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RTM Committee Hears Senior Housing Debates

By James Lomuscio

A resident who opposes a Westport senior housing and healthcare facility on the town-owned Baron’s South property came out swinging Tuesday night, not only against the plan but against First Selectman Gordon Joseloff who is the project’s main proponent.

Bart Shuldman, the lead petitioner who wants the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) next month to overturn the Planning and Zoning Commission’s (P&Z) text amendment 625, told the RTM’s P&Z Committee that the project “is wrong for Westport.”

He said it would result in higher taxes at a time when the town has high debt service and unfunded pension liabilities.

The amendment would permit a 66-unit senior housing facility with 60 percent of the rental units affordable and an 84-bed health care facility on 22.7 acres at 60 Compo Road South.

The planned facility is a key effort of Joseloff and Second Selectwoman Shelly Kassen to help retain the town’s seniors who have contributed much to Westport over the years.

“This presentation is not about senior citizens,” said Shuldman who gave a PowerPoint presentation to a packed crowd in Town Hall’s rooms 201/201A. “It’s about what’s right for all of us in town.”

He said that senior citizens would be the ones most hurt by rising taxes resulting from the facility.

Shuldman also took the opportunity to excoriate Joseloff.

He said that the first selectman had opted not to fully fund the 2011-2012 annual OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) contribution, but instead has pushed for a senior complex on land that had been purchased as open space.

He also said the facility would strain the town’s police, fire and emergency services, as well its sewer system.

He also blasted the amendment as “the cart before the horse,” saying that the P&Z approved it without a definitive plan and or any idea of how much the proposed facility would cost the town.

“There is no plan,” he said. “Does anybody see a plan? What’s the cost to Westport? This will affect us for generations.”

Despite Shuldman’s passion, committee members quickly found holes in his argument. Matthew Mandell, RTM P&Z Committee chairman, for one, pointed out that the sewer system could not only accommodate the units proposed, but like complexes.

Lois Schine, a committee member, also corrected Shuldman, saying the property had been purchased for municipal use, not as open space.

And Ronald Corwin, P&Z chairman, said that it was not the cart before the horse, as Shuldman said, but proper procedure. 

“We first do a text amendment, then we do a site plan,“said Corwin.

He also stressed that the P&Z’s purview is to look at land use issues to determine if they are consistent with the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which he said 625 was.

“Basically, this is a land use issue, and most of the discussion tonight has not been on that,” said Corwin.

Joseloff was more direct in his retort to Shuldman.

“I found it amusing and amazing for the number of inaccuracies you put forth tonight,” he said. “These are scare tactics.

“And this is about seniors,” Joseloff added, noting that many are behind the project, that they vote and expect RTM members to represent their interests.

Joseloff also reiterated what Corwin said about the process.

“This allows us to move to the next step,” he said. “We’re in the second inning of a nine inning game, and maybe we’ll go to extra innings. And how much has the town spent so far? Zip.”

Joseloff added that perhaps many who signed the petition to overturn the P&Z action were well to do citizens with stock options who had trouble identifying with seniors trying to live in Westport on $30,000 or $40,000 a year income.

He said the facility would add to the town’s tax base in terms of personal property taxes paid by the healthcare facility.

“This is not about OPEB and higher taxes,” said Joseloff.

Kassen agreed, “The purpose is not to cost the taxpayer.”

She pointed out that costs would be assumed by the developer and the nonprofit group that would run the assisted living and full care facility.

“The whole premise is that we have a piece of property that is unused and unsafe,” she said about the hilly land the town bought for $7 million. “We did not buy it for open space. We bought it for municipal uses.”

Committee member Joyce Colburn seemed to pick up on another argument that Shuldman made—that Westporters might not be given preference to live there.

“I don’t want to go through the whole process and find out Westporters aren’t allowed to live there,” she said.

“I feel like it’s a done deal,” Colburn said.

“How can it feel like done deal if there is no RFP (request for proposal)?” Kassen responded. “I wish it were a done deal. It keeps me up at night.”

Town Attorney Ira Bloom noted that according to the Federal Housing Administration, the law allows the town to give preference to its residents to live there.

“Is there a guarantee?” he said. “No. There are no guarantees in life.”

Robert Corona, who lives near the proposed site, was one of the few members of the public to speak. He questioned the accuracy of Joseloff’s claim that the town’s seniors support the facility.

“If you’re so sure of it, why not put it to a referendum?” he asked.

G. Kenneth Bernhard, a former Westport state representative who now serves on the Baron’s South Committee, also spoke.

“This has the potential to be a gem for Westport,” he said. “You can’t reverse the process.

“We’re going to get through the financial crisis in the town,” he added, “but this has the potential to make us very proud in this town.”

At the meeting’s close, Mandell noted that another public hearing will be scheduled for June 8.

The committee will make a recommendation to the full RTM which will meet in special session June 14 to hear the appeal. Petitioners must win 24 votes of the 36-member RTM to overturn the P&Z action.

15 thoughts on “RTM Committee Hears Senior Housing Debates

  1. This not a gem for Westport it is a pile of manure, disguised in smoke and mirrors!
    1. There is no guarantee the housing will be taken by residents, most likely it will be occupied by non Westport residents or relatives of residents
    2. Municipal land? What happened when the Y wanted to use the land OH NO the land was too environmentally sensitive
    3. Will not cost more in taxes? Anyone want to guarantee that probably not like the federal deficit the burden will be on those years from now.
    4. The sewer system can handle the load. How can you say that with hundreds of Westporters not on the system today. We put Sherwood Isle on it , have been asked to put part of Norwalk on it and now this project and others like it can be handled? Come on.
    I applaud Mr Shuldman’s efforts to wake up the electorate with legitimate issues, and the comments of the first Selectman and RTM in belittling his efforts will not be forgotten as the volume of opposition grows, and it will !

  2. To me the bottom line here is whether or not the Town of Westport should be in the health care business.  It is one thing to provide adequate affordable housing, which I believe most residents would support, but to tie it to the leasing of the land for the construction of a health care facility goes beyond what the town should be getting into.  It is a shame that our Selectman have created the feeling that if you do not support the entire project you are perceived to be anti senior citizen. I find this to be inappropriate and misleading.  The fact that the construction of affordable housing is tied to the building of some sort of health care facility to be leased by a non-profit health care organization has the appearance of a deal that has already been made.  I urge our Selectman and the Baron’s South Committee to be more transparent in their discussions.  After all this is the resident’s land.

  3. Ms Schine and myself were not “poking holes” in Mr. Shuldman’s presentation. We were merely correcting some facts to enable the RTM to focus more clearly.

    Just to note – while this is a review of a P&Z decision, it is well within the purview of the RTM to take into account the general welfare of the town and look at issues beyond land use, such as finances and Westport resident preference with regard to access to housing.

    Again – those interested in this issue are more than welcome to listen and to speak at the next RTM P&Z committee meeting on June 8.

  4. We have been talking about senior housing for nearly as long as I have lived in Westport.  For nearly every project that has been discussed and created, some have fears of “outsiders” moving into town.  Somehow, after the talk has simmered down, and the project has been completed, we find our fears are groundless.  Too many of my friends and neighbors have been uprooted; and, not only because of finances.  Some may need the security of knowing that caring people are around, and they feel forced to make a move.

    Oh, by the way, Mr. Stephens, no matter how highly we might think of the Y, it is a non-profit organization, not part of our municipal system.  Carole Donenfeld

  5. As I understand this, the text amendment, among other things, restricts the development of a proposed health care facility to public land. Considering the portfolio of Westport town-owned lands, Baron’s South, by default, is the only parcel that will qualify. If Baron’s South is in any way restricted in use to such a facility by the text amendment, precluding any other possible uses now or in the future, the value of the property will be significantly lowered. We bought the property for $7 Million and I understand the Assessor lists it’s current appraised value considerably higher, without restrictive use clauses.
    Also, if it is true that Westport plans to donate, or contribute the land at some well below market value for the seemingly earmarked plan, then this would appear to be a truly irresponsible use of underutilized assets in a time when budget constraints are being felt by all. A more logical approach would be a project where the property is either purchased or landleased long term at market value to a not for profit group who also pays annual PILOT (Payments in lieu of Taxes).
    The concept of a social welfare program is a commendable use for the property. However, backroom deals that involve compromising valuable Town assets is irresponsible in good times, let alone in the financially problematic times we find ourselves trying to fight our way out of today.

  6. Mr. Loffredo:

    Where did you get the “Jewish Home for the Elderly” from?

    I have not heard any reference to a specific non profit group to run the proposed facility.

  7. Yeah, Dave, I know the plan to partner, but I find your picking up a Jewish Home idea out of all the possible “homes” that are out there to be both anti Semitic and foolish.

  8. OH STOP with the anti Semitic shtick !  The Jewish home for the Elderly has been a name that has floated around town with this sham for months now.  Maybe if there was more transparency in this situation there would be more concern for the real issues that Bart presented.  DO not take your eye off the ball, the issue is should this project go forward giving away land that we paid for and costing us more in future TAX revenue. 
    PUT THIS TO A NON BINDING VOTE on the next election ballot, or is someone afraid the electorate will speak ?

  9. I agree with Mr. Loffredo and Mr. Stephens. What the leaders(?) of this town are trying to pull over on the taxpayers of Westport is despicable.
    Their whole premise for Baron’s South is based on fallacies and myths without being honest or answering questions truthfully.
    To give away Baron’s South under any circumstance is extremely poor judgment, but to do it under the current economic conditions is beyond belief. Yet our taxes will rise this year and every year thereafter when Joseloff’s ‘Senior City’ opens and worse of all, they can’t even tell us what that cost will be. I guess for them it doesn’t matter since it’s other peoples money. If you knew someone else was picking up the tab would you care how much it cost?
    Can we please vote these clowns out and start doing what is best for Westport and all Westporters instead of a select few at the cost of all? Have we learned nothing in recent history? Do we really have to do go through this to know how it will turn out?
    Lets stop their fantasy and get real.

  10. Friends and Neighbors,

    At best the Baron’s South project will benefit 100 senior citizens.  That is about 0.37% of the population of Westport.  That is it.

    If the town decided to sell Baron’s South to manage our significant financial issues, that would reduce our debt by over 13%.  Please remember the impact of OPEB is not known at this time and if the liabilities are higher, we are then in more trouble.

    Senior housing is a nice idea and can be added to existing town owned property that already has affordable housing on it.  We do not need to give away Baron’s South, one of the best assets the town owns.

    However, Gordon Joseloff and Shelley Kassen want to get Westport into the health care management business by building nursing home and assisted living facilities.  There are NO studies that have been completed to show our citizens are in need of this.  There are no real statistics or facts to justify the need.

    As Westporters we face ever increasing taxes and and now a new program with no details on costs.  And the need for these extra facilities never studied.

    With the economy struggling, Westport housing prices declining (remember the grand list is down over 12%), why would we start a new program when we cannot handle the existing ones?  Why star a new program when we do not know the real costs?  Why start a new program when we do not know if we need it?  Why start a new program when we cannot guarantee 100% use by Westporters?  And why do our leaders believe we all want to pay higher taxes?

  11. May I suggest, gentlemen, one and all, that you review the public records, dating back, if not even earlier, to the time Marty Hauhuth was in office.  You should include the committee meetings established by various first selectmen.  It will lay out very clearly the land purchase of the Baron’s property, as well as the acreage needed to build condos on the Post Road, etc.  Possibly, rather than slings and arrows, facts might carry on the discussion in a more intelligent manner.  Carole Donenfeld

  12. Mr. Laffredo:

    I said I was not AWARE of any reference to a specific group.  Obviously I was wrong…Sorry for any aspersions wrongly cast your way.

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