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Thursday, April 19 News

As Baron's South fate hangs in balance, RTM'ers sound alarms over P&Z vote

Members of three Representative Town Meeting committees met Tuesday to discuss the Baron's South senior residential project, focusing on whether a revised text amendment for the proposed 135-unit complex can win Planning and Zoning Commission approval -- and if its rejection would cause the plan to collapse.

The P&Z has been asked by First Selectman Jim Marpe to revise a text amendment to zoning regulations that would, among other things, cut the number of required "affordable" housing units in the $60 million complex from 60 percent to 20 percent. Twenty percent of the units would also be rented at moderate-income rates, which official say still be considered below the market rate in Westport.

At one point Tuesday, RTM member Rick Weber, District 9, proposed a motion stating the RTM committee members' support of the revised regulation, which would be presented to the zoning commission at its July 17 meeting.

RTM member Jack Klinge, District 7, who chairs the RTM finance committee, reminded fellow members that they had "overturned" rulings of the zoning commission "two times" in recent years.

Later, Weber withdrew the motion "out of respect" for the P&Z, but not before RTM member Carla Rea, District 8, left the room abruptly. "I don't want any part of this," she said. "I do my own thing." Rea earlier asked: "Is the P&Z prejudiced?"

There was also a suggestion for RTM members to email zoning commission members prior to their meeting on the proposed changes. Instead RTM members plan to voice support for the senior housing project individually at the P&Z meeting, which was a suggestion made by Barbara Butler, the town's director of human services.

"There will be power behind it," she told them.

Selectman Avi Kaner, who also attended the meeting, urged RTM members to "make their voices heard."

The RTM members also reviewed the history of the Baron's South project, which changed over the course of negotiations for eight years, presented by former Selectman Shelly Kassen.

She said various options were discussed for the town-owned property purchased in 1999 for $7.5 million.

One was for "work force housing" and the town, she said, even did a survey of teachers and municipal employees to gauge interest. She said that since the Westport Center for Senior Services already sits on a portion of the property, they decided to "look at a senior housing community" instead.

The Board of Selectmen in June approved a memorandum of understanding between the town and Baron's South Senior Housing LLC for the $60 million senior housing complex after eight months of negotiations -- with the proposed change in the number of affordable units.

Kassen said officials had initially felt that having 60 percent of the housing units designated affordable, which the current text amendment calls for, "was a statement of priority." But, she added, that percentage was "too idealistic" and that the proposed change "more mirrors the community."

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But Kassen said, without P&Z approval of the revisions to the text amendment, the Baron's South plan "can't move forward."