At the front of a meeting room Thursday at the Noroton Heights Fire Department was a group of seven Darienites who want to form a nonprofit organization to build senior housing on the site of the soon-to-be-vacated Darien Senior Center on Edgerton Street.
Facing them was an audience of about 18 neighbors on the street who were largely cool to the idea.
"It is not at all a foregone conclusion that this is the best use of this particular piece of land," said one neighbor, Tom Mosher of 16 Edgerton St.
The meeting was called by the Edgerton senior housing group (which doesn't appear to have adopted a name for itself), to inform neighbors about what they want to do with the site, to listen to neighbor's concerns and ideas, and to explain what they'll be doing—essentially forming a nonprofit organization, create a plan, including architectural designs, and ask town officials for approval.
Several of the neighbors who spoke about the idea of senior housing on the site said they were opposed to it, others said they were worried about various aspects of it.
The group's purpose is to build about 20 units of senior housing on the 3.8 acre site, mostly to help Darien seniors to be able to stay in town rather than move away.
Although by state law the senior housing can't be restricted to Darien residents, Hill said that seniors who are already residents of a town tend to be the ones who apply for senior housing, along with the parents of current residents. Seniors don't tend to want to move away from their hometowns, he said.
What the proposers envision
Hertz and others in the group described the housing proposal to the neighbors this way:
"We are looking at a public/private venture," she said. For the public part, Hertz said, "The town of Darien would provide a long-term lease so that senior housing could be built on the Edgerton Street property."
For the private part, she continued, "This would be moderate-income, owner-occupied condominium development of approximately 20 homes."
"Each home would have two bedrooms [an idea she later amended to say that only some homes would have two bedrooms] and around 900 square feet," Hertz said. "Residents would purchase units at below-market prices, which we estimate to be in the area of $150,000. It would be a private condominium associatio similar to the Clock Hill Homes model.
"Like Clock Hill Homes, this would be a deed-restricted community. The restrictions would be based on age, income and the sale price of the unit:
"1. In terms of income, the project would be open to individuals and couples who qualify as moderate income. While I cannot cite the exact income requirements tonight, we know that the Town of Darien currently has 134 seniors who qualify for state tax abatements. Tax abatements are given to property owners who are 65 years [old] or older and whose incomes do not exceed $32,300 for singles and $39,500 for married couples.
"2. In terms of sale price, the units would appreciate at a fixed annual rate based on purchase price, which also reflects the Clock Hill Homes model.
"Construction would begin after the relocation of the current senior center and after the necessary town approvals have been received. A local builder would build the homes. It is estimated that site work and construction will take approximately 12 months to complete."
The housing units would not be apartment style, Hertz said. The group expects them to be small, one-story units with one or two bedrooms. Younger people would be forbidden from moving into the homes, she said.
Town taxes and fees would be paid by the homeowners, probably through the condominium association expected to be set up, Hill said.
Caroline Murray said a lottery among those eligible for the affordable housing would probably determine who got to move in.
Jenny Streeter said a management company would probably maintain the site, arranging for tasks like snow removal, for example.
One neighbor said he was worried about more flooding occurring as a result of the new structures, and he wondered why the proposal was for 20 homes rather than some other number, say 30 or even 10. Hill replied that 10 units would probably mean the proposal wouldn't work in terms of finances, and 30 just seemed too big.
Other neighbors said they worried that out-of-town residents might move into the units rather than other people from Darien.
After the meeting, Laura Mosher said the housing idea is "very premature."
"I can't imagine what senior would want to live in that location," she said. School buses drive through the property every school day, she said, and children use often are on the Middlesex Middle School playing fields, which abut the property. Parents of the children use the parking lot of the current senior center, she said.
The senior center coexists with all the traffic from Middlesex Middle School because the center opens at 9:30 a.m., well after school begins, and then closes before school ends. Children also use the street to walk to and from school, she said.
"How are they going to ensure the safety of these children?" she said. "That is a very tight space."
"We'd like this to be the first of several meetings," Hertz said. "At our next meeting, we'd like to have architectural plans to present. We want to know what quesions you have, what issues or concerns you have, and what you'd like to see at the site."
Mosher said in the interview, "I think we [neighbors] can probably come up with some ideas ourselves" for the property.
Sidebar: Members of the Edgerton senior housing group
These seven people at Thursday night's meeting are working together to propose senior housing at the site of the present Darien Senior Activities Center at 30 Edgerton St.
Hertz said that when former First Selectmen David Campbell proposed what became known as the Shuffle facilities plan, he asked some members of the current group to work on a housing proposal for the site of the senior center.
Each person lives in Darien, except for Daniel Conlon:
Jenny Streeter, the leader of the group and former chairman of the town building committee for the Darien High School building.
Debra Hertz, chairs the Darien Social Services Commission. She is a philanthropy and nonprofit consultant who led discussion at Thursday's meeting.
Bruce Hill, a lawyer in town specializing in zoning and land use, and former chairman of the building committee for Tokeneke School, vice chairman of the board of Darien Library when the new library building was constructed, zoning counsel for both the library and Darien Police Department addition. Hill said he may work as legal counsel for this project, but he would do it for free.
Caroline Murray, a former member of the Darien Affordable Housing Advisory Commission, she was one of a number of people looking into whether the former Darien Library site at 35 Leroy Ave. could be used for senior housing.
Bob Calve, a residential builder in Darien, and a town resident. His business will not be building the project, he said.
Joseph Pankowski, chairman of the Darien Commission on Aging. He led the "Vote Yes" group in the recent Shuffle referendum.
Craig J. Flaherty, an engineer and, until last December, a member of the Darien Environmental Protection Commission, on which he served seven years. Flaherty works for Redniss & Mead, a Stamford engineering, consulting and planning firm that did a feasibility study on what might be done with the former school building in which the senior center is currently located. Flaherty also was involved in constructing a cottage used as a group home on the same tract where the senior center is located.
Daniel P. Conlon, an architect with offices in Georgetown. He lives in Redding. Conlon designed the cottage building used by the group home and is expected to design the senior housing plan.