM member Jack Klinge supported the committee’s project moving forward. He also took the opportunity to lash out at the finance board for not understanding the reason for the facility.

“I was actually almost appalled with the Board of Finance’s reaction to the first proposal a month ago,” he said. “This land was never about money. It was about the betterment of Westport. One hundred units makes good sense.”

Posted 11/13 at 04:47 AM

Comments:     Comment Policy

Let us truly hope—and hopefully ensure—that the eligibility criteria will in fact give meaningful preference to Westport seniors, and that the project will be primarily for their sake.  After all, this their (and all of Westport’s) land.  Such eligibility guarantees should be binding not only during the initial period of people moving in, but also in the future as units become vacant.  Verbal reassurances are good to hear, but they are not binding. 

We might also want to be sure that we’ve done a scientifically valid and objective needs assessment study of the actual numbers of Westport seniors who would live here, before we break ground.  100 units can house a lot of people!  Not every Westport senior may be able to move in upon completion, since there logistics such as selling of a house.  The units will have to be filled in order to take in rents to pay expenses.  Who will fill them in the interim?  Are we taking such pragmatic thoughts into consideration?

We also should go into the costs with our eyes open—not only the opportunity cost of the land in this period of looming OPEB obligations, but also the cost of services to a concentrated aging population, which will be likely to require supportive services.
Again, 100 units houses a lot of people.

As to future uses of this land, once a parcel is broken up by having something built on it, potential usage will be affected in terms of the nature and the financial value of what can be placed on the remaining space. 

The Board of Finance is doing its job of looking at this from a financial reality.  That is what we’ve elected them to do.  If we don’t like what we hear, it’s one thing to ignore it, but another to excoriate them for doing what their mandate is about.

As to Mr. McCarthy’s comments, if applied in any other business setting, is it hard not to imagine that they would be heard and acknowledged with interest?

Posted by Judy Starr on November 13, 2012 at 03:29 PM | #

I have a question that I believe needs to be aired at this juncture in the public discussion. While serving on the Planning & Zoning Commission I helped craft the text amendment that controls this development and heard numerous evenings of testimony about the conceptual plan.

One question that came up at earlier hearing,but should certainly be addressed at this juncture of public discussion is that of an “asset test” as it relates to affordability. Judy Starr in her comment raises the question of people needing time to move from existing homes into the project, which is a valid concern. I go further and ask if a Westport resident who owns a home, but may qualify for affordable housing on an income test, would be disqualified if the assets/proceeds of a home sale must meet an asset test. My presumption would be that there is some threshhold for assets in the question of qualifying for affordable housing. How many Westport seniors would meet this test and would want to move into the proposed housing? That is a question that has not been raised or answered.

Dave Press

Posted by Dave Press on November 13, 2012 at 08:10 PM | #

Please lets not forget we CANNOT 100% guarantee Westports get to live in Baron’s South.  This was misrepresented many times, especially by the developer.  Having the developer answer this question is wrong.  His motivation is self serving.

To prove the point, this is part of the HUD document on affordable housing:

Residency preferences. A residency preference provides applicants who
live in a specific geographic area at the time of application a priority over
nonresidents.
a. Owners must never adopt a residency requirement (meaning the
owner will not lease to any applicant who does not live in the
defined jurisdiction or municipality).
b. A residency preference may not be used for the purpose or effect
of delaying or otherwise denying admission to a project or unit
based on the race, color, ethnic origin, gender, religion, disability,
or age of any member of an applicant family.
c. HUD must approve residency preferences prior to use by the
owner. HUD will approve residency preferences only if the
preference does not result in discrimination or violate equal
opportunity requirements.
d. When an owner adopts residency

Posted by Bart Shuldman on November 14, 2012 at 12:08 AM | #

Mr. Shuldman is correct. The criteria to be used to allocate space to potential occupants should be spelled out up front and before the project is approved.
Does the town have any idea what the demand for these Units would be or is it all supposition. The economic return to the Town on this project is woefully inadequate. The town gets $500,000 up front and $250,000/year for 75 years. Hopefully the rent is adjusted periodically to some economic index like CPI. A 75 year lease is way too long to tie up a prime piece of land in Westport. Why not a 25 year lease with a couple of 25 year renewal options.
All the taxpayers in Westport paid for this piece of property and only a limited age group will be able to benefit from the land acquisition. There is no sacred right for a certain group of residents to be able to avail themselves to this sort of housing.
The Board of Finance is doing a great job in challenging this project and putting rigor into the vetting process.
Thomas Bloch

Posted by Thomas C. Bloch on November 14, 2012 at 12:54 AM | #

“All the taxpayers in Westport paid for this piece of property and only a limited age group will be able to benefit…” Might the same be said for the senior center and the public schools?

Posted by Dick Lowenstein on November 14, 2012 at 05:51 PM | #

When are we going to learn you should not implement a new social program until you know all costs, details, etc.  OPEB is a great example.  WE are now left with the difficult and horrible burden on all residents of Westport, felt worse by our senior citizens for this program.

Today—it is confirmed State of CT has run a $365,000,000 (that is right $365 Million) budget deficit, despite raising taxes on 200 different items and also implementing the largest tax increase in the state’s history.  Cost overruns on the state’s Medicaid program is one of the reasons.  And to turn this into an insult, the states revenues declined despite this massive tax increases.

Sorry—but i find it difficult to see how our leaders in Westport could think about moving forward on a program without all the details as to the impact on all residents on the town, the cost to the town, in detail, and who actually gets to use this facility.  And if we can, use the property to drive more revenue to the town, other than the Rose proposal

Posted by Bart Shuldman on November 14, 2012 at 08:25 PM | #

Mr. Shuldman is bringing hard facts to our attention that nobody really wants to hear (because they are painful!), but that will NOT be going away anytime, probably in all of our lifetimes and beyond.  This is real money—money that represents everyone’s hard work—that is going to have to come out of everybody’s pockets.  A project like this may well be “too big to fail” and guess who will be paying for it—the taxpayers of Westport.  The same people who are paying for our schools and yes, the senior center.  Do we really believe that the quality of our lives and our children’s lives can be indefinitely maintained—our schools, our amenities, and yes, even the quality of life of the seniors who would be living in that proposed project?

We talk about affordability, but what about what we all as a town can—whether in the short-term or in perpetuity—afford?

Our hearts may be in a good place, but we really need to keep our eye on how the bigger picture, of which we are a part, has been steadily shifting.  Our country and our state are quite likely headed towards bankrupcty, barring perhaps some jarring measures that we do not seem poised to take.  Our town will not be immune to the financial repercussions.  If we build, we need to build to scale for demonstrated actual need of our resident seniors, which by the way escalated over the summer of 2011 from 66 units to 100.
(And of course, we should get written and meaningful guarantees of ability to grant “our own” preference.)

To members of the RTM and all other town officials:  Please, for the sake of all of us, of every age group, think this one through very carefully.  It is huge. 

I wish I were wrong in this view, but fear that Mr. Shuldman’s warning—an echo of a warning none of us likes but all have repeatedly heard—warrants our most serious attention at this time and well into the foreseeable future.

Posted by Judy Starr on November 14, 2012 at 08:53 PM | #

I was not sure how to read Dick Lowenstein’s note—did he imply the schools are an issue in town?  Without our schools and their high regard in CT, our home values would plummet.  In addition, the schools are for all the children in town, not just a few.  The senior center the same.  For all.

Baron’s South might have 100 units.  60 will be for affordable housing.  40% of the 60 (24 units might be ear marketed for very low income).  With no right to have a 100% Westport guarantee, these units could easily go to someone from Bridgeport or Norwalk.  Why have we not seen the details on the low income requirements.  So how many will actually go to Westporters?

How many senior citizens would that help in town?  2%?  3%  1%?  Is that fair?  Or would keeping taxes from rising for all residents INCLUDING all senior citizens who are living thru these very difficult times, be better, if we found a way to use Baron’s South as specified in the other proposal?

What will be the impact on all of our taxes with regard to OPEB and our pension liabilities if the economy slows again?  Should we analyze that before deciding on this big project? 

Like our schools, how do we benefit most if not all the senior citizens, like we do with the senior center and our schools?  Not just a few.

Posted by Bart Shuldman on November 15, 2012 at 01:07 AM | #

In planning any project a common saying is the “devil is in the details”. The goal of this project may not be all that bad however it seems to be a half baked plan. I think Mr. Shuldman is right on and the taxpayers are going to end up on the short end of the stick. Why take one of the most valuable pieces of property in Town and lease it to some entity for 75 years with a rental amount that is way below market. If the town is so compelled to have some housing for seniors then sell the land to a developer for senior housing. We can take the money and use it to help solve the Towns current financial issues. We would also receive a tidy amount in property taxes that would also help on an annual basis. I find the lack transparency and lack of a well thought out plan to be disheartening.

Posted by Thomas C. Bloch on November 15, 2012 at 02:06 AM | #

I have known Jonathan Rose for over twenty years, serving on a non profit board together.  I am currently a resident of Westport and have been, off and on, since 1987.

I can’t say enough good things about Jonathan Rose.  Not only is he a thoughtful and responsible developer, but he is a man of good character and integrity.

Congratulations Westport on choosing to team up with the right man and his company on the Barons South RFP.

Robert Corroon

Posted by Bob Corroon on November 20, 2012 at 04:44 PM | #

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