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Friday, August 21, 2015

Part 5: Senior Housing Needs, Plans and Logjams


(Editor’s note: WestportNow’s special week-long series on seniors and housing concludes today with a look at efforts to add new senior housing to Westport and current options open to seniors.)

By James Lomuscio

The need for senior housing in Westport, whether affordable, market rate, and/or with an assisted living component, has confounded Westport officials for years.

WestportNow.com Image
There is a waiting list of almost 300 for 21 remaining units under construction at the Westport Housing Authority’s Sasco Creek Village, 1655 Post Road East, according to Executive Director Carol Martin. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

It has become a flash point, however, for the current Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission.

Chairman Chip Stephens, 60, has said repeatedly that he is not against more senior housing in Westport. On the contrary, he says it is a need that has to be addressed, but by private developers and on private land, not town-owned land.

In fact, he says this need is behind formation of the P&Z Senior Housing Committee co-chaired by P&Z Vice Chairman Jack Whittle, 52, and member Catherine Walsh, 60. To date, the committee has had two meetings.

The P&Z has come under intense criticism from many seniors since its March vote declaring the 22-acre Baron’s South property open space. (See WestportNow March 19, 2015)

A majority of the Representative Town meeting (RTM) voted to overturn the P&Z action but failed by four votes to attain the needed super majority. (See WestportNow April 29, 2015) This effectively put an end to a 135-unit, 60 percent affordable, housing complex that had been planned for seven years on Baron’s South.

The planned senior living facility would have taken up 3.3 acres of Baron’s South, leaving the rest as open space to be maintained by the developer.

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The first meeting of the P&Z Senior Housing Committee on July 21 drew a sparse turnout. So did the second one on Aug. 6. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

A number of seniors—who make up more than 20 percent of Westport’s population and whose numbers are growing—say they felt sucker punched by the open space argument and the P&Z decision.

They cited numerous meetings of the Baron’s South Committee, approvals by town boards and commissions and the town entering into an agreement with developer Jonathan Rose Companies.

David R. McCarthy, project manager for Jonathan Rose, queried by WestportNow, said his company believes the two goals of senior housing and open space still can co-exist on Baron’s South.

“And if the Westport community can come to a consensus for the use of Baron’s South that provides for open space and affordable and market rate senior housing, we would be very interested in re-engaging with the town to implement that plan,” McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, Stephens rejects criticism that the P&Z has turned a blind eye to senior housing needs.

“We haven’t been blind as a town to senior housing,” he said.

He pointed to the Westport’s Housing Authority’s (WHA) Canal Park facility, 5 Canal St., and senior units set aside at the WHA’s Sasco Creek Village and Hidden Brook, 1655 Post Road East. He also said that senior tax abatements are another way of keeping seniors in town.

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P&Z Chairman Chip Stephens and Commissioner Cathy Walsh have been adamantly opposed to senior housing on public land. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

“We felt that one of the things lacking and disappearing slowly is open space,” Stephens said. “We have to be fair to all of our constituents. I personally am not a fan of giving away open space to a developer. “

At Baron’s South, the developer would have a 98-year lease.

“I have spoken to a half-dozen developers who are interested in doing a CCRC (continuing care residential community) on private land,” Stephens said.

He said surrounding communities have done that, “except for New Canaan; they have it in Waveny Park, but they have a heck of a lot more open space that Westport.”

“We spent three months working on rezoning it,” Whittle said about the decision to declare the town-owned property recreational open space.“This is the last great piece of open space in town.

“The takeaway here is that we are not against senior housing,” he added. “We just didn’t think that piece of property was best suited for that (senior housing) use.”

Whittle reiterated all of the different pathways that the P&Z Senior Housing Committee is considering for senior housing on private land.

“We’ve taken a lot of feedback, and we’ve listened to developers,” he said, noting that the third committee meeting would be held some time in September.

One developer at a P&Z Senior Housing Committee meeting pointed out that three acres along Post Road East, enough for a small facility, would cost $12 million.

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P&Z Vice Chair Jack Whittle: Baron’s South “is the last great piece of open space in town.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

When asked if asked if high costs would be a deterrent to such development, Stephens responded, “We’re in Westport; of course it’s going to cost more.”

Another problem Stephens and the P&Z majority said they had with the Baron’s South proposal was that there was no guarantee Westporters would be given preference to live there.

Baron’s South supporters had said that since the housing complex would not be dependent on state and federal funding but on private monies, some preference could be given to Westport seniors and that would not be in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

“There is no guarantee,” Stephens argued. “Whether we took federal or private money, we could not restrict it to Westporters. It’s against fair housing.

“The proponents of Baron’s South made it sound like there are 200 people on a waiting list and this was going to solve their problems,” he added. “It was a false promise. They can’t be given priorities. It’s just false.”

WHA Executive Director Carol Martin, however, said that Stephens’ concerns are exaggerated.

About 75 percent of the people served by the WHA, which is dependent on government money and which has to market outside the town, “have ties to Westport,” Martin said.

By law, the marketing effort focuses on minorities, she said.

“Even with the targeted marketing efforts, which you would think produce large number of people from out of town, 70 percent of the folks who live in our units have ties to Westport, whether they are people who grew up here and moved back, who worked here or who have family here,” Martin said.

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Carol Martin, executive director, Westport Housing Authority: Senior affordable housing is best suited for town-owned or donated land. CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

She said waiting list applications for Hidden Brook opened July 6 and closed July 31, “and we have 508 applications for three vacancies,” she said about the complex of 39 units, which are not restricted to seniors.

“The numbers are staggering,” Martin said.

Applications for the 21 new units under construction at Sasco Creek, also not restricted to seniors, opened July 27 and are scheduled to close on Monday.

“Right now we’re close to 300 applications,” Martin said, adding that she expects it to rise to between 300 and 400 before Monday.

Martin said there is no way of telling how many applicants are Westporters or have ties to the community since that is not asked on the application.

“It’s when folks move in and through discussions that we learn of their ties to Westport,” she said.

“If you grow up in Westport, you’re not driving to Enfield for housing,” Martin added. “The statistics don’t support the fears.”

The WHA-operated 50-unit Canal Park is a sliding scale rental complex. Individuals 62 and older, or younger persons suffering from disabilities, pay 30 percent of their adjusted gross income in rent.

Canal Park recently opened up its waiting list for a two-week period, receiving 104 applications before closing the list Aug. 12.

“There’s a lack of affordable housing and a lack of affordable senior housing,” Martin said.  “The reality is, there are not enough units.”

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The Westport Housing Authority’s 50-unit Canal Park serves those 62 and older subject to income limits. Contributed photo

In addition to Canal Park, the WHA operates Hales Court, a 78-home community of Cape Cod-style houses begun in 1950 on land donated by the Hales family, with the aim of providing workforce housing, Martin said.

Hales Court offers one- to four-bedroom homes and serves families who earn between 25 to 50 percent of the area medium income (AMI), she said.

The WHA housing at 1655 Post Road East has the same AMI for the 39 town homes in its back section, Hidden Brook. It will have 54 similar rental units upon the completed expansion of Sasco Creek Village in the front, according to Martin.

Martin stressed that senior affordable housing is best suited for town-owned or donated land.

“The community has to realize that the need far outweighs the ability of a local housing authority to serve the needs of seniors,” Martin said. “Towns that have been successful have typically made land available for this use.

“The town has to be able to provide the land with a much smaller return,” she added. “You can’t expect the for-profit world to pay $1 million an acre for affordable housing. That’s why the land has to be donated.

“There needs to be value placed to the human capital. The return is the value of the folks you retain in the community. These are the folks who raised families, helped out in church, did hours and hours of volunteer service. What we’re telling them is we don’t have a housing option for you.”

Another option for Westport seniors is The Saugatuck, the senior housing cooperative at 35 Bridge St., in the former Saugatuck Elementary School. With 36 units, it sits on land leased from the town. Turnover is rare, usually coming only when an occupant leaves or dies. Admission is restricted to those 62 or older and is based on an applicant’s income and assets.

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The Saugatuck, 35 Bridge St., serves 36 seniors in the former Saugatuck Elementary School. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Private, purchased land was the thrust of the recent P&Z Senior Housing Committee meetings. The committee explored myriad ways to entice developers to pursue projects on private land.

Suggestions ranged from group homes for seniors to continuing care residential communities to multifamily senior housing without support services. There was even the suggestion of putting three ranch houses for seniors on an acre in a one-acre residential zone.

Walsh, the committee co-chair, said her group was “still brainstorming” with potential developers to address senior housing needs, not all of them affordable.

Co-chair Whittle said that solutions the committee decided would be “followed by a text amendment or two that have a reasonable chance of getting around the P&Z.”

Marshall Breines, 68, principal of Westport-based Affirmative Hillspoint LLC, the only developer present at the last meeting, said that he could possibly build a small CCRC on private land with a minimum of three acres.

He noted that the cost factor would allow for only about 10 percent of the units being set aside as affordable.

His comment drew a strong rebuke from RTM member Jack Klinge, 76, a Baron’s South supporter, who said a plan with few affordable units “makes me want to throw up.”

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A presentation in February showed an artist’s rendition of The Winslow at Baron’s South. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

At the first meeting, Klinge also criticized the P&Z Senior Housing Committee for going back to square one after the now disbanded Baron’s South Committee had spent seven years looking at what the new group was attempting to do.

Walsh fired back that Baron’s South Committee members were welcome to attend but chose not to. No Baron’s South members were at the committee’s two meetings, which drew 15 persons to the first, 10 to the second.

First Selectman Jim Marpe, 68, who was present at the meetings, urged its co-chairs not to lose sight of the affordable component.

“I think the P&Z Committee is trying to grapple with the whole spectrum of senior housing,” Marpe said.

“There is a spectrum of senior housing interests that ranges from basic affordability to market rate with a smaller footprint, but with none of the traditional requirements of owning a house on a plot of land.

“And of course there are seniors who want to remain in the house they own, and they are looking to alternatives,” he added. “There is a whole range of potential housing requirements for seniors that is underserved or absent now in Westport.”

Human Services Director Barbara Butler, 72, said all of the committee’s suggestions to increase housing stock were needed to address the growing number of seniors who come from diverse financial backgrounds.

Still, pointing to the waiting long list of financially strapped of seniors, she remains a strong proponent of the Baron’s South project.

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Former First Selectman Marty Hauhuth and Steve Daniels headed the now disbanded Baron’s South Committee. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for WestportNow.com

Martha Hauhuth, 77, who with Stephen Daniels, 75, co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee, said that no one on the P&Z Senior Housing Committee reached out to her for input or to attend meetings.

“I’m certainly aware the meetings are being held, and I could go if I wanted to or if I thought they would be productive,” said Hauhuth, a former first selectman who retired as executive director of Positive Directions on July 1.

“I’m taking the summer off, and coming to P&Z meetings would not be my idea of a restful time.”

She remains adamant about the need for more senior housing.

“It is a real need,” Hauhuth said. “It’s not only a real need for seniors to stay in town. I think it is a need for the town to have people who have wisdom and experience.

“We have elections coming up for the Planning and Zoning Commission, and I’m hoping to hear what all of the candidates have to say, and I’m willing to move forward,” she added.
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For previous parts of this series, click here.

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Posted 08/21/15 at 05:00 AM  Permalink



Comments

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Westport community should be very grateful for Jim Lomuscio’s excellent article and summary of the senior housing issues in our town. When the Planning and Zoning Commission unaccountably, with almost no notice, overturned the regulations to reject three years of work to address the issue in a responsible and balanced way, our seniors rightfully felt betrayed and diminished. I fully understand Mr. Stevens and Ms. Walsh’s explanations, but their abuse of the process is unforgiveable and shameful. Ken Bernhard

Posted by Ken Bernhard on August 21, 2015 at 07:25 AM | #
 

Here, here!

How can developers work with the town of Westport, when P&Z has established a reputation for the town of being disingenuous?

Baron’s South was purchased for multi-use and serving seniors is an excellent use of a small part of it.

Posted by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on August 21, 2015 at 09:19 AM | #
 

I find it so frustrating that “no” is never “no” in this town. If there’ s a legacy—or money—to be made, the same ideas are re-presented and rehashed until whatever was proposed comes to pass. I understand that using senior housing to fulfill long-neglected affordable housing obligations would tick a lot of boxes—no additional kids in our schools,for one—but let ’ s be honest here. Donating town-owned land to provide more options to seniors and ONLY seniors is patently unfair. I’m sure there are many hard-working town employees who’d love to live in town. And young people who grew up here and are eager to give their children the same advantage.

And hey, let’s not forget residents in their 30s and 40s who worked hard to get here and are working hard to stay. The owners of the McMansions many seniors (and I) claim to hate? They’re paying a heck of a lot in taxes, friends. Many of them are struggling — it’s almost a joke how many families decamp when the last kid graduates Staples —  and the town doesn’t offer them a break.

It wasn’t always thus: Current seniors enjoyed a better economy when they were in their 50s-70s, and could afford to stay in their now-too-large houses. Many traveled or bought second homes. In fact, as you’ve likely noted, this series has provided many examples of seniors who are able to afford to live in nice facilities in nearby towns. Would they rather be in Westport? Sure. And I’ d love someone to pay off my mortgage and send me on a cruise. I doubt there ‘s anyone in town who could object with a straight face to a private senior housing development built on private land. But trying to kill all the birds with one stone by pairing “seniors” and state-mandated “affordable housing” smells to me like a developer’s diversionary tactic to make us forget that investors, not Westporters, will benefit if Westport gives away even a small part of its shrinking open space.

Seniors have already benefitted from the purchase of Baron’ s South,with the Senior Center. If we ‘re serious about affordable housing, and in agreement that we’ re willing to donate town land to the cause,let ‘s go for 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units to be made available to all ages.

Posted by Stacy Prince on August 21, 2015 at 09:39 AM | #
 

(Please forgive the typos. My computer and WN don’t seem to have the same reaction to a space bar or return key.)

Posted by Stacy Prince on August 21, 2015 at 09:40 AM | #
 

The reason about the fuss for senior housing is that the shortage for senior housing of any type, as the articles points out, is far greater than for other age groups.

A disproportionate share of the town’s budget, rightly so I believe, addresses the needs of those in their 30’s and 40’s in the form of a fantastic education system for their children.

But even for those who can afford it, there is an acute shortage of any kind of senior housing. I happen to be a senior myself. At some point I expect I’ll need more support, as old age sets in, in the form of housing that will cater to those needs.

When that comes along, I’d like to live in the town I grew up inWestport. Are we going to force out of town those who have spent a lifetime participating and contributing to it? I hope not. That is the focus of these articles.

The other issue has to do with the particular proposal at hand. It is not fair to any party to say “do so and so” and we’ll give your proposal fair consideration and then change the rules on them. If we want to reserve Baron’s South for just open space, that should have been decided years ago so as not to waste people’s time, and not just before they are to present their upgraded proposal. That proposal involved not only years of effort and real cost by the developer but by town volunteers. As far as many are concerned, that proposal is “grandfathered in” because promises were made to them. That is what make P&Z’s recent action so disingenuous.

Posted by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on August 21, 2015 at 10:23 AM | #
 

I’ll try again; seems my comment was removed?  I didn’t say anything disparaging?  What I did say was that it’s sad that surrounding towns, some, have places for seniors to go and Westport doesn’t, giving the message that the town doesn’t want their seniors. That message is clear and telling. It’s patently clear that the Saugatuck cannot hold all the seniors. It simply is not possible. Westport’s not the only town w/ this issue, but it did spend, as Nicholas stated, an incredible amount of time planning and then disposed of the idea to use the Baron’s property.

Posted by Jean Marie Wiesen on August 21, 2015 at 12:01 PM | #
 

Ken-I was surprised to read your post—almost comes across as a ‘sore loser’.  Many Westport residents wanted to keep Barons South as open space, our last open parcel the town owns.  Kathy and Chip and the rest of the P&Z did the right thing, as they were responding to those Westport residents. 
Disappointing that you chose to blame them, as they were doing their job and supporting residents that wanted to keep the open space. 

In addition, Ken, you know the project COULD NOT be granted only to Westport residents.  Can we just be honest?  Using our last open space for something that would benefit non-Westport residents was concerning to many Westporters.  And lets not forget the asset test—as we follow the states statute that could have created a barrier for some to get into the housing.

Ken, there are ways to build senior housing for Westport residents.  Kathy and Chip have stated their support.  And while we will never be able to have enough senior housing, we can work together and build more.  I will also hope you get past the fact that many in town did not support the project.

Posted by Bart Shuldman on August 21, 2015 at 01:31 PM | #
 

But you don’t lead a project on for 7 years, I believe, and then launch what is effectively a stealth attack on the project.

P&Z, in effect made promises to the project to give them a fair and honest hearing. If the project has no merit then it should stand or fail on those merits, not by shooting the project down by changing zoning under their feet. That is not compromise.

Suppose you have a growing family and wanted to build an addition to your house. You are told that you need to have the property surveyed, plans drawn, wetlands remediated, approval by several town agencies and you’ll be granted approval. You go through this arduous process and xxx says well, last week we decided to rezone your property so no additions are allowed. I think if that happened to you, your faith in your town would be severely shaken. Chance are you’ll leave.

Purchase of Baron’s South was sold to the public that it was going to be multi-use with the majority, but not all, be preserved as open space. Since Baron’s South is somewhat inaccessible, it may not have been approved as an open space only purchase.

This project helps fulfill that promise. Even better, the developer has agree to take care of the rest of the property at no expense of the town.

I agree that having more open space is desirable, but so is honoring your promises. You can not properly run a business or a government if you don’t honor your promises, even if they’re made by earlier administrations. Business and governments can not survive otherwise.

As the article points out, even if the housing can not to be guaranteed to Westport residents, the reality is that the vast majority of the units would go to them.

The RTM, while not getting the super majority required, showed that the significant majority did support the project. ‘Many’ is not ‘all’ or even a majority. Compromise in the U.S, like it or not, is majority rule with due consideration to the minority. This project, while not perfect represents that compromise.

Posted by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on August 21, 2015 at 05:08 PM | #
 

Nicholas. I understand your concern but you actually highlight the issue with what went on with Barons South. And we continue this with other so called projects.

There was no town commitment to Barons South. A committee was formed and faced many obstacles. Just because a committee is forms does not constitute a decision by the town or the many boards. While the committee was meeting at no time was this project approved. Residents were still against it, had serious questions about who would get into the housing, had serious questions about the deal with the developer, and the many approvals not completed. When it finally came to a decision time, it did not go through. But just because it went on for 7 years, does not say it ‘had’ to be approved or even worse, was approved.

This town should be careful when setting up these types of committees. The residents get involved and no one should take a committees actions as a conclusion it will happen.

Posted by Bart Shuldman on August 22, 2015 at 06:45 AM | #
 

if one is looking for a commitment, look at which P&Z members voted for open space and which RTM members voted not to overturn that decision. Then in November vote appropriately, as you would have wanted both votes to have gone originally.

Posted by Dick Lowenstein on August 22, 2015 at 07:16 AM | #
 

Bart,

I have no argument with your message.

But P&Z should have approved or dismissed the project based on its merits, not by sneaking in a text amendment before the group made their presentation.

I never said the project had any kind of approval. All I said was they were promised a fair hearing, which they were not given.

If the deal was as flakey as you said, then P&Z would be absolutely right in turning it down and bringing its flaws to light. But they were absolutely wrong in not listening to their proposal.

I see that Baron’s South 7 million dollar purchase was sold to its citizens to be of “municipal” use, possibly providing several uses. I believe P&Z went against the wishes of the majority of our citizens who approved its purchase by a priori deciding to restrict it, an extremely shortsighted decision. It is really too big a decision to be so decided without very careful consideration by the whole town and without real planning, instead of using it to shoot down the current proposal. At best, that is just laziness, To do it just before the project presentation smacks of politics at its worst, even if that wasn’t intended.

I am personally a fan of open space but I am also a fan of rational, thoughtful and above board government. That’s not happening here.

Thanks.

Posted by Nicholas Pisarro, Jr. on August 22, 2015 at 06:14 PM | #