A “Town Forest” Downtown?

On Thursday night, the Planning & Zoning Commission resoundingly affirmed that the Baron’s South property should remain open space.

By a 4-1 vote (1 abstention), the P&Z approved an amendment that seems to end plans to build a 165-unit senior housing facility on 3.3 acres of the 22-acre property. 60 percent of the units were to be considered “affordable.”

Town officials have fought for years to add senior housing to Westport’s stock. Baron’s South — located between South Compo and Imperial Avenue, and which includes the Senior Center — seemed to many to be a perfect location.

Others were just as adamant that it be retained entirely as open space.

The entrance to the Baron's South property.

The entrance to the Baron’s South property.

One — who asked for anonymity, for personal (non-political) reasons — offers an argument that hasn’t been heard much in the debate.

She is “not a tree-hugger.” But after consulting with state officials (including the deputy director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) and scientists, she was told that “it would take 200 years to re-grow a true-practice urban forest like this.”

According to the Westporter, all those experts were “adamant that this parcel should be held as protected space in perpetuity as Westport’s town forest.” In fact, people familiar with the property “believe it can be enhanced to become a world-class arboretum.” Grant funding could help Westport “inspire other municipalities.”

The Westporter says, “we either act as responsible stewards of this municipal forest, or it will be lost forever to buildings, ancillary infrastructure, paved parking lots. Mature forests can never be replaced.”

She also fears unintended consequences from construction, such as soil erosion and rain runoff, along with the potential for more land being needed later for ancillary development.

Part of the Baron's South property.

Part of the woods on the Baron’s South property.

The RTM — by a 2/3 vote of its 36 members — can reverse the P&Z’s decision. There will be plenty of lobbying by town officials who have advocated for senior housing — as well as private citizens who believe that 3.3 acres downtown, adjacent to the Senior Center, is a perfect place to help keep older Westporters here.

What’s your opinion? Did the P&Z avoid a slippery slope that begins with construction on 3.3 acres out of the 22? Or is senior housing the right use for what is now open space downtown?

Click “Comments” to make your views known.

47 responses to “A “Town Forest” Downtown?

  1. The P&Z did us all an enormous favor by turning down that unneeded money making scheme called “senior housing.”
    Now let us see whether, in fact, they have the balls to turn down the almost certain request for a rezoning of three and a half acres so that the plan can go ahead, despite the elected land use body’s enlightened decision to preserve what can never be replaced.
    PS. A land use commission need give absolutely NO REASONS in denying a rezone request. The commission can simply say “NO” and that’s that.

  2. John Hartwell

    Of course we should save true open space, but the Imperial Avenue side of the Baron’s South property is already developed, and there’s no reason why a compromise can’t be found that preserves the wooded area on the ridge and allows some form of senior housing to go forward.

    • Michael Calise

      I do not get your reasoning John. – we have already partially destoyed an open space parcel therefore it is O K to destroy the rest. ???

    • John, it’s my observation that the Democrats haven’t won an election in this town since the P&Z approved a special permit for the YMCA to move to Mahackeno. (Now that they own tolls, it looks like they’re trying to give up the state too).

      Congestion and quality of life in downtown Westport will be further degraded by placing a large development on Barron’s South. Updating and improving the Senior Center is a political winner. Let’s focus on that, and then we can contemplate how the GOP P&Z filled a vacuum and became the voice of conservation in this town.

  3. Bobbie Herman

    If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t Baron’s South purchased to be used for building of town owned properties — (such as the Senior Center)?

    • John Hartwell

      Yes. If you read the minutes of the Board of Finance meeting that approved the purchase (May 1998) it’s clear that that didn’t pay $7 million for open space.

  4. Mary Ruggiero

    Wasn’t barons north purchased for the same reason? Maybe the dog park should be moved to the south…killing 2 birds or dogs….and the north be developed for senior housing.

    • Bobbie Herman

      Baron’s North (Winslow Park) was purchased as open space in perpetuity.

  5. Make them real parks (Winslow too). Clean them up. Remove overgrown areas. Replant some beautiful trees. Put in a picnic area or pavilion for family gatherings.

  6. When the Y wanted to build on Barron’s South and offered to construct the Senior Center for free, there was a liberal blowback about the raccoons and foxes and the Y downtown was Diane dead.
    But when they wanted the dumbest senior housing Gordon proposal built, who cared about wildlife?
    Now it’s the forest?
    Why don’t we just admit the senior housing idea sucks and leave the trees and wildlife out of the equation ?
    Kudos to the P&Z.
    1 abstention ?

    • Yo, Tom; it may have BEEN a “Gordon proposal” but now it is CLEARLY a Marpe proposal….which, incidentally, he will try to ramrod through to get a two thirds RTM nullification of the open space decision

  7. The Rose Co. made it that clear Westporters could not be guaranteed senior housing, but given “preference” according to allowable federal guidelines. That negates the idea of senior housing for Westporters and makes this a developer/town real estate deal, not a proposal to make life better for long-time residents who wish to remain in town.

    • Agree…but then why do “they” keep pushing an insane [not great for Westporters] idea?

  8. I think Mary Ruggiero has an interesting suggestion (although instead of a purely senior housing project as had been previously on the table, the town should consider letting the Westport Housing Authority build an affordable housing complex in Winslow Park similar to what it did at Hales Court).

    This land swap would be consistent with all of the original purposes of the town’s acquisitions of Winslow Park and Baron’s South, enable the town to maintain Baron’s South as open space/urban forest, and move the town closer to satisfying the state 8-30g mandate on the percentage of affordable housing units.

    • Fred, since we are so close to April first, let us all take your suggestion as an April Fools posting.

      • Daniel, well, what is it that you propose to help the town deal with the 8-30g mandate? Or do you think we should simply sit back and wait for various developer proposals in different parts of town that will increase density by incorporating an affordable housing component–and then deal with each project on an individual basis? (And it would be great if you could provide a constructive response without the snark.)

        • Hmmmmmm; a SNARK. Nice word.
          Probably can’t be too constructive, Fred. I do think that random development with the mandated “affordable” componant is far better than the town giving over open space to avoid some developer’s possible avarice.
          There will be some who take advatage of 830-g in Westport but, considering land values and the fact that absent sanitary sewer and public water and adequate access 830-g is a dimished threat, I’ll side with the town not surrendering in the face of an overblown fear.

    • 8-30g is not to be casually viewed. It can potentially put Westport zoning, etc. in the hands of the state Gov’t. This along with the proposed Transportation “Eminent Domain” bill and the Toll Roads, (all three owned by the state government), why do we need a town government at all?

  9. Stacy Prince

    Thrilled.

  10. Nick Thiemann

    There appears to be no objection to people from other towns moving here until to word “affordable” is attached to them.
    Who are we afraid of? Who isn’t entitled to live here? Would our current P&Z have said no to the Italian immigrants who built Saugatuck a century ago.

    Come on Westport we are better than this.

    • It’s probable, Nick, that them complaining that the facility would be open to “outsiders” are not being bigoted but are trying to see the logic of our town giving up such wonderful, natural setting in order to build a huge bunch of buildings THAT WONT BE FOR WESPORTERS who are the ones, after all, who would be deprived of the forstation currently on site.

    • Gimme a break, Nick…you are better than this post. Density is the “bad” word, not “affordable.” Dan has it right. Bury your PC in your back yard.

  11. All the Westport seniors I know would prefer to “age in place” in their own homes, although programs to defer taxes are welcome.

  12. don l bergmann

    I think it is time to move on and work to make sure our park lands are appealing and cared for well. I supported both the latest Senior Housing proposal and the re-zoning of the balance of Baron’s South as DOSRD #2 and submitted a proposed regulation that would accomplish those goals. The Commission decided against my approach. I think I understand both views, but now hope our Town will focus primarily on the precious nature of open space and the environment we all share..
    Don Bergmann

  13. Bobbie Herman

    Have you ever been to Waveny Park in New Canaan? It has 250 acres, much larger than Baron’s South, but is a beautiful area that was donated to the town by the family of Christopher Lloyd. It was their estate, and the mansion is used for events such as weddings. There is also a performing arts center and art gallery in a stone building that may have been a carriage house. There are walking trails and many, many trees. I think Westport could turn Baron’s South into something similar, with the mansion converted into a community center/theatre/event space, retaining the “Town Forest” with all its trees.

  14. Susan Hopkins

    Two words: Open Space

  15. Meredith Hutchison

    Such a great plan to keep Baron’s South open land and hopefully create an arboretum. It will become another jewel to be added to Westport’s crown.

  16. Kathy Fassman

    A lovely town needs more than mortar and stone. People need green space to breathe and relax. An arboretum would be an oasis of peace and beauty for all.

  17. Being on the ALT Land Management Committee it would be hypocritical of me to oppose anything other than another beautiful piece of land the previous owners would never have agreed to.

    • Lordy, lordy, Jamie, what does that mean?

      • Sorry…hit “post” too soon. I meant that the previous owners never would have approved of the destruction of open space for a high-densoty housing development.

  18. Bart Shuldman

    Fantastic news. I was the petitioner a few years back to overturn the P&Z change that would have allowed the senior housing. And for a few very good reasons.

    First and everyone must understand it, with affordable senior housing we CANNOT guarantee Westporters these homes. Period. It must go out and marketed to many surrounding towns and we cannot, I repeat, guarantee Westporters. This one fact should have stopped this decision. But between Joseloff and even the town attorney, the residents were misled. Now that the original an that would have been a huge disappointment to all in Westport. I would be glad to have Dan Woog post my original presentation to show the details.

    There are other reasons such as costs that were never calculated as to the impact to the town budget. Sewers, fire and police costs were never estimated. So add in non-Westporters getting the affordable homes and the extra costs and it was a true loser.

    And let’s all remember that the Y was turned down for development but somehow these horns were ok. Dianne Farrell and Joseloff did us no justice.

    And how could we forget that Rose who helped lead the project was going to be the developer. You can’t make this up.

    It would be great to turn this space into beautiful open space and if possible have the home fixed to be used like the New Canaan park.

    We have an issue in Westport that some of our seniors face everyday-can they continue to afford to live in Westport. Not all, but some. It needs attention to see what can be done. But offering this solution would not have been the benefit they seeked.

  19. Mr.Hartwell, you seem to have lost your way. Rather badly. While the forested property at issue was indeed purchased for “municipal purposes”, please be advised that open space is, in fact, a municipal use.

  20. Julie Fatherley

    As a walker/hiker who visits that site almost every day I concur with Bobbie Herman that a well preserved and lovingly maintained open space will be a
    true gift to the town. I have seen many wildflowers there and the trees can be identified and nurtured….some probably more unique than we realize.
    It is a quiet haven to enjoy Nature and no blue bags to contend with.
    The historic mansion and, hopefully, a lovely arboretum with it could attract
    many events. As Bobbie mentioned, a small Waveny…Julie Fatherley

    • Having served on the Board of Directors of the Aspetuck Land Trust for four years, I am painfully aware of the scarcity of open space in Westport. Kudos to the Planning & Zoning Commission for getting this right. Token environmental gestures, such as banning plastic bags, are utterly obscene considering the behind-the-scenes scheming taking place that would have decimated habitat and left the stakeholders of Westport with a lousy developer set aside that would have been celebrated as some glorious eco-achievement. Bring it on Chip…we NEED more open space in Westport!

      • Grayson Braun

        The previous post is from me…I hijacked my Husband’s phone and didn’t realize I had to change the nam and e-mail fields. Sorry!

  21. Thank you to those four P&Z Commissioners who voted to preserve the forest at Barons South. I’m practically speechless. A few weeks ago I went skiing in there with a friend. Although I was just steps from Main Street, all I could hear was the sound of my heart beating. The raw, natural beauty of the place, together with long, unspoiled views literally lifted me up. It was like a mini vacation – and now the land is safe for all of us to enjoy. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

    • Wendy Crowther

      I’m the skiing-friend that Morley refers to above. Winter is one of my favorite times in Baron’s South, and it is especially beautiful when covered in snow and experienced via a pair of skis or snowshoes.

      I’ve loved Baron’s South since the first day I stepped foot upon it in 1999. Since then, I’ve worried about the fate of this property and have long feared it would be lost to development. I not only thank the Baron (and Baroness) for assembling their estate with both beauty and preservation in mind, but I also thank the four P&Z Commissioners who voted to preserve this unique and gorgeous piece of property for all Westporters to enjoy. Thank you for your vision and courage.

      Those who study the impact of open space on the residents of a community have found that the psycho/emotional benefits of open space extend even to those who never visit those spaces – the mere knowledge that it exists in their community brings benefit.

      Fellow Westporters – feel good, even if you never step foot in Baron’s South, that it is THERE for you.

  22. Sally Campbell Palmer

    Bricks and mortar can replace bricks and mortar; open space can never be replaced.

  23. Bart Shuldman

    This town does not need affordable housing for seniors it needs houses seniors can afford. It’s not the same.

    Once we decide to go into state sanctioned affordable homes we CANNOT guarantee these homes go 100% to Westporters. Just cannot happen. And with 67% earmarked as affordable housing, how many will we lose?

    And if we give away any of the open land that is worth unaccountable value to Westport to something we truly cannot control, we have lost.

    I understand Marpe and Kaner wanting to find housing affordable to our senior residents. It’s wonderful and there are many ways to do that without jumping into the state called affordable housing. And it can leave Barons South out of the equation.

    It’s nice to see them both take a stance. Now all they need to do is think differently.

  24. Many of the passionate contributors to this blog have a deep love and
    appreciation for what has made and will continue to make this our town the
    great suburban community that it is. While it is no longer the little
    artists community it once was, it is a charming place with many great
    amenities. I suspect this is the reason many have flocked here, But
    slowly the landscape is changing and, if we are not thoughtful in our
    choices we will turn this community into the high density, quasi-rural towns
    that many left behind when they moved here.

    Our town is supported by its current citizens and tax payers. We elect our
    senior officials with the hope they are thinking and acting in our best
    interest as well as thinking about the future of the town. Its about
    keeping or improving our quality of life and preserving what we have so that
    our property values are protected.

    I am saddened that many seniors can no longer afford to live in Westport and
    many will move to other more affordable communities or they may be forced to
    sell their houses to be knocked down and replaced by McMansions. It is a
    lofty goal to build housing for others to move into the community. But as a
    former financier and or/ co- developer of over 10,000 senior housing units I
    can say, with experience, that senior housing adds little to the vibrancy
    and economic well being of a community. Bart is right the opposite is often
    the case. This may sound mean spirited but it is a sad observation based
    upon my experience.

    As many have said, there can be no legal promise to hold such housing for
    our current seniors. Thus you are building housing for the benefit of
    outsiders, developers, promoters and financiers and the current citizens
    will be left with increased density and all the congestion that high density
    development brings with it.
    That said, I am happly to live with the decisions of the majority as
    represented by our elected officials. They have volunteered their time to
    protect our interests. We can only hope that they make informed and
    thoughtful decisions, not ones that are politically motivated because they
    have a pet project or want to leave a legacy.

  25. Heather Williams

    I agree that it should remain as open space.